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An Exercise in Ambiguity

Stairmaster (c) Naomi Karten

Do you ever mystify your customers with vague or ambiguous information? Do you ever provide explanations that seem to leave them befuddled?

Not long ago, I experienced the feeling of ambiguity-induced befuddlement in using one of those exercise gadgets that simulate steps. In theory, theyíre simple to use: you adjust a variety of settings to indicate the intensity of the workout you want, and then you step up and down until you either meet your goal or collapse.

In addition to all its standard settings, this particular stepamajig had an option for testing your fitness. When I selected that option, the digital display started giving me the third degree.

First, it asked, "How old are you?" Letís say I entered 27, for the sake of discussion. Then it asked for my weight. Well . . . letís just say I entered 106. Then it asked what level I wanted to test at, on a 10-point scale. I selected 6. I didnít know what 6 represented, but it seemed not too high and not too low. Then this contraption directed me to exercise for three minutes.

I proceeded to climb to the top of the Empire State Building. Just as I thought I was stepping as fast as I could, it blared at me, "Increase your pace!" (It didnít really blare, but when an inanimate object starts displaying digital demands, it sure feels that way.)

When the three minutes ended, I knew immediately how fit I was, because a display lit up to tell me: "Your fitness is 44."

Forty-four? Forty-four what? It didnít say.

Is it 44 on a 50-point scale, meaning Iím a fine aerobic specimen, or 44 on a 100-point scale, meaning Iíd better start upping my huffing and puffing? I wish I knew. Might it be 44 compared with all the jocks who have ever used stepamajigs? Or maybe 44 relative to a population of 106-pound 27-year-olds? Or is it 44 compared with all those who have dared to reveal their statistical secrets to this particular stepamajig? I havenít a clue.

Sometimes I wonder if Iím the only one who has trouble making sense of ambiguity, but when I see some of the cryptic blatherings given to customers in the name of information, I know Iím not alone. The information undoubtedly made perfect sense to those who prepared it, but thatís irrelevant if those itís intended for misinterpret it or canít comprehend it.

If you want to know if your policies, standards, procedures, instructions, directions, and explanations make sense, donít trust your own instincts. Before disseminating such material, test it out on people who are typical recipients of the information. Or send it to me, and Iíll let you know what I think. Keep in mind, though, that my feedback will represent the perspective of a 106-point 27-year-old whose three-minute rating at a level 6 is a perfect 44!


Text and graphics copyright © 2009 Karten Associates. +1-781-986-8148, www.nkarten.com

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Randolph, Mass., USA
Phone: +1-781-986-8148
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