Information Design for Editors
October 17, 2001
If you want to know why information design matters, John Boykin sums it up in two words: butterfly ballot. "It's the poster child of information design," he said, citing the dubious role the ballot played in the most recent presidential election. He should know; in a former career Boykin worked as a county voting official.
Boykin, who was the speaker at the October forum, is a senior interaction designer at eFORCE, Inc., in Hayward, where he is assisting with the redesign of the Web site and online banking system for Bank of America. He also helped redesign the NBC intranet. One of Boykin's early Web-based information design projects was an earlier version of this, the Bay Area Editors' Forum Web site, which he managed for its first few months.
A long-time BAEF member, Boykin has a strong editorial background, including stints at Stanford Magazine and Wadsworth Publishing, and makes use of his editorial skills in his current position.
"An information designer is a cross between graphic designer and editor," he said. "Whereas graphic designers' skills and priorities tend to be at the aesthetic end of the spectrum, information designers' skills and priorities tend to be at the analytical end." Information designers are given a variety of titles, including information architect, usability specialist, or human factor specialist.
An information designer has to identify the problem correctly to solve it. In the case of the butterfly ballot, the problem, he insisted, was not just in the layout but in the system itself. "Scrapping the punch card ballot card system entirely is the solution to that problem," he said.
Going beyond the butterfly ballot, information design extends to and can improve all types of media: print, editorial, ads, Web sites, CD ROMs, signs, any type of public communication.
At the October BAEF meeting, Boykin outlined seven principles of information design. He based his presentation on his UC Berkeley Extension class, Information Design: Visual Communication for Editors
The Seven Principles of Information Design
1. Location, location, location. The location of a piece of information is more important than its craftsmanship. If you can't find it, it's useless. For example, drivers can't see signs that are hidden behind bushes or placed after a turn.
2. Satisfy the cat. We as communication professionals are in the business of selling cat food. The ultimate reader (or user) is the cat. There's always somebody—the client, the boss, the publisher, the marketing department, some executive—who comes in between us and the ultimate reader. That's the owner of the cat: the one who pays our salary or fee and has the final approval over what does and does not go to the cat. We have to satisfy the owner of the cat, or else we lose the job. But if the cat won't eat the food we're dishing out, the owner is not going to stay satisfied for long. So, even though the owner may be too short-sighted to realize it, the best way we can serve the owner's interest long-term is to make sure we satisfy the cat. If we satisfy the cat, then we can do anything else it takes to satisfy the owner. But if we satisfy only the owner and fail to satisfy the cat, then the whole exercise is a waste of everyone's time and money.
For a stellar example of "satisfying the cat," see the map of the market at Smart Money . (Near the top of the page, click Maps, then Map of the market.)
3. Spare people work. (or: You work harder so the viewer doesn't have to.) Ninety-nine percent of the time, shopping mall maps are based on architect's plans, which contain a lot of extraneous and meaningless information, crowding out what the shopper wants to find. Obviously, it's creating work for the reader.
Anticipate what the reader will do, screen out the less useful information and focus on what really matters, especially visually.
4. Nobody knows what you mean. Never underestimate the degree of oblivion in which people operate. Always remember that it doesn't matter what you mean—only what you show, say, or present. When people are confused on a Web site, they often click blindly on whatever buttons, tabs, links, or icons are available; they don't spend the time figuring out what you have to say. The user must know what information is for and how to use it.
5. Anticipate how people will experience your work. Getting a message while sitting at home watching TV is different than when you're running to catch the Cal train or exiting a building in an emergency.
For example, if you're driving south on Hwy. 280, take a look at the Serramonte shopping center sign. This enormous (and expensive) sign has electronic rotating art so complex, you can't catch it when you drive past. At night it's so bright, you can't look at it.
Always put yourself in the reader's shoes. Anticipate the environment and circumstances under which readers operate.
6. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Keep the main message first in priority and treatment. For example, the point of a "you are here" map is to let you know where you are in relation to where you want to go. Useless details and graphics that distract from the main information only add confusion.
A Web page needs a hierarchy of information. Focus on the essential point. Eliminate visual noise and highlight what is distinctive.
If you want to see what anarchy is, check out ICQ and try to figure out what the product is. For a good example of keeping the main thing the main thing, do a search on Google and notice how information is separated by color and spacing, making it easier to use.
7. Tell a story. Relate elements on a page or site to tell a story visually. If you can engage people with a sequence of steps, you'll have more success in communicating the message because you involve your audience.
If you want to find out more about information design, Boykin recommends authors Jakob Nielsen, Jared M. Spool, Edward Tufte, and Richard Saul Wurman.