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An introduction to information design

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. An introduction to information design. Intercom February 2006:30-31.

There's a common misperception among STC members that the profession of technical communication is all about practice, not theory, and that theory has little relevance in our daily work. That's about as correct as assuming that you don't need to know anything about how cars work to own and operate a vehicle; were you to try driving your car across a lake, you'd soon discover that a little theoretical knowledge (that a car is not a boat, for example) is a good thing, and that much of what we do is informed by theory, even when we we’re not aware of the theory.

The problem with remaining ignorant of theory is that when we apply the rules of thumb that guide our daily work without understanding the why? behind those rules, we're applying those rules blindly. In the absence of an understanding of why we do what we do, we'll be often apply our tools incorrectly, use the wrong tools for the job, or fail to use our tools as effectively as possible.

My goal in this new Intercom column will thus be to demystify some of the theory that underlies much of what we do by presenting that theory in the form of concrete, practical examples. I'll demonstrate how writers, editors, and other communicators can apply the theory in their daily work. I promise never to mention statistical designs or the methodological minutae of research—unless it's absolutely necessary—and to instead demonstrate the theory in action. Where relevant, I'll throw in the relevant jargon and provide pointers to the actual research so you can get your brain (and your hands) dirty if you feel motivated to explore further on your own.

Theory in practice

One classic problem that arose from a lack of awareness of the theoretical underpinnings of our profession involves George Miller's "magical number 7". Miller's research focused on human working ("short term") memory, and applies to what we could loosely describe as "the number of concepts we can deal with simultaneously before we're overwhelmed". Think of this as analogous to preparing dinner in the kitchen: you have a limited amount of counter space and space atop the stove available at any time (your working space), despite having an effectively unlimited amount of long-term storage (the kitchen cupboard, the basement cold pantry, and the grocery store). As you add more items to the work space, new items begin interfering with old ones, and some may even be pushed onto the floor; you may even burn the rice while focusing too hard on the stir-fry. In memory terms, the effect is similar: we have a finite amount of mental resources available to grapple with a given body of information at any point in time, but we have a seemingly boundless ability to store facts both obscure and practical in our brains for long-term retrieval.

Telephone numbers offer a familiar example. Most of us can hold around seven numbers simultaneously in working memory (that's the "magic number 7") long enough to dial the number of the local pizza joint after we burn the rice and knock the stir-fry onto the floor. Miller's research has clear and important implications whenever we must require our audience to hold a bunch of things in their mind simultaneously: under these circumstances, we must minimize the burden on their working memory and eliminate distractions so they can focus on the task at hand. Unfortunately, many communicators misunderstood Miller's findings because they never read his original article, and assume that (in one pernicious example) procedures should be limited to seven steps because anything more is too complicated for the average reader. Nonsense. Can you imagine trying to create a user manual for complicated software by limiting yourself to seven steps per procedure?

Information design defined

Before I can begin discussing information design, I should define the term. There have been as many definitions of this field as there have been people writing about it, ranging from Richard Saul Wurman's "information architecture" and Edward Tufte's "design of visual information" to Karen Schriver's "dynamics" and Marlana Coe's "human factors". These and other authors differ in the details of what they address, but beneath all those details, each information designer focuses on understanding:

Rather than getting hung up on definitions, my goal in this column will be to explore the many and varied ways in which we, as information designers, can apply these four understandings to successfully communicate important information to our audience. The goal is always to help them accomplish their tasks or learn new things successfully and efficiently.

Reading about readers

Information design clearly touches on many fields of technical communication related to understanding the people we're trying to communicate with: our audience. Thus, I'll occasionally touch on fields as diverse as the following during my peregrinations in this column: audience analysis, cognitive psychology, contextual inquiry, instructional design, social construction, and usability testing. All of these fields, despite their practical and theoretical differences, share one goal: understanding our audience well enough that we understand how to communicate with them. Wherever I may travel in my explorations of words and images, I'll try to ground even the most abstract of those travels in a clear understanding of the reader's needs. (In another life, I wrote a "User's advocate" column for the www.techwr-l.com Web site. "User advocacy" is another phrase sometimes used for what I'm calling information design.)

A word on words

Since most STC members are primarily writers, and since I have difficulty drawing a straight line even with the help of a ruler, I'll focus my efforts on some of the less-well-known or shadier aspects of communicating with words. Where necessary, useful, or interesting, I'll touch on grammar, rhetoric, vocabulary, and the many obscure elements of the English language that editors obsess over. But in each case, I'll minimize the jargon and maximize the human implications of that theory.

A sketch of graphics

Because most STC members do far more than just write, I won't neglect the visual aspects of communication. In a world increasingly dominated by icons and visual user interfaces, we must increasingly recognize the visual aspects of our work. To cover these aspects, I'll explore areas near and dear to our hearts, such as page design and typography, but I'll also take a road less travelled into shadowy realms such as the "grammar" of visual images (such as Jacques Bertin's "semiology of graphics"), and the psychology of how we highly visual beings perceive and process visual information. Since a picture is indeed worth 1000 words, and will help me fill my column space more quickly, I'll also strive to illustrate my points with simple examples wherever my primitive visual talents permit. (If you're an artist and want to help out, contact me and let's discuss how we could work together.) Seeing is believing, and I'll emphasize the kinds of visual materials that visually clarify what I'm trying to say.

Designing an informative column

Since this is a column, not a book, I have no clear plan that will govern the order in which I'll cover topics, though a logical order will occasionally emerge as I deal with certain topics that require multiple columns for adequate coverage. I expect this to be a long, idiosyncratic, and occasionally strange journey, and hope that you'll enjoy travelling with me as much as I'll enjoy departing from my itinerary to explore interesting local landmarks that attract my attention. I also plan to occasionally depart from the more theory-based approach that primarily informs this column to provide an information-design case study or to demonstrate a useful technique you can use in your own work. Suggestions for areas to explore are always welcome, and where I'm competent to explore them, I'll be happy to do so. Where I'm not, I may persuade you to join me as tour director!

Bibliography

Bertin, J. 1983. Semiology of graphics. Diagrams, networks, maps. (Translated from the original 1973 French version by W.J. Berg.) University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

Coe, M. 1996. Human factors for technical communicators. Wiley.

Miller, G.A. 1956. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. The Psychological Review 63:81–97.

Tufte, E.R. 1990. Envisioning information. Graphics Press.

Schriver, K.A. 1996. Dynamics in document design. Wiley.

Wurman, R.S. 1990. Information anxiety. Bantam.

Acknowledgments

When I began my career in the mid-1980s, STC Fellow William Horton wrote wonderfully and at great length in Intercom about many aspects of information design. In many ways, he's the person most responsible for this column because he inspired my fascination in design and my desire to share what I learned with others. Though I'm grateful to him for this, please don't blame him for any infelicities I may commit in this column. They're really not his fault.


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