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AskTog, 2001

How to Deliver a Report Without Getting Lynched

   The finest set of recommendations will be rejected if the form in which they are received is seen as hostile or belligerent. I recently received a copy of an unsolicited report sent to a firm that seemed unimpressed with the writer's efforts. The reasons why are instructive to us all.

Dear Tog,

As a college student, I attended the User Experience World Tour conference…hoping to learn more about this field. I spoke with Jakob Nielsen personally at the conference on how best to spend the remainder of my academic career to prepare for future work in usability consulting. Mr. Nielsen claimed that the “best training was experience….” He encouraged me to go out and just “do usability”.

Encouraged by this charge, I promptly set out to do a usability review of my own. Since design in general is notoriously poor, I thought I would increase the challenge of the task by reviewing the website of a local usability consulting firm, figuring it would be especially difficult to find problems with their design….

I forwarded my review to…the company whose site I reviewed. Unfortunately, they have been rather evasive, at best, in their replies.

Since you are also an expert in this field, work closely with Mr. Nielsen, and especially since you solicit queries through your website, I thought you might be interested in glancing over my short report and giving me your feedback.

[name withheld]

A reply in the style of the report referenced above:

Dear [Name Withheld]

I do not have time to do free reviews.

Nonetheless, you did such a horrendously bad job that I am willing to make an exception in your case.

I had expected, since you are just starting out, that you would make a few mistakes, but what you wrote is really terrible!

Pretty shocking, huh? How do you feel? Are you anxious and excited to read the rest of what I have to say? I doubt it. I have just slapped you in the face several times. So let’s try it again:

Dear [Name Withheld]

I apologize that I don’t have time for more than a cursory glance at your review. The quality of your analysis is quite good. You have documented variances from standard user interface practices, and have backed them up with solid documentation. Still, you found the usability company whose site you reviewed unresponsive to your suggestions. That stemmed not from the content, but the way it was presented. I think I can give you some insight on why that happened, along with ways you can be successful with clients in the future.

Now, don’t you feel better?

Let’s take a look at how you made your “client,” the usability consulting firm, feel, and let's see how we can avoid that same reaction next time.

The Opening Paragraph

Let’s look at your opening paragraph:

This report documents five serious design flaws on www.[website].com. Every flaw is well documented in the publicly accessible corporate and academic HCI literature, often by the very presenters at this week’s User Experience World Tour.

This is not how to win friends and influence people. What you seem to be saying is:

You big, stupid idiots. You call yourselves a usability firm, but apparently you’ve never even opened a book on the subject. How pathetic!

That certainly wouldn’t make me want to read what you have to say.

Principle: Say something nice in the opening paragraph

Every report you ever write from this day until the day you die should start out by saying something nice about the product or service you are reviewing. Then you can get down to business.

Here is how you might have started your report, even if you hated the site as much as you apparently do:

The current website is pleasing in appearance, fits nicely on a variety of screen sizes, and the graphics are clean and crisp. What follows are recommendations that build on that strong base. The recommendations should help you garner new clients and better support your existing client base by….

Principle: Make the Benefits Explicit

In addition to saying something nice about what came before, we’ve offered them the expected benefit of following our advice.

The benefit is important. It is the first thing they teach you in sales. You don’t tell an automobile buyer, “and it has independent front suspension” without telling him or her, “so the steering will feel crisp and responsive, instead of mushy like that cheap car those guys down the road sell.”


Here are all the headings in your report:

This is not how to win friends and influence people.

Principle: In Observational Reviews, outline improvement Ideas, not criticisms

The same information could be delivered under these headings:

All of a sudden, at least by outward appearance, I hold a document that intends to help me improve what I have, rather than castigating me for what I did before.

Principle: In Usability Study Reports, Use simple topic headings

In usability study reports, of course, the designers are primarily interested in your results, not your design ideas. Here, you still avoid built-in criticism:

The Content

Let’s look at a typical section of the report:

Mistake 3 – Hyperlink Blues

Blue is perhaps the most distinctive color in the web. Put blue underlined text on a page and a user will be drawn to click on it because of their vast experience with blue, underlined hyperlinks. The website fails to capitalize on one of the strongest and oldest associations in the Internet—familiar interface elements like blue links.

