Understanding better through Document Design, an interview with Karen A. Schriver

InfoDesign: Understanding by Design | Special on Karen A. Schriver.

This piece from InfoDesign presents an enormously useful discussion about how good document and information design can improve the usefulness of a document to a client.  It can be applied to the design of legal forms, contracts, educational materials, and other times that legal tasks must be carried out through documents.

Karen A. Schriver: The InfoDesign interview

By Peter J. Bogaards (September 2005)

Regularly, InfoDesign interviews a thought leader in the design industry, focusing on people who are identified with or show strong sensibilities to the design of information and experiences. This time, Peter J. Bogaards interviews Karen A. Schriver.

Karen is the author of Dynamics in Document Design: Creating texts for readers (John Wiley, 1997), an extensive, multidimensional portrait of what readers need from documents and of ways to integrate word and image in order to better meet those needs. She is the former co-director of the graduate program in technical communication and document design at Carnegie Mellon University. Her company, KSA Document Design and Research, helps organizations improve the quality of their paper and electronic communications through strategies based on research and best practices. When she is not writing, working with clients, or running to catch a plane, she spends time playing with her two crazy dogs: Cody (a Bearded Collie) and Tika (a little Muttley). She can be contacted via e-mail at kschriver at earthlink dot net.

Peter J. Bogaards (PJB): Karen, you have been involved with the infamous design department at Carnegie Mellon University. What has been the value of the graduate program technical communication and document design at CMU for the field of technical communication?

Karen A. Schriver (KAS): I taught writing and design at Carnegie Mellon for over ten years as a professor of rhetoric and document design. My teaching and research led to collaborations with professors and students of writing and design, but my home department was English rather than design. In considering Carnegie Mellon’s contribution to design, most prominent in my mind is the work of the late great Herbert A. Simon. His writing about design, perhaps best represented in Sciences of the Artificial, examines the nature of design as problem solving and argues forcefully that design is a challenging cognitive task, involving sophisticated knowledge, strategies, and meta-awareness. Simon’s focus on design as problem solving – although commonplace today – represented a major shift in thinking during the late 1970s.

Rhetoricians in the department of English who had been working on problems of writing drew on Simon’s ideas. They integrated ideas about the psychology of writing and the rhetoric of writing – ideas that influenced the development of the graduate program in professional communication in English at Carnegie Mellon. Established in 1981, it was one of the first programs in the country to take a decidedly rhetorical approach to solving problems of communication.

“(…) Simon’s focus on design as problem solving – although commonplace today – represented a major shift in thinking during the late 1970s.”

Unlike academic programs that emphasize romantic views of design, in which solutions are judged effective by the eye of the designer, the rhetorical view embraces the idea that communications design is a disciplined response to problems. Effective designs are those that actually meet the needs of their stakeholders. The unique focus on studying what we called cognitive rhetoric led the English department to teach usability testing and to develop reader-focused methods for assessing text quality years before most other universities. For example, courses that I created included ‘Planning and Testing Documents’ and ‘Integrating Visual and Verbal Texts’.

If Carnegie Mellon’s rhetoric program has been of value to the field generally, it is because its professors and students demonstrated the value of bringing an interdisciplinary perspective (rhetoric, design, psychology, engineering, and computer science) to solving communication problems. In the 1990’s, members of the English department collaborated with the department of Design to establish a joint communications design program. This program, like the one in professional writing, teaches students to create useful communications and to understand why communications succeed or fail. This focus on evaluation has proved valuable, for it prompts students to share their successes and failures, and to embrace public scrutiny.

As faculty members, we were concerned with teaching students to be good communicators, but we also shared an agenda of changing the field by redefining how we think about design activity. Since many of these ideas have percolated through the worlds of information design, HCI, technical writing, professional communication, medical writing, online help, web design, one could say that the value of Carnegie Mellon’s programs has been rather important.

New Research Areas

PJB: What you see as new research areas within techical communication, document design or information design for the near future?

