When less is just more work

The saying goes (and it’s especially relevant to what I do) that ‘less is more’, and in most cases this is true. After all, a lot of what I get paid to do is delete what’s not necessary to get it down to a manageable amount of information.

Too often though, the less is more mantra is taken too literally and ends up making things more difficult than they need to be. This is usually because someone somewhere takes the well meaning, but misguided decision to squeeze information into the smallest number of pages as possible, whether it be a form, a set of instructions or a document.

The standard justification for doing this is that it reduces print costs, and of course does its bit for the environment. It’s a noble stance to take, but ultimately it’s a false economy.

The reason why cramming doesn’t work as a business idea is this. What you might gain from cutting print costs, you lose (in multiples) in the costs of dealing with misunderstanding of the information you’ve sent out.

Let’s take an example of a document type that’s frequently crammed – a form. By cramming questions in, the space needed for navigation and helpful notes is taken away, and worst of all, the spaces for answers become determined by whatever space is left, not by what information the user needs to put in. Here’s an example from the AIG life insurance application form before I redesigned it, just to make my point.

The result of this kind of approach is inaccurate information, whether it’s because poor navigation has caused the user has filled in the wrong question, they haven’t had room to provide an appropriate answer or they’ve simply failed to understand the question properly because of a lack of helpful supporting information.

Each piece of inaccurate information has a potential cost to it, whether it’s a direct one such as making a phone call or sending out a letter to confirm unclear data or request missing data, or a less instantly obvious one: in the example above this could be making undeserved payouts or having to reimburse overpayments made by customers – a very familiar sounding story to UK residents familiar with the Tax Credits system.

There are plenty of valid reasons for reducing the length of a document, but this can’t be done by simply reducing the type size or filling every last white space. It must be done by reducing the amount of information in it.

If you think you’ve got a document that’s too long, here are a few basics to think about:
• how much information is repeated in more than one place?
• how much of the information you’re providing is actually because you want to tell someone it, not because they need to know it?
• can large amounts of text be better shown as diagrams?

There are lots of other ‘tricks’ to shortening information which I hope to cover in the future. If there’s anything specific you’d like to know about, post a comment and maybe it will be the topic of my next entry.

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