The Cost of Confusion

December 2017 Mark Biss

Mark is a technical writer and plain language devotee based in Melbourne, Australia. He has an MBA (Monash University), a Graduate Certificate in Linguistics (Open University Australia) and Six Sigma certification. He presented a workshop at Clarity 2016 on the topic “Quantifying the Cost of Confusion”. At the time of writing this article he is working on a documentation project at RMIT University in Melbourne.

“Confusion is the greatest expense you don’t know you have.” (Robert Warren)

We encounter confusion daily in business related transactions, airport parking signage, insurance terms and conditions, website navigation, government forms and legislation, product manuals, and even in colleagues’ emails.

Confusion exists when customers, employees, or both are unable to easily determine what is required and the uncertainty creates delays.

I’m not talking about complexity. A complex document or process can be broken into constituent parts to aid understanding. A confusing document or process can’t easily be broken into constituent parts; users can’t determine the sequence and the language is impenetrable.

Sometimes it seems organisations accept confusion as inevitable, despite the best efforts of their employees and customers to explain what it is they find confusing.

Sources of Confusion

Undocumented or poorly documented processes are major sources of confusion.

Because undocumented processes cannot be repeated accurately, you can’t guarantee consistent customer experience. Poorly documented processes offer little improvement over undocumented processes.

A poorly documented process may be confusing for a number of reasons; the organisation has not properly analysed the constituent parts of the process, it has not documented the process, or it has documented the process using sub-standard language.

Documentation requires rigorous analysis followed by the application of plain, succinct language. If either the analysis or the plain language is missing, there is an increased risk the process document will be confusing.


Large organisations have many inter-connected processes. If these processes are poorly documented, confusion spreads to different areas of the organisation and beyond, affecting both customers and employees.

The obvious impact is on customers. For example, a customer navigating a confusing website may become frustrated. I refer to website navigation because a process was required to build the website which may in turn require a customer to complete steps in a process. I recently changed mobile carriers because after quite some time searching, I could not locate the online chat icon for my original carrier (online, no bricks and mortar stores), and calls to their help number to resolve my vanishing voicemail went into a long queue.

Employees become frustrated on two fronts: firstly, dealing with angry customers; and secondly, attempting to unravel the confusing instructions the organisation has produced to explain whatever is confusing staff and customers. Employee frustration leads to higher than average employee turnover. Other impacts include an increased risk of non-compliance. This may apply to a workplace health and safety scenario or a financial institution failing to meet regulatory standards.

Why measure confusion?

Confusion costs organisations; in employee turnover and loss of customers, and in time spent identifying the problems caused by the confusion, and then re-documenting the process so the tasks are properly sequenced and the language unambiguous.

Measuring confusion assesses the size and impact of the problem. When managers know the size of a problem in dollars, they are more likely to invest in eliminating or reducing the problem.

Measuring the cost of confusion

If an organisation has a confusing process, the cost of the confusion can be estimated in two stages; i) the initial cost of the confusion and ii) the cost of fixing the confusion.


Cost (fix)
© Mark Biss. Reproduced with permission.

Therefore, the Cost of Confusion = Cost (confusion) + Cost (fix).

Minimising confusion in processes

Confusing processes cause unnecessary cost, waste, and frustration. The problem is curable. Rigorous analysis is the first step. Determine the various components of the process. Decide the level of granularity you will use to describe the steps. Use plain, unambiguous language or a process map to describe the process.

Document the process in either a structured document with headings and sub-headings or a process map. In either case, identify and properly sequence the component parts of the process.

Process confusion will have an impact across the organisation, therefore one or two processes can’t be improved in isolation. An organisation seeking to improve its process documentation must take an organisation-wide view and map, at a high level, the relationship between all its processes.

Confusion is a symptom. Organisations with confusing processes are likely to experience other problems. However, documenting and reviewing process maps requires discipline to identify and remove confusion. It’s a valuable opportunity to identify problems, develop a problem-solving culture, and improve customer experience.

Further Reading

Mark Biss