Seven Ways to Use Information Design to
Create Remarkable Audience Experiences (Part 1)
by Adele Sommers
What’s the “secret sauce” behind designing information that corrals the interest of your users, visitors, readers, learners, or customers — and spurs them to take fast and effective action?
Answer: A timeless set of information-design guidelines that work synergistically, regardless of the medium you’re using or the message you’re conveying — and whether you’re a business writer, technical communicator, instructional designer, interface designer, Web developer, or multimedia content creator.
This series of articles will explain seven ways to engage and support your audiences whenever you want them to understand, learn, and do.
You might be creating Web pages, publications, online training, marketing content, or information-based multimedia productions, for example.
Why not move the needle from “lackluster and low-powered” to “remarkable and robust” with the next project you begin?
You’ll see these seven tips rolled out over three articles, grouped into these three overarching themes:
A. Lay a Foundation for Clear Understanding
B. Help Your Audiences Do What They Really Need to Do
C. Add Novelty and Interactivity to Rivet Attention & Motivate Action
Use the first set of tips below to begin designing remarkable user experiences!
A. Lay a Foundation for Clear Understanding
To lasso your viewers’ attention and trigger their ability to comprehend, recall, and respond, you’ll want to begin by:
- Learning more about your typical audience members
- Structuring information so your target audiences can readily consume it, and
- Minimizing the “data dump” effect that occurs when people receive too much information at one time
These foundational principles underlie all types of communication, so they will powerfully support whatever you’re creating. Read on for the details...
Tip #1: Use persona profiles to understand your audience — what makes them tick?
Your audience comprises the people who will engage with your content. They represent a mix of backgrounds, skills, personality traits, and so forth. Some might be tech savvy; some might not. Some might be very familiar with your topic, others not. Some might be older, others younger. Some might think “pink,” while others think “green.”
So, you’ll need a way to identify the people you’re trying to attract, and then accommodate their needs accordingly. If you don’t, they won’t be able to consume your content very easily — and probably won’t urge their colleagues, clients, students, or friends to consume it, either.
Enter the persona, a fictitious but realistic character who symbolizes a typical member of your target audience. Your audience probably has several such people in it. Aim to create a persona profile for each representative audience member.
You could do this through interviewing, market research, or even imagining a composite based on people you know. If you take this process seriously and give it plenty of thought, you’ll discover what makes each type of audience member tick. You can then design an approach that addresses each persona’s primary needs, wants, questions, and concerns.
But what if you’re short on time or insights? Consider at least these two key emotional angles, which are at opposite ends of the human motivation spectrum:
- What worries, problems, or challenges could be keeping each persona up at night? Those are the sorts of issues that they’ll be extremely eager to solve.
- What are each persona’s primary goals, hopes, aspirations, and dreams? Those represent the driving forces that inspire them to keep going every day.
Ponder what matters most on both ends of the spectrum for each persona. Then design the types of information and features that would best support each persona’s needs — without interfering with the others.
To learn more about creating persona profiles, read “The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas,” by Steve Mulder.
Tip #2: Structure information to help people scan, skip, and retrieve what matters
As information creators, we need to “grab people by the eyeballs” and give them more control over what we are submitting for their attention.
For example, 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!
An excellent approach to this “eyeball management” problem involves structured authoring (also known as structured writing). Five of its core methodologies appear below:
- Classifying of information organizes content into five actionable types: facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles. These are the building blocks for information design.
- Chunking breaks crowded or detailed content into smaller, more digestible messages. Be aware that the limits on human cognitive processing restrict our ability to manage more than a few messages at a time (see more below).
- Simplifying uses very direct, “plain talk” to get ideas across fast. You’ll want to avoid all types of dense, convoluted “corporate-speak,” “academic-speak,” or a meandering style of writing when you want people to act quickly!
- Arranging text and graphics with visual cues helps people scan, skip, and retrieve efficiently. Examples of visual cues include white space, bulleted lists, tables, headers, bolded text, labels, dividers, hierarchies, groupings, and relative size.
- Illustrating reinforces or replaces text with clear, relevant graphic elements. Using crisp images, such as photos or drawings, will increase comprehension significantly in any context.
To learn more about structured authoring, read my related article, “Designing Information to Help People Act Quickly.”
Tip #3: Strive to minimize audience overload, especially in training and presentations
Another way to boost comprehension is by reducing what’s known as “cognitive overload.” Research published in the mid-1950s seemed to show that our short-term “working memories” can process about “7 plus or minus 2” chunks of input at a time. (Think of this as the number of items you could remember to buy at the supermarket, for example, without having to write them all down.)
Nearly 50 years later, however, a new wave of research showed that in reality, we’re capable of consuming only about 3 or 4 chunks of information at once. That’s not very much processing power (and explains why we make so many lists)!
But information design principles can come to the rescue by easing the burden on our audiences’ brains. Working within typical limitations of short-term memory reduces the information-processing load.
This means that the content we design must be “high-impact” to grab 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 it from memory under the right circumstances, and
- Apply it or act on it in the way you intended!
To learn more about minimizing cognitive overwhelm, read my related article, “Overcome Audience Overload with Presentation Design Best Practices.”
With a little imagination, and by regularly applying the three techniques above, you’ll powerfully support your audience’s ability to consume whatever it is you’re producing. Each aspect provides an additional layer of clarity to help you whip up a recipe for authoring success. Stay tuned for Part 2!
Copyright 2017 Adele Sommers