This article is for information purposes only

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.


4 responses

  1. At least in the United States, everything comes with a disclaimer because of the threat of legal liability.

    Regardless of our specific customer-centric goals, we are warned constantly that we may be sued.

    The expectation of common sense is an insufficient defense. And even if we have a defense, legal costs (and time) may be extremely burdensome.

    I don’t see any change in the future. CYA will always trump “websites that work,” at least in the U.S.

  2. I have been in NZ govt for a while, and I think I can expand on the “We don’t have tasks. We just have information” quote. I don’t agree it’s because we are scared of people acting on this information and then it going horribly wrong. I think it’s because govt departments publish endless loads of crap that really doesn’t serve a purpose or facilitate a task.

    It’s useless taskless crap that just shouldn’t be on any website, ever. It’s “vanity publishing” as you call it. Published so we can go “wow, we’re awesome, check out our great, long, pretty, full-of-graphs report, we are totally deserving of your taxpayers money!!!!”

    These NZ govt policy and marketing people aren’t scared of people doing the wrong thing with their reports. They are scared they will look unproductive because their websites will seem empty to them when all the old, out of date, useless and pointless crap was removed.

  3. I don’t think it’s just a matter of expecting expert interpretation of information. There is also the issue of poor content maintenance. I have seen many organisations with no maintenance strategy. They routinely publish content then let it sit, without being updated, until it causes a problem.

    If you know that half your site is more than five years old, and that some pages weren’t even written this century, would you encourage people to act on it?

  4. If I may offer another view: everything we publish for our employer - print, Web, email - carries the “fipo” phrase. We provide our b-to-b customers with a LOT of risk management information, with specific steps they can take to help reduce their losses. If we give them steps A, B, C and D to help prevent fires, and they have a fire caused by F, or even if they did A in a less-than-stellar manner, never following up on a practice put into place once, this company doesn’t want to be held accountable. We can provide tips to help, but necessarily on the Web it can’t be exhaustive. In the litigious U.S. that’s the way it goes.

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