Wednesday, November 4, 2009

response to comment by Rob Waller

Rob suggests that bills (and other documents) are read in stages and that the focus changes as they are read and as decisions are made (See his comment below). While I agree with his point, the issue I was addressing has to do with the main purpose (in this case payment of a bill) and how it has been diluted by companies that feel they need to add additional content. My example shows 4 messages that come under the heading of “important”, but they are not as important as paying the bill. The bill detail should be the priority, not the messages. While it may be desirable to add these messages as well as other types of content, keep in mind that payment is the first priority.

Rob’s other comment is in regards to “transpromo” or as Rob says used to be called “relationship communications” or I say used to be called “cross sell.” This is all the same and it is all some form of marketing. Transpromo is utilizing documents to sell other products and services. Often, companies think they need to fill up any “white space” with marketing promotions and messages. While I agree that transactional documents (invoices, bills, statements, etc) are perfect opportunities to market, I believe that companies sometimes go too far and the main purpose of the document becomes diluted.

As an aside “white space” is an important tool in usability. It helps define areas within a document and helps to identify and highlight important information. If this space is used to add marketing messages, ads, etc., then important information becomes harder to find, read and act upon.
The use of transpromo (the current buzz word) in transactional documents needs to be done judicially. If companies go overboard, then customers will stop reading the messages, stop reading the personal information and may, even stop doing business with the company.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

the purpose of the document

Last time, I gave some suggestions about starting a redesign project. But I ended with the statement that you MUST determine the main purpose of the document first.

Most of the variable data documents I work with are perfect vehicles for marketing or cross selling or transpromo and no whatever you want to call it, they are all the same.

But bear in mind that each of these documents have one and only one main purpose. All other uses are secondary and should be treated as such.

So we agree, don’t we? There is only one main purpose. Let’s say it is an invoice and the company needs to get paid as soon as possible. The example I have included is my own lease invoice (shown above). This invoice (the company shall remain anonymous) has a detail section that consists of one line with the principal, interest and total (top of page 2). This is all the detail information I need to pay the invoice. In fact, this whole bill including my mailing address, return address, due date, etc. would actually take up only about ½ of a page. So it is safe to assume that one side of one sheet of paper is enough to do the job. Yet, there were months when four, yes I said 4, messages (listed as “important”) were included and preceded the detail information. This pushed the detail section to a second sheet of paper. Towards the end of the lease, the detail began appearing on the back of the first sheet, so only one piece of paper was used.

These four messages included: pay on line, pay by phone, in case of accident and remittance. All of these messages are important to a certain degree, but all are secondary to the payment of the invoice. These messages should have appeared after the detail and only those that could fit on one page should appear and in some kind of hierarchical order. Not every message is “important.” Generally speaking only one message is important, while others are “nice to haves.”

The simple answer to why this happened, I would guess marketing may have been involved, no one took the time to determine the purpose of the document, the user and the cost of adding pages, either the back of the first page or the second sheet.

I didn’t even talk about how often and how many of these messages get read. So, determining the main purpose and sticking to it, is critical.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

step one

There are many steps to a successful information document redesign. Keep in mind, the number of steps and the amount of time and detail required will vary depending on the complexity of the document or if there are multiple documents. First, let me say that when looking at an organization total forms and documents, it is always best to start small and build on successful redesign projects. Otherwise, the project may bog down and fail. Often times, we will start with one document or with one area of an organization and the documents that might be valuable within that area.

The first step in any redesign project is to create a project team and establish goals.

PROJECT TEAM - The project team should consist of key players within the organization. Often we have a large group, but a small subset is the day to day working team. The large group, however, needs to include a representative of the key departments that touch the document. This usually will include marketing, IT, legal, regulatory, customer service and more depending on the document. The members need to be people who can make a decision or at the very least, get to a decision maker within their department easily. This ensures two things, the project will keep moving and all departments will have a say and buy in to the decisions.

ESTABLISH GOALS – this is critical since to make the project a success, there needs to be a starting point from which to compare the results. Sometimes I found that this is difficult since most customer service groups don’t have hard facts about the problems with a document. But, there are other possible measurements; production savings, mailing and printing costs, error reductions and service time. All of these are important measurements and will help to determine the success of a project.