KAS: There are a number of research areas that look quite promising for the future. Here are ten (in no particular order):

  1. The creation of effective hybrid information designs. Writing and design that must serve multiple rhetorical functions such as informing and persuading, selling and explaining, instructing and entertaining.
  2. The rhetoric of content management. Moving beyond the how-to mechanics of single sourcing to developing planning strategies for designing visual and verbal content so that it will be rhetorically effective when deployed in various genres over a variety of media.
  3. The impact of visual and verbal design strategies on how people engage with various media: If one wants to develop quality e-learning about a product or service, what visual and verbal strategies work best to promote learning and engagement with the material?
  4. The development of expertise in information design: What knowledge, skills, sensitivities, intuitions, and experiences shape the development of writers and designers?
  5. The content needs and preferences of specific stakeholder groups: The elderly, the blind, teenagers, subject-matter experts, low-literates, or domain experts.
  6. The role of emotion in why people use or don’t use online or print communications: What visual or verbal moves turn people off? How can we tap into people’s emotions to engage them more fully?
  7. Effective techniques for writing and design for the web: What planning, drafting, and revising strategies make the writing and design processes easier and more effective?
  8. Writing and design for multicultural audiences: What do people from various cultures need and expect from particular communications?
  9. Theories about the cultures and politics of design: What is involved in making a dramatic impact on an organization’s perception of design?
  10. Strategies for increasing organizational awareness of the value of good writing and design: Well-designed empirical studies of value added, ROI, or customer satisfaction.

Technical Communication and User Experience

PJB: You have suggested that technical writing should be more involved with other aspects like branding, experience design and emotion. Is technical writing evolving into the textual dimension of user experience (UX)?

KAS: Yes, I’ve argued that technical communicators need to expand their role in organizations by moving beyond their traditional territory of designing procedural text (and other rationalist documents) to designing the variety of communications that organizations produce. They can and should play a fundamental role in branding and experience design, drawing on their understanding of the interplay between cognition and emotion. Over the last decade or so, especially with the dot.com collapse, many technical communicators have been expanding their repertoire and have redefined their work as information design. They have been honing new abilities as they design the visual and verbal dimensions of the UX. They are now playing a central role in the design of websites, handheld devices, consumer products, and medical devices. For example, many information designers are creating the visual and verbal language of websites, the menus for handhelds, the messages on TV screens, and the instructions for medical devices such as portable defibrillators. The effectiveness of these products depends on the marriage of good writing and design as well as good interface design and engineering.

“They can and should play a fundamental role in branding and experience design, drawing on their understanding of the interplay between cognition and emotion.”

As more information designers take on broader roles within their organizations, more have developed effective collaborations with UX designers. In fact, some would argue these fields are often hard to distinguish since both focus on user experience. Information designers are particularly sensitive to the use of visual and verbal language and how to structure it so that it meets stakeholders’ needs; so their expertise complements the team members trained in HCI and engineering design very well. As more organizations develop sophistication in interdisciplinary collaborative design, the UX across domains has improved – raising the bar for future design.

Documents as Marketing Products

PJB: You have mentioned that texts also should have an emotional, affective side to them. Is this not also a kind of negative development? In this way, every text will become marketing product ‘manipulating’ the reader.

KAS: I said not that texts should have an emotional side, but that they do. Texts not only give readers impressions of what the content is about, but they often give clues about who is speaking and why. My research shows that readers’ feelings about the speaker influence their disposition about whether to act on the message.

Will information designers’ understanding of the link between cognition and affect make every text a marketing product? It depends on how we define ‘marketing product’. If we mean artifacts that persuade people to buy something, then most of our texts will not be construed as marketing vehicles. If we mean artifacts that persuade people to act in certain ways, consider certain ideas, follow certain procedures, or attend to certain advice, then our texts are already marketing pieces.

Most professional communications have a persuasive dimension, aiming to change thoughts, beliefs, or actions. The prominence and explicitness of that persuasive dimension usually depends on the purpose and genre. For example, Robert Abelson (in Statistics as Principled Argument) has shown that the seemingly a-rhetorical tasks of the scientist – collecting data, choosing a statistical test, and displaying the results in tables or charts – are in fact rhetorical acts. He argues that the type of data collected is a choice, the statistical tests are choices, and the design of charts and graphs involve choices. Are charts and graphs a kind of marketing product for scientific research? You bet. Can a data table create an emotional response? Certainly.