Experts agree here as well. Jakob Nielsen insists that blue means links and should not be used for anything else. Conversely, Nielsen classes non-standard link colors are a “severe” problem and have been since 1996. (See …

Hyperlinks on the website not only use non-standard colors, they utilize a variety of non-standard interface designs which vary throughout the site. Good designs select one interface element for all site navigation, and follow their own guidelines for presenting that interface consistently throughout the product.

Principle: Know the product’s or service’s users

Before diving into my findings and recommendations, I always devote a section to my understanding of who the users are. If it is a website, are they new to the web? Are they power users? Somewhere in between?

Do they understand the content they will be viewing? For example, if the website is devoted to the selection of homeowner’s insurance, is the site aimed at homeowners or insurance agents?

Only by understanding the users can you judge the product or service. Only by recording that understanding can you ensure that you and your client share that understanding.

No explanation of expected user populations can be found in the report. Its absence removes all context for the reviewer's opinions.

Principle: Know your readers

Avoid either talking down to or leaving your client with too little information. In this case, the client is a usability consulting firm. The chances of their not knowing the principles behind blue, underlined text is zero. To “explain” it to them is insulting.

Principle: Accentuate the positive, but deliver the news

The content area is where the bad news must be delivered. You still don’t need to slap them around, however. You could begin the discussion by saying something like, “You have properly made all the clickable links on the site be underlined text. You have also avoided using underlining for any non-clickable object. However, many experts urge that blue be used as a text color to reinforce the underlining style…

You have said two nice things about the site, while still bringing up the thing you want to improve. The following five paragraphs may dwell on what is wrong, but you’ve made them responsive by telling them, in two short sentences, what they did right.

Principle: Don’t Overreach

Jakob, Don, and I do a lot of site reviews, and we make quite strong recommendations. We, however, have each been doing such reviews for many, many years. We have seen our recommendations proven out through rigorous user testing. We have internalized the lessons learned, both from being found right and being found wrong. We have also learned when to say we just don’t know, that user testing is needed.

If you are just starting out, you should assume that much of the time you just won’t know. That doesn’t mean you don’t speak up, you just make a lot more testing recommendations, and a lot fewer bald statements, no matter how much literature you’ve read on the subject.

I urge most of my clients to use blue underlined text because they have a wide range of users and because they have extremely complex sites. Users new to the web, in particular, are having enough trouble just navigating the site without having to figure out what cutsey graphic style is supposed to tell them something is a link.

In the present case, however, we can assume significant competence on the part of the user. It is also a dead-simple site. No ads draw your eyes away from the content. The pages are few and sparse. The site is primarily a monochromatic green, and having the links be underlined in the same green should cause no user confusion.

In the above case, I find nothing wrong with the site’s use of a different color underlining.

Principle: When in doubt, recommend testing

If there were any doubt in my mind, I would recommend that the site be tested with both blue and green underlining to find out if a true difference exists. That test would include not only speed and competency trials, but questions designed to elicit how people feel about the quality of the company, based on their experience. My sense is that blue, underlined text would take away from image, even if it did marginally improve usability.

(Note: The above is not a license to abandon blue text for links. Unless you have a really sparse site aimed at professional users, where image is more important than productivity, you must stick with blue underlined text.)

Principle: Check your grammar and spelling

This is particularly important when you have not yet established a bond of trust with your readers. The report states: “Nielsen classes non-standard link colors are a “severe” problem….” It should say, “Nielsen classifies non-standard link colors as a “severe” problem…” Errors in your own writing make it all too easy for the recipient of your bad news to simply tune you out.


Apple, at one time, brought in an outside usability consulting firm to look over our shoulders. They delivered a report directly to the executive staff that was in tone very much like the one discussed above. Work in design all but ceased at Apple for the next couple of months while everyone in the HCI community exploded with hurt and rage.

