Home Forums Roundtable Monthly Topics Content and Design: How are They Related? Relevant Resources: Thinking More Deeply

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    Phylise Banner

    The Roundtable comes with a list of Resources: Books, book chapters, articles, and blogs on Design Thinking and Information Design. For Week 2, choose the item from the Resource list that is most relevant to your work or of greatest interest to you.

    Why did you choose this item?

    How does it relate to your work?

    What is one take-away that makes you think more deeply about the topic, makes you ask a question, or is something you will now use?

    Janice Redish

    Hi Everyone,

    This is Ginny. I hope you find something interesting to read in the Resource list.

    Let's start conversations here. I'll check in regularly over the month and join in the discussions.

    Katherine Spivey

    I read Karen Shriver's article, What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Information Design?

    She discussed a number of issues I'd never thought about. I'd been doing aspects of information design work; I just hadn't been thinking about some of the decisions.

    The quotes that will stick with me the most — not necessarily the most useful — were “people like what they're used to” and “many messages are never read”. I was thinking how depressing those quotes are, from a professional comms standpoint.

    When she asked, “People may respond emotionally as well as cognitively to the communications they read. Think about the last time you reacted emotionally to a document or a website.” I thought how frequently I get vexed by websites that don't feature plain language or good design.

    I'm hoping to share some of this article with some of my colleagues who ask for research. I particularly appreciated the rhetorical references: “Grouping not only organizes the content, it also renders it visually conspicuous—quite important for busy readers, impatient readers, less able readers, and people who are reading in a second language.”

    Janice Redish

    Hi Katherine,

    I'm glad you read Karen's article.

    It's so important to realize that people want to read as little as possible. That pressures us to use all the aspects of plain language and information design so people get what they need within the time and effort that they are willing to spend.

    In fact, in my workshops I always add that phrase to our definition of plain language. It's plain language only if people can find, understand, and use in the time and effort that they are willing to spend.

    Karen will talk more about several aspects of information design in next week's panel discussion. Do you have any specific questions you would like me to ask her next week?

    Katherine Spivey

    I'll certainly have questions for her by next week!

    One thing I was wondering was this:

    Fundamental goal for information design is to enable and enhance relationships among stakeholders for an artifact—that is, among the variety of audiences, clients, critics, readers, listeners, users, and viewers who have a stake in the content.

    • grouping content rhetorically,
    • organizing content visually to show contrasts, and
    • signaling structural relationships.

    Now one thing I think — at least with web content — is we (web team) get to say that one group of stakeholders (the audience) is more important than the content owners. Web team — at least my web team — was the intersection between the content owners and the audience. So we'd say (sometimes tactfully, sometimes not) that they couldn't just post the contract; they had to break it up into pieces and put it into steps, etc. So I think part of what I didn't get in the article was that all stakeholders aren't equal.

    In fact, if it turned out after ux testing that our edits were wrong, then we'd have to backtrack and do what the audience wanted. The web team, advocating for the user, has to be willing as well.

    And I'd like to know more about rhetoric. I suppose I put Aristotle on the booklist.

    Janice Redish

    I've written to Karen to tell her that we are having this conversation here in the Forum. If she has time, she might get on and discuss this with us. And I've noted the issue you raise here as a topic for us to discuss in the panel.

    I'm sure that Karen would agree that we must focus on the audience's needs — the language and design that work for them.

    As you pointed out in your webinar yesterday, a major part of our job is helping content owners and other “gatekeeper” stakeholders understand that they can meet their goals for the information only if the audience can find, understand, and use that information. If a page looks like a wall of words and that makes people refuse to read it, the page can't help the content owners achieve whatever they wanted to achieve through that information.

    Karen Schriver

    Hello Katherine and Ginny,

    Thank you for raising these important issues, Katherine. Let me take them in order. First, the two depressing quotes: “people like what they’re used to” and “many messages are never read”. Although these quotes may make professional communicators cringe, they are, alas, true.