“(…) the goal of information designers is to employ words and pictures to help readers accomplish their personal goals.”

So to me, whether or not something is a marketing product is a matter of degree. Obviously, there is a big difference between marketing as principled persuasion and marketing as unprincipled manipulation. But both have an emotional side.

As information designers, our work is different from advertising and marketing in that those areas promote the economic goals of organizations rather than the goals of readers, users, or stakeholders. The goal of a marketing piece is to promote a service or product through words and pictures. By contrast, the goal of information designers is to employ words and pictures to help readers accomplish their personal goals – such as learning (e.g. understanding the science of global warming), doing (e.g. changing the batteries in a smoke detector), or making a decision (e.g. choosing among health care programs). When information designers do a good job, stakeholders get the benefit of usable content, but they may also gain a feeling of satisfaction about what they now know. That positive emotional experience can shape their image of the organization. Our understanding of the emotional resonances of information designs is just beginning and I don’t see it as a negative development at all.

The Multiple Activities of Karen A. Schriver

PJB: After you published your book ‘Dynamics in Document Design‘ in 1997, we have not seen many publications from you. What have you done after writing the document design book?

Writing and Research

KAS: Dynamics in Document Design, published in 1997, summarized my work up to that point. Since then I’ve been carrying out research in route to a new book about expertise in information design. This research has involved a variety of studies designed to investigate the nature of professionals at work (see also your later question about my new book).

Along the way toward my new book, I’ve written a couple of articles that appear in journals and edited collections:

  • Readability Formulas in the New Millennium: What’s the Use? (2001). ACM Journal of Computer Documentation 24(3), pp. 138-140.
  • Taking Our Stakeholders Seriously: Re-imagining the Dissemination of Research in Information Design, (2002). In: B. Mirel and R. Spilka (eds.), Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century, pp. 111-134 – Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Writing and Teaching

I took a break from writing to accept a visiting professorship at the University of Washington in Seattle where I taught information design to undergraduate and graduate students. It was great fun working with UW faculty and their enthusiastic students.

Recently, I returned from teaching information design in South Africa at the University of Stellenbosch. There I helped faculty members jump-start their research and consulting for a nonprofit center called the Document Design Unit. As former co-director of Carnegie Mellon’s nonprofit Communications Design Center, I have significant experience in managing a research center – getting corporate and government funding, educating students, finding meaningful internships, acquiring technology, training staff, dealing with clients, and so on. So it was a treat to share what I know and especially to see document design flourishing so far away from home in such a radically different content. To give you a sense of what I mean, check out this unique sign in three languages: line 1 is Afrikaans, line 2 is obviously English, and line 3 Xhosa (one of 11 official South African languages).

Also while in Stellenbosch, I participated in several research projects. One involved communications campaigns designed to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. It’s a very difficult and painful subject that a lot of South African researchers are working on. In collaboration with their colleagues from various Dutch Universities, South African researchers were trying to find out whether ‘scare tactics’ and ‘fear appeals’ will discourage people from having risky sex. The verdict is still out on what communications strategies will be most effective in persuading men and women to change their attitudes and behaviors about sex. For example, some African men believe that the best way to get rid of AIDS is to have sex with a virgin. Obviously, a variety of communication tools must be employed over time to even begin to change that kind of thinking. These researchers are trying hard to understand the underlying attitudes that drive risky sexual behavior.

“This experience made me think about cultural differences in ways I’ve never entertained.”

I also consulted on a project for developing visually-oriented instructional materials aimed at training low-literate African women to enter the workforce. This experience made me think about cultural differences in ways I’ve never entertained. For example, in the U.S. when we think about cultural differences, we generally refer to issues of race, class, and gender. In studying cultural differences in South Africa, one must consider these issues, but with much greater specificity. The extremely diverse cultural context puts into relief the need to consider ethnicity, literacy level (e.g. exposure to print), economic status, religion and taboos, and even climate and geography.

For example, Stellenbosch document designers were guiding the revision of an instruction guide for middle-aged women entering the labor market as domestic workers. Because of the legacy of Apartheid, many of the women who were the stakeholders for this guide had never held a paying job, but they were mature women with great life experience. Still, to enter the workforce as a maid, they needed basic skills such as how to clean a house.

