Appropriate complexity

As you may already know, McDonald's restaurants offer free Wi-Fi to customers. In support of this initiative they apparently provide instructions on how to connect to their wireless network, which caused a tempest-in-a-teapot reaction on Twitter and elsewhere this week.

The issue is that McDonald's instructions have been taken to illustrate the user experience differences between Windows and Mac. In this photo of the instructions, the Windows procedures greatly outnumber the simple steps for Macs.

As the fiery comments on the photo attest, the Windows steps do not accurately reflect the experience most users would have. Setting aside accusations of a Mac-promoting conspiracy at McDonald's, what is going on with these instructions?

First off, McDonald's has an admirable, proven track record of instructional design. In addition to technology, they use extensive training and work aids to ensure consistent, quality products around the entire globe. If you ever get the opportunity to see the cook's instructions for creating a Big Mac, you'll be impressed. (That said, there are sloppy errors in this example, so perhaps this wasn't produced by the corporate team.)

So it's not that the company lacks talented user assistance designers. Indeed, I think these instructions reflect a thoughtful approach to the problem.

Firstly, look at the reality of the McDonald's situation. They do not have technologists on staff at each location, and most likely the Wi-Fi routers are dropped into place with a "do not touch" label and an IT support number. The restaurant staff simply cannot be expected to know anything about solving customer's network problems. They have far more important (core business) jobs to do. This means that the instructions are not written for a technologically savvy audience. (Which excludes many of the critics of this document.)

Secondly, for the vast majority of users, the Wi-Fi network will "just work." Anyone who has used public Wi-Fi at a library, coffee shop, or elsewhere will have no problem getting connected at McDonald's. The instructions under discussion are mostly likely only provided to customers who are having problems getting connected, I doubt very much they're handed out with every order of fries.

The customer who can't successfully connect to the McDonald's network has most likely never connected to a Wi-Fi network at all. These instructions are not 'how to connect to a Wi-Fi network,' they're 'how to configure your computer so that it can connect to a wireless network.' Viewed in that light, and indeed that's what the document title represents, they're accurate and appropriately detailed for novice users.

What's missing from the 'dog pile' of criticism is this misidentification of the task, and that all documentation must be evaluated in relation to its audience and purpose. So to the unknown McDonald's author of this document: don't be discouraged.

Posted: July 29, 2011 link to this item, Tweet this item, respond to this item