And, of course, determine the main purpose of the document.

Friday, September 11, 2009

a new definition for you

Here’s a new definition for you to ponder.

Information Design is not only the appropriate use of plain language, color, typography, the organization and logical grouping of content and the effective management of white space, BUT a clear and comprehensive understanding of the audiences for which the communications is intended.

Writers write, designers design, programmers program, testers test, etc, but who combines it all? I say I do as an Information Designer.

Although I’m still not sure what to call this thing I do, I think the definition is more concise, usable and understandable. In my mind it encompasses it all; graphic design, plain language, implementation, user testing, etc.

If any step in the process is left out, how do we know the document is successful?

In a recent post, Ginny Redish, made a very interesting observation about different types of materials when she referred to research done in the 70s and 80s. She said that they were put into two categories – “reading to learn” and “reading to do.” She goes on to say the “reading to learn” are textbooks whereas “reading to do” are documents in the workplace and in our functioning in every day life. They are used as reference documents and are skimmed and scanned to appreciate the types of information in them and then are returned to check specific information as the need arises.

Our lives are full of these “reading to do” documents. Unfortunately, most are confusing.

Most companies and organizations don’t want to spend the time and money to do testing of their critical documents. The reasons vary from cost to we know what is right. This is all well and good, but in reality it is the users who need to find information and act on it. And that brings up another point – users.

The definition of users is ALL of the people that touch or interact with a document, NOT just the outside customer. Take for instance, an invoice, yes, the customer must receive, review and pay it, but customer service people need to use it when answering inquiries, the payment coupon needs to be handled and read by someone within the organization who receives it and then acts upon it.

good information design encompasses many disciplines.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

poor information design CAN hurt companies

I’m back from my vacation to Colorado.

One of my biggest concerns, I’ve touched on this previously, is the lack of understanding within an organization of the negative reaction to poor information design.

A survey of people filling out forms was done a few years ago by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). They found out that when people had trouble with the form, didn’t understand it or found it too difficult, not only did they stop filling out the form, but 58% of the people stopped using the products or services of the company that generated the form.

This survey shows that organizations don’t understand the power of good information design. They lose customers and business without even realizing it! Most people understand the easiest and cheapest way to increase business is through existing clients. Companies don’t think about the impact of their every day, business documents (reports, bills, statements, even form letters, etc.) on their customers. But as the AIR survey shows, many people walk away to a competitor.

Companies generate invoices simply because they have to in order to stay in business, i.e., they send them out to get paid. But what happens when they are received. People will review them and if they are easy to understand (what am I being charged for? Is the amount correct?), then they will be paid in the normal course of events. That is assuming the due date and remittance address, etc. are easy to find.

But what happens if the invoice is not understood? Or perhaps seems to be wrong? Think of a credit card bill where the purchase description is not what you thought you bought. Many times the name is a different company. First off, you are not happy, next you might contact the company – think customer service time here (a real cost to the company) and your time talking with someone. Depending on the call, the question might not be answered necessitating further contact and customer service time. While waiting, you put the invoice aside and pay others. This costs the company money since they will wait for payment. And the bottom line for the customer is – this is not a pleasant experience – will they take their business elsewhere?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

usability testing

So, here I am again, with another post and hoping for some responses.

One of the biggest areas of concern is usability testing. When I talk to clients and potential clients, I am often told that it is not necessary. The reasons are many from budget TO our sales force knows what the clients are looking for TO customer service will tell us and more. Unfortunately, this information is generally not complete nor accurate. This is because either people are making assumptions or the wrong questions are being asked.

The reality is that unless testing is done (and retesting) you really don’t know how people perceive and use information. And then there is the type of testing – do you use focus groups, one-on-ones, etc. For statements, we use one-on-ones because statements are very personal and are generally used by individuals. This gives us a more realistic situation and allows us to ask pointed questions about the information contained in the document.

To this day, I am still surprised by the some of answers we get!

One time I did testing on an auto insurance policy. First we tested the existing policy package which contained about 30 individual pages and asked people to open and review the materials. One individual removed the pages and organized then in neat piles by category. I thought to myself – this person actually reads this stuff! When we started asking specific questions it turned out he had no clue what we were asking and where to find the information.

