Information eXperience Design
Applying Design Thinking to the traditional information development process to deliver great user experience.
Sally, a young entrepreneur, is jogging on the streets of downtown San Francisco with her dog. She’s listening to music on her iPhone when a DM (direct message) from one of her Twitter followers interrupts her. She stops at the next available crosswalk to check the message. In less than 140 characters, her follower tells her about a new sewing machine for sale on Amazon with a link to the sale. She clicks the link, goes to Amazon.com, reads the description of the sewing machine, glances through some of the customer reviews, and buys it using Amazon’s “one-click buy” option. The entire transaction from receiving the direct message to buying the sewing machine takes her less than a minute.
Sounds incredible? I don’t think so. All of us seem to be doing that these days. Whether it’s reading a newspaper in the loo or listening to an audio book while driving to work, we are constantly consuming information, making decisions, and sharing knowledge at the speed of thought.
Technical Writers need to evolve quickly to remain relevant in this new reality. While many successful writers comfortably switched over to developing “alternative” content like blogs and videos, the real solution lies in designing an immersive information experience.
The world is “hyper-communicative.” Everybody can communicate with everybody AND (almost) anything. Your refrigerator, for instance, can tell you when you run out of milk! To add to the “hyper-communicativeness” of things, technology is getting simpler. Most consumer products don’t need manuals and training—just enthusiasm and a genuine need.
This “experience revolution” is not restricted to consumer products alone. Employees are now demanding this “consumer-like” experience in their work environments. Many companies are launching Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC) and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs to allow employees to use devices of their choice at work. Enterprise software vendors, such as Citrix, SAP, and IBM, are responding to this revolution with easy-to-use products that are easy not just for the end-user, but also for the administrator. Work hours and workplaces are becoming flexible, and the lines between work and life are blurring. Add globalization to the mix, and this entire scenario of work and play from anywhere is becoming a global phenomenon.
With this Consumerization of IT, dull and boring enterprise software is getting a much-needed face-lift (or retirement). Complex software and hardware that once needed thick manuals and training are now being replaced by simpler solutions. This, however, has not changed one essential thing—that information is the lifeblood of any business. Because technology has made information accessible and constant, the need is even greater to make information more ‘usable.’ Information consumption is no longer a step to the adoption of a product or service—it is a part of the experience itself.
As an information developer, technical writer, or content architect, you can use/explore new ways such as Design Thinking to enable users to succeed.
Design Thinking 101
Design Thinking is a methodology based on the simple premise that the most successful products and services are those that address a genuine human need. The methodology I’m referring to is the one developed at Stanford University, CA. Embodied in a simple 5-step process, Design Thinking can be practiced by almost anyone. The methodology encourages practitioners to develop a clear and holistic view of the user’s experience as shown in Figure 1.
Here’s a highly condensed version of the process:
- Empathize: Understand user needs.
- Define: Identify user needs and insights.
- Ideate: Generate radical ideas for solving the user need.
- Prototype: Develop physical (or electronic) models of your ideas.
- Test: Assess the feasibility of the idea with real users by showing them the prototype.
You don’t need a degree in design to be an Information eXperience (Ix) Designer. Rather, you need to be passionate about delivering a great user experience.
What is Information Experience Design?
Ix Design borrows heavily from the Design Thinking methodology. To understand Ix Design, let’s first understand Ix itself.
Information experience is the fundamental human act of receiving, assimilating, and sharing information. The experience varies from person to person based on a person’s learning style, skill level, environment, and other relevant factors. For instance, take the use of instructional videos. Despite their widespread use, they might not be popular with kinesthetic learners, those who learn by performing a task. So a video tutorial will represent a poor user experience for such users.
The ideal information experience is when a person receives the right information, at the right time, in the right format. This experience can be crafted and fine-tuned. To do that you need to understand the user, and the user’s needs, very well. Thanks to content marketing technology, creating the ideal experience is relatively simple. Many content providers like Amazon and Netflix are doing so already. They profile their users, anticipate their needs, and then deliver the right content to the right user at a time of the user’s choosing.
Ix Design is the process of creating the ideal information experience for a specific user or demographic. It is like writing the script for a play where you define characters and the experiences that they go through. Broadly speaking, Ix Design involves identifying personas and their information needs, determining their journey, and finally defining their Ix use cases.
Technical Writing and Ix Design?
Traditional technical writing is not as rewarding as it used to be. Writers are often called upon to do the unglamorous (and often unrewarding) work of documenting new features, bugs, known issues, and most importantly, the steps to perform a task. It’s not surprising, then, to see technical writers looking at other avenues for growth or more creative ways to communicate. But the big problem is that technical writing is not even looked upon as a strategic investment. Most organizations look at it as a way to explain a product or a service that is just too expensive to redesign and simplify. Many others look at it as a way to comply with laws. Traditional content (including technical documentation) is a symptom of poor design, and technical writers are unfortunately caught up in the business of producing this content. Given a choice, most writers would rather redesign a product or service than document it.
