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How do I address user error?

Many people do not read instructions. They may enjoy reading what they want to read, but instructions are not one of those preferred works of non-fiction that come to mind. When was last time you read instructions? Why? There is often the assumption and expectation things will be easy to understand and easy to use. When we download a new software application to one of our devices, do you see piles of instructions, guides or manuals? Not likely.

And are we expecting other people to read instructions as well? Newsflash: many do not read instructions even if their lives depend on it. Some manufacturers in certain sectors include instructions to supply warnings, notices and legal documentation attempting to limit their liability in the case their product or service is (was) used incorrectly and disaster occurs. An example of this was a product mailed to homes as a free sample. This sample came in a small packet and included an image of a lemon on it. People instantly assumed it was lemonade mix, so they mixed it with water and drank it without ever reading what it said on the packet. The organization received countless calls and complaints from potential consumers who got sick. Most of them did not read the fact that this was dishwasher soap with a new lemon scent and an added citric acid cleaning agent. Reading is either clearly overrated for the masses or a means of separating the people who want to be informed from those who are too lazy/busy to bother.

Some manufacturers do not even include instructions any more. Why? The product or service should be easy enough and users should just want to use it. They expect user adoption magically happen with some high hopes.  Maybe that works with some mobile devices and some of their respective apps through simple, smart design. Never mind the precautions, warnings or issues that could arise. What could possibly go wrong? Users are smart enough to just know how to use it, right? Well, if you add some humans to any equation, you will get some inconsistencies, variables and yes… errors. Sure, we can blame the:

  • poorly designed user interface (usability testing can help identify these issues)
  • lack of forethought in the system implementation, so everyone must think like the person who created it (user testing can help identify these issues as long as they walk through all the processes and note what/where is a miss)
  • the whoops on the real world which avoids the end-to-end walk-through of a solution to be sure it works

One organization had a lot of user errors, so they started focusing on the tasks that caused the user errors and tracked them.  This could identify system flaws needing correction.  Here is how to start on the path of accountability. Every instance an error happened:

  • the user was tracked by name (who)
  • the type of error was tracked (what)
  • the frequency of the error was tracked (when)
  • where in the system the issue was occurring was tracked (where)
  • what the user did incorrectly to cause the error was tracked (why)
  • the recommended changes to the process were communicated and documented (how)

Every time an error happened, a template email was sent to that individual user and their supervisor which included:

  • their specific error
  • the impact of this error to other users and the system (there often was one)
  • a recommended fix (for the user to complete)
  • a set time frame to fix the error properly (one to two business days)
  • a follow-up to be sure it was completed and the error log to close out that particular instance of that error.

Before implementing this error correction, the policy was fully documented and shared openly. As soon as this process started, error rates dropped significantly.  That is the effect of accountability. Prior to this, accountability was not visible. Note that errors do not completely disappear because “perfection” is not a realistic goal for any organization. There is room for improvement for users, process and likely the system.

How to have MORE errors

There are the counterpoints to all this…

  • Assume too much or just assume everything will work the way you expect it to (just like the world will continue to revolve around you)
  • Ignore all issues you encounter. Do not verbally mention nor document in writing the issues for anyone to know about.
  • Do not test thoroughly or just ignore all testing completely  (The testing fairy is coming soon. Just don’t wake up from that dream)
  • Do not verify any information down the exact character. In fact, just do not check on anything at all
  • Do not follow specific instructions. Do not have clear, up to date instructions. In fact, do not having any instructions at all (see assumptions for similar results).
  • Do not explain how nor why something works nor even IF it actually works. People are just supposed to know this simply by osmosis or being born with this information.
  • Do not have a simple, easy to use GUI. If you really try, you could skip having a GUI completely. 
  • Ignore all usability experts and their literature. Why would you want anyone to actually use the system.
  • Believe everyone works and thinks like you (revisit assumptions again)Be sure to have extra slow processors to make people believe the system is frozen or non-functional. It might be acceptable in some people’s mind if a simple process with a few bits of data take half hour to two hours to yield the results requested.
  • Be sure to blame the end user when the system is not working, but it is best if the results are inconsistent just for that added bonus.
  • Confusion is always welcome. With open arms.
  • Do not document anything. When working with other companies, trust everyone freely and believe that they will document everything for you, understand it all your way and share all this documentation openly.
  • Believe everything (including coding) is really easy and it will automagically be completed overnight flawlessly. Every day. With no documentation nor specifications. Nor testing.
  • Every IT department can read minds. They have an app for that.
  • Eventually, everyone can read your mind.
  • Trust everyone. What could possibly go wrong? You do not need any verification either.
  • Do not plan ahead.
  • Do not train users. Ok, maybe once and believe they will remember it all. 
  • Do not supply any ongoing support for your user community. They will figure it out.
  • Errors go away if you ignore them enough. Errors do not multiple when you do this.
  • Never take any vacation nor breaks. It will not catch up with you in any way.

