Friday, 17 August 2012

Killing with kindness

Last night I watched The Best of Men: a beautifully-made BBC drama about Dr Ludwig Guttman who transformed the care of patients with spinal injuries at Stoke Manderville Hospital and invented the Paralympic Games as part of his rehabilitation programme. One of the things that was made very clear was that the nursing staff whose methods he challenged and overturned were not uncaring or unkind: they immobilised and sedated patients up to the eye-balls because they could see that they were in pain. It was in fact kindness that motivated them, and they initially resisted Guttman's methods because they seemed unkind: he reduced the patients' medication, forced them to move, and woke them up every two hours at night in order to turn them so that they didn't get bedsores.

And then this morning I read the OU production department's super new style guide for writing student guidance material on using our online systems. Many of the problems it identifies with how guidance is too often written are not the products of thoughtlessness or incompetence: they're the products of kindness, of trying to help students, of trying to explain everything to them.

For example: consider a piece of guidance entitled "Using your module website". Its introduction reads: "This document offers a guide to using your module website while studying with the OU." How could this introduction be improved? By being totally deleted. It adds nothing to what's already in the title. Yet kindness motivates people to write such introductions, knowing the trouble which some students have finding their way around the OU websites and concerned that students need to have the purpose of the document explained to them.

The same kind impulse leads to verbosity and unnecessary complexity. For example: "If you are looking for information on forums, the document is called ‘Forum guidance’ and is available in the Computing Guide. The direct URL is". Here's what the style guide recommends as an improvement: "For information on forums, see ‘Forum guidance [link]’ in the Computing Guide."

For those accustomed to lengthy reading times and print documents, this style may seem clipped and abrupt, or perhaps even rude. (The style guide actually recommends avoiding using the word "please".) But useless and unnecessary words have a greater cost online: they fill up the screen, making it harder to see the things that are necessary and important, forcing the reader to expend cognitive load on working out where to devote their attention.

I believe that the best way to be kind and considerate to an online user is to respect the value of their time and come to the point quickly, which is why I think this new style guide is great. But I can imagine it attracting criticism in just the way that Guttman did, and for very much the same reasons. Hopefully it will be vindicated, as he was!

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