Never assume it’s obvious

When I was in college, I remember a professor who seemed fond of saying “it’s intuitively obvious.” I don’t remember a lot from that professor (other than that he was a good professor and a good man), but I vaguely remember my classmates making fun of that line, partially because he used it often, and partially because it often was not “intuitively obvious.”

How many of you remember way back when the “this beverage is hot” warning labels started appearing on coffee cups? Many of us (myself included) ridiculed it, responding with, “duh!” But of course, there is usually a good reason behind the story. Now the hot beverage warning label is ubiquitous on nearly all hot beverage cups, and most of us don’t give it a second thought.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I worked on a project. I won’t go into the details (I don’t like to share details of an in-house work project), so I’ll give you the high-altitude view of it. I’ve been trying to solve a problem where multiple people are asking IT Support for assistance, and IT Support is overwhelmed by requests. IT Support does have a website where many of these questions can be answered, but it seems that people either don’t know it exists or don’t know enough to look for the answers there.

I went poking through the website. It did seem to have the tools necessary to answer many questions, as well as resolve a few issues I’m working on. It then occurred to me — the very fact that I was poking around the site to figure out how it worked. In other words, it wasn’t entirely obvious as to how to get the answers from the site. It occurred to me that what was missing was a user guide for the site. I’ve been pitching it to several people, as I believe it’s a good idea, and I think it will resolve a number of problems. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten a little bit of pushback, along the lines of, “of course it’s obvious how to use it,” and “we have links everywhere that explains how it works.” (Also, IT Support, as just about any department, tends to get somewhat protective — understandably so — of its assets and material.)

So if it’s so obvious, then why are you getting overwhelmed with questions?

As a technical writer, “never assume it’s obvious” is one of my biggest mantras, and I think it should be for anyone involved with technical communication, UX/UI design, teaching, or documentation. Simple instructions can often be overlooked (how many times do I have to say that reading is work?!?), and people from other cultures may not always understand the language or context that you’re writing, so that’s something else to consider.

Never, ever, assume anything is obvious — because more often than not, it isn’t.

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