Be upfront when you can’t meet user needs

As content designers we’re always trying to meet our users’ needs in the best and clearest way possible. That’s the very essence of our job. So what do we do if someone comes to our content with a need we just can’t meet?

We’ve faced this problem working with a few clients lately, especially in government where law and regulations come into play.

The TLDR version: be upfront.

Reasons you might not be able to meet user needs

People coming to your site for something you can’t provide might not be a problem for you. If you’re a shoe store and people end up on your site looking for cars, they’ll soon navigate away. (If you’re really lucky they’ll see some irresistible kicks and make an impulse purchase.)

But we’ve been working on solving some thornier challenges. 

For one client, the general public thinks the organisation does something it isn’t legally able to do. Here’s a fictionalised example: a government agency that monitors pollution and prosecutes polluters, but doesn’t have the legal or regulatory power to act for individuals. However, because of media coverage, people persistently think they do and get frustrated when they can’t lodge their own complaint. 

For some other clients, people want a straightforward answer to their individual question that the organisation just can’t give them. Perhaps because the law and regulations are so complicated or don’t define a particular concept, or perhaps because individual cases are all very different and it’s impossible to give a clear answer without knowing the context.

It would be great if laws were unambiguous and if people were given more reliable information in the first place, but making that happen is not always within our power. (We can certainly have conversations with the broader organisation though – that’s also part of our job.) 

What we can do is make sure we're clear about what we can provide and our limitations.

Content design for content you can’t provide

We’ve taken some different approaches depending on the issue we’ve been addressing, but there’s one overriding principle: be upfront. 

Your first instinct might be to hide the fact that you can’t help someone or answer someone’s question, but that will just make them frustrated. Either they’ll spend time on a fruitless search, or they’ll get on the phone to your call centre, or they’ll give up in despair (or even disgust). People searching for something that doesn’t exist might possibly boost vanity metrics like time on page or pages per visit, but it will degrade any trust they have in you.

Of course the usual principles of content design – such as front-loaded and to-the-point headings and clear writing –  apply in these situations. But here are some other solutions.

Be honest straight away
We’ve suggested to some of our clients that they start a page where someone is likely to come looking for an answer or specific information with a line like ‘the law doesn’t define X’ or ‘We can not take legal action on behalf of individuals’.

Give useful options
Don’t leave people hanging after such a blunt statement. Tell them how they can meet their needs. ‘You can work out what price increase is reasonable by looking at these three things’ or ‘Your state’s consumer affairs department will be able to help you.’  Don’t forget links!

Use visual components
It can help to signal limitations in a repeatable component. This might be something like a simple 2-column table such as ‘We do this / We don’t’ do this’ with ticks and crosses, or colour indications like red and green. You’ll need to make sure your tables are properly accessible and that there are alternatives to visual cues. 

Consider wizards and decision trees
Wizards and decision trees might be an option when individual circumstances prevent a clear answer being given in a generic web page. Wizards hide complexity and mean users see only the information they need.

Paradoxically, all these solutions to not being able to meet user needs mean you are actually going at least some way to meeting them.

What if you don’t address the problem? 

When there’s an invisible elephant in the room it is tempting to ignore it, but you’ll still keep running into it and so will the people coming to your site.

If you don’t address the problem

  • Erodes trust and reputation
  • Creates lasting frustration and annoyance
  • Devalues brand
  • Feeds the problem by ignoring it
  • You don’t help the user.

If you do address the problem

  • Builds trust and reputation
  • Annoys momentarily and then clarifies
  • Improves brand perception
  • Provides same service, only better
  • You help the user.

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