Researchers found that it was a bad idea to use words for the instructions since so many women could not read (and had no plan to learn). Even if document designers could use verbal language, there was the issue of what native language to use since there are so many African languages and dialects. Moreover, in depicting women working as domestics, they needed to be extremely sensitive to how women were portrayed. They worked hard to avoid stereotypes of black women working for white women, thus re-colonizing the colonized under the guise of meaningful employment. All of these issues made writing and design quite challenging and shifted my thinking about the politics of design.

I tended think about politics as the organizational, social, and cultural context that surrounds the information designer – a kind of infodesigner-centric model of politics. So I’d expect a discussion of politics to focus on the constraints that typically prevent information designers from doing their best work (e.g. layers of clueless managers, no time, little money, inexperienced teams, inadequate technology, endless review cycles, and design by committee). I’d also expect ideas about how to negotiate difficult political environments (e.g. how to effect organizational change, how to get respect for infodesign activity, how to demonstrate added value, return on investment, and so on).

“(…) to do a good job we must deeply understand the political context of our stakeholders and their political and social relationship to the speaker (or organization).”

But my experience in South Africa made me see the narrowness of that image of politics. It made me realize that to do a good job we must deeply understand the political context of our stakeholders and their political and social relationship to the speaker (or organization). In designing communications such as brochures about HIV/AIDS, knowing how stakeholders construe their relationship with the speaker has direct implications for the particular visual and verbal moves we should consider.

In high-stakes communications design projects such as AIDS campaigns, even great designers (with all the time, money, and support) can fail miserably if they do not understand the stakeholder’s political situation and its implications for content. I haven’t seen many discussions of how to investigate stakeholders’ political context yet, but as more of us work on cross-cultural information design, I think we will need to expand our notions of politics and our strategies for understanding them. Information designers such as David Sless are making important contributions regarding the politics of design.

Training and Research

In addition to teaching in university environments, over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct quite a bit of training. There are so many organizations that employ writers and designers with inadequate backgrounds in writing or design. We may wonder why after all the gains we’ve made to professionalize information design there is still so much bad writing and design. It becomes more understandable when you look closely inside organizations. There we find that the people doing the work tend to be inexperienced, overworked, and in a hurry. I’ve found myself teaching in-house courses on information design to a variety of organizations. It’s been a rewarding experience because it has shown me in dramatic fashion the range of professional skill in the workplace and the kinds of cultural constraints that influence the design of information.

Doing training reveals substantial differences in the abilities of information designers. It has fostered my interest in the knowledge, skill, sensitivity, and social savvy that comprise skilled information design. In other words, what does it take to excel in information design? This question of expertise in information design is important for organizations trying to improve the quality of their communications and the talents of their teams. I am working on research that will help organizations better understand expertise and the development of design teams.

Public Speaking

I have also traveled extensively since my book, presenting many keynote speeches and invited talks around the world. I have several dozen talks that should be in print by now, but I have not yet written them up. I plan to bring this work together in a new book (see the last question below).

Practical Projects

In addition to conducting research, teaching, and public speaking, I continue to carry out practical information design projects. Some involve evaluating processes or products, while others involve creating or revising artifacts. For example, I redesigned a physics textbook about special relativity and black holes for a professor at MIT, for which I won an award. I redesigned the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s 1040 tax form, a torturous piece of communication that 57 million Americans must fill-out each year. I assessed the quality of redesigned ballots in the state of Florida for 2004; you may remember that in 2000, Florida election officials became infamous because of the atrocious design of the ‘butterfly’ ballot. To have a look at my assessment of the ‘befores’ (i.e. 2000 ballots) and ‘afters’ (i.e. 2004 ballots), check out J. Musgrave’s Ballot arrows point out new controversy (Aug. 23, 2004) in the Miami Herald.

View online at: http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/9469612.htm (registration required)

Some other projects include evaluating the quality of guidelines for designing patient package inserts for the European Union. I assessed the processes employed in the production of computer manuals. I evaluated the methods employed for assessing the quality of documents written to the FDA (‘Food and Drug Administration’). I critiqued the writing and design of the standardized tests that students must take in order to certify that they have learned enough science and math to move onto the next grade.