The job of a usability professional or interaction designer is to be an integral and helpful part of the process. Even if you are called in as an outside consultant—and even more so if you have taken it upon yourself to volunteer a review—you must be exquisitely sensitive to the feelings of your most important audience, those who will actually change the product or service you are reviewing. If they are in any way connected with the work that has gone before, even through acquaintanceship with the old team, they will resent any suggestion that the original product was screwed up. If they resent it, they will make you pay.

On the other hand, if you are seen as teammate who is only trying to make everyone look good, your report will be perused, and your ideas will be implemented forthwith.

When Jakob recommends that you spend time in the outside world learning design, he doesn’t mean to just strike out on your own. Join a company with a strong design and usability team. Apprentice yourself to a person or a group you respect and learn from them while working on real-world designs. That’s how you become a professional.

"Name Witheld" responds

Dear Tog,

Thank you for your reply. I found it very insightful.

I do want to note that I intentionally wrote my report using an assertive and at times biting tone of voice. I was attempting to match what I saw as the “style” of publicly available documentation on the subject.

I may be interpreting them incorrectly, but the usability literature seems rife with phrases of a similar style. To quote from the front page of Jakob Nielsen’s

...We have known since 1994 that ‘under construction’ doesn’t work, so I was appalled to see this design on a high-profile site seven years after I published the finding...

Terms like “doesn’t work”, “appalled” and “seven years” seem, frankly, almost caustic. It is not that I disagree with this statement nor even how it is phrased, rather, I wanted to let you know you that I was attempting emulate this style.

Your own columns seem to draw upon similar devices. Perhaps I am drawing an unfair conclusion, but your article entitled “Top 10 Reasons Why the Apple Dock Sucks” seems to me to be a bit confrontational.

Again, I don’t mean to articulate I think that this language is inappropriate. As a matter of fact, I was drawn to usability partially by my perception of a field filled with people unafraid to speak their mind without padding their opinions with undue compliments and false affectations. I agree that the Apple Dock sucks! I also think Flash is 99% bad, and I believe that frames are just plain wrong!

I may be misinterpreting other usability documents, and certainly the intended audiences are quite different between public articles and my unsolicited review. And of course I am not a recognized usability expert, so I may need to be a bit more gentle. But I will take your advice on writing future reports.

Dear [Name]

Hoisted on my own petard! You have accurately described exactly the way Jakob and I speak in public.

In this case, however, we want you to do as we do, not as we say. What we do with clients is to act with a gentleness utterly absent from our public utterances.

We have been trained by our readers to be caustic in our publications. The number of hits on our websites each month is directly proportional to the sharpness of our tongues. We therefore engage in a fair amount of pie throwing.

Everyone, as you know, loves a well-thrown pie, with the exception of the recipient, and that is the difference between a public utterance and a private report. In the case of your clients, you want to serve them the pie, not hit them in the face with it.

And some useful advice

If I may, I’d like to amplify the advice you give in “How to Deliver a Report...” When I review student work, I try to praise the *writer* and find fault only with the *text*.


Dear Tog,

I very much enjoyed reading about your patient mentorship of a newbie. In the past, I’ve found excellent teaching opportunities in your “When Interfaces Kill” and “If They Don’t Test” articles. Thank you for providing me with yet another goodie.

P.S. I always encourage my students to inform me when they see something that needs attention on my own website -- especially if it is something that can be fixed easily. It caught my eye that the <TITLE></TITLE> of the “How to Deliver a Report” column still refers to the Apple dock!

Thanks again. I look forward to your next column.


Dennis G. Jerz, Ph.D.
Dept. of English; U Wisc.-Eau Claire

Don't bother looking for the wrong title anymore; I fixed it.

Dennis makes an excellent point. His example serves not only to show how to direct the criticism where it belongs--toward the project--he has done so in a way that minimizes the author's embarrassment.

I mean, how stupid do you have to be to write a column about how you should always write with gentleness, then manage to put up a left-over page title for it that reads, "Top 10 Reasons the Apple Dock Sucks!" Dennis, being a kinder, gentler kind of guy, left out that little detail. I, the author, got the point, without other readers being any the wiser. Well, not until I wrote this paragraph, anyway.

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