Doing it wrong: Ticketmaster’s email footer

Today’s example of how not to do things comes from Ticketmaster’s email footer, which has a delightful dark grey on black thing going on.


At least the link text is visible. Unfortunately, in the first case that text is “click here”.

What could they be hiding? Let’s look at that again:




Part two: If you’re going to be inaccessible, you might as well be funny

Ok, so I just bought tickets from Ticketmaster. But I had to decode this wonder CAPTCHA first.

CAPTCHA text: technicolor yawn

Don’t hide bad news behind weak headings

If you have good news, you make your message as clear as possible. Do the same thing with bad news, for the sake of your readers.

When you book a flight with Air New Zealand, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what’s up.

Your booking has been completed

Then, when Air New Zealand are about to fly you somewhere, and they have a few things they think you might like to know about the flight, and what to do while you’re away, they send you an email. You only need to read the first line to know what it’s about.

Hi Max! Here are some useful tips from Air New Zealand for your trip to Sydney.

But when Air New Zealand hear that their name is being used by criminal bastards trying to fool people into giving up their credit card details, the email is a little bit different.

An update from Air New Zealand

I’d argue that the third message is the most important one, but because it’s bad news the headline is weak and empty.

If you’ve decided to publish a message, the rules of useful headings and being succinct don’t change, whether it’s good news or bad. No-one wants to be the messenger in a situation like this one, but put your readers before your apprehension and be straight up. It makes things easier and quicker to read, and shows your audience that you’re a strong communicator, even on a bad day.

How to kneecap the IPCC with bad workflow

Politics, science, climate change, and the worst possible approval process

The article is behind The Economist’s paywall (and in its May 10, 2014 edition), under the playful heading Inside the sausage factory. It’s about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the process its members follow when pulling a short (30-ish page) summary out of a big report longer than anyone will ever read. The heading is unfair: A sausage factory would, by way of comparison, be a wholesome joyride.

The authors write a draft summary. Each sentence of the draft is projected onto a big screen in a giant hall. Officials then propose changes to the text; authors decide whether the changes are justified according to the full thousand-page report. Eventually a consensus is supposed to be reached, the sentence is approved or rejected, the chairman bangs a gavel and moves on to the next sentence.

Is this not the maddest possible system for creating coherent content about anything, let alone something as globally important as climate change? Is it any wonder that facts and opinions are treated interchangeably in so many debates about it? In letting the jobs of author and editor be so thoroughly perverted by a giant committee of conflicted interests, the IPCC has managed to ruin the whole idea of writing stuff down. It’s mindblowing and breathtaking and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

Professor Robert Stavins, of Harvard University, was a lead author on the report chapter about international co-operation. Delegates from countries all around the world hacked at his work until “three-quarters of his original draft was rejected and what remains is a list of disconnected facts, not a guide to the state of knowledge”. Oh, and the distillation of the report that these people are supposedly working on? It’s called the Summary for Policymakers. It still has that name, even though it’s been decapitated by representatives of the governments that we expect to make policy.

Perhaps this is the ultimate example of taking user testing too far.

As well as scientists and political delegates, the IPCC also has moral philosophers. One of them is Professor John Broome, from Oxford University. You can imagine his experience of a few hundred veto-weilding political appointees attacking his work “as though it were a legal document rather than a scientific report”. In fact, you needn’t imagine, because he’s written about the “extraordinary” way things worked. In so describing it, he displays the same remarkable restraint that lies behind the article’s title, At the IPCC. The details aren’t so innocuous.

During a brief break, the delegates formed a huddle in the corner, trying to agree text between themselves. We, who would be named as authors of the final product, were left as spectators. Eventually we were presented with a few sentences that, we were told, the developed countries would reject, and an alternative few sentences that, we were told, the developing countries would reject.

As he left the room, one delegate privately advised us not to depart far from his version of the text, because his delegation was very close to deleting the whole section anyway. This was the moment when I began to enjoy the whole event. The threat was not frightening. We privately pointed out in return that, if our section was deleted, we would no longer be authors of the SPM (Summary for Policymakers). We would be free to go to the press and publish what we liked. Moreover, all the ethics would have been deleted from the SPM. That would be embarrassing to whoever had deleted it, since the IPCC had been making a big show of incorporating ethics into its report.

