Making Instructions User Friendly

Today’s Object Lessons are all my own fault. I will confess that up front.

Life is complicated enough

If you have to deal with health insurance paperwork within the United States, you probably already know that you get more paper than you know what to do with–and heaven help you if you actually get sick. I for one love those multiple statements saying, “This is not a bill,” only to be followed by a notice stating that you’re late making a payment. But I digress.

The point here is that if you work in the health insurance business–government or private sector–you should realize that some folks can and will get overwhelmed, irritated, confused, or even intimidated by the amount of mail they receive. If you have something important to say, and more importantly, if you need someone to take a specific action, you should keep your language and format as simple and clear as possible.

At which point we arrive at our Object Lessons of the Day. Sometime in November or December, I received a three-page, double-sided letter from the U.S. Government’s “Marketplace.” The letter was three pages long and included a lot of duplicated instruction boxes. Apparently I did not read carefully enough. I wish I’d kept that piece of paper because it might have saved me over $400 today.

What I thought I saw was a note saying that I needed to get my own healthcare plan by December 31 or one would be assigned to me. So I got a plan for myself directly from a health insurance company. Problem solved, right? Alas, no.

I should have read further

If I had read the fine print, it said something to the effect of, “If you get a healthcare plan by December 31, you need to call us and let us know or we’ll assign a plan to you anyway.” Mind you, I’d like to think that the government could look me up, see that I have a plan, and not assign me one. Object Lesson #1: Read and follow all instructions. I’d like to think that, yes I would. However, as one operator put it, “that’s not the way the system works.”

As a result, about halfway through January I received a card for a plan I did not want, use, or need, and I was also informed that I owed over $400 for the plan’s first month, even though I’d canceled and not used it. Object Lessons #2 and #3: Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and if your ignorance is a result of your not reading or following directions, you have only yourself to blame.

All this said…

I’m not going to let the government completely off the hook here, only to this extent: their three-page form letter could have been clearer, shorter, and better worded and formatted to address impatient nitwits like me who will stop reading as soon as they think the letter does not apply to us. Maybe something like, “Even if you already have a plan, you need to call 1-800-bla-blah to inform us that you have one or you will be assigned a plan by the Marketplace and charged for it.”

As it is, this one is all on me. May you learn from my bad example.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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