I only wish these were all so ridiculous that these did not ever happen nor were even thought of. Sadly, they actually do. Too often.

How do you address user error?


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How do I read this DAM documentation?


Don’t we love reading DAM documentation?  I am not referring to the pretty, glossy brochures you get from marketing that has to look great in order to sell you the product. I am referring to the actual DAM documentation which supposedly explains how the DAM works like the guides, manuals, feature sets, configuration options, compendiums of data and volumes of instructions. Instructions are always so easy to read, aren’t they?

Many DAM vendors are reluctant to show us their documentation until we have signed a contract with them. Then we are often stuck trying to understand these things. After we review the tables of contents and volumes of paperwork, we quickly begin to understand why we pay annual support fees for the DAM. We pay them to read and understand their own documentation.

Personally, I have read over the DAM documentation for a few DAM solutions I have used and had the same frustration, but I decided to do something about it. Here is a solution to have up to date, easy to use, easy to navigate documentation:

First, I asked for all the latest documentation (yes, I asked for more) the vendor had for their DAM product. It would help if the vendors updated their documentation as often as they updated the product itself.

Second, I wanted to know everything that was NOT covered in their documentation, such as the new features. If I had a question on how to do something with the DAM which was not discussed in the documentation, I asked. My questions were often forwarded directly to the engineers for an answer. This sometimes exposed more features and little known facts about the functionality of the product.

Then, with the permission of the vendor, I rewrote the documentation. Yes, it was all technical writing. I also had to translate some parts from ‘engineer speak’ back into English. One of the most useful things I did was I wrote step by step directions, complimented with screen shots to illustrate these steps.

I purposely:

  • was not about to re-write the documentation into big thick paper manuals.
  • was not about to print binders full of paper for each DAM user to refer to.
  • was not about to chisel the documentation onto stone tablets.
  • was not going to issue an eraser with each binder for changes.
  • was not about to switch out endless pages per binder for changes.
  • was not about to use a PDF because a user might accidentally refer to an older version of  a PDF with different information which would not help them access immediate, up-to-date results.

This is the 21st century and we have better tools for documentation that occasionally changes, especially since we use computers anyhow.  Welcome to the Web 2.o method of documentation. What I used was an enterprise wiki on our intranet. The enterprise wiki is open to anyone working within our organization’s network at any time from anywhere. The wiki is fully searchable and is kept up to date with latest information at all times. It is updated by me or anyone I assign to edit it. Any changes can be applied to the wiki in seconds. There is full version control, even down to a single character change. Every user can get an email update alerting them of any recent changes to the documentation.

How long did it take me to create the documentation on a wiki? It took me the same amount of time to write on this wiki than it would have as a PDF or paper, but it only takes seconds to update and disseminate to all users. Try that with paper or PDF.

Who uses wikis for their own business? Plenty of businesses are using wikis as a modern dissemination tool for documentation.

Want your own wiki for your own documentation, reports, etc? Do a Google search on wiki or enterprise wiki.

My question to all the vendors is when will they begin offering their documentation as a wiki for their clients as well as their own sanity?