Friday, 19 November 2010

A suggestion about advice contact lists

It seems appropriate on the day of the BBC Children In Need appeal to post this.

I often pick up advice leaflets, booklets and see websites that look like the following.

(this is a real one)

CHILDLINE  0800 1111
CONTACT A FAMILY  0808 808 3555
GINGERBREAD  0800 018 4318
KIDSCAPE  0451 205 204
PARENTLINE PLUS  0808 800 2222
SUFFOLK FAMILES  0845 60 800 33

This kind of informing laziness infuriates me. Tell me which one of these services has a drop-in centre? Which one of these is for children? Which one of these can tell you how to register for a school place? 

If you know, it's not from reading that list but that you likely have a recollection of their advertising and publicity (another good reason for Children in Need) or some kind of prior experience.

I would have asked the writer: how does the reader know what each of these organisations does? Obviously a great deal of thought goes into the branding of charities and third sector organisations to convey their purpose but I say, what if you are unfamiliar with these names? How do you differentiate what segment of the needs they serve, as they don't do all the same thing?

Often I see such lists published like this:

This is better. But it still doesn't answer all my questions and there is still a great deal of ambiguity in words like 'support' and 'assistance' which is why information professionals need things like the IPSV taxonomy to discern the differences.

The more detail a list has, the less efficient it becomes. And a charity's branding cannot convey all of what an organisation does when only the top fifth of the leaflet is visible on a rack in a library or surgery. Even the best branding is nullified in the blizzard of information on a notice board wall or leaflet rack. But at least they try:

Many charities and voluntary-sector organisations are segmented by 'pathology'. They do much of the same in terms of offering 'support' or 'assistance' in these ambiguous terms, which, to be fair, they do clarify if you can access their websites or pick up their leaflets.

If someone is looking for say child benefit advice and they didn't know where to start or where to ask, (and many don't) there is always a heck of a run-around to find what they need. In my professional experience, the most vulnerable just give up until their need is very acute. And these days it's all about prevention because it is more expensive to meet acute needs than providing advice that could have prevented it.

My suggested solution to this problem is simple and cheap: publish lists of resources like advice helplines in a more useful service-taxonomy format like this:

With a list in this tree format you can see which advice line does what, what kind of user it is aimed to, which ones you can telephone and which has a drop-in centre and it doesn't need any more paper or space than a boring list. This works for print and the web and I suspect it could help the disabled navigate websites more easily too. 

It's a small thing but it costs nothing to better inform the casual reader and improve the effectiveness of the friend or librarian trying to help someone. If a small improvement costs nothing, then why not do it?

Just saying, that's all.