In the world of IPCC content creation, this is what counts as a happy ending:

Some brief paragraphs on ethics survived all the way to the approved final version. They have been mauled, and their content diminished, but they are not entirely empty. We were lucky.

All of this makes it a lot harder to get angry at the sort of workflow that we put with in our day jobs. Four approvers, maybe five? It could literally be fifty times worse.

How risk management works (1) – Roles and definitions

This post has been a long time coming. I first mentioned risk management as an alternative to sign-off as an aside during my presentation at CS Forum 2012, about corporate content strategy. If you take a look at that talk material, it starts at position 52/79.

So you already know that your sign-off process slows things down and makes it difficult to work with others. But you still need some way to hear everyone who should have a say, and to make sure that your web content is fit for purpose before you publish it.

Here’s something I picked up from an employer that could never guarantee 100% safety to everyone – the armed forces. It’s a risk management system, and it lets you gather more detailed information than you get from a typical sign-off process, while keeping you in control of your content.

It’s going to take a couple of posts to explain this properly. This one defines a few keys terms and explains the roles that people play in managing risks. Once that’s all set up, Part 2 will go through the process.


It’s a risk if it might cause something bad

Two things define a “risk”. Firstly, a risk is the possibility that something might go wrong. Not putting a big bunch of small print on a landing page? There’s a risk you’ll get done for hiding important details. Trying on a new tone of voice? There’s a risk that you’ll create confusion around your brand. Giving the work experience kid the password to your company’s Twitter account for the weekend? You get the idea…

Secondly, on the upside, risks carry rewards. There’s no point taking a risk if there’s nothing to be gained. Less small print gives you shorter, more appealing landing pages. A new voice might carry more appeal than your current one. You need to take a proper break for a couple of days, without angry customers’ tweets rattling your phone every 10 minutes. These are all rewards.

If something is going wrong right now it’s an issue, not a risk

If a problem is already happening, it’s too late for risk management. In the calm parlance of the military, you have an “issue”. Just clarifying that before I don’t mention again.

Every risk has its own likelihood

Since a risk is the possibility the something might happen, it follows that some risks are more likely to actually play out than others. You need to quantify this likelihood for every risk. More on that in Part 2.

…and consequence

If a risk does occur, something goes wrong. This is the consequence, and again it’s something you have to quantify. (And, again, Part 2 will tell you how.)

You’ll need broad categories to sort consequences into. For this introduction I’m going to look at financial, reputational, and legal consequences, but this is nowhere near a full list.

…which you might be able to mitigate

Mitigation can make a risk less likely, or make its consequence less serious, or both. By mitigating risks, you make them more acceptable.

…or accept

A acceptable risk is one that you’re willing to take. Ideally, risks you accept are a mix of:

  • quite unlikely
  • low-consequence
  • relatively rewarding.

Or they might just be unavoidable.

And you’re going to record all this in a risk register

Yes, we love documentation. A simple risk register does two things: it lets everyone see full details about each risk (whether you’re still working on it or have accepted it), and it’s also how you’ll be able to see all the risks that apply to a given piece of content. This doesn’t need to be complex. A spreadsheet ought to do the trick.

People and roles

Risk reporters tell you what might go wrong

The good news is that you don’t have to work out all of this likelihood and consequence stuff for yourself. Remember those stakeholders who used to sign your content off, or maybe just get an FYI when you were working on their stuff? In most cases you can recast them as risk reporters.

Just like their name says, risk reporters report risks. You need a range of risk reporters with different skills, much like your old sign-off tube. Each risk reporter has the job of pointing out problems that your content might cause. But they’re not just doomsayers: they also have to give you the information you need to properly define the risk’s likelihood and consequence. Ideally they’ll have a few mitigation ideas as well.

This job only goes as far as pointing things out. There’s no decision-making involved. That’s an important difference to the old sign-off way of doing things, which gave a series of people a genuine “yes/no” decision about your content.

Even though this can feel like a loss of power, you’ll probably find the most people quite like being asked to explain things from their point of view. And that’s another difference – as you cover each risk, you’re going to learn a lot more about how, say, legal think when they review content. All you empathy junkies out there in content-land are gonna love this.

A single risk owner has the final say

Remember how risk reporters don’t make any actual decisions? That’s because a single, central person does. The risk owner decides what mitigation work you do, and which risks you accept as they are. Whether the risk is financial, reputational or legal, the risk owner doesn’t change.