    Case in point. I was working on a form for the IRS and their designers had placed a box for filling in one's Social Security number at the extreme top right of the form. All of the other critical information for citizens to fill in was positioned on the extreme left of the form.

    The IRS suggested that many citizens did not fill in their Social Security number. The reason? To avoid paying taxes. I responded that there could be another reason that was not so devious. I pointed out that the information was not displayed in a way that would make that box salient upon first glance.

    In my revision, I moved the box for a Social Security number to a position that was obvious, that is, in the flow of the rest of the important content. They responded, “but the top right is where the IRS employees always look to find the Social Security numbers. We can't put the box on the left because our employees will miss it.”

    Now who was the form for? You guessed it. Not the IRS employees, but the millions of Americans who pay taxes.

    This brings me to your point about stakeholders and how I neglected in my article to say that not all stakeholders should be given equal priority. You are right! I did not; but that is really another much longer article :-). How to create good content for multiple stakeholders has not been considered in a systematic way, and it should, both by researchers and practitioners. Many have stressed the importance of writing and designing for multiple audiences, but few say how to do so, and almost no one has talked about how to prioritize one audience over another and why one might do that.

    In my example, the several hundred IRS employees were given priority over millions of people filling in the form. Why did they do this? Because “people like what they are used to.” Instead of re-training employees to look in a spot that every citizen would see, they kept the box where it was—–putting the onus on citizens, and effectively blaming them if they didn't see it.

    This brings me to another point that your question raised for me. There are always multiple stakeholders for our content. Some of these folks are internal to organizations, but they still have a genuine stake in the content. Usually, however, most stakeholders are external to the group that produced the content, and those folks deserve priority over internal stakeholders. Your contract writers knew exactly what the content was for and what it meant. After all, they wrote it, aggregated it, or approved it.

    But people outside of the organization typically have no access to the knowledge behind the contract, the key questions the contract is designed to answer, etc. You are right to tell them they have to break up the content so that stakeholders on the outside can readily comprehend and act on it!

    Regrettably, many organizations suffer from what psychologists call the “curse of knowledge”. This phenomenon occurs when high-knowledge experts create content that is designed for people like themselves who have a similar expertise, culture, and education. When they write or design, they use themselves as the model of the audience instead of external audiences. They may innocently believe that “if I get it, anyone will get it.” But research tells a different story.

    To come full circle in answering your question, this is exactly why “many messages are never read”. People stop reading and just give up when their needs are not given priority or even consideration.

    Thanks for your question, Katherine! See you next week.
    Karen Schriver

    Janice Redish

    We had another question on the March 18 panel: Can you talk a bit about the concept of a “design science” within the framework of big and little d? Is it possible to have a truly systematic form of design – if we consider design to be a craft?

    Let's discuss that here in the Forum.

    Karen Schriver

    I think the idea of a design science fits into the framework of big D and little d. As I have said about information design, it is both an art and a science. For many years design was taught in art schools and universities almost exclusively as a craft. Teachers tended to emphasize developing one's own personal aesthetic and the quality of artifacts designed were judged by the eyes of the student creator (and teacher). This approach was anything but user centered. Despite its negative legacy on the field, “design as mere craft” has not gone away.

    Fortunately, people who teach design today are moving away from this romantic vision of the designer. Still old frameworks are hard to break away from. Educators today are striving to create a design science by teaching students the importance of judging the quality of artifacts through the eyes of the user. When students have data about how people actually respond to their work, they not only get great ideas for improving their craft, but they also get a taste of science and design thinking. There are now many courses that incorporate design thinking into the communication design curriculum. For example, the Basel School of Design (Switzerland) and Yale University are moving toward a science of design by creating courses grounded in evaluating designs with users. They segment the big D process to make each part more user-centered. This approach shows students how science can inform their craft at every step of the process. I'm impressed that today's students can benefit from this emerging design science approach.

