There’s no “best” way to present information

Thinking about other people’s point of view is an incredibly useful skill. User research takes this a bit further, because it requires (shock!) actually speaking to other people. But even if we don’t do that it can be valuable just imagining ourselves in other people’s situation.

I recalled this the other day when I got an email from our child’s school about classes returning after the New Year. There is a staggered start to the term: some years start on the Tuesday, some on the Wednesday, and so on.

This is straightforward, but I was surprised to find it wasn’t presented in a very intuitive way—at least not for this parent. The information was presented like this:

  • Tuesday 4 January: Years 8 and 11 return.
  • Wednesday 5 January: Years 9 and 12 return.
  • Thursday 6 January: Years 10 and 13 return.
  • Friday 7 January: Year 7 returns.

I can imagine that within the school this is exactly the way they needed to plan it. All the staff need to know what’s happening on each day of the week. “What’s happening on Tuesday? [Checks list] Okay, what’s happening on Wednesday? [Checks list…]”

But a parent—or at least this one—has a different point of view. I want to know the day our child returns. My primary reference is our child’s year group, so I’d like to start with that:

  • Year 7: Returns Friday 7 January.
  • Year 8: Returns Tuesday 4 January.
  • Year 9: Returns Wednesday 5 January.
  • Year 10: Returns Thursday 6 January.
  • Year 11: Returns Tuesday 4 January.
  • Year 12: Returns Wednesday 5 January.
  • Year 13: Returns Thursday 6 January.

It’s more text, but from my point of view it seems easier to use. I can jump straight to my child’s year, and then easily see their start date.

Neither approach is wrong, of course. The first format is very intuitive if you’re making a plan for your entire staff. The second format seems very intuitive if you’re making a plan for an individual child.

Clearly this is a small and simple example. But it was that simplicity which made the difference so clear to me. Even if we want to present something that seems straightforward it’s valuable to take a moment and think about it from the recipient’s point of view. Is the way we see something really the best way for our audience to understand it?

Photo by . Ray in Manila