Diagnosing Information Design Challenges

Human communication has been around for thousands of years, and we’ve made phenomenal strides in how we represent, collect, store, and transmit data and information. Yet, despite our progress, there’s plenty that we still haven’t gotten right:

  • the outdated application form that has been photocopied and faxed beyond recognition
  • the pseudo-friendly customer survey that asks the same old, context-agnostic questions in a hard-to-fill format
  • the ambiguous parking sign that rarely announces when you actually can park without getting ticketed or towed
  • the dense research report loaded with dry statistics and dull gray text that feels like medieval punishment to read
  • the flashy new food packaging that jumps off the shelf but obscures important nutrition and food allergy information
  • the origami-like patient information leaflet with the microscopic text and cryptic dosage instructions for medication

The list goes on and on. Regardless of whether the information is in print, on a screen, on a product, or in an environment, communication blunders and breakdowns are everywhere.

The price of miscommunication

Unclear information and decidedly user un-friendly materials are unfortunately all too common. Their impact on our lives is unmistakable, ranging from relatively minor inconveniences to life-altering (or, tragically, life-ending) events. We constantly pay the price for poor communications in the time and energy we spend grappling with subpar content and thoughtless presentation, the emotional strain of frustration and rage when we can’t get something done, and in the physical harm that may result from oversights in safety and security. Many of us simply tolerate the dysfunction and accept that “that’s just the way it is” because of the perceived intractability of the bureaucracies, legacy systems, and norms that dictate what gets communicated when and how.

Finding help that really helps

However, when the overall cost to people and organizations becomes too big to ignore — or when an opportunity arises to finally make an improvement — and it’s time to take action, the challenge then becomes getting the right help. In-house marketing and communications departments, external graphic designers, and other solution providers often get called in to design or redesign content- and data-driven materials, though while they may possess some general familiarity and technical skill in doing this type of work, they may not have the appropriate information design expertise to define, investigate, and effectively solve the problem so that it achieves its intended outcome. The end product might end up looking nicer by way of branding and cosmetic updates like a fresh color palette and trendier imagery, but it might not function any better or genuinely address the needs of the people who have to use it.

Bridging communication needs and services

A gaping chasm still exists today between those seeking help to improve clarity and the information designers who can provide meaningful help. On one hand, among help-seekers there is low awareness and limited understanding of what information design is and the full scope of challenges it encompasses, especially relative to other areas of design like traditional graphic design, user experience design, service design, etc. This makes it quite hard for help-seekers to figure out whether or not they have an information design problem who to call for help. On the other hand, among information design professionals and within the field as a whole, there is very limited public exposure and recognition of information designers and their work, which makes them virtually invisible to help-seekers.

An important first step in tackling communication and understanding challenges is actually knowing how to identify them as information design challenges.

A basic checklist for diagnosing information design challenges

You may have an information design project on your hands if most or all of the items below apply to your situation:

GOAL: Your primary aim is to help people understand something in order to inform their decision-making and actions.

CONTENT: You’re dealing with a fair amount of unorganized data or information or face a complex situation that needs to be conveyed in an understandable way.

AUDIENCE: Your audience has little to no familiarity with the subject or material, and they have certain needs or concerns that need to be recognized and accounted for.

PRESENTATION: You see the need for visual methods and visualizations like diagrams, charts, and maps to facilitate explanation and engage your audience.

PERFORMANCE: Your existing communications are receiving negative feedback and/or are underperforming with your audience (or you don’t know and want to find out).

OUTCOME: You want your audience to successfully achieve a specific goal, like navigating to a destination or assembling a product, using the information you are providing.

Of course, many other criteria may apply depending on the particular data/content and context of the challenge, but these six dimensions provide a reasonable starting point.

While the gap is slowly closing and information design is gaining ground beyond data visualization and information graphics, it will take some time before information designers and their services are employed to their fullest. In the meantime, we’re standing by.

Do you need help with an information design challenge? Are you unsure if you have one? Let’s talk about it.