The Redesign of a Tax Form

PJB: Lately, you have published a redesign of a tax form. What have been the concepts behind the redesign?

KAS: The redesign of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service 1040 tax form was both a challenge and an exercise in frustration. Doing it reminded me once again just how hard it is to design for government bureaucracies. It is not my best work, but I am proud that I tried to improve a truly terrible form. The revision is not very exciting or even that visually different, but the concepts behind the design are sound and it lays a better foundation for further revision.

“It is not my best work, but I am proud that I tried to improve a truly terrible form.”

You can see the before’, ‘after’, ‘guidelines for revision’ and an article about this project at the following Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (http://www.jsonline.com/bym/news/apr04/222338.asp. Note: the Journal Sentinel Online (jsonline) may ask that you register at their website in order to look at the article, but registration is free and they don’t spam.

I agreed to revise the tax form after a newspaper reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dared me to do it. I accepted the challenge and then he gave me these guidelines:

  • No going over two pages.
  • No using color (other than black).
  • No rewriting or interpreting tax laws.
  • No deleting items or questions.
  • No funding for usability testing (or for anything).

My goal was to generate a revision that would improve the form’s usability within these constraints by modifying the writing, design, and typography. To do so, I first carried out an expert review. Since there was no time or money to test my ideas with citizens – a really frustrating situation – I simply got to work and did the best I could, knowing I’d have to satisfice. Following is a brief account of what I did in terms of the writing, design, and typography.

Principles of Writing

My first move was to make the writing more citizen-friendly and the language more conversational. My aim was to compose the headings so they engaged the reader personally. Studies show that readers respond more positively to text when they can easily see how their goals can be met if they peruse the macro-level of the text. To help readers imagine how their goals will be met, information designers can use macro-level elements such as headings, leads, or photos that set up a scenario to frame the content. These moves frame the conversation between the government and the taxpayer.

To read more about the design of forms as conversations, see Caroline Jarrett who discusses the UK’s Inland Revenue Service tax forms. See also David Sless who characterizes design as conversation in his form redesign work in Australia.

To revise the headings, I employed the scenario principle, a research-based strategy for structuring prose around human agents performing actions in a particular situation. This meant that in composing headings, I tried to engage the reader personally. Instead of using the heading ‘Label’, I revised it to say: ‘About You’. And instead of ‘Refund’, I wrote ‘Refund Owed You’. In the original form, the only use of the word ‘you’ was ‘Amount You Owe’. Not very friendly. To read about the scenario principle, see Revising Functional Documents: The Scenario Principle, by Flower, Hayes, and Swarts, 1983, in New Essays in Technical and Scientific Communication, NY: Baywood.

A second key concept behind the redesign had to do with logical writing; that is, the order of ideas. Whether writing instructions, questions, or statements, ideas should follow an order that will make processing the information easy for the reader. In the case of the IRS form, it meant making sure the entire question was presented before mentioning exceptions to the main point. In other words, ask the question before qualifying it.

In the original, the government wrote: “Presidential Election Campaign. Note. Checking ‘Yes’ will not change or reduce your tax or reduce your refund. Do you, or your spouse if filing a joint return, want $3 to go to this fund?

Notice that citizens must read to the end of the second sentence before they can understand what is being said. This places an unnecessary burden on memory. In the revision, I wrote:

“Presidential Election Campaign. Do you or your spouse (if filing a joint return) want $3 to go this fund? Please be aware that checking ‘Yes’ will not change your tax or refund.”

“Although I thought this was a rather mundane move, the IRS did not appreciate this revision.”

A third key idea was to order the information so that it would be easy to see all questions and increase the likelihood that all questions would be answered. A complaint that the IRS had made over the years was that many people forget to fill-in the item asking for their Social Security Number (SSN). The IRS may think that citizens who don’t fill-in their SSN are ‘trying to pull a fast one’ to avoid being tracked down. From the IRS’s perspective, the SSN is arguably the most important piece of data, for it provides the link to taxable income. Although some citizens might purposefully neglect to fill in their SSN, others may accidentally skip over the question.

