An examination of a journey into the user experience of a home inspection report to find a better way to communicate.
Have you ever noticed how your own industry may be stuck in one way of discussing an issue? In my industry, I found that the home inspection report, the end product of our efforts, was stuck in a trap, which was not allowing it to move forward. Mainly, we inspectors focused on three main points: speed of delivery; quality of the content; and report length. Since most people are not purchasing reports on a regular basis, speed of delivery may not have been an issue for the public, but for other real estate professionals. With some inspectors taking up to two weeks to produce reports, you might have received the report after closing. In Texas, this issue was resolved by a change in the code governing home inspectors by requiring reports to be produced within three days. The ideas surrounding the length of the report still hold sway, but I discovered that some eight page reports contain the same amount of information as a twenty page report. The real problem with some long reports was truly a concern about the usefulness of the information, which led to discussions of the quality of the content. This point may always be debated, but I began thinking about how information is communicated, and how does this effect quality of content. When studying websites to consider the user experience, I realized that lessons from website design may provide an answer to the question of improving communication.
User experience alone does not create a better quality of content, but this concept can make the understanding of the content easier to digest. When you land on a website, you may not realize that a great deal of thought was given to how the website is displayed on your screen. How will you retrieve the data from that site? Can you find that video easily? Do you want to read the latest blog post? How can you find that picture that will clarify the topic? Consideration is given to the font used, even to the size of that font. Maybe a font color would be better to let you know something. For example, a link will be placed in a different color so you know right away where to find more information. How you interact with the website is governed by a field of study called the user experience. Some websites, ones you visit often, are probably always refining the user experience. They probably get elements of this correct, because you keep going back. When one blog that I was reading on a regular basis focused on advertising to increase their revenue, I felt that it was harder to read the content, and I felt that the content suffered. When another blog began breaking simple posts into two or more pages, I felt that they were trying to increase a metric important to many web masters: page views. This did not help readability in my mind. All of these thoughts about the techniques used by websites, made me evaluate my home inspection report in the light of user experience.
I felt that what I wrote was great content, but I knew that a client was going to have to sift through the information to find what they needed to know. There are some constraints on improving the experience of the report. We have a standard report format which must be used in Texas. There are restrictions on the font and font size. However, from this starting point, we can develop changes. I decided to make a list of criteria that would effect the user experience. I had to consider in what medium would they be reading the report (computer screen or printed page). What elements would make the information easier to scan (most reports are produced for home buyers who may not have a great deal of time to read the entire report). After the main data from the report has been gleaned, the reader may want more clarification, so how could this be provided? This was how I began to evolve my report over the last few months.
Font size, color, type, and spacing: I have seen reports that are riots of color,and most elements seemed to be in bold. There are reports were the information was crammed together, and other reports with a good deal of space around each main line. I decided to limit my color scheme. Content was in black. Links were to be in blue. Bold, italics, and underlining were to be used when appropriate. You never know which bit of content was going to prove to be most important, so all findings are in the same font size without other means to emphasize. Bold type was used to highlight a section of the report. For example, a section of notes that was not specific to the home would start off with the word “note” in bold, so a reader scanning the document would realize this is extra information.To further separate this information, I use the full width of the printed page, while the remaining content is in the outline format. Underlining was used for the name brand and serial number of a unit being examined. Italics were used to designate what was being examined (for example water pressure) while the answer was given in the straight forward font. A one line space is used to give the eye of someone scanning the document a visual break and cue that a new section of data is being presented. Sentences crammed together are not easy to scan, and large spaces may make something easier to read, but they do slow down the flow of the report.
Extending the idea of the outline: the report format in Texas is set up as an outline where your content can be added. Like many home inspectors, I dumped my data into the spaces of the outline. I realized that this was hard to scan, so I felt that extending the idea of the outline was in order. Where I had “II. A.” with “II” being the main system, such as electrical, and “A” being a main component of that system, such as the breaker panel, I added “a. 1)” with “a.” being a subsection of that component, for example “breakers”, and “1)” being the first finding of that specific subsection. This makes navigation through the report easier. Another aspect of navigation was adding a table of contents at the beginning of the report, so the user will know which sections they may wish to examine.
