I do this stuff for a living, Observations & musings

Tech Journos and writers would be wise to remember who their audience really is

Today I was tweeted a link to a Life Hacker article that told me about Gmail’s new Inbox preview pane feature, something I have thought the Gmail application could have done with quite for some time now. Naturally, I’m keen to check it out so open the article I did. Towards the bottom, the article provides readers with instructions on how to get the feature going.

“To enable it, just open Gmail, go to Labs, and turning on the Preview Pane option” – I’m not here to pick on the language or the grammar, so I’ll move past to what the message is actually telling me to do.

I open Gmail. And that’s it. That’s where I am forced to stop because no where on the Gmail user interface can I see a “Labs” link or button. Go ahead and try it for yourself if you have Gmail.

As much as it pains me to admit it, I’ve actually haven’t explored Google Labs before so I wasn’t aware of exactly what I was looking for. A link perhaps? a button? And where would it be? Having not found the elusive “Labs” anywhere on my Gmail home page, I’m immediately befuddled. “I must be blind again” I think. After all, I’ve been guilty many times of not being able to see a link or a button that’s literally right in front of me, so I continue to look. But I can’t see it. “It has to be here” I say out loud. I hit CTRL F on my keyboard to bring up my Firefox search, I enter “Lab”, click ‘next’, and I am immediately greeted by the audible ‘donk’ and a crimson red background on my search box tells me that “Labs” cannot be found. It’s simply not there.

A set of instructions on a toilet wall

I eventually found it under the ‘More’ button in the top-left navigation bar of GMail next to the ‘Web’, ‘Reader’ ‘Photos’ and other links in the nav bar. But that wasn’t until after 5 minutes of searching other areas and getting quite annoyed that it wasn’t as easy locate as the article made it out to be. But it gets worse than that. Below is the convoluted way that I eventually found “Labs”.

  1. Select the “More” button on the top-left navigation bar to display further options.
  2. Select the “Even More” option.
  3. The ‘More Google Products’ page will be displayed.
  4. On the right, under the Explore and Innovate section, click “Labs”.

  5. The Google Labs main page will be displayed.

  6. On the right under the Other experiments at Google section, click the “Gmail Labs” link.
  7. You will be re-directed back to your own Gmail settings page

…. Oh lordy!

In the end, all my faffing about could have been easily avoided had the author added a few simple, yet important words in the commonly-used breadcrumb navigation format.

To enable it, just open Gmail. Click the ‘Options’ button > Settings > Mail Settings > Labs. Nice and simple.

And instead of saying “Turning on the Preview Pane option”, because well, there isn’t one, what he might have said was this:

In the search box, enter “Preview” > Enable the “Inbox Preview” lab. – A far more accurate statement that gives the reader an explicit set of instructions and specific lab to look for. A ‘Lab’ being Google-speak for ‘optional feature’, but naturally everyone implicity knows what we’re all on about here and there is obviously no need for any explanation whatsoever (please don’t miss the sarcasm).

In cases like this I am curious and savvy enough to (eventually) find my own way. In all but the most horrendous cases of rubbish software, I can find my way about any application. But I’m not a typical user. Many people are not confident around computers and easily embarrassed by situations when it is implied that they are supposed to know, or be able to figure out what something means as opposed to what it says. So when a stumbling blocks like this occur the non-tech savvy have every right to become frustrated. Furthermore they are unlikely to seek help for fear of looking silly. And no one likes to look silly. This is actually the case with most of the population. Not the daily web surfers, members of the twitterverse, people who know what Linux looks like. But they are the rest of society. You remember them, don’t you? They are living life away from the machine. We may not see them in the same way or in the same numbers we used to, but they are out there. And ‘they’ outnumber ‘us’.

Perhaps I am unfair to single out this article. I mean no disrespect to Adam Dachis, tech journo in general, bloggers, and anyone else who write about new features and the wonderful and the wacky of the tech world. Writing isn’t easy, especially when you’re on deadline. But I do wonder how many people who regularly write for others are aware of how deeply frustrating a set of incomplete or inaccurate instructions can be.

Tech journos and writers who want to write as best as they can for people would do well to underestimate the capability of their audience just a little bit. There’s no need to go overboard and come off being a condescending arse, but it does pay to assume that people don’t automatically know what you’re talking about. And if you happen to have developed the attitude that readers should come with pre-installed knowledge, especially when you’re writing to an online or otherwise public audience, then you’ve already become the condescending arse you wanted to avoid being in the first place.

Sure Life Hacker is a site made for what I describe as basic-tech savvy and so there is probably a valid argument against making the instructions quite detailed as I have made them here. But if I was tripped up, I’ll bet others were too. And given today’s instant ability to share content via Twitter, Google +, Facebook and all manner of other ways, the days of making accurate assumptions as to who will read your content are well behind us. If and when that happens with your writings, you will invariably end up being read by people with whom you probably never intended to communicate with. This is not to say that you need to dumb everything down to a point in which would alienate and annoy your loyal followers, but it is probably a timely moment to stop and think as to whether a few tiny considerations should be made that can then encapsulate the attention of readers that are usually outside your core target range.

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