On looking at the placement of the SSN question, I noticed two things. First, the item wasn’t numbered. This seemed like an obvious mistake that should have been caught by the IRS a long time ago. After all, if it ain’t numbered, it’s not a real question! Second, the item did not appear in the same visual sequence (i.e. top-to-bottom orientation) as other items. Instead, it was tucked off to the top-left of the form, looking like a band-aid that was added at the last minute.

So I moved the item asking for the SSN and made it question 1. Although I thought this was a rather mundane move, the IRS did not appreciate this revision and said so. They informed the reporter who published my revision that this change would never fly because IRS employees who input the information into computers were trained to look for the social security numbers in the top right position. One can see whose priorities have been deemed of value when the IRS puts the needs of its own roughly 5000 data-entry staff ahead of the needs 57 million taxpayers.

Principles of Design

My ideas for improving the design of the form were simple. I tried to create a stronger left margin so that the questions stood out and didn’t require readers to keep track of a neurotic left margin.

I also used a consistent graphic pattern for signaling the various actions citizens had to complete, such as checking or calculating. For example, in the original, there were five different styles of boxes for ‘checking’ something. The revision uses one style of check box.

Forms often ask people to do things such as checking a box, filling in a number, calculating a total, listing information, or transposing numbers from one place to another. It is important then when readers see one of these types of requests that they know what is going on and what to do. They should be familiar with the pattern for that information type set up through the design. As we all know, consistency is a hallmark of usable information design.

Principles of Typography

As my redesign of the IRS Form 1040 progressed, my ideas about the typography changed. The original design was a monotone of Helvetica (regular) and Helvetica bold, making it hard to distinguish headings and body text. My intent for the new typography was that headings and key information would stand out from the body text. The original employed 8-point Helvetica. I started out with 9-point Frutiger Light, the largest size that would still fit all of the information in two pages. However, after looking at the Frutiger and Helvetica side-by-side, I felt the difference was too subtle for the untrained eye.

I worried that when the newspaper staff took my revision in its 8.5″ x 11″ size and reduced for presentation to about 3″ x 5″, the differences between Helvetica and Frutiger would be even less noticeable than at full size. This led me to look for a serif font with a large x-height that would maximize the visual contrast between versions even at a small size. I wanted something easy to read, even for those citizens with less-than-perfect eyesight.

“I wanted something easy to read, even for those citizens with less-than-perfect eyesight.”

After a few iterations in which I compared Garamond, Monotype Bembo, Minion, and Serifa, I opted for Serifa. It seemed to have the strongest contrast between the light, Roman, bold, and black versions. And the contrast held up no matter what the reduction. While some may rightly quibble with my choice, I contend that the decision was sound given the constraints.

Research suggests that contrast is perhaps the most prominent feature of typography that people notice. A few years ago I did a study (unpublished) in which I compared Adobe Garamond with Frutiger in the design of procedural instructions. I modified the design of procedures for using a microwave oven and a cordless phone.

The 90 participants in the study were college students who chose which version (a) or (b) they preferred. Participants preferred the instructions set in Frutiger over the Adobe Garamond by about 3 to 1.

One might be tempted to conclude that the results were driven by the general superiority of sans serif typefaces, and that we might advise information designers to chose sans serif faces over serif faces. However, the most common reasons participants gave for preferring Frutiger were ‘it is blacker’ and ‘the important stuff stands out more’. These data suggest that the contrast within a typeface is more important than serif or sans serif. In choosing the font for the redesign I looked for a type with dramatic contrast. In retrospect, I would’ve found another typeface because although Serifa did have excellent contrast, it also took up more horizontal space than was optimal and made the page look more crowded than I’d hoped.


Overall, I conclude that one cannot do an adequate job on a government form while working in isolation. It needs to be done by working closely with large numbers of citizens who represent the diversity of the constituency. It needs to be done in collaboration with the actual client and the client needs to be receptive to change.

If there had been time and funding to test the 1040 form with taxpayers, many visual and verbal design moves could have been made with greater certainty about how well they would work. It is likely that the content, format, and typography would have changed drastically as a result of iterative usability testing.

