Archive for June, 2012


Thwarted by online forms that have geographical restrictions

June 29, 2012

There are some pretty severe wildfires happening in Colorado right now. As someone who lives in Australia, a land plagued by out-of-control bushfires every summer, I really feel for all those in Colorado (and New Mexico) affected by these latest fires. So much so that I decided to donate to one or more of the charities that look after people and/or animals in such crises.

But I was thwarted by their localized view of the world, so much so that I couldn’t donate to these specific disasters even though I wanted to. Those not as tenacious as me would have given up and not donated at all as it was just too hard, with too many barriers in these forms to actually hand over your money.

What’s the problem?

Well, here’s a start:

  • Geographical limitations in online forms. Either my country (Australia) wasn’t listed, or, if it was, the list of states didn’t include any option for ‘international’ or ‘non-US’ or similar. Note: State was a required fields in all these online forms so I couldn’t leave these ‘blank’ if nothing matched my circumstances. There was one exception to this — the Larimer Humane Society repopulated the State list to match the Country selected. Only one form (American Red Cross) had a ‘none’ option for State, but that was no use because they don’t accept non -US credit cards!
  • Likely limitations on ZIP code. The US has a 5-digit numeric postal code, Canada has 7 digits (including a space and a mix of letters and numbers), Australia has a 4-digit numeric code, and other countries have other variations, or no postal code at all — when the web form designer makes the ZIP field a required field, how do those who come from countries without postal codes get on? I couldn’t complete the online forms because of the State/Country limitations above, so I couldn’t check if there were validation checks on the length or composition of the postal code I would have entered. But it’s possible that there were limitations — another barrier to completing the form and thus donating.
  • Geographic limitations for credit card entry. At least one form (American Red Cross) clearly stated on the page before the donation form that non-US credit cards could not be accepted. However, the other forms said nothing about whether they checked the validity of the credit card or its country of origin before submitting the form. So it’s very possible that non-US credit cards wouldn’t be accepted by these organizations either (yes, I’ve encountered this in other websites before). However, because I couldn’t choose a Country/State, I couldn’t check if this was the case. I wonder how the Canadians get on with these sites — the Canadian provinces are often listed with the US states, yet, if the form validates the credit card as being US, how does a person with a credit card originating in Canada deal with that?
    American Red Cross doesn't accept non-US credit card donations
  • No option for PayPal donations. PayPal is quick, easy — and international. Yet not one of the sites I visited had an option for a PayPal donation. They all required (US only?) credit cards. Another barrier. The exception was the American Red Cross, which did allow something called ‘Amazon Payments’ (no, I haven’t heard of that either).
  • Sometimes no option to select a specific cause to donate to. When I went to the Australian Red Cross website (because I couldn’t donate via the American Red Cross site) and selected International for the donation type, I wasn’t able to specify which cause I wanted my money to be directed to. If I’ve decided to donate to the US wildfire disaster relief, then that’s where I want my money to go — not to some bucket called ‘International’. On the sites I looked at, only the Salvation Army clearly stated that my money would go to the wildfire victims. But the Salvation Army site wouldn’t allow me to donate because of where I live!

Here’s a summary of what I found on the four donation websites I visited:

Donation matrix

* = required field

Of course, I could have done what a colleague suggested and selected any US state and matching ZIP code. But I wanted a receipt for my donation and for taxation purposes, that receipt would need to be correct.

‘Fudging’ an address also doesn’t help with the US-only credit card situation, and it would give a false impression to the charitable organizations about where donated monies were coming from. How can you track how much has come from those outside your own country if you have no way of capturing that information on the donation form?

What could these sites do to remove the barriers to donation?

Some ways that the web designers could make these forms easier to use and thus encourage users to donate include:

  • Remove the ‘required field’ designations for fields like State when you only offer US states/Canadian provinces, yet allow users to choose any country. Alternatively (and even better, in my opinion), offer a selection option of ‘none’ or ‘international’ or similar. The ‘required field’ designation could then still apply, and those from out of country would have a valid option they could select.
  • Allow free text in the ZIP code field to cater for those outside the US, and those in the US who want to use the full postal code of the 5-digit ZIP plus a dash plus the 4-digit location designator.
  • Offer PayPal as a payment option. Not everyone has a credit card, and definitely not everyone has a US-issued credit card.
  • Allow validation of any major credit card from any country. The systems are all international — it shouldn’t be that hard. If you can validate a US-issued credit card based on the number and the security code, why not any other credit card from the same species? When I’m in the US, I have no trouble validating my Australian-issued Visa and AMEX cards in US stores, so why is this so difficult online?
  • If you’re collecting donations for multiple causes, allow the person donating the option to choose which cause they want their money to go to.

