David Sless's Soap Box

David Sless’s Soap Box

Poor communication disadvantages people and costs money. I have lost count of the number of times we have demonstrated this simple proposition through our research and case histories. But such is the perversity of life that the disadvantaging continues and the unnecessary costs accumulate.

On my recent overseas trip I was fascinated to discover that an example of exactly this phenomenon—a paradigm case of bad form design — as unchanged since I last commented on it in 1990. Here is what I wrote then:

Have documents will travel

It is, of course, impossible to travel without forms. And given the nature of our work[in form design] it is impossible to avoid noticing the quality of the forms one meets.

Having seen many forms emerge from the bowels of organisations, I tend to analyse forms the way a doctor analyses specimens. The condition of a form tells me a great deal about the likely health or pathological state of the organisation.

The first specimen one encounters as a visitor to the USA is the immigration form that all new arrivals must complete, usually in a semi-dazed state brought on by endless hours of confinement in a noisy plastic and metal tube high up in the sky.

The US immigration form is a classic specimen, with many clear features that bring a knowing smile and nod to the face of the experienced pathologist. The US immigration department is not a well bureaucracy.

The reality of the illness became very apparent to all of us—over 2000 of us—who landed at Los Angeles International Airport one morning. Where we all came from I do not know. But it seemed that representatives of the entire human race had simultaneously arrived at that one spot. In that confined space, as we were herded by maternal shepherdesses wielding walkie talkies into long snaking queues, with dogs sniffing at our hand luggage, and families with young children being separated from the rest of the flock, there was plenty time to observe and ask oneself how the information society was coping with the population explosion. The answer was, Badly.

Because the forms we had filled in were so badly designed, we had all made mistakes completing them. As each of us approached the immigration officers in their little cubicles at the end of the runs we were being shepherded through, they patiently inspected our documents and got us to correct our mistakes. All this took extra time. In the case of people who did not speak English—and there were many—translators were summoned to help with the process which added even further to the time.

We poor travellers, who had been waiting for over two hours to get to that point, felt at that moment on the verge of a Kafkaesque nightmare. Would we get through or would we somehow fail an important test for which we did not understand the rules? Would we be held forever, because of our failure, in an immigration limbo—neither in nor out? To the immigration officers who handle these forms every day of their boring working lives, these documents are transparently obvious and simple.

The fact that we poor foreigners cannot fill them in properly is to them a simple confirmation that foreigners are inferior. Letting us in is a begrudging humanitarian gesture, and is only approved if the purpose of our visit is to spend time and money here, and the date of our departure is firmly stamped on our passport.

Part of the US Immigration form in use today

That was over ten years ago. Has anything changed? Well, not much when it comes to the form. If I was teaching a course on forms design, I could still use the USA immigration form as a perfect example of all the things to avoid in good forms design.

But the world does change to adapt to poor communication. On the flight from London to Detroit on my trip last month, where I encountered this old festering specimen, I also encountered another phenomenon that was not present on my 1990 trip—the compensatory prostheses that grow up around poor communication practices and beautifully illustrate the costs of poor communication.

The costs of poor communication

Cost 1: In the Airlines flight magazine one whole page was devoted to explaining how to fill in this form. This costs the airline money.

Cost 2: The kind steward who had talked us through the flight spent a few minutes explaining to us befuddled travellers how important it was to fill this form in correctly. If we didn’t, he told us, we would be sent to the back of the line and have to wait another half hour in the lineup. “This has happened to me!”, he told us.

His script for this advice had to be written, learnt and delivered. This too costs the airline money.

Cost 3: When I looked at my form, in the light of this advice, I realised I had made a mistake and asked him for another copy which I filled in again. This costs the Immigration Department money in unnecessary printing.

Cost 4: When I got to the lineup, there was an immigration person going up and down the line checking people’s forms to make sure they were filled in correctly. Mine was incomplete! I had to go to the back of the line!. The person on the line cost the Immigration Department, and did nothing to improve my blood pressure and extend my productive life.

All this additional cost compensating for a poorly designed form.

This, of course, is not an isolated or exceptional case. Nor is the emergence of a secondary, totally non-productive industry to compensate for this type of poor communication. Think of the many tax forms and other government procedures that have led to the growth of a whole army of secondary industries that cope with our governments’ poor communication on our behalf—accountants, lawyers, immigration specialists, etc etc—all dedicated to helping us citizens cope with governments’ poor communication.

In the end, we citizens bear the costs of these poor communications. But wouldn’t it be simpler and cheaper, if the bureaucrats spent just a little bit more and got it right by good information design, rather than leaving it for each and every individual to bear the cost for their poor design?

Perhaps in another ten years…

Your thoughts?

If you would like to share your thoughts and experience on this topic, please do. I cannot promise to reply, but I will try.