• The official voice of STC and the tech comm community

Talking Usability: Not Everything Is Intuitive

150 150 David Dick

Have you ever noticed instructions in the most unlikely places? The restrooms at restaurants have instructions on how to wash hands. A ladder has instructions to position and erect it. Gas stations have instructions on how to pump gasoline into a vehicle. Are these instructions really necessary? Don’t you think washing hands, raising a ladder, and pumping gas are intuitive enough that instructions are not necessary?

How many people actually read the instructions in restaurant restrooms to wash their hands? Of all the things that should be easy to do without instructions—washing hands surely must be at the top of the list. The instructions clearly state that employees must wash their hands before leaving; that means I am exempt, right? Did you know that your hands contain approximately 1,500 bacteria? I read that our hands have more germ exposure than any other part of your body. When you touch your mouth, eyes, or nose with your hands, these germs can gain access to your body. If you eat without washing your hands first, you transfer germs from your hands to your food and then into your body. Proper hand-washing techniques can minimize the spread of these germs. Hand washing is one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Okay, maybe we need instructions to remind us how to properly wash our hands.

Do you think ladders are simple to use? Not really. Once upon a time, my uncle fell from the roof of his home and severely injured his back because the ladder was not properly placed on the ground and against the wall. My uncle was not an idiot and certainly he knew that the ladder was not on a stable surface and properly erected. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, emergency rooms treat more than 160,000 ladder-related injuries each year. While this number represents work-related as well as home accidents, the number of injuries is often reduced with knowledge and use of safe ladder practices.

Last on my list is pumping gasoline. Pumping gasoline into a vehicle should be easy enough—we do it every day. Recently while pumping gas into my car, I noticed the instructions for pumping gas. Fortunately, I wasn’t making any mistakes—but what if I did? Did you know that pumping gas is one of the most potentially hazardous tasks that we engage in regularly? Gasoline is a flammable substance and it can be dangerous if customers do not take certain precautions at the pump. That’s why gas pumps have instructions for the proper procedures for pumping gas into a vehicle. Unless you fill up in New Jersey or Oregon, which have laws that prevent “untrained” drivers from pumping their own gas.

The moral of this story is that not everything is intuitive. Everything requires instructions to ensure safe and proper use.

I’m David Dick and I’m talking usability.