Information Design and the Web 1

Inspired by John Zeratsky although I seem to have headed off with my own train of thought.

Part 1 of 2

INFORMATION DESIGN – Sounds ominous, right? But it’s not. In fact it’s so everyday you probably don’t realise it’s affecting you every single minute of every single day.

First things first though. What is “information design”?

One of the best explanations I’ve come across is by Nathan Shedroff who states:

The processes involved in solving problems, responding to audiences, and communicating to others are similar enough [across differing communication tools] to consider them identical …

These issues apply across all types of media and experiences, because they directly address the phenomena of information overload, information anxiety, media literacy, media immersion, and technological overload — all which need better solutions. The intersection of these issues can be addressed by the process of Information Interaction Design.

Sounds simple enough, to me. He goes on to say that:

“In other circles, it is called simply Information Design, Information Architecture, or Interaction Design, Instructional Design, or just plain Common Sense.”

From this we can make the simple statement that the core aim of Information Design is to make information as effective as possible. So in order to understand Information Design, we need to understand the types of information with which it is concerned.

An example is probably required at this point. So let’s take one that most people can identify with. The switch. It’s a simple enough item, featured on many many electrical implements. For this example we’ll consider the one on my parent’s kettle which looks like this:

a kettle

As you can see the switch is located under the handle of the kettle. No problems so far, it’s obvious and accessible. Now, from the picture above, how would you expect to turn the kettle on to start boiling the water? (go on, have a think)

Push that switch DOWN. Right? WRONG. You actually have to move the switch UP to start boiling the kettle.

Now, whilst this is a minor annoyance it’s a good example of bad information design. The positioning of the switch and the way it functions is at odds with most other switching conventions (where DOWN is on). So let’s delve a bit deeper, not too far though, it’s only a kettle after all.

When you look at a the switch on a kettle, how do you know what it’s current state is? For a kettle there are a number of indicators that your brain will process.

1. Is there steam coming out of the kettle at the moment? If so, the switch is presumably set to on, although the kettle may just have stopped boiling.
2. Can you hear the noise of the boiling water? Similar to point 1. but is still a valid source of information feedback.
3. Is the switch backlight on (if it has one)? Convention is for a light to be ON when the switch is in the ON position.
4. Is the switch position obviously marked as being on? Some electrical sockets have a red mark on one surface of the switch which is only visible when the switch is on.

So we have several ways in which we determine that a switch is ON. Mostly visual. However there is another factor that must be consider at this point, previous experience. For example, if you were brought up in an environment where all the cold taps were on the left hand side of every sink, your own experience would subconciously baulk when confronted with a cold tap positioned on the right. Everyone has experienced this type of thing in one way or another, and again it’s minor influence on information design but, as you should be beginning to realise, it’s these small details that make or break a well designed product.

So let’s broaden our thinking somewhat with another example.

Specifically the new entry system to Jeffrey Veen’s apartment block. It requires you to follow instructions, and scroll down a list of entries to find Jeffrey’s extension number before you can buzz him to open the door. The old system had a button for each apartment, the new one a simple numeric keypad. The new system has less buttons but is twice as confusing for the user.

Why? Most people who visit an apartment will be there more than once. With the old system, they could use visual pattern reminders to recall where in the interface VEEN was labelled (bottom-right, two up). With the new system visitors are required to remember an extension number (adding to the number of things that need to be remembered in association with VEEN), and you have to enter all the digits on the keypad. As Jeffery points out this process now takes over 5 times longer to complete.

The most interesting thing about this product is a suggestion made in the comments of the post. It is suggested that a laminated list of the extension numbers is pasted up next to the new interface as “I have seen that done a lot.” What that tells me is that the users of the system have circumnavigated the designed interface – searching for a name via the digital display – with their own more efficient system. Definitely a case of bad design and how people aren’t willing to put up with it.

OK, I think that’s enough for the moment. Hopefully you’ve got an idea of what Information Design is, and how it can effect everyday life. In the second part I want to turn an eye onto website design, and compare the current web design techniques and buzzwords with some tried and trusted methods that have been around in my profession (technical publishing) for quite a while.