Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
Too obscure, too fast
Jon Hilkevitch, writing CTA Has a Few Quick Words for the Chicago Tribune, captures the challenge of writing short and intelligible messages for end-users. When a bus or train rider uses a pre-paid fare card, a single-line LED displays shows a brief message relating to the the transaction. Unfortunately, many of the messages are written in "programmer-speak" and only display for 3 seconds, leading to confusion and consternation. (I'll vouch for this, I've experienced it myself over this very issue.) For example, Hilkevitch says:
"One senior citizen called [me] to say she was mildly perturbed about being labeled an invalid after she inserted her reduced-fare card into the slot of a bus fare box. Actually, the message on the screen was invalid, meaning "not valid." It signaled that the fare card was unreadable either because there was no more value remaining on the card, or because of a programming defect or damage to the card."
As a public service, the article lists all of the possible messages, and their meanings, that the screen might display. It's a worthwhile exercise for technical writers to re-write the messages for quicker reading and more meaning, I tried it, and enjoyed the diversion.