    Clearly, information design is both an art and a science, but recent developments suggest the science side is beginning to develop in ways that will lay a foundation for a more rigorous design science in the future.

    Katherine Spivey

    I read “Art and copy: bridging the gap between design and content” and enjoyed thinking about ads that work — or don't work — for me. But it's ironic that one of the answers is to get everyone in the same room, when we're teleworking.

    In particular, I have one project that is … teaching me a lot of new lessons! I'm in a new job as of January and even though I've known some people for a long time, I haven't necessarily worked with them on project. And one of the chief benefits of telework and sharing documents is that team members can work asynchronously.

    What I'm learning, though, is that I should have

    1. Limited the number of people who had editing rights
    2. Given a better idea of the schedule/timeline
    3. Asked slightly sharper questions about the styleguide.

    So my work life and my learning life are … converging.

    Janice Redish

    Hi Katherine,

    I'm glad that you found the case study interesting. I chose it because it showed the value of designers and writers working together. Yes, it's ironic that when I chose it, the value of everyone being physically in the same room was the key message. I did not anticipate our current isolation where collaboration is possible but must be remote.

    That article dates from well before our current technology for collaboration. So the question today would be whether synchronous sessions (which we can easily do with Zoom or other programs) are critical compared to asynchronous collaboration.

    What you learned in your asynchronous collaboration is very interesting. Would being physically in the same building but working asynchronously have been different?

    When I was leading teams of writers and editors working as consultants for clients, we were very specific about the roles each person had at each stage of the project. As part of the kick-off meeting, we explicitly talked about those roles, especially what we expected from the different client reviewers at each stage.

    When we sent drafts for review, we included a cover letter (today would be email) customized to each reviewer, giving a deadline and stating exactly what we needed from that person. For example, we might have a technical reviewer to whom we would say, “Please check the accuracy of our statements. Tell us what is wrong and what the right facts are. Don't rewrite. That's our job. Don't copy edit. That's someone else's job.”

    We had found that if we didn't do that, we would get rewrites from non-writers who then had their ego invested in their poor and awkward attempts at writing.

    We also had to teach some reviewers how to show us what they wanted changed. Today, that would be showing them how to use Tracking Changes. Otherwise, they would just change the document and we would have to hunt and compare to know what they had done.

    Of course, even with all that, we sometimes had reviewers make our life very difficult by not staying in their role or not using the “show us” or “just tell us” techniques we had asked them to use. Then we had to either work directly with them to get them to do the right thing. Or, if they were high enough up in the client organization that we had no clout with them, we had to appeal to our direct client to figure out how within their hierarchy to get what we needed.

    About your style guide learning: Yes, style guide issues can take up so much time!! As with getting reviewers on board early with their roles and tools, getting agreement at the beginning on what style guide the project is going to use is critical. And some issues just aren't in the style guide. So surfacing an issue as soon as it comes up and making sure everyone knows the decision on that issue is more important than many people realize.

    I learned this the hard way. For my first book (the usability testing book that Joe Dumas and I wrote in the early 1990s), Joe and I didn't think about copy editing when we signed the contract. The publisher sent the book to a copy editor who edited to a different style than the one we had explicitly chosen to use. We tried to undo some of what the copy editor did. But, in the end, the book has inconsistencies in style that still trouble me.

    Having someone find the typos and point out infelicities is critical for any writer. But having someone change your well-thought-out style choices (for example, capitalization style for headings, use of the serial comma) is awful.

    For my second book (on user and task analysis with JoAnn Hackos), JoAnn and I delivered camera-ready copy. We chose our copy editor and talked with her about our style choices.

    For my most recent book (Letting Go of the Words), I got the publisher to agree in the contract that the copy editor would follow my style choices. I wrote out a memo / list of my style choices — the ones I knew a copy editor might grumble over — and that was part of the contract between the publisher and their copy editor.

    Our Roundtable month is just about over. But if you want to continue this discussion with me (and Karen Schriver, who has also been happy to contribute here), let's do that. You have my email address.


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