Do not act based on anything you might read in this article. It is purely for information purposes only.
Information is the “communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. But that’s not how most organizations see information; written information in particular.
When most organizations say the information on their websites or in their documents is for information purposes only, what they’re really saying is: Reader Beware. They’re telling you that if you act on this information, you are acting at your own risk. In other words, there is a whole world of information that is published by commercial organizations and governments on which we are not meant to act.
The reason for this is that, historically, much content (written information) was created under the assumption that an expert would be interpreting it. In other words, before the Web most information was not written for self-service.
Take for example information that is written in a sales, marketing or promotional vein. If you act on what you read and something positive happens, that’s great. However, if your action results in something negative, the organization that created the content does not want to be held legally responsible.
“If it is reasonable to assume that someone will act in reliance on information given to them by a professional,” my lawyer colleague James Buckley states, “and that action transpires to be to the person’s detriment, and the information given wasn’t of the quality you would expect from the professional, then even though the parties never signed a contract and even though the “client” did not pay for the information, the professional (or company) can be made liable for the negligence in compiling the information simply because it was reasonable to expect that it would be relied upon.”
That’s why when organizations want to protect themselves they write something like: “This document is for information purposes only.” That’s a key reason why web teams have said to me over the years: “We don’t have tasks. We just have information.” A great many writers are terrified by the very idea that what they write might be acted upon. That’s why so little content that is published on the Web is action-oriented. It’s for information purposes only, which means that it’s vague meaningless waffle that takes as long as possible to say as little as possible.
That was at least somewhat acceptable before the Web, when content (written information) was nearly always there as a support to a human-to-human interaction. But the whole business case of the Web is self-service. It means you read something, act on it on your own and complete the task you needed to complete.
We need a new generation of content writers who are focused on helping the customer complete tasks. We need to reward not the creation of the content, but rather the completion of the task. This is a big mental shift, but a very necessary one if we are to create websites that work.