Checklist Communication

Creative Commons License photo credit: alancleaver_2000

Occasionally, I have to edit a document or web page that has all the necessary information on it, but without much thought to how it will be read.

It’s clear that the writer had a checklist of items that needed to be said, then said them all, checking them off one by one. Hey, if it’s on the page, then we communicated it, right?

I call it checklist communication, and it drives me nuts.

Of course, legal text has worked off that theory from time immemorial, but the purpose of legal text is to save the company from lawsuits. The purpose of tech comm is to communicate.

Talk talk talk. How about an example?

The image below is from a web site about applying for a visa or citizenship to Australia. There are actually half a dozen problems with this one section, but the worst offender involves the part boxed in blue. Here’s why:

  1. The bold at the top tells us that this section is for people who want documents returned to them.
  2. The paragraph below the bold tells us that this section is for people who want documents returned to them.

So, a person who does NOT need documents returned can ignore the whole section, right?


The blue square states a requirement for ALL PEOPLE applying for citizenship, whether they want documents returned or not. Have a look:

Aussie Citizenship form

To me, this is a clear case of checklist communication.

Someone said, “you know, we’d better say that bit about the envelope for citizens.”

So they just tossed it in, then checked the box. “We put it in. It’s ok.” But communication is harder than just writing stuff down on a page. We need to do better than that.

Mentioned in this post:

Lodging your visa or citizenship application

Further reading (on another blog):

Don’t put content in your users’ blind spot

And Now: Bonus section!

Here are a few more big problems that I noticed in the blue box:

  • This is the first and only time on the page they mention a certificate, yet they expect you to know which certificate they mean.
  • They make it harder to know what the certificate is, because they say that they’re returning it. They’re not returning it, because the reader never had it or sent it in.
  • They use the word “require” without making it clear whether they require an envelope or they require that, IF YOU SEND AN ENVELOPE, it must be 9.5 X 8.5. (In fact, it’s the latter, which is only hinted at if you read on after the blue box.)


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