These steps made the report easier to scan, but then we have the issue of data presentation. I have to accomplish a few things with the data: report all of my findings; not emphasize one finding over another, because I do not know which will be more important; and provide the customer with my best knowledge. This can be a difficult task. Every home inspector will bring his own background to the report, which makes the content less objective. Having been in food service, I may see things in a kitchen that are an issue, but the state minimum requirement for reporting a deficiency may not cover what I see. This issue may go away in the future if the state adopts a new report format which is currently being discussed. In the new format, an inspector will label an item as inspected or not inspected only. In the current version of the report, I have to mark an item as being deficient. If an item is not deficient as defined by the state codes, but I see a problem, I decided to use the terms “for your information” or “to be watched”. I mention these terms in the front of the report, so the user scanning the report will know that when he sees a finding beginning with these terms, this might not be information he needs immediately, but this information that will be needed at some point. For example, a gas shut off behind the cooking range is acceptable, but this could be hard to reach when the range is on fire, so I mention this fact by prefacing the sentence with “for your information”.
Another aspect of data presentation is photographs to help explain a finding. The problem is that for a person scanning a report, a photograph may imply importance. I decided to remove the photographs from the body of the report to a separate page. Also, I decided to focus my pictures. I can easily walk away with thirty pictures of a home. Many of those pictures will be items that can be easily seen by a client when walking through the home. Some photographs may be meaningless to the client, because the issue is so slight. My practice now is to take photographs of areas where the buyer may not normally go (on the roof or in the attic) or to really help clarify a finding.
How much data is appropriate? This was another question that I asked, since this is important to the user. Let’s take the case of an AFCI breaker. I am required to report on its presence. I do not have to test the breaker in an occupied home. Now, for the average homeowner, they may not know what an AFCI breaker does, or what it looks like. Obviously to report on the presence, I could simply write the line: “Is an AFCI breaker present? Yes”, and I would have met the requirements of the state, without helping the client. I could add to this line stating that an AFCI trips off when arcs are detected, and/or I could add that AFCI stands for “arc fault circuit interuptor”. I could go on to include a photograph of the breaker to show what it looks like; I could explain what an arc is. I could keep adding information, but this increases the length of the report, while making it harder to scan. Also, the client may understand what the AFCI is, so additional information is not needed. This leads me to the dilemma of how much data is enough. A report has to give enough information for basic comprehension, but this may not be enough to truly help the client. The solution for me was to create a bit more interactive aspect to the report by adding links. Since I am sending the report as a pdf, a user could click on the link to gain further understanding. This does mean that the link needs to be useful. Since my blog contains pages which help further that cause, I can link to them, but then I have to ensure that these pages are updating with the latest explanations, photographs, and whatever else may be needed.
What about report length? I can make my report easy to scan, but I do have to remember that some users need the highlights, because they may have a quick decision to make. Why should they read through the plumbing section, when there is nothing there that needs there attention? I have seen reports with summaries attached to the end of the report. These were usually generated by report writing software, and I was not a fan. Yet, these summaries did provide a service; they were easy to read in a quick glance. Although my report may be coming to the point of being easily scanned, I debated whether a summary should be included. Thinking about user experience with a website, I considered how an article is advertised on a reader program. You obtain a summary/snippet to entice you to read further. When I lectured to new managers at a beginning of a class, I would include a summary of the topic, and then I followed an outline. These two factors caused me to add a summary at the beginning of the file before the actual report. This adds to the report length; however, this summary makes for an easier read.
Is this the end of updating my report? Probably not. First, the report format required by the state may change, but there will always be the outline form, so my current techniques will fit into that new report. My report length is now sitting around twenty one printed pages. About fifteen of those pages are the report. There is not a lot of empty space that can be removed. I have to see how the summary works out. The interactive aspect is one that I wish to explore further, so we will see.