The 2021 Society for Technical Communication Summit is coming up soon, and that means the conference proceedings have been released. It’s cool to see that my paper, co-authored with Peihong Zhu, is the first article in the bunch. See the standalone PDF below, and attend the virtual Summit June 7-9, 2021 to watch our full presentation.
Hey, did you hear? BTS just dropped a meal.
I remember when meals were something that were cooked, prepared, or maybe in rare circumstances “released.” But dropped? That’s new.
“Isn’t that just the Chicken McNuggets meal?” No, it’s the BTS Meal. There’s a difference. For one, it has exclusive sauces (which I didn’t even get in my order 😩). For two…. actually, I think that’s it. No wait, the paper bag and cup are purple. The greasy trash that you would normally throw out? That part’s cool now.
So what is a “BTS Meal”? Contrary to what you might assume, it’s not a political thing (that would be the “BDS meal,” dropping next month), it’s a reference to the Korean boy band BTS. I assume that their namesake has claimed the Chicken McNuggets meal because that’s their favorite pick when they’re eating McDonald’s at the airport. Also, because Travis Scott already claimed the Quarter Pounder with Medium French Fries and Barbecue Sauce combo as his own.
You see what’s happening, right? McDonald’s is engaging in an act of information architecture.
Let’s examine both the 10 Piece Chicken McNugget Meal and the BTS Meal as objects of information and break out their components.
If we conceptualize a McDonald’s “meal” as consisting of the four parts Drink, Main, Side, and Sauce, we can see that the regular 10 Piece McNuggets meal and the BTS Meal are more alike than not. They both feature 10 McNuggets and french fries – the core of the meal, in my sauce-adverse opinion – and differ only when it comes to the exclusive Cajun and Sweet Chili sauces that you can only get with the BTS Meal.
What I find interesting is that there is a degree of “participatory experience” in the BTS Meal that shows up in the optional components and attributes. The true, BTS-hand-selected, “Director’s Cut” version of the BTS Meal calls for a Coca-Cola as your drink and limits your fries intake to a reasonable Medium. However, it’s technically possible to order a BTS Meal and substitute your drink for something other than Coke, or to perhaps indulge in a Large order of fries. The BTS Meal, therefore, becomes less of a prescription and more of an ideal, which users can either merely dabble in or embrace whole-heartedly. I can guess what the ARMY will be ordering.
Arguably, the hard boundaries of the BTS Meal lie in the sauce component. If you – God forbid – dip your McNuggies in ketchup or mustard, are you truly participating in the BTS Meal experience? In my opinion, no. The sauces are the most essential component because they are the most limited and exclusive. These sauces only exist for this meal. McNuggets are forever.
<!--Valid BTS Meal--> <BTS_Meal> <Drink Size="Large">Coke</Drink> <Main Size="10 Piece">Chicken McNuggets</Main> <Side Size="Large">French Fries</Side> <Sauce>Cajun</Sauce> <Sauce>Sweet Chili</Sauce> </BTS_Meal> <!--Valid Chicken McNuggets Meal, Invalid BTS Meal--> <Chicken_McNuggets_Meal> <Drink Size="Medium">Coke</Drink> <Main Size="10 Piece">Chicken McNuggets</Main> <Side Size="Medium">French Fries</Side> <Sauce>Ketchup</Sauce> <Sauce>Mustard</Sauce> </Chicken_McNuggets_Meal>
In my opinion, a meal that hits all of the optional BTS Meal attributes but violates the sauce requirements is at best a Chicken McNuggets meal, but it certainly isn’t a BTS Meal.
You might disagree. You might say that it’s the exclusive purple packaging that makes a meal BTS, and the sauces inside (maybe everything inside!) are merely filler.
There’s a discussion to be had, and implications either way. This is information architecture.
I had a fun time recording and presenting this talk alongside my Precision Content colleague and former University of Toronto professor Keith Schengili-Roberts for ConVEx 2021. Keith talked about the “the business of DITA,” touching on those industry sectors where DITA works best and where other structured authoring standards make more sense. I come in the second half to talk about “DITA and its Discontents,” or why teams abandon DITA and what sorts of opportunities for improvement lie on the DITA 2.0 horizon.
Earlier this week I wrote about the worst 404 page of all time, but today I’m writing about one of the most concerning 404 pages I’ve come across in a while.
As of the time of writing this, 5pm EST on Saturday, April 17, 2021, the hyperlink to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms leads to an error. The page is missing.
I am not the only one who has noticed this.
This is mighty convenient given the universally condemned new lockdown measures imposed yesterday by the Doug Ford government that introduce, among other things, restrictions on interprovincial travel and outdoor gatherings with anyone outside of your household.
Now, I may be relatively new to Canada (I moved here from the United States in 2018), but even I have read the Charter a couple of times, and I seem to recall one of the sections dealing explicitly with the mobility rights of citizens. And I’m sure that giving the police carte blanche to stop and harass anyone who dares go outside violates some part of the Charter. Hmm… am I remembering that correctly? I’d love to check, but I can’t; our government’s information architecture has crumbled.
