Designing Information to Help People Act Quickly
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Today's media-saturated world
challenges people to comprehend and respond quickly to a plethora of visual
messages! Did you know that more than 300,000 new book titles appear annually,
and over 18,000 magazines exist just in the U.S.?
Our colleagues, employees, and customers are all
overloaded and attention-limited! The competition for their
attention is fierce, and not likely to subside any time soon.
For this reason, it's quite possible that our
news-based and "how-to" information -- such as
memos, newsletters, policies, procedures, instructions, user manuals, and system
interfaces -- may just be adding to audience overwhelm instead of helping people
After all, we also want people to view our
persuasive information, such as advertisements, marketing
blasts, and commercial announcements. Multiply that by the number of
competitors we have who are doing the same exact thing, and it's easy
to see why our materials don't receive attention!
To remedy this situation, we need to "grab people
by the eyeballs" and give them more control over what we submit for their
attention. We must enable our audiences to scan, skip,
and retrieve -- and then act
on the information fast, before the relentless demands
on their time force their attention to shift elsewhere.
The information we design must be
"high-impact" to get attention, but also "low-bandwidth"
in terms of the effort and brain-power required to process it. The easier the
information is to process, the more readily people will:
- Retain the information
- Retrieve from it memory under the right
- Apply it correctly
As part of the solution, this article discusses
five powerful information design techniques that can boost our
audience's ability to interpret and respond.
First, What Shortcomings Do We Find in
On more than one occasion, you've probably encountered a
puzzling user manual, bewildering procedure, baffling software interface, or
confusing memo. Therefore, you've probably seen plenty of examples of dense,
crowded text; long-winded, rambling sentences; a convoluted writing style; and a
Why do these things matter? A poor visual presentation
can delay or even prevent someone from understanding and
taking action! The consequences include:
- Less interesting and less productive
interactions that rob people's time.
- More mistakes and errors, while the
potential for harm and dissatisfaction skyrockets.
- Customers and employees going elsewhere,
especially because there are often plenty of competitors who can do the job
better! But why let this happen when there are remedies available?
What Can We Improve Using Effective
Information design principles can come to the rescue by:
- Easing the burden on the reader's brain
through reducing the information-processing load.
- Working within the typical limitations of
- Using other extensively researched principles
of perception and learning.
Five ways that information design techniques work their magic
include 1) classifying, 2) chunking, 3) simplifying, 4) arranging, and 5)
illustrating -- all approaches used in what's called "structured
writing." The table below briefly discusses each method.
Classifying organizes content into five actionable types:
facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and
By classifying information into these types, we can create specific
sections to support and complement one another. For example, readers often
need facts and/or concepts before they can
are unique, standalone bits of information, e.g., "Over 300,000 book titles
Concepts represent classes of ideas or objects. "Dog,"
"book," and "weather" are all concepts, and each represents many specific
Processes describe how something works from a high-level
point of view.
Procedures are clearly defined steps that explain in detail
how to do something.
Principles are conditional decision-making rules that guide
people's actions in different situations.
breaks the content into smaller, more digestible messages.
||Short-term memory is very
limited; humans can process only about 3–4 chunks of information at a time.
By "chunking" material into smaller bites, we can reduce the
Simplifying uses very direct, "plain talk" to get ideas across
Avoid "corporate-speak," "academic-speak," or a meandering style when you
want a fast response!
|"Plain talk" uses the
active voice and simple words to communicate ideas. The
active voice uses a noun followed by a verb
to show who is taking action: "The technician
removes the tray from the table" (not "The tray is
removed from the table"). Instructions in procedures are
short and direct: "Remove the tray from the table."
text and graphics with visual cues helps people scan, skip,
and retrieve quickly.
studied visual spatial cues and perception in the 1920s. They learned that
the use of visual cues helps direct attention fast.
Examples of visual cues include bulleted lists, tables,
white space, headers, bolded text, labels, dividers, hierarchy, grouping,
and relative size.
Illustrating reinforces or replaces text with graphic
||Much research shows that
prose is less efficient and less effective than graphic elements. Robert
Horn, the author of "Visual Language" (who also
Mapping®, a widely used structured writing system), is a leading
Why Do These Solutions Work?
simplifying, and arranging all aid comprehension.
||Dr. M. David
Merrill and Robert Horn have each contributed a set of ideas and methods
that use some or all of these techniques. These methods have been tested
repeatedly and found to boost reading, retrieval, and learning speeds.
|Graphic elements further support the
retention and application of information.
||Extensive multimedia research
by Dr. Richard E. Mayer illustrates when and how to mix text and graphics or
multimedia. The right blend produces optimal learning, retention, and
|All methods reduce errors
and response time, while raising response quality.
||When you combine these
techniques effectively, errors that occur from reader misinterpretations
drop greatly. Response time also declines when it’s clear to people what to
do and how to do it.
In conclusion, don’t lose
sight of your audience’s need to interpret and act quickly. Consider using
information design principles -- classifying, chunking, simplifying,
arranging, and illustrating -- to help
guarantee their success.
Copyright 2007 Adele Sommers
About the Author
Adele Sommers, Ph.D. is author of “Straight Talk on Boosting Business
Performance: 12 Ways to Profit from Hidden Potential.” To learn more about her
book and sign up for more free tips like these, visit her site at
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-05-05 17:22:07 in Business Articles