JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Note: This is the fifth article in an eight-part series on the key characteristics that we measure in the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM). Here’s the sequence of articles to date:


For August, let me explain why we include information design as one of the eight key characteristics of process maturity.

Information design in the Information Process Maturity Model
Most of the key characteristics in the IPMM focus on issues of process management: planning projects, estimating and tracking effectively, ensuring quality, and managing costs. However, two of the characteristics allow us to examine the effectiveness of an organization in serving the needs of customers: information design and quality management.

Information design asks how innovative ideas are brought into the organization. When we look at an immature organization, we find that information design hardly exists, except in the hands of some energetic and talented individuals. To become a more mature organization, managers and team members must find ways to bring new ideas about information design into play.

What is information design?
First, we need some clarity around the concept of information design. Since the advent of desktop publishing, information design has been confused with page layout. When asked if they have innovated in information design, many technical communicators point to changes in the look of their publications. “We’ve changed the layout, written a new style guide, changed the fonts, and provided an HTML-based style to make reading easier on screen.”

All of these design changes may in fact have benefited customers by making a publication more attractive and readable. Marshall McLuhan reminded us many years ago that the presentation medium is an important contributor to the message (if no longer regarded as the only thing).1

But information design is much more than layout. Information design is the process of developing content that meets the needs of the audience—all the needs of the audience. Excellent information design meets the needs of the audience in extraordinary ways. When we interview users of exemplary information design, they tell us that they “… were able to get started quickly, find the answers to their questions easily, and achieve their goals with great aplomb.”

If we compare information design with product design, we understand that good (or great) information design provides value to the customer. Customers with great information in hand use the products and services they buy from us with ease.

How does information design happen?
Information design in our organizations occurs in two ways: in-depth understanding of customer information needs and exposure to innovative design ideas in our field.


Excellent information design requires customer research
By understanding our customers and how they use information in their environment, we are prepared to design more effective and powerful communications. Take, for example, the technical professional who uses the product documentation to investigate and troubleshoot difficult problems. That individual is most likely to look for reference data (specifications and measurements) and to look for background information containing the accumulated insights of other experts. The troubleshooting professional is unlikely to find much assistance in step-by-step procedures that explain how to complete screens and dialog boxes.

Team members who understand the needs of this customer may begin to focus their information-development activities on assembling and updating critical data and making it easily accessible online. They may also exert pressure on technical experts inside the company and from the user community to provide valuable conceptual information. In one case, such a team worked with industry consultants to “ghost” author technical papers on the nuances of using the products.

But innovation does not occur only through customer studies. Knowing what the customers want to know does not always lead to the best solutions when the team has no resources other than its own experience. In fact, in such circumstances, the team brainstorms a solution that may have already been rejected by skilled and innovative designers in the field.

Excellent information design requires exposure to design innovations in the community
Innovations in information design occur regularly in the technical information community. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) awards innovations in its annual technical publications competition. The top winners in the STC competition are available to local chapters for display and discussion. Whenever we had the traveling exhibit in Denver, I made sure that my staff got a good look at the design innovations of the winners. One of the online information design winners a few years ago, Autodesk, has become a key example of structured writing. Autodesk’s structured online documentation is an excellent example of using structured writing to build consistent information for the customer.

Earlier this year, Palmer Pearson, senior manager at Cadence Design Systems and member of the CIDM advisory council, started a Council for Innovation among companies in the north Boston area. Their group has expanded rapidly because members believe it incumbent upon them to learn about innovations in information design. By learning new ideas introduced in sister organizations, they are better prepared to innovate in their own organizations.

How, then, do we, as managers, ensure that our staff members are challenged to explore innovative design ideas? We must ensure that they are exposed to new ideas in the community by
funding participation in CIDM, STC, and other industry conferences and insisting that attendees return with reports on innovations in design
encouraging participation in local organizations devoted to design, including not only STC but also local chapters of the HFES (Human Factors and Ergonomics Society), UPA (Usability Professionals Association), IEEE PCS (the Professional Communications Society of the IEEE), and others
investigating training opportunities locally and nationally and making them available to team members, including training in minimalism
asking team members to subscribe to publications on design, such as the Information Design Journal, publications of various STC Special Interest Groups, and others and report regularly to team members on successful new ideas
asking team members to read books on information design, such as Karen Schriver’s The Dynamics of Document Design,2and report to the team


Measuring the success of an innovative design idea
Exposure to innovations in information design helps to encourage team members to think creatively about their work and to take an active role in finding better ways to respond to customer needs. But innovation for its own sake is dangerous. We always want to introduce new designs carefully and measure the results. We must ensure that the innovation delivers value to the customer rather than only delivering kudos to the designer. We must ensure that the cost of the innovation is balanced with a measurement pointing to the design’s effectiveness and the value proposition that it supports.

Take, for example, Beth Barrow’s minimalism redesign efforts at Nortel Networks a few years ago. Beth had employed a consulting team to study the customers’ information needs. In response to the study’s findings, the team decided to drastically reduce the volume of documentation and to focus on procedures rather than “filler” and background information. As a result of their minimalism innovations, they reduced the volume of documentation by 75%, representing hundreds of pages of information customers did not need.

Since the goal was to increase the usability of the documentation, the team members waited with “baited breath” for the results. Once the documentation was released, they were somewhat surprised to learn that the number of customer calls had increased significantly, rather than decreasing as they had expected. However, once they investigated the reasons behind the increase, they discovered that customers were calling to point out errors in the documentation. In fact, the errors had been in the documents for years. Only with the reduced number of words were the customers reading and finding the mistakes. The result of their innovation was impressive. Customers were using the documentation actively, apparently for the first time.

A return in customer satisfaction and engagement with documentation, in lieu of calls to customer support, is valuable, even when the innovation involves a degree of risk. To mitigate the potential risks, try testing a new design idea in the customer community. Early feedback will help you iterate your design ideas and arrive at better solutions. Recognize that innovation can disrupt traditional patterns of use among legacy customers. Introduce an innovation in small enough pieces that they are not too disruptive.

At the same time, recognize that all innovations are disruptive to some people some of the time. Realize that you must innovate to remain effective. Many managers tell me that they cannot improve the quality of their documentation because the translation costs would increase. They keep delivering information that is obviously flawed. Insist that no excuse is acceptable if it means delivering bad information. If your innovative ideas are sound and well tested, they will return value far exceeding the cost of implementing.

Introducing innovation to your team
To begin a design innovation program in your organization
expose staff members to innovative ideas about information design.
study your customer’s information requirements and use the results to stimulate innovative thinking about design.
pursue a minimalist agenda. Minimalism is, in my view, the single most stimulating program for design.
assess the value of the innovation. If it does not deliver clear value to the customer, it’s probably not a good idea.
weigh the cost of innovation against its potential value. But don’t let initial costs bar the path to innovation.

And don’t forget. Once you’ve instituted a design innovation and measured your results, submit your ideas for the next Rare Bird Award. Your submissions for 2005 are due by August 12.

1Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan and Lewis H. Lapham, 1964, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2The Dynamics of Document Design, Karen Schriver, 1996, New York: John Wiley & Sons.