In the book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there’s a vignette called ‘Beware of the Leopard’ which explains why it’s critical to provide convenient access to important information. The vignette is a useful way to explain information asymmetry, in which one person has relevant information not known by or available to the other person. Here’s the conversation between Arthur Dent and the Council Official, Mister Prosser, who wanted to demolish Arthur’s house to make way for a bypass:
Prosser: “But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
Dent: “Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
Prosser: “But the plans were on display…”
Dent: “Ah! And how many members of the public are in the habit of casually dropping around the local planning office on an evening?”
Prosser: “Er – ah.”
Dent: “It’s not exactly a noted social venue is it? And even if you had popped in on the off chance that some raving bureaucrat wanted to knock your house down, the plans weren’t immediately obvious to the eye, were they?”
Prosser: “That depends where you were looking.”
Dent: “I eventually had to go down to the cellar!”
Prosser: “That’s the display department.”
Dent: “With a flashlight”
Prosser: “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
Dent: “So had the stairs.”
Prosser: “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
Dent: Yes, yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.
As with the amusing Three Envelopes story, this vignette provides plenty of examples of how not to handle information. Here are my top three lessons:
1. Publicize in addition to publish
I’m a huge proponent of writing stuff down (WSD), especially in organizations steeped in traditions or with long-tenured employees. Relying on tribal knowledge limits an organization’s ability to grow.
It’s not enough to document something; you have to go out of your way to talk about it. Otherwise it’s the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Spend just as much time publicizing information as you do documenting it.
2. Make it easy for your customer, not for you
Planning documents aren’t for members of the planning department but rather for the public. Unfortunately, in many disciplines, documents are filled with jargon and acronyms which experts understand but casual readers do not.
Access to information is another situation in which end-to-end customer experience is critical. Design should be outside-in to make it easy for the customer; otherwise information is locked in the basement.
3. Think digital first
Hitchhiker was written in 1979 in a pre-internet world. Documentation was almost exclusively paper-based and stored in filing cabinets. Information was power so those who controlled information had the most power.
In a digital-first world, the person who has the most power isn’t the one who controls the most information but rather the one who uses that information to help the most other people. People with real power never force anyone to beware of the leopard.