If I had been able to work directly with the IRS, perhaps we could have eliminated some items, combined others, or moved excessive and unnecessary content to other forms. However, even with major cuts in the content, an easy-on-the-eye 1040 form would still require four pages. It’s not clear that the IRS would ever agree to that.

For some perspective on this and other redesign projects for government, please see John Emerson’s fascinating article, Guns, butter, and ballots: Citizens take charge by designing for better government, Communication Arts (2005, January/February) Vol. 46 (8) pp. 14-23.

Information Design Expertise Development: Questions to Explore

PJB: You mentioned writing a new book. Can you tell us a bit about it? What are the topics you address?

KAS: Yes, I am writing a new book tentatively entitled Nurturing Expertise in Information Design. It will offer a portrait of high-achieving information designers, with an eye toward learning from their best practices. My intent is to provide a window into the world of the practicing professional. How they think about their work, what motivates them, how they evaluate text and graphics, how they negotiate communications problems, how they work under constraints, and how they solve practical problems of writing and design. I hope to challenge information designers to work on their personal growth by reflecting on the experiences of other professionals.

As I said earlier, I have been thinking about how information designers develop their expertise. Professionals tend to distinguish themselves in terms of differences in their ability, sensitivity, and skill. I have been trying to understand the differences among high-achieving professionals, newcomers to the field, and what some have called ‘experienced non-experts’. The book is for information designers who want to improve their skills and consider what other people are doing in getting good at writing and design. It is not a guideline book but more of a meditation on information designers’ habits of mind, ways of knowing, ways of seeing, and ways of doing.

You asked about topics I will address. Here are some of the questions I am exploring:

  • What can we learn from other fields about what it takes to perform at the highest levels of a domain? What constitutes world-class performance?
  • What role does creativity play in information design and how can we nurture our creativity? How can employers make workplaces more amenable to fostering creativity?
  • What characterizes expertise in professional writing and design? What do experts in the field know and how do they acquire their knowledge?
  • What is the relationship between individual performance and collaborative performance? Do experts in information design ‘play’ best alone, in groups, or both? How can employers foster group expertise?
  • What sorts of experiences are important in developing expertise? What do information designers learn from formal coursework versus on-the-job?
  • How long does it take to develop expertise? Are there typical paths toward becoming a world-class professional?

I’m working on the book now and expect to finish by 2007.

The Personality of Documents

PJB: Documents on the Web also express behaviour, adaptation and interactivity. Some even might argue that they have ‘personality’. What’s your concept of a document and has your concept changed with these billion of electronic documents around us?

KAS: The idea that communications express personality is an important topic receiving considerable attention in books such as B. J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology. It’s clear that Web-based documents and information landscapes do express personality. As I said earlier, visual and verbal cues work in concert to give clues about who is speaking and why.

“It’s clear that Web-based documents and information landscapes do express personality.”

The Web makes it much easier to shape the personality of the content to specific audiences, either by segregating users at the front-end (e.g. customers, sales people, industry experts, job seekers) or by tailoring content on-the-fly to meet changing content needs (e.g. explanatory material followed by more persuasive material). The upside is that designing to elicit a particular personality is technologically possible and that there are some very good combinations of personality and interaction out there (e.g. http://www.pedigree.com). But the downside of adaptive content has to do with intrusiveness, as in some recent incarnations of search engines and mail programs. Another downside is that too many organizations think that ‘cuteness’ is clever as in Amazon.com’s ‘Share the Love’ campaign. It’s the kind of thing that makes one want to vomit.

How the Web Influenced Document Design

PJB: In the last decade, many design fields have been influenced strongly by the proliferation of the Web. Some even got completely taken over by surprise. How has the field of document design been influenced by the emergence of the Web? Have the theoretical foundations of document design as you have described multiple times been influenced by the Web?

KAS: Most of the theoretical foundations of information design are the same (e.g. the centrality of understanding stakeholders’ goals for the content), but applying those ideas to Web design requires a shift of thinking. For example, although taking seriously our stakeholders’ needs for content is important regardless of medium, designing for the Web challenges us to consider those needs as they might unfold in real-time. Let me give three quick examples.

