This seems to be the week of reports I really want to understand and read, but just can't.
First, Mother's Day Report Card: The Best and Worst Countries to Be a Mother 2008(PDF), and 2007(PDF).
Second, the 2008 Healthcare Equality Index – Full Report (PDF), a report on how hospitals treat homosexual couples.
Each report is unreadable for a variety of reasons. The same reasons that often afflict PDF files when the person producing them doesn't stop to think that real people read them, not just analysts and designers!
My odyssey in frustration started with the 2007 Mother's Day Report. I couldn't start with the 2008 Mother's Day Report because even though the stories ran in the press on Sunday, Save the Children didn't post the report on Sunday, or have it scheduled to go.
The Mother's Day Report has some pretty horrifying statistics. Statistics like five countries where a mother's lifetime maternal mortality risk (risk she will die giving birth) is greater than one in ten. (Something to think about the next time someone tosses off a line about how women have been giving birth for millennia without hospitals and doctors.)
However, I read things like this at home on a laptop. A laptop with a screen that maxes at 1024x728. I knew it wasn't a good sign when I opened the file and saw this at the bottom,
zoom in to 150% to be able to read the headers.
put my finger on the column I was interested in.
scroll the page down under my finger
scroll left without thinking so I can tell what line to stop on
swear out loud because I just lost my down column (my husband can attest to this)
scroll back up to the top
put my finger on the column I wanted
zoom out until I can see it and the left column
scroll down with my finger in place until I get to the country I want
zoom in to read it
think about looking up something else on the table
Hmmm. It's legible... but it completely fails to say why they think these places are good or bad, or to put the differences in them in context. In fact, it's everything about How to Lie With Statistics except a pretty graph.
I think the reasoning behind this horrible table probably went something like this, "we branded the whole report in yellow and blue (no rainbows here! take us seriously!), so.. um.. here's a yellow and blue table. We deleted the checks and question marks and x's because.. well... it was busy. No one needs those anyway, right?"
If you're designing something to go online, don't assume it's going to be printed on a press! Assume it's going to be read on a crap computer that is out of date and on a small screen that shows poor resolution. Maybe then you won't create something that just angers your users.
If the user gives up on reading the message, they never get the message.