Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?


A few words to set up the story - my daughter is going to have a cyst removed from her left wrist. It's not a complicated procedure but she will be going in outpatient surgery on Dec 20 of this year. Now here's the business analysis part of the story.

At the top of the surgery schedule form were two fields meant to be filled in by the office person scheduling the surgery. They were Surgery Date and Arrival Time. They were completed as "12/27/2013" and "11:00" respectively.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?Now, to me, as I interpret them, these are the date I am scheduled for the surgery and the time that I am supposed to arrive (assuming, of course, that 11:00 is AM, not PM). However, as I read down the form, there was standard messaging informing you about what you can eat and not eat prior to the surgery, and then a statement about arriving 2 hours prior to your scheduled surgery time. I didn't know if that was the arrival time as stated above, or if we had to arrive 2 hours prior to that time. So I asked.

Me: "You state in this form what we are supposed to arrive 2 hours prior to the surgery. Is that the 11:00?"

Office Person (OP): "The surgery time is whatever is on the form."

Me: "It states 11:00 on the form, but it’s labeled Arrival Time."

OP: "Yes, that's correct. That’s the time you are supposed to arrive."

Me: "But you said whatever is on the form is the surgery time, and the only thing written on the form is labeled as Arrival Time?"

OP: "Let me see that" (takes the form, and looks at it, then points to the arrival time field) "This is the time your surgery is for."

Me: "So my daughter's surgery is slated for 11:00, so we arrive 2 hours prior to that? At 9:00?"

OP: "You need to arrive two hours prior to your surgery time."

Me: “I know that, but what time is the surgery scheduled for – it says 11:00 in the Arrival Time field and the other statement tells me 2 hours prior to my Scheduled Surgery Time.”

OP: “Whatever is says on the form.”

Clearly I was getting nowhere since the form was giving me conflicting information because of the ways the fields were labeled. Did it mean I had to arrive at 11:00as that field stated, which meant the surgery was scheduled for 13:00? Or did the Arrival Time field of 11:00 really mean that was the surgery time and I had to arrive at 9:00? It wasn't clear, and the office person was having trouble explaining it, too.

The lesson here is twofold:

  1. Clearly Label Your Fields. Because they weren't labeled correctly, it was not only tough for me to understand what was contained inside the fields, but the office person was having a hard time doing it as well. And she is the subject matter expert (SME). When you make it difficult for even the SME to try and figure out what it means, you have a usability problem. Either re-label the Arrival Time as Scheduled Surgery Time or rewrite the sentence to indicate that the value in the field Arrival Time is 2 hours prior to your actual surgery time. If this were a computer system instead of a paper form, you could default the arrival time based on the scheduled surgery time.

  2. Glossary, Glossary, Glossary. In previous posts and articles I have harped about the glossary, and I'm doing it here as well. Both I as the person trying to understand when I needed to arrive at the hospital and the SME to whom I was asking questions were trying to figure out the times. If the fields made sense it would not have been an issue. Clearly the original designer of the form had something in mind, and it may have suited the business at that time. But now it's being used differently and it's possible that incorrect data is being entered into the old fields (i.e. the surgery time is being slammed into the Arrival Time field).

Remember, even a paper form is a user interface, and it needs to be clearly designed so users can interact with it. Having data labeled incorrectly or unclear instructions can lead to a process failure. Ending up with bad data is one thing, when dealing with surgery it's another.

Author: Paul Mulvey is author of Business Analysis for Dummies, a sought-after speaker at conferences and BA development days, and one of the top-25 business analysis influencers on Twitter. His passion is making concepts relevant to the audience. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Tuvi posted on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 1:04 PM
This was hilarious :) At first I thought this is a joke/spam, but I also encounter these problems during my work. It reminds me of a software my company had to interface to our ERP system. It had been develop by a guy who labeled everything in a strange way and moreover he was not cooperative in decrypting his ideas in his database.
Paul Mulvey posted on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 4:22 PM
@Tuvi - thanks for taking the time to respond. What's funny about it is you're right - it IS funny. I wrote this back in late November/early December and it's pretty-much exactly as the conversation went (I wrote it within hours of the conversation with the doctor's office. But when I reread it this morning when it posted, it sounded like the Abbott & Costello sketch, "Who's On First?"
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