First, the Web requires us to think about using words differently. Instead of ‘telling the whole story’, we must frontload the content that will enable stakeholders to see immediately how their goals will be met if they continue reading. It means our titles and leads must be brief and designed to match stakeholders’ interests.

We need to know when to stop generating more words and replace them with a tighter integration of text and graphics. We need to remind ourselves that people are much more impatient when they read on the Web and our strategies for reaching them must respect their need for brevity and concision. That often could mean, for example, that key content normally presented gradually over several paragraphs must be rewritten into one-sentence teasers.

“(…) the writing strategies employed on the Web are now being used in print magazines.”

Although professional writers have always needed the ability to take lengthy texts and make them shorter while still retaining the integrity of the content (e.g. in executive summaries, abstracts, and the like), they must now have the smarts and flexibility to be able to find the shortest and punchiest way to present their content, day in and day out. Those who can write well under the constraints posed by the Web as well as the typical political constraints posed by organizations tend to be those who are making the most difference in the quality of writing on the Web.

And interestingly, the writing strategies employed on the Web are now being used in print magazines. In short, writing for the Web is changing how we write for paper. For example, Harvard Business Review offers capsule summaries of its articles in the form of brief abstracts or itemized lists. The same summaries appear on the Web as previews of articles for purchase. The Amazon.com-like rhetoric is if you like the content of the abstract or itemized list, you’ll like the whole article.

Second, the Web requires that we think about color not as a static property of the text but as a potentially active one. Information designers still take as a core principle that in signaling the structure of information, we should use color appropriately. But Web design, in contrast to designing for paper, asks us to use color differently to signal content. For example, rather than using a single color to highlight important related information as we might in an annual report, assuming that all links are read in the same sitting, online design demands that we consider the temporality of the shareholder’s experience. This means using more than one color (or shade of the same color), one for already visited links and another for new destinations. The whole notion of moving through time and space while engaging with content feels materially different on the Web.

Third, the Web has changed our ideas about what designing spatially means. Earlier visions of the field saw the two-page spread, the poster, or the book as the primary information landscape in which we work. Now the shape, size, and continuity of the landscape are moving targets. For example, consider computer screens, handheld devices, HDTV, and multidimensional spaces such as Imax planetarium shows. Additionally, the Web has required us to expand our repertoire to include full-motion video, animation, and sound in ways that were impossible a few decades ago.

Our theories have not kept up with the technology, and we have as a field tended to be reactive more than proactive. But that said, the Web has forced researchers and practitioners to think more critically about what we are doing and how we are doing it.

PJB: Thanks Karen for this extensive interview.

About Karen A. Schriver

Dr. Karen A. Schriver is president of KSA Document Design and Research, a consultancy based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An internationally recognized expert in communication and information design, Schriver has worked with universities, corporations, and government agencies around the globe. A former professor of rhetoric and document design at Carnegie Mellon University, Schriver has also worked with the University of Utrecht (Holland), the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Japanese Ministry of Education. This year she taught at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Now in its fifteenth year of business, KSA’s clients include Apple, IBM, Mitsubishi, AT&T, Sprint PCS, Internal Revenue Service, Sony, Hoffmann-LaRoche, Fujitsu, Lutron Electronics, the Canadian Department of Justice, and Microsoft. Her consultancy helps organizations harness the power of words and pictures to create information designs that meet the needs of their stakeholders. Since the publication of her first book Dynamics in Document Design (Wiley, 1997), she has been investigating how professionals in writing and design acquire their expertise. She is now working on a new book on the nature of expertise in information design.

About Peter J. Bogaards

With over almost twenty years of experience in information design, information architecture, and user-centered design, Peter is a recognized leader in the international information design and information architecture community. Prior to founding BogieLand, he worked for the InfoDesign & Usability Group of Razorfish Europe and was information and user interface designer of Informaat (The Netherlands). He was responsible for developing intentional user experiences, including user interface, site architecture, navigation and usability for clients such as eBay, Nokia, IBM, Nissan, and Vodafone. He is also Editor-in-Chief of ‘InfoDesign: Understanding by Design’ (http://www.informationdesign.org).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.