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Principles of information design

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Principles of information design. Intercom September/October:27–28.

Sadly, the time has come to say farewell, and this will be the final installment of my column on information design. In this article, I’ll try to summarize the principles that underlie what I’ve written about during the past five years, spanning more than 20 articles in Intercom since 2006.

Understand your audience

One of the technical communicator’s mantras is the need to understand our audience, and nowhere is this more important than in information design. Understanding an audience starts with defining their needs: the reasons why they’re examining the information we’ve designed. When we do this, we must remember that the audience has overall goals that lead them to consult the information we produce; writers often wrongly assume that the information itself is the goal. Instead, we must design information downwards from these goals towards the lower-levels tasks that let them accomplish those goals. One fundamental failing of most documentation that I've used is that it provides good task-level information, but ineffective or wholly inadequate support for understanding how the tasks fit together. This is an egregious example of focusing on tasks rather than on the audience’s goals.

Effective information design is more than goals, however. It relies on a profound understanding of the psychological, cultural, and other factors that affect how well an audience can perceive and understand what we’ve created. Knowledge of the limits imposed by human biology and psychology helps us focus on designing solutions that help the audience overcome those limitations. We can learn about these limits by reading about cognitive and psychological factors such as Miller’s “mythical, magical number 7” (Intercom April 2006).

Give them a firm foundation

One of the fundamental things we’ve learned from research on memory is that it works best when we build connections with what someone already knows. Designing effective information therefore requires us to think about what our audience already knows (their mental models, often referred to as schemata) so we can build on that foundation. Where audience members entirely lack a foundation on which to build or have an inadequate foundation, we must find ways to build one for them so they’ll have a framework in which they can absorb new information. We can do this in a variety of ways, but starting with a overview that clarifies the context and its relationship to their goals is a great start. Once someone knows why they’re consulting our information, they’re prepared to receive information that supports them in that context.

Understanding their context also lets us provide a road map that reveals how all the pieces of information fit together to create an integrated whole. This can be something as simple as a table of contents, which makes the structure of a document explicit, or as complex as hyperlinks and other forms of cross-reference. Somewhere in between is the practice of using “breadcrumbs” (Intercom, November 2007), which show the full path someone has taken to reach the current chunk of information; if the headings at each level of the hierarchy are clear, the breadcrumbs both explicitly reveal the structure of the overall body of information and provide quick access to related topics at the same or higher levels of the hierarchy.

Provide the right information

A successful information design is complete; that is, it contains all the information readers are likely to need, and where we cannot provide that information, it provides references that can. The documentation for most publishing software effectively describes how to use the tools, but omits high-level details such as the rudiments of typography and interaction design. As a result, those who use the tools often create technologically elegant solutions that completely fail to meet the needs of their users—which is why I’ve described many Web sites based on Flash as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. (We must never forget that our audience has limits on the amount of information they can process simultaneously, and that we should never overwhelm that capacity.) You can’t provide complete information if you start by asking what your tools can do; a design only works when you first ask what people need, and only then decide which of the available tools can meet those needs.

Defining the correct amount and level of information also relies on an understanding of the level of abstraction that is most appropriate for each goal. Text and graphics can both span the spectrum from the highly abstract, such as graphic design principles, to the highly concrete, such as the tools used to create a given design. In many cases (perhaps most), we must help our audience move from the abstract to the concrete: the former provides context and a framework in which to work, whereas the latter shows how apply that abstract knowledge to achieve goals. Most modern documentation succeeds on a concrete level (i.e., at the level of individual tasks = the what and how), but fails at an abstract level (i.e., provides no indication of how a given task fits within the overall path to accomplishing a goal = the why and when).

Balance graphics with text

Although we’re increasingly offered new communication tools (e.g., sound) and interactions (e.g., iPad-style gestures), most information designs focus on two traditional tools: text and graphics. Text has very clear rules, codified in grammar and style manuals, and mastering those rules is not just a task for editors; the same tools are what let writers communicate clearly. Such rules also exist for graphics, but have not been codified in the equivalent of a grammar guide (despite efforts by luminaries such as Jacques Bertin). Neophyte designers must thus seek knowledge in many places and assemble the necessary information themselves. I’ve tried to help by describing the basic visual tools: visual vocabulary, grammar, and rhetoric; the importance of white space; and how the components of pages and screens of information function.

Understanding these concepts lets us think through a design based on principles that take advantage of the relative strengths of text and graphics, thereby letting us combine them in a way that effectively meets the audience’s needs. In three Intercom articles (July/August 2008, December 2008, February 2009), I applied this thought process to illustrate the fundamental rules of page layout and typography, slipping in a hearty dose of theory in the guise of practical information. In the December 2010 Intercom, I built on this background to show how understanding the relative strengths and weaknesses of graphics and text lets us combine the two media effectively to solve a communication challenge.

Remember your reality check

My design philosophy is that theory should always inform the thought process—but never replace it. Thus, I’ve tried to overcome the aversion most non-academic members of STC have towards theory by presenting the theory in highly pragmatic terms. The enormous body of research on cognitive science can dramatically improve our work as information designers. Whether information design fascinates you as an intellectual challenge or simply as a practical tool for your job, I encourage you to expose yourself to this research. Research provides many rules of thumb to guide us, but we can only use those rules effectively if we understand why they work—and perhaps more importantly, when they might fail to work. In the September/October 2010 Intercom, I illustrated how to apply theory to a specific design challenge, and also how to know when you’ve gone too far and need to subject the theory to a reality check.

In my two penultimate articles, I discussed how you can train yourself to become better at anything, including information design, and how the same approach can be used to help your audience improve their skills. Focused practice is a great way to improve your design skills and start making your audience’s life much easier. In a very real sense, that’s been my primary goal in this column: trying to give you the tools you need to understand the challenges of information design and to apply that understanding to solve real-world problems. I hope that along the way, I’ve helped you share some of my love of information design and inspired you to learn more. It’s been a pleasure over the years chatting with many of you about what I’ve written, and I hope that dialogue will continue in the future.


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