Two Rights Make a Wrong

© 2003 Naomi Karten,

When I ask people how to get somewhere, I hate it when they rattle off a bunch of directions followed by, “It’s easy, you can’t miss it.” When they say, “You can’t miss it,” I know I’ll miss it. See, I lack directional genes. I compensate by leaving extra time to get where I’m going. But I’m not incapable of following directions that are clear, complete, correct, and easy to follow. When your customers have difficulty following your instructions and directions, it could be that you’ve unintentionally provided information that’s unclear, incomplete, incorrect or overly complex.

The problem (one of them, at least) is that people often give directions from the perspective of someone who already knows the way. That was the case when I was given directions to a dinner meeting I was scheduled to speak at. I was instructed to bear left at the fork in the road. Even though it was dark out, I found the fork and turned left. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the intended fork — which, as I later discovered, was a half-mile further down the road. Meanwhile, I thought I was going right. That is, I was going left, but thought it was correct to do so. (I stopped twice for directions. Both times, I was told, “It’s easy, you can’t miss it.” I missed it.) I finally made it, with entire minutes to spare and a profound distrust of well-intentioned direction givers.

Ideally, directions describe two things: how to reach a certain point or accomplish a certain task, and how to know that you’re heading in the right direction — or at least, that you’re not going in the wrong direction. For example, if you instruct customers to turn right after passing MacQuickie’s Hamburger Emporium, they don’t know if the Emporium is one mile away or 15. It might be more helpful to direct them to stay on Main Street for two miles, and when they pass MacQuickie’s on the right, turn right onto Third Street. And if they come to a railroad crossing, they’ve gone too far. It may not be necessary to provide street names, distances and landmarks, but the combination of indicators makes it easier for the directionally-challenged to reach their destination.

To write instructions from the perspective of one who doesn’t already know the way, try this Visiting Robot technique. I once used it when a group of nontechnical people at a client’s office wanted to understand what programming was all about. I asked them each to write out a set of instructions that a visiting robot could follow to reach their office from a major intersection a half-block away. The office was on the fifth floor in an office park building that had multiple entrances.

I explained that this visitor would follow their instructions exactly as stated and these instructions must therefore be precise, complete, and in the right sequence. The results helped to illustrate the challenges of providing instructions that accomplish the intended goal. For example, one person created a set of instructions that had the robot look for a street sign that was no longer there. Another left the robot waiting by the elevator. A third brought the robot in one door and sent it out another. It hasn’t been seen since.

One member of the group, however, excelled at the assignment. In addition to guiding the robo-visitor to the right building, the correct entrance, the appropriate elevator, and the fifth floor elevator button, her instructions said, “Turn right after getting off the elevator.” Notice: after getting off the elevator. No smacking into the elevator wall for this robot.

Is the information you give your customers clear, complete, correct, and easy to follow? For myself, the situation is simple: Whenever someone tells me, “It’s easy, you can’t miss it,” I add plenty of extra time to my trip.

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