Reading directions is simply a part of life. And though I’ve come across instructions that are very clear, I’m often forced to rely on my own interpretations. Today I came across two examples that demonstrate this issue perfectly.
From road signs to cookbooks, manuals to tests, my actions are always the same when it comes to directions: first read, then decipher. From what I know, this is not unusual. After all, isn’t that the process of thinking? We write down information so we can track a procedure and pass it along to others. Yet, when language is unclear, it really irks me. Not just because it’s unproductive, but because I know it can be expressed more effectively. Below are two scenarios I came across today:
I started a brand new antibiotic that I’ve never used before. The instructions read as follows:
Take three tablets by mouth daily for 4 days.
Simple enough right? Wrong. Immediately my brain raced with questions. Take all three tablets at the same time? Take one tablet at three different increments in the same day? Is there a specific time to take the tablets?
My first reaction was to turn the bottle around to see if any other instructions were included. Luckily there were some. They read as follows:
Take or use this exactly as directed. Do not skip doses or discontinue.
How can I take or use this drug exactly as directed when I’m not even clear as to what I’ve been instructed to do in the first place? I was at an impasse. I had two options: 1.) take an educated guess or 2.) call the pharmacist. I opted for the latter.
Turns out, I had to take 3 tablets before 9AM once a day. In the end I had the correct answer, but generating it meant I had to spend an additional fifteen minutes of my time interpreting and calling before I could move on with the action. How productive is that? Wouldn’t it be better if the directions on the front were as follows:
Take three tablets consecutively by 9AM on a daily basis for 4 days.
Deli Counter Problem
Grocery shopping while my deli order is being fulfilled is a much more productive process. So, I always go to the deli counter first. Today I was surprised to discover a new system was added to help expedite orders. The sign read:
Please take a number to secure your place in line. Ring the bell if you need assistance.
I wasn’t sure whether to take a number, ring the bell or do both. Being that I was the only person at the counter, it didn’t seem to make sense to pick up a number. But, I didn’t know for sure. If I take a number but don’t ring the bell will they know I’m here? If I take a number and ring the bell am I messing up an unknown system?
I deduced the bell was there for people in my situation—alone at the counter with no attendant in sight. I rang the bell. Later I learned that the numbers are for customers who want to pick up their order later rather than wait at the counter. In the short stint of time I was at the counter it wasn’t difficult to come up with a clearer sign:
If the counter is unattended, please ring bell for attention. To continue shopping while your order is being fulfilled, please take a number.
The process of reading and interpreting directions is something we can’t escape, and that is why we should channel our knowledge into creating informative language that is clear and effective. Perhaps take time to consider whether manuals, directions or processes could use some clarification in your office. Or better yet, take the initiative to utilize visual schematics to improve worker productivity and workflow diagrams. We promise it will be worth your time.