Do NOT Follow These Instructions

Content is the most overlooked component of successful websites.

From error messages filled with technical jargon to paragraphs upon paragraphs of legalese or marketing blather, there is a lot of ineffective content out there.

Content review and improvement should be part of a regular maintenance regimen.  If you provide “help” content or those dreaded “FAQs” that so often fail to answer the question I have, regular review becomes even more important.

What happens when you fail to continually review content?

You get phone calls like this:

“Hey, is everything all right?  Your message sounded a little cryptic.”  I asked with concern.

Hysterical laughter followed by:  “I broke my computer.  Can you help me?”

“Ooohhhkkkaaayyy.  How did you break your computer?”  I asked and then teased, “Have you been looking at pornography again?”

” No!  I was trying to do my homework,” my best friend responded,  “Have you heard of Blackboard?”


“I was trying to print the homework assignments and class notes, but my printer keeps spitting out blank pages.  I went to call the support people but because it’s Sunday they aren’t there.  So I went to the help section and it said I should click here to uninstall Internet Explorer.  So I did!”

At this point she begins laughing hysterically again.

“The freakin’ instructions didn’t tell me that I needed to have a new Internet Explorer on my computer before I uninstalled it!  How am I supposed to get to the Internet without Internet Explorer?!”

My best friend is a very smart, successful woman, but in her line of work she doesn’t use a computer on a daily basis.  She uses a computer for activities like email, graduate school homework, occasional online shopping and a little social networking.  She’s the kind of person who is going to use the browser that came installed on the computer and she’s probably not going to install any additional browsers.  Installing new software of any kind can be a little intimidating.

She went on to explain, “I turned off the computer and walked away.  I called Jeremy [her husband] and he couldn’t believe I didn’t think about it.  He thinks I’m an idiot.”

That conclusion is something I hear and see all the time, but the blame is misplaced.  If your written instructions tell someone to take a serious action like uninstall, you best be sure that you’ve accounted for situations like this one.

Happily my best friend’s most immediate problem, not having a browser, got resolved.  I walked her through downloading Firefox so she would have a backup browser.

Based on her description of the original problem–printing blank pages–I’m 90% certain it has nothing to do with the browser.  Pretty sure this is a Java plugin issue.

The lesson for experience designers is to continually test instructions with your audience.

Need a great example of how you can continually (and passively) measure the effectiveness of your content?

Take 47 minutes out of your day to download and watch The Need to Weed: Microsoft Office Online (WMV file, 39 MB, 47 minutes) from Customer Carewords.  Presented on April 7, 2009, this story illustrates how Microsoft was able to increase customer satisfaction by continually measuring the effectiveness of their content.

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