Free Lessons in Dutch for People Who Already Speak It!
It doesn’t make much sense, does it? Offering to teach people a language they already know.
And to be fair, that’s not actually what it says on the Amsterdam website that describes the municipality’s free 10-month language training offer.
Yet that’s the message that comes across. Because the page offering to help people learn Dutch is written entirely in Dutch. Thus the service is visible only to those who don’t need it.
This type of failure is surprisingly common. The friend who alerted me to this website mentioned another favorite of hers: the well-intentioned note in a concert program that proudly announced “if you are blind and cannot read this, there are audio programs available”.
In the world of communications, this error is known as “the curse of knowledge” or “insider blindness”. The idea is that it’s hard to remember that everyone else doesn’t know the same things you know. Our brains are not wired to do this naturally.
Can we overcome this predisposition? Absolutely. It involves developing the habit of asking ourselves what our audience would and would not know and adjusting our language accordingly.
How hard is that to do? That depends on how you define “hard.” It’s not complicated at all. But it can be tricky. As the Amsterdam website shows, even entire institutions can be tricked.
That’s why instances like this are such a great source of entertainment (other than to those who made them, and those who end up suffering the consequences). They’re such delightfully dumb mistakes that we can’t help but laugh.
So next time you fall under the spell of the curse of knowledge, don’t curse your lack of intelligence. Just work a little harder on the habit of stepping back and thinking clearly about what your audience does and doesn’t know.
Click to see this column in the June 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
Why words should never challenge visuals to a tug-of-war.
As my colleague and I left the café in Libramont, Belgium, he grabbed the handle to pull the door open. The door didn’t budge. “POUSSEZ”, I said, reading from the large sign on the door.
My colleague is no idiot. His reading skills are top-notch and his vision is perfect. He’s been to university, run successful businesses, raised three amazing kids. He can beat every one of you at pétanque (the addictive French version of bocce). And his first language is French, so there was no language barrier involved.
So what was involved, exactly?
Very simply, a battle between a word and a visual cue. When we humans see a handle, we instinctively want to grab it. In fact, that’s not even limited to humans. Some other primates have the same instinct. It’s a handle. If we’re not supposed to grab it, why is it there?
Sometimes, of course, it’s there so we can push rather than pull. But the sign has never been invented that can reliably overcome the power of a visual cue as strong as what a handle sends.
So many failures of communication are failures exactly because they take on a challenge like the one that fell to the unfortunate “POUSSEZ” sign. It’s very much an uphill battle. In essence, it’s the battle of the higher mental functions versus the more primal ones. We all know how that battle is supposed to end, and we all know how often it doesn’t end that way.
Called upon to solve this type of problem, it’s easy to start thinking along the lines of better sign placement, bigger type, brighter colors, and other efforts to get the sign to “yell louder”.
But a reliable answer doesn’t lie in that direction. The only solution that will work 100% of time is to swap out the handle with a flat brass plate. There’s only one thing you can do with the plate: push it. And our brains get the message so quickly and reliably we hardly even notice.
Even a monkey knows that.
Click to see this column in the May 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
How does a signal signal that you should ignore it?
Traffic lights are one of the all-time masterpieces of information design. They are easy to learn, have an intuitive logic, and can be read in almost any conditions.
They’re visual, so language facility is no issue. At the same time, they’re not insulting to the literate. And they have a subtle but careful redundancy: the meaning of each light is conveyed by color as well as by relative position, and is reinforced by operational sequence.
Even novice drivers quickly develop a reflexive response to traffic lights that is both instant and accurate. That’s good, of course — unless you are designing a signal system for buses or trams. Then it becomes a terrible curse. All those wonderfully honed responses are now something you must avoid triggering.
At first, many transit systems used regular traffic lights along with signs labeling them as transit signals. Logically, that’s fine, but there’s more to good communication than simple logic.
For one thing, there are situations where the signal could register but the sign wouldn’t (poor visibility, poor literacy). More important, even for the most alert and literate users, the sign is a weaker, slower communication. That’s not their fault. It’s just how we’re built.
