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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 perform.

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 circumstances, and
  • 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 Business Information?

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 confusing layout.

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?

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 short-term memory.
  • 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.


Background Information
1) Classifying organizes content into five actionable types: facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles.

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 use procedures.
Facts are unique, standalone bits of information, e.g., "Over 300,000 book titles appear annually."

Concepts represent classes of ideas or objects. "Dog," "book," and "weather" are all concepts, and each represents many specific examples.

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.
2) Chunking 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 information-processing load.
3) Simplifying uses very direct, "plain talk" to get ideas across fast.

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."
4) Arranging text and graphics with visual cues helps people scan, skip, and retrieve quickly. Gestalt psychologists 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.
5) Illustrating reinforces or replaces text with graphic elements. Much research shows that prose is less efficient and less effective than graphic elements. Robert Horn, the author of "Visual Language" (who also developed Information Mapping®, a widely used structured writing system), is a leading authority.

Why Do These Solutions Work?

Background Information
Structuring, chunking, 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 application.
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

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