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HomeGuidelines > 5. Reduce cognitive burdens. > 5c. Watch out for ambiguous phrases a reader must debate.          

 

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5c. Watch out for ambiguous phrases a reader must debate.

If you use a common term, let it mean what most people think it does. Do not wrench it around to mean something new, or unfamiliar.

Before:
Store the list in the library.

After:
Store the list in the file called lib.txt.


Before:
You have now killed the spawned consumer process.

After:
You have stopped the process that the host program started, expecting to collect the data for its own calculations.

If you use a pronoun such as he, she, it, or they, make sure that the referent appears as the noun just before the pronoun, in the same paragraph. Or replace the pronoun with the noun you were
referring to.

Before :
The report from the budget group suggests downturns in sales, manufacturing, and orders. They are working on recommendations.

After:
The report from the budget group suggests downturns in sales, manufacturing, and orders. The budget group is working on recommendations.


Before:
Degas was unhappy with Monet, one of the leading artists in the movement, because he advertised the exhibition.

After:
Degas was unhappy because Monet, one of the leading artists in the movement, advertised the exhibition.

Do not start a sentence with a solo This or That referring vaguely to the whole previous discussion. Say what you are talking about. This what? That what?

Before:
The sales of extra-thick glass have risen, despite the economic downturn, and, in particular, slowed construction. This now leads to a workdown in our home and office space supply inventory.

After:
Despite the economic downturn, and, in particular, slowed construction, the sales of extra-thick glass have risen. This growth in sales means that we are now working down our inventory of supplies for home and office construction.

Use the same term for the same idea every time. Do not indulge in creative variations.

Before:

Click the Outline option on the View menu.

Click on Outline on View.

Choose Outline on the View menu.

Pick Outline off of the View menu.

After:

Choose Outline on the View menu.

Choose Outline on the View menu.

Choose Outline on the View menu.

Choose Outline on the View menu.

Preserve relative pronouns, such as who and that.

Before

The index containing all of your entries appears on the left side of the work window.

Send an alert to users logged in during the last session.

After

The index, which contains all of your entries, appears on the left side of the work window.

Send an alert to users who have logged in during the last session.

Use the articles "a," "an," and "the," to avoid telegraphic density.

Before

Turn knob clockwise to start engine.

After

Turn the knob clockwise to start the engine.

When referring to another page on the site, name the section, rather than assuming that the reader has already seen it ("As we have said before…")

Before

The latest news appears at the top.

After

The latest news appears in Press Reports.

 

Before

On the next level up, look for…

After

In the Oil Change Overview, look for….

Do not refer to another element of the current page by location (above, below, to the left, to the right). Refer to the heading for that element.

Before

…as shown in the table below.

After

….as shown in the Table of Results.

 

Before

If you go forward, you’ll see the trends.

After

You’ll see the trends in the Marketing Survey.

 

Before

To the right, the graph shows that the majority of our calls are for support on the new cellphone.

After

The majority of our calls are for support on the new cellphone. (See the Support Graph).

Other ways to make your text easier to understand:

5a. Reduce the number of clauses per sentence.

5b. Blow up nominalizations and noun trains.

5c. Watch out for ambiguous phrases a user might have to debate.

5d. Surface the agent and action, so users don't have to guess.

5e. Make a positive statement.

5f. Reduce scrolling.

5g. Let users print or save the entire document at once.

Resources on thoughtlessness

Taking a Position on Thoughtlessness

Heuristic Online Text (H. O. T.) Evaluation of Cognitive Burdens

Poster

 

  Diagram

What does this mean?  Should the viewer have to read all that scribbling on the right to figure out this aid to memory, recording the 12 Apostles, plus, on the thumb, the Holy Spirit and Son of God?

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Background

Do not use a word from the user’s everyday vocabulary with a new, unfamiliar meaning.—Horton (1990)

Which way leads "back" depends on the direction your visitor came from. Describe the subject of the page instead, or use absolute directions.—Jutta Degener, quoted by Levine(1997)

Hypertext must always include the antecedent for every pronoun in a given section.—Kilian (1999)

By predetermining the terms that make up a controlled vocabulary, and using those terms to describe your site’s content, you can minimize the negative effects that variants, synonyms, and various other annoyances can have on your site and its users. —Rosenfeld (1999)

See bibliography: Fowler et al (1992), Henning (2001d), Horton (1990), Kilian (1999), Levine (1997), McGovern (2001), Morkes and Nielsen (1998), Price & Korman (1993), Rosenfeld (1999), Tarutz (1992)

 
 

Audience Fit
 
If visitors want... How well does this guideline apply?
To have fun Ambiguity, puns, innuendos may be part of the game.  Just make sure that you signal your guests that you are being deliberately provocative, not just lazy.
To learn Half your effort is simply avoiding ambiguity.
To act Don't make someone pause in mid air, wondering whether you mean A or B.
To be aware Poetry and parables work on several levels, referring to different planes of experience.  But on each plane, the best lines are unambiguously powerful.
To get close to people In a direct exchange, people overlook accidental ambiguities, if they think they know what you mean.  Strangers, though, may choose the worst possible interpretation and send you flames.

Ready for some challenges?

Don't make me think.

 

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