Making Wrong Assumptions

Assumptions are rampant within the thinking of people who write words – or fail to write words — on web sites.

Here’s an example. I went to the web site of a well-known ‘digital communications’ company. They build web sites for others.

On their home page, instead of having the usual buttons with the usual lines like ‘Work we’ve done,’ they show nifty little icons. The first icon shows a small pyramid of dots — like the icon that tells you the state of the toner cartridge level in a photocopier or printer.

There were no words close to this icon, so I guessed that this was likely a mouse-over moment. So I dragged the cursor over and nothing happened. I was puzzled and went back to the site a couple of times before I realized that something did happen — but not close to where the icon was. I just hadn’t noticed.

Anyway, the mouse-over text read: ‘Dirt. Company Information.’

Forgive me a moment of sarcasm here.

“It’s elementary my dear Watson. The pile of dots naturally leads us to think ‘dirt’ which naturally makes us think, ‘Hey, this is where their company info is to be found.'”

I don’t think so.

Their assumption? They assumed that as a prospective client, I would be so tickled by their use of icons and mouse-overs that I would forgive them for being as clear as mud.

In common with all assumptions, this is a bad one.

Here’s another.

One of my least favorite portals has this little tab that says, ‘Community.’ Click on it and you get to a page that lists a whole bunch of headings that include the likes of ‘Automotive,’ ‘Business’ and ‘Marketplace.’

What does ‘community’ mean? In this context, I have no idea. Why does the ‘community’ link take me to a page that lists the typical portal subsections? I have no idea.

The assumption? The assumption here is that regular folks use the lingo of us jolly important earlyish-adopters. They don’t.

You can be sure that if I don’t get it, my mother won’t either.

And another.

Here are four buttons from the top of a much-admired retail site. The buttons run at the top of the homepage, in a continuous line in the following order.

Your List. Shopping Bag. Checkout. Your Account.

You have five seconds to tell me exactly what the difference is between each of these four.

Run out of time?

The assumption here is that everyone ‘out there’ recognizes all the terminology we have been teaching ourselves ‘in here.’ They don’t.

You might tell me that it’s obvious that ‘Your List’ refers to a shopping list of things to buy. Wrong. On this particular site, it refers to a list of things you have purchased in the past. Not quite the same thing.

In any event, what’s happening with all the assumptions described in this article is that we are creating our own online language and often fall into the trap of thinking that our audience speaks the same language. They don’t.

Forget the latest industry terminology. Avoid abbreviating your message to such a degree that it looks great but communicates little.

Speak the language of your audience, not your peers. Write from ‘out there.’ Not from ‘in here.’

And don’t assume for a second that everyone else thinks the exact same way that you do. Don’t assume that people’s views and experiences are the same as yours.

For every assumption you make, you can be sure that you’ll be wrong almost every time.

(And for next week: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Buttons on your site.)

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