Ix Design combines the solidity and rigor of traditional technical writing and instructional design with the fluidity and lightness of Design Thinking. To be a successful Ix Designer, one needs the empathy of a doctor, the creativity of a child, the agility of a war reporter, and the business savvy of a stock portfolio manager. Now this might sound like a lot, but it’s not.
All seasoned technical writers look at themselves as user evangelists first and writers second. Ix Design just opens up the vistas for such writers by enabling them to influence the entire customer journey instead of just the “product usage” part (See Figure 2). Now some might argue that creating awareness is the job of the marketing folks. I disagree. Social media has empowered potential users with the ability to gain awareness from the community instead of from the marketing folks.
Table 1 summarizes the differences between technical writing and Ix Design.
Ix Design Process: Three Steps to Nirvana
Designing a great Information Experience is a simple three-step process as shown in Figure 3. It does not require any special skills—or let me put it this way—it does not require any skill that a seasoned technical writer does not already have. To many old-timers, this is just going back to basics—with a subtle difference.
Envision the End State
Envisioning the end state is the most important aspect of Ix Design. It is all about visualizing how the user’s experience is going to play out and then testing it with real users before developing content. To do this successfully, you need to develop deep user empathy and use that empathy to develop a solution that truly addresses the user’s needs. To do this
- develop a journey map for your product or solution.
- identify all the user personas—end users, decision makers, administrator, and so on.
- obtain insights into what each persona needs from the product or solution.
- run a workshop with all key stakeholders. Present the insights and get them thinking about how the user needs can be met. If need be, hire a professional facilitator.
- create prototypes of all the artifacts a real user will encounter when using your product or solution. These could be sample web sites, marketing e-mails, product UI, support calls, content, and so on. Mock everything up and get the group to study the big picture. Does the experience look pretty? What are the stumbling blocks?
- capture the entire experience as a story and test it with real users. Incorporate the prototypes in the story. That way, when users look at real samples, they will have more realistic feedback for you.
If you are “just a writer,” use this opportunity to create a “holistic” content plan for your organization that captures all use cases, and builds deliverables to address the different use cases.
If you have been a technical writer or a content developer for a long time, then you probably have mixed feelings about gathering information. And why not? This is probably one of those times when you feel vulnerable. It is not unusual for subject matter experts to treat you like an ignoramus. Crowdsourcing knowledge is a different ball game altogether. It is probably the most interesting and exciting aspect of Ix Design.
Unlike information gathering, crowd sourcing is about getting subject matter experts to create content. You get to be the director of the show, and they are the actors. By playing the role of the customer advocate, you get to decide what content is most suitable for the user. In this case, crowd-sourced knowledge can be directly shared with users with little or no curation.
Crowdsourcing is also a great way to establish yourself as a communication expert. You can use this opportunity to train subject matter experts to develop different kinds of content. For instance you can train people to write blogs, create infographics, present in front of cameras, create presentations, and so on.
To be successful with crowd-sourcing,
- create a central and secure repository for storing content. Any CMS will do. Just make sure that all contributors have access.
- create a simple set of standards—voice and tone, formatting, and so on.
- train contributors to use the tools and create content.
- encourage contributors by rewarding them.
Manage Your Information Portfolio
It’s interesting how differently content is referred to in various industries. In the world of advertisement and marketing, content items are called assets. In the engineering world they are called deliverables. This difference in vocabulary points to a fundamental distinction in mindset—marketers expect content to boost sales and hence generate revenue. To do this, marketers spend a lot of time and effort in understanding their user segments and developing impactful content for them. They then carefully track the performance of each asset on a regular basis to ensure that it‘s delivering value. Non-performing assets are either refreshed or pulled down. Take a billboard on the freeway. It is a marketing asset. When’s the last time you saw a billboard go unchanged for several months at a stretch?
The key to delivering real value through Ix is by making this mind shift from deliverables to assets. When you manage your information as an asset, you begin to think like a shrewd investor. You begin to look at ways to deliver maximum value to the customer through minimum investment.
The best way to achieve this point of view is by incorporating content marketing practices into your delivery process. Try using content marketing tools to script the experience, deliver assets, and measure their performance.
Here are a few tips to help you monetize the holistic content plan:
- Work with your sales and marketing teams to
- • understand the financial parameters used to track the effectiveness of campaigns.
- • understand how they advertise and promote your product and how to measure the effectiveness of those promotions.
- Talk to content marketing people to figure out how their skills can be used in your area.
- Use Google analytics to get data on the effectiveness of design elements on your web site.
- Have regular meetings with stakeholders to present content plans, like a stock portfolio, and study jointly with them.
- Do not shy away from removing nonperforming assets. Don’t be afraid to not support or produce assets that do not deliver value.
The way people consume and share information changes rapidly. Design thinking is a philosophy that can help address this change. By applying design thinking to the traditional technical writing process, technical writers can transform themselves into a strategic group within any organization.
About the Author:
Citrix Systems, Inc.
Mathew leads the Information Experience practice at Citrix. An ardent supporter of DITA, he is a regular speaker at CIDM’s hugely popular CMS/DITA North America conference. When he is not evangelizing DITA and Ix, Matt spends his time traveling.