Perhaps this is the red-blooded American in me, but I couldn’t imagine, for example, walking up to the U.S. Constitution display in the National Archives Museum only to see it empty and replaced with the words “We’re sorry! We can’t find what you’re looking for!” Government spaces are government spaces, whether they exist physically or digitally. Something as fundamental as our documented human rights should not be haphazardly “misplaced,” especially one day after those rights were effectively shredded before our eyes.
This is yet another example of the worrying trend that I’ve written about before – important places made of information treated with reckless negligence by those in power. “It’s just a webpage. It’s just a broken link,” might argue some, but that sentiment betrays a lack of awareness about how much all of our lives are increasingly lived in webpages. (Especially during a pandemic when the physical counterpart to a government space is inaccessible even if we wanted to/could go visit.)
Obviously there other places online where one can find the text of the Charter. I don’t need this particular webpage in order to remind myself of my rights. Nor does its disappearance from this website imply that the rights themselves have also disappeared. Contrary to Ezra Levant’s above tweet, it almost certainly wasn’t Justin Trudeau himself who broke the link to this webpage. It may be a genuine mistake that will be corrected as soon as it’s noticed by the Canada.gov webmaster. I can’t even be certain that the Charter webpage wasn’t missing days before Doug Ford’s announcement yesterday.
But that 404 page sends a message. Whatever the reason for this broken link, I’m left frustrated and worried, especially given the timing of it. In her fantastic book How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody, Abby Covert writes, “The most important thing I can teach you about information is that it isn’t a thing. It’s subjective, not objective. It’s whatever a user interprets from the arrangement or sequence of things they encounter.” As users of that site – no, as Canadian citizens visiting the digital seat of our democratically elected government – we are entitled to whatever individual, subjective experience emerges from the content and context that we encounter there. It’s up to the information architects over at Canada.gov to craft a space that will effectively convey whatever message they’re aiming for in such a way that the message successfully travels to any user group, across any delivery medium or context.
As it stands today, the message I’m getting is, “Your rights and freedoms are gone.”
Do you remember that one copypasta that satirizes obnoxious error messages?
Turns out that’s barely hyperbole. Check out this monstrosity that I encountered the other day:
This is what happens when you let your UX writers run wild. I’m all for creative voice and tone in my web interfaces, but there’s a line that was crossed at the first mention of a “wee boob.”
When writing error messages – or any UI copy, for that matter – it’s better to err on the side of being boring but clear. Once you’ve decided that every line needs to contain some sort of joke or quip, the attempts at humor quickly become stale.
Jakob Nielsen wrote a nice set of Error Message Guidelines back in 2001. I think his guidelines still hold up, so let’s see how HTML Dog’s 404 page measures against them.
“Explicit indication that something has gone wrong.”
HTML Dog’s 404 message begins decently enough. “404! Page Not Found!” The exclamation points are a little extra, but at least it puts the relevant info upfront.
Then the screaming begins.
I can easily imagine certain older members of my family legitimately becoming worried if they read “Ahhhh! Panic!” Those words are so unusual and alarming. Accusatory, even. As if to say, “Look at what you’ve done.” People who don’t understand what a 404 message is or how webpages are retrieved over the internet might read something like “The authorities have been notified” and start to wonder if they’ve inadvertently committed some sort of cybercrime. The message declares that someone ought to be “sorry.” It’s all a bit… much.
“Human-readable language, instead of obscure codes or abbreviations”
I think the issue here is that HTML Dog is trying to be too “human-readable.” Normally error messages are indeed full of obscure codes and abbreviations, so kudos to HTML Dog for avoiding impenetrable tech jargon. I might argue, however, that the Justin Bieber reference counts as obscure. Billions of YouTube views aside, “Sorry” is several years old at this point.
“Polite phrasing that doesn’t blame users or imply that they are either stupid or doing something wrong”
“The person responsible will be fired. And cast out into the wilderness,” might be “polite” in the sense that it’s technically talking about someone other than the user, but keep in mind that most visitors will haphazardly scan the words on the page, not start from the beginning. If the words and phrases lingering in one’s mind after a cursory scan include “fired,” “cast out into the wilderness,” “this upsetting circumstance,” “Ahhhh!” and “the authorities have been notified,” that’s not what I would call a pleasant “user experience.”
“Precise descriptions of exact problems, rather than vague generalities”
This 404 message is as precise as it can be. It is true that the site wouldn’t necessarily know the exact reason why the error was returned, so it’s nice that it suggests three possibilities. It’s also helpful that that the most important bits are bolded. That being said, all the extra copy muddies that precision and might even introduce some of the “panic” that it sought to dispel.
“Constructive advice on how to fix the problem.”
HTML Dog is admirable for including a “What Now?” heading on its 404 page. Suggested next steps for the user are often missing from error messages. However, the non-hyperlinked parts of the bullet points are anything but constructive. “References: Refer to stuff,” to take but one example, is neither informative nor funny. And is the bizarre aside about Wikipedia supposed to be a pun about “roofing” because the site is called HTML “Dog”? Who the hell knows, man.
Jakob Nielsen’s guidelines are worth a look if you haven’t read them in full. Error messages are never fun to encounter, but I’d rather read one that calmly explains the problem and suggests next steps than one that tries too hard to be cute.