Yes, all this may require some extra work, and perhaps extra cost, but the benefit to these organizations is that they would be able to accept donations from potentially 7 billion people instead of some 300 million. Even if only 1000 people outside the US donated $100 each, that’s $100,000 they didn’t have before! I would expect that the cost of implementing these sorts of changes would be far less than that, and once implemented, the donations for other disasters would have no extra cost at all. It would have to be a win-win for these organizations.

Oh, and don’t think this little rant is just about US sites not acknowledging the rest of the world — when Australia had some pretty nasty natural disasters (fires, floods etc.), friends of mine in the US and Europe tried to donate to specific Australian charitable organizations and weren’t able to for many of the same reasons as those listed above.

It’s a global world — let’s make our web forms as global and inclusive of everyone as possible.


Donation pages of the organizations I visited (but couldn’t donate to) are:


[Links last checked 28 June 2012]


Fixing some table of contents update issues

June 20, 2012

(adapted from a ‘Writing Tip’ email I recently sent to work colleagues [Word 2007 environment])


Bottom line: Before releasing your document, turn off Track Changes then update the Table of Contents, List of Tables, and List of Figures so that they reflect the current headings, captions, and page numbers.

Some recent questions from my authors have related to updating the Table of Contents (TOC), List of Tables (LOT), and List of Figures (LOF), common things that can go wrong when doing so, and how to fix them.

1. Why does my Table of Contents look a mess?

In this example, the TOC entries are all in red and there’s a change bar to the right of the TOC. There’s also a deleted TOC below the inserted TOC. How did it get like this? You had Track Changes turned on when you updated the TOC.

To fix it, turn off Track Changes (Review tab), then update the TOC again (see below for how).

That’s it! Super easy with an immediate reduction in stress related to things going wrong with your document just before your deadline ;-)

2. Why aren’t the things I’ve added, changed or deleted reflected in the TOC/LOT/LOF?

The second issue relates to why the new tables/figures, sections etc. that you’ve added to the document aren’t appearing in the TOC/LOT/LOF, or why your changes or deletions aren’t reflected in the TOC/LOT/LOF. Typically, the reason is that you’ve forgotten to update the TOC/LOT/LOF – these lists don’t update automatically. There are several ways you can update these lists, but the safest way that seems to work properly every time, is to use the ‘Update Table’ buttons on the References tab in Word.

To update a TOC:

  1. Turn off Track Changes.
  2. Click anywhere inside the TOC.
  3. Go to the References tab.
  4. Go to the far left of that tab, and click the Update Table button in the Table of Contents group.
  5. If asked, select the option to Update entire table and click OK.

To update a LOT:

  1. Turn off Track Changes.
  2. Click anywhere inside the List of Tables.
  3. Go to the References tab.
  4. Go to the middle of that tab, and click the Update Table button in the Captions group.
  5. If asked, select the option to Update entire table and click OK.

To update a LOF: Same procedure as for updating a LOT, but for step 2, you click anywhere inside the List of Figures first.

3. Why aren’t all my tables/figures listed even though I’ve updated the lists using the methods above?

This issue invariably relates to Track Changes. If you’ve inserted or deleted a table or figure, then it’s possible that the table or figure caption won’t get listed in the LOT/LOF. Dealing with the table/figure Track Changes by accepting/rejecting them usually sorts this out. After accepting/rejecting the change, update the LOT/LOF and all should be well again. I haven’t found any other way of solving this one.

4. I get an ‘Error! Reference not found’ message in the TOC/LOT/LOF instead of a page number.

I’m not sure what causes this, but turning off Track Changes and updating the TOC/LOT/LOF should fix it.


Quoting from other material

June 8, 2012

(adapted from a ‘Writing Tip’ email I recently sent to work colleagues)


Bottom line:

  • Type the words exactly as written.
  • There are always exceptions to any ‘rule’!

Q: Can I change case in quoted text?

A: Not usually

‘C’ asked if she could change the case of some terms in a quoted piece of text so that the case matched what we used. The quote had the phrase ‘non-indigenous species and marine pests’; however, we use ‘Non-indigenous Species and Marine Pests’ in our documents to regulators as those terms have specific meaning under the Ministerial conditions of approval and possibly in one or more Acts of Parliament.

I asked ‘C’ where the quoted text was from and she said it was from one of the regulatory authorities. This emphasised to me that we SHOULDN’T change the case – this document has to go back to that regulatory authority for approval, and the last thing we want is for someone in the regulator’s office to pick up on this minor technicality and hold up the approvals process as a result. In this case, it was critical to know where the quote had come from and where the document was ultimately to go – it wasn’t just an easy yes/no answer about changing case.