The risk owner has a full understanding of what the content you’re looking at is doing – who it’s for, why it’s important, and what it needs to achieve. Their view is wider than a standard legal or marketing stakeholder. Seniority helps, too, because accepting risks is a lot like approving costs.

Do everything you can to keep risk ownership close to content production. Since the risk owner has to balance risk and reward, make it someone for whom the rewards of high-quality content matter.

Putting this all together

Part 2 of this series will show you how risk reporters and owners work together to quantify and mitigate risks. You don’t want to miss it.

Sign-off is like road works

I’ve already written about how sign-off processes make it hard to collaborate properly. Now we turn to another reason sign-off sucks: It’s slow and frustrating, like roadworks.

You might typically have 3-6 people sitting between your work and publication. They’re called things like ‘legal’ and ‘marketing’, but they’re better depicted like this:

Stop/go signs

For everyone with a “sign-off”, you might as well give them a “stop/go” sign. Each of them can hold you up however they like, and you’re not going anywhere until every single one of them says you can.

The trade off, reputedly, is that whatever you end up publishing will be totally on brand, carry no legal risks, and tick a bunch of other boxes. But these boxes only matter internally: A lot of the contortions that we put content through to get it through sign-off end up making things harder for our users. A little more legal-speak here, a bit more pimping of a related product here…it’s easy to do, especially when you just. want. to. get. this. thing. live.

It can be frustrating for the sign-holders, too, who don’t necessarily know each other or what it will take for the others will flip their signs around and send more traffic through.

So how can we speed things up without compromising safety? By getting rid of sign-off as a process and shifting to risk management instead.

Risk management: Gather the right information, make the right decision

I’ll go into the details in another post, but here’s in a nutshell:

Rather than finding everyone with an opinion that matters and equipping them with a stop/go sign, involve them before you start writing and keep talking with them throughout the content creation process.

There are only ever three questions you’ll need to ask:

  1. What could possibly go wrong if we published this content?
  2. In each case, what’s the likelihood of that problem happening?
  3. And if it did happen, how bad would the consequence be?

That’s it. Three questions. And this system works. I picked it up when I was working for the New Zealand Defence Force. This system worked in our office, and it worked for units deployed in Afghanistan. If a risk management system is good enough for people who get shot at for a living, it’s good enough for your website.

One thing we all know about workflow: No-one knows enough about what’s going on

It takes a team of people with a range of skills and knowledge to create our web content. The way we work together and organise the tasks that go into creating content is, in sum, “workflow”. Approvals, stakeholder engagement, work-tracking and getting feedback on draft content are all aspects of workflow.

Problem is, there’s a standard form of workflow – the sign-off process – that makes it difficult to collaborate properly with all the people who contribute to making great web content. (As well as this, it also slows things down, like roadworks.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone wants to know more about what’s going on, sooner

In my previous job I talked about our workflow with a lot of stakeholders and digital team members. No matter what role people played in the content creation process, they all said that they wanted to be involved, or at least informed, sooner than they typically were.

Earlier involvement makes it easier to get things right first time. It’s better to know upfront if there’s a common legal issue with a way we describe a particular product, upcoming-but-still-confidential marketing campaigns, or unique design challenges that can affect a page’s structure or the time it will take to build.

“Just tell us what you’re going to to do. Please.”

Late engagement makes it harder for people to do their job properly. If you have a full fortnight of work lined up and then get asked to approve a couple of unexpected webpages, you’ll either do a rushed job or be late. You’re probably also going to resent the Digital team.

Sign-off isn’t real engagement

Late engagement happens because we tend to divide stakeholders into the ones we work with from the start, and the ones only ever go to for sign-off. But sign-off signals the end of someone’s involvement. It’s the transaction that confirms that we’re all happy.

Sign-off isn’t engagement any more than paying the bill is a great night out

We get upset when other teams treat us like publishers and just hand us content that they think is good to go. How could they possibly expect to get things right when they didn’t let us help? Don’t they know that we’re the experts?

Flipping this around, when we throw something to stakeholders “just for sign-off”, we can create a similar impression. In either case, the content can suffer from someone’s expertise not being tapped early enough.

A better way to engage

When we have a “sign-off relationship” with someone, it’s very difficult to collaborate properly. This is one of the reasons why it’s time to end sign-off and move to a different way of working: risk management.