By the time our brains have processed the sign, they have long since finished processing the traffic light. Thus the sign must actually reverse a process that has already occurred. What we want is a solution that short-circuits the reflexive response before it can complete itself.
In Belgium and Luxembourg, you see exactly this type of solution (middle example in illustration). No one would mistake that for an ordinary traffic light, even though it is shaped like one and is often right next to one.
Netherlands has a similar system (right example). With its 9-lamp matrix, it’s fussier. But it allows all signals (there are many more than here) to be displayed by one unit, instead of three. This system is slightly harder to read, but that’s okay: its user population is small and highly trained. Meanwhile, it allows the transit signals to look even less like a regular traffic light.
Less confusion about traffic lights, less chance of a possibly fatal error. By any measure, that’s good communication.
Click to see this column in the April 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
How do you teach a cereal bar to speak?
That’s a trick question. Cereal bars already know how to speak. In fact, inanimate objects often speak (in a sense) with great clarity and eloquence.
Nor do I mean only those objects that have writing on them, though that can certainly be part of it. For instance, just by itself, a cereal bar can signal “healthiness”, “energy” and “tasty reward”.
So I was intrigued when my friend Karel van der Waarde mentioned a project where the challenge was to get a cereal bar NOT to say what it usually says.
Karel is an information designer based near Brussels. His work involves trying to make labels, packaging and literature about pharmaceuticals more understandable.
The project was based on a brilliant idea: putting drugs that must be taken with food into a cereal bar. The bar could be formulated to contain the right mix of nutrients to balance the drug. Patients could take their medicine at the right time no matter where they were. And the unpleasant taste of the medicine would be hidden by the tasty flavor of the bar.
Ironically, from a communications standpoint, “tastiness” was exactly the problem. If the bar looked like just another brand of cereal bar, people might be tempted to take a bite, thus unwittingly getting a dose of medicine (and depriving the patient of theirs). Yet if the bar looked too unusual, or too medicinal, users would essentially be broadcasting their condition and prompting unwanted conversations.
Karel’s solution: to look for something in between. He’s basically creating packaging that says “Yes, I’m tasty, but I’m not a regular cereal bar. I clearly have a special function, though I’m not going to tell you what it is. So run along now!”
It’s a communications solution worthy of the original concept. Alas, it won’t be available anytime soon. The reason? Food is regulated by one branch of the government and medicine by another. So for the product to win approval, those two branches will have to communicate.
Maybe we should send some cereal bars to show them how it’s done.
Click to see this column in the March 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.
Do you like repeated questions? Do you like repeated questions?
In the world of plain language, you’ll often come across the notion that putting information in question-and-answer format makes it user-friendly, especially for consumers.
The idea is that a question is more engaging than a statement. A question presupposes a response. There’s action, involvement, the classic sequence of tension-and-release. It’s the same formula used by simple jokes. And it works – sometimes.
But there’s one circumstance where the Q&A format is doomed to failure. That’s in situations where the user repeatedly encounters the same type of information, such as standardized descriptions that a person might use to compare products before buying.
The reason Q&A works so poorly in repetitive circumstances is related to why it works so well for single-reading circumstances: the story value. Once you’ve heard the question a few times, it becomes an irritation, not a friendly feature. It’s like hearing the same joke over and over (even though the punchline may sometimes be different).
Let’s say you’re looking at sheets describing five competing insurance products. By looking at the section “Risks and Potential Rewards” on each sheet, you could get an idea of how the risks and rewards compare.
But suppose instead that each sheet had a section with the heading “What are the risks and what could I get in return?” Would you really want to read that question over and over again?
Unfortunately for European investors, this isn’t a hypothetical situation. The European Commission in Brussels will soon require most financial products to offer a Key Information Document in which all of the sections are required to use the same question-style headings (including the one I mentioned above).
The Commission’s requirement is an example of how taking a simple, well-intentioned idea (“question-style headings can be engaging”) and applying it as if it were a law of nature can actually defeat the goal rather than furthering it. It’s also a good reminder of something that is a law of nature: communications is always about context.
Click to see this column in the February 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.