I also consulted the Australian Style Manual, where p113 had this note in the sidebar: ‘Accurate quotation: Great care must be taken to quote the work of another writer exactly.’

Q: What about changing spelling in quoted text?

A: Rarely, if ever

If you are quoting text with US spelling, the same convention applies – leave it as it is and do not change it to Australian spelling, as the quote is verbatim from the originating (US) author. For example, we refer to the ‘Risk Prioritization Matrix’ as it originates from the US and has that spelling in its title.

Q: What about changing punctuation in quoted text?

A: Rarely, if ever

Adding commas, semicolons, full stops, etc. to quoted text (or removing them) can change the meaning substantially, so we don’t touch those either.

Q: Does quoted text have to be in quote marks?

A: It depends on the length of the quoted piece

It depends…

  • Short (i.e. fewer than three lines of quoted text): Do not italicise short quotes – just surround the quoted text with single quote marks (convention used in the Australian Style Manual, which is our authority for such things).
  • Long (i.e. more than three lines): Set the quotation in its own indented paragraph, apply italics, but do not use quote marks.

Q: How do I omit some words from a quotation if they aren’t necessary to what I’m writing about?

A: Use an ellipsis ( … )

Despite the ‘rule’ to quote exactly, there are exceptions. For example, you can leave out words, phrases, even whole paragraphs from a piece of quoted text if those words etc. aren’t necessary to make your point. However, you can’t change the meaning of the quoted text when you omit such words (e.g. you can’t omit a word like ‘not’ without changing the meaning – ‘do not’ is the opposite to ‘do’).

You must also let the reader know that there are bits missing. You do this by using an ellipsis, which is a space, followed by three dots, followed by another space (i.e. … ). For example:

‘The results … suggest that Flatback Turtles may not travel to a single … foraging ground at the end of their breeding migration and that some may … forage in a range of areas before returning to … nest …’

(The original was: ‘The results also suggest that Flatback Turtles may not travel to a single (presumed) foraging ground at the end of their breeding migration and that some may in fact forage in a range of areas before returning to [location removed] to nest the following season.’

Q: How do I show that words have been changed or added to quoted text?

A: Surround the changes with square brackets

Even though the ‘rule’ is to quote exactly, sometimes the original author gets it wrong. For example, in one of the Ministerial Conditions documents, they incorrectly wrote ‘Marine Offloading Facility’ instead of ‘Materials Offloading Facility’, which they had used elsewhere throughout the document. If your quote needed to include that phrase, then you could correct it by surrounding the replacement word with square brackets: i.e. ‘the [Materials] Offloading Facility’.

You also use square brackets around words you’ve added to quoted text to clarify meaning; e.g. ‘The impacts [to marine fauna] from noise and vibration emissions are predicted to be limited to behavioural disturbances.’


See also:

[Link last checked September 2012]


Word: Working with headers and footers

June 4, 2012

A couple of colleagues have been baffled by how Word 2007/2010 now deals with headers and footers compared to Word 2003, so here are two methods for opening the header/footer area. Once you’re in the header/footer area, you can add a new header/footer from the list of available headers/footers, insert your own, edit an existing one, or delete it. You can also save your custom header/footer to the Header (or Footer) Gallery, but I won’t deal with that in this post.

Method 1: Double-click inside the header/footer area

The quickest way to open the header/footer area is to double-click in the very top (or bottom) area of your page, above the first line of text.

Double-click ABOVE the main page

Method 2: Use the ribbon

  1. To open the header/footer area, go to the Insert tab.
  2. In the Header & Footer group, click the small drop-down arrow to the right of Header (or Footer).

Insert tab, Header and Footer group

Once the header/footer area is open, you can:

  • add a default header/footer by choosing it from the list (if you can’t see the list of default headers/footers, go to the Insert tab > Header & Footer group, then click the small drop-down arrow to the right of Header [or Footer])
  • add your own header/footer or edit an existing one by selecting Edit Header (or Edit Footer) at the bottom of the list
    Edit header/footer
  • delete the existing header/footer by selecting Remove Header (or Remove Footer) at the bottom of the list
  • adjust the settings for the header/footer by using the tools on the Header & Footer Tools > Design tab (NOTE: This tab is ONLY available when you are in the Header/Footer area; if you are in the main document, you cannot see this tab and have to open the header/footer area to access these tools.)
  • switch between the header and footer by clicking Go to Footer (or Go to Header) on the Header & Footer Tools >Design tab

When you’ve finished making changes, close the header/footer area using one of these two methods:

  • Double-click inside the main document (i.e. outside the header/footer).
  • Click the Close Header and Footer button in the Header & Footer Tools > Design tab.

Header and Footer Tools Design tab