An Exercise in Ambiguity

© 2000 Naomi Karten,

Do you ever mystify your customers with vague or ambiguous information? Do you ever provide explanations that seem to leave them befuddled?

I experienced the feeling of ambiguity-induced befuddlement recently in using one of those exercise gadgets that simulate steps. In theory, they’re simple to use: you adjust a variety of settings to indicate the intensity of the workout you want, and then you step up and down until you meet your goal or collapse.

In addition to all their standard settings, this particular stepamajig had an option for testing your fitness. When I selected that option, the digital display started giving me the third degree. First it asked, "How old are you?" Let’s say I entered 27, for the sake of discussion. Then it asked for my weight. Well … let’s just say I entered 106. Then it asked what level I wanted to test at, on a 10-point scale. I selected 6. I didn’t know what 6 represented, but it seemed not too high and not too low. Then this contraption directed me to exercise for three minutes.

I proceeded to climb to the top of the Empire State Building. Just as I thought I was stepping as fast as I could, it blared at me, "Increase your pace!" (It didn’t really blare, but when an inanimate object starts displaying digital demands, it sure feels that way.)

When the three minutes ended, I knew immediately how fit I was, because a display lit up to tell me: "Your fitness is 44." Forty-four? Forty-four what? It didn’t say.

Is 44 good or bad? I haven’t a clue. Is it 44 on a 50-point scale, meaning I’m a fine aerobic specimen, or 44 on a 100-point scale, meaning I’d better start upping my huffing and puffing? I wish I knew. Is it 44 compared with all the jocks who have ever used stepamajigs? Is it 44 relative to a population of 106-pound 27-year-olds? Is it 44 as contrasted with all those who have dared to reveal their statistical secrets to this particular stepamajig? I guess I’ll never know.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who has trouble making sense of ambiguity, but when I see some of the cryptic blatherings given to customers in the name of information, I know I’m not alone. The information undoubtedly made perfect sense to those who prepared it, but that’s irrelevant if those it’s intended for misinterpret it or can’t comprehend it.

If you want to know if your policies, standards, procedures, instructions, directions, and explanations make sense, don’t trust your own instincts. Before disseminating such material, test it out on people who are typical recipients of the information. Or send it to me, and I’ll let you know what I think. Keep in mind though that my feedback will represent the perspective of a 106-pound 27-year-old whose three-minute rating at level 6 is a perfect 44!

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