I take a lead from David Sless of Communications Research Institute (CRI) and talk testing, testing, and testing. Although this is very important part of information design, most clients don’t understand its value or how to conduct the testing to ensure the greatest value. I have found the statement usability testing is treated much like marketing testing. That is, people are asked which one they “like” and other subjective questions that don’t get to the root of understanding the document and the information contained in it.

If more companies tested their documents, they would be more successful and errors would be reduced, time would be saved internally, money would be saved in production and the customer base would have a more positive view of the organization.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What I do.

Well, in order to facilitate this blog/discussion, I think is important to let everyone know what I do and how I see myself fitting into this broad arena of information design.

My area of expertise lies mostly in the financial, insurance and healthcare industries. My focus is on paper documents, such as statements (brokerage, retirement, bank, etc), forms (enrollment, application, etc) and bills/invoices (utility, credit card, telecom, etc.).
The hardest part for me is explaining to people, whether it is clients, potential clients, friends or even my mother, what it is I do.

I try to encompass what I consider all aspects of good information design in the documents I work on, usability testing, plain language, graphic design, understanding of all the users, etc. But, more about that in future posts.

People should be able to find information easily and quickly and be able to understand it so that they can act upon it in the way that the company would like them to. If it is a bill, it needs to be paid, if it is a retirement statement – how much do I have, etc.

A lot of statement work comes from the marketing departments and they generally don’t understand the purpose of the document – in fact I think companies see documents as a necessary evil and are viewed as “we have to send an invoice” or “we are required by law” type of documents. No thought is given to the importance and the potential ramifications, both positive and negative, of these documents. It is interesting that companies spend thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars producing slick full color brochures, ads, and other marketing materials to get new business whereas any good salesman (or woman) knows that the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to generate new business is through existing customers.

Statements, invoices and other documents are sent to existing clients on a regular basis (monthly, yearly, etc) with personal information that WILL get read and they present an excellent opportunity to generate new business.

BUT, it must be done with care and the first step is to keep the existing customer happy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

information design - definitions?

Well, here I am again. I will try every few days to keep adding my thoughts to this blog and hope that you will react and add yours too.

I have enough topics to last for a while and you will see random thoughts but they will all be centered on this thing I call “information design.”

I hate to get into a discussion about the definition since all of us have our own. But maybe that is one of the problems. If you go to any of the websites: PLAIN. CPL, IIID, CRI, IDA, Wikipedia, etc. you will find different definitions. If you talk to information/graphic designers, writers/plain language experts, usability experts, user experience experts, etc., you will find different definitions, but we are all dealing with similar issues and are looking for the same end.

I’ll put my definition out there, but be forewarned, it is long and wordy. I have been struggling with this for many years. The reason for its wordiness is twofold, one – I am trying to incorporate many aspects and two – I’m not a writer!

“Information design is the result of a clear and comprehensive understanding of the businesses and audiences for which the communications is intended. And the appropriate use of plain language, the organization and logical grouping of information, the appropriate use of color and typography, and the effective management of white space.”

I warned you it was wordy!

Here’s another way:

“Information design is communicating effectively by providing the right information to the right person at the right time in a tried and tested way that it is easily understood.”

Again, I’m not sure it is the best. When it comes down to it, we, as communicators, need to be able to explain it, simply, clearly, understandably. When I was strictly a “graphic” designer, I used to open presentations by saying that it took my mother 10 years to understand what I do! Now, it is almost impossible!

I don’t want to get stuck on definitions, although at sometime we need something to put out there that easily explains our expertise. So if any of you want to chime in, please do.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

first time - many questions

I'm new to this blogging thing and i thought it would be interesting to get like minded people involved in discussions about what i call "information design." Now i know there are other sites, blogs, etc., but i hope that i will be coming from a different perspective.

First, i'm not sure if information design or plain language or anything else for that matter, is the right title.

Most of us are doing the same thing, that is, trying to get information to end users in a way that it is easily understood and acted upon. But, we come from all different walks of life, experiences, backgrounds, etc and although we agree on