The value of ‘other’: other countries, other choices

Yesterday I was scrolling down yet another list of countries – must have been over 150 of them.

There’s always a slight frisson to the game for me: will I find United Kingdom? Or perhaps I’ll be offered England, Scotland and maybe even Northern Ireland? Or will I have the pleasure of the third search for Great Britain? And as I do so, I always spare a thought for Guyana, alphabetically close to Great Britain, a Caribbean country on the mainland of South America where I lived for four happy years as a child.

Now, I can treat this hunt as a little moment of pleasure in the day. But from the point of view of usability, it’s a waste of time for me and a piece of silliness for the website owner – most of the time.

If you happen to be creating a website for a truly international organisation, for example the Universal Postal Union (UPU), then of course you must give equal billing to all your members. And it is also quite possible that someone in Senegal wishes to know the correct method of postal addressing for Brunei Darussalam – information conveniently provided by UPU at www.upu.int. But it’s much more likely that someone in the US wants to find the same information. (Aside: this information is hard to find anywhere else. If you ever need a selection of websites with comparable missions but remarkably different designs, try the postal administration sites linked from www.upu.int. Try two tasks: “how much does it cost to send a postcard from this country” and “what is the correct postal addressing format for this country”. Hours of amusement are available.)

aerial shot of a deserted island in the middle of clear blue ocead
Spot the Interflora branch on an almost deserted Wake Island…

Most of us are working on sites where there is a huge range of possibilities, but a limited range of likely choices. Think about that list of countries. UPU maybe needs to list them all, but what about Interflora? (www.interflora.co.uk)  Interflora is a well-known marketing organisation for florists. I can log on to it from anywhere in the world, and send flowers to most addresses in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland or the Channel Islands. (They provide the choice United Kingdom for those of us who aren’t entirely sure whether Berwick, for example, is in England or Scotland).

Now I have no connection whatsoever to Interflora, but I’m pretty sure that they have very, very few customers in Wake Island – one of the countries they offered me as I entered my address. That’s because a quick search for ‘population of “Wake Island”‘ on Google gave me several sources that claim that Wake Island has no indigenous population, its military personnel left the island in 2000, and there may be approximately 200 civilians still working there.

So why didn’t they think about ‘other’? A short list of the most likely countries, plus ‘other’, would have been so much more sensible. It would also have advantages for marketing: they can get a daily printout for ‘other’ and find out whether they have had a sudden rush of interest from Guyana, for example. (Population estimated at around 700,000, but with many connections to the UK).

To tease me even further, it is obvious that Interflora’s web people are capable of this technological feat. They offer a pleasantly short list of titles (Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Mr and Mrs) plus ‘other’. In fact, they get a lot of brownie points from me for thinking of the ‘Mr and Mrs’ option – so convenient when sending flowers to someone who knows both of us.

And that reminded me of the flip side of the ‘other’ coin: the sites that offer me choices that don’t match my circumstances. I’ve had to choose a US state for my Leighton Buzzard, UK address so often that now I always put ‘AR’ for ‘Arkansas’. What about being forced to choose between ‘office use’, ‘home use’, ‘educational use’ for a computer that will be used for all of them? What about the US Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection (now FTC), that offers a ‘Consumer Complaint Form’ with the instruction (amongst others) “If you have a specific complaint about unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam), use the form below” but then fails to list “unsolicited commercial e-mail” as an option for ‘subject of your complaint’?

So, how does that apply to your own design?

1. If you’re offering a list of over 20 items, think very carefully about whether they are all equally likely. Could you offer a shorter list plus ‘other’?

2. Conversely, if you’re forcing the user to choose from a short list of items, think very carefully about whether the choices you are offering are guaranteed to be the correct match for everyone’s circumstances. Why not include ‘other’ as an option?

(Note: since this post was first published both Interflora and the FTC have updated their websites. Wake Island has vanished from Interflora’s options and the FTC complaint assistant has a whole category for ‘unwanted telemarketing, text or spam’.)

This article first appeared in ‘Caroline’s Corner’, in the May 2003 edition of Usability News.

featured image by NASA, creative commons