Reducing Ambiguity in Labels

When my family and I moved to the U.S., we left some bulky stuff behind in storage. Last year we contracted a company to ship it to our home in California. Shipping big, heavy things internationally requires a lot more paperwork than mailing a small package, so in the process, I’ve been exposed to lots of forms.

Earlier today I was filling out one of them, and hit a snag: there was a field labeled “Shipper Name.” I was confused. Why would the shipper send me a form with a field that required me to state who the shipper is? I emailed them, and their response floored me: I was supposed to enter my name in the field.

As an information architect, I’ve seen many ambiguous labels. But this one was special: here was a case where the label had exactly opposite meanings to both parties involved. To me, the shipper is the shipping agency; them. To them, the shipper is the customer who’s contracted the shipping service; me. Because it’s their form, they used the “Shipper Name” label expecting that it’d be clear to me, but it wasn’t — and couldn’t be.

What to do in such cases? It’s obvious: the form’s designers need to approach the problem from the perspective of the person who will be filling it out, not from the company’s perspective. It may then be less clear to the company’s people, but they aren’t the ones tasked with filling the thing out. Whenever faced with an ambiguous label such as this one, re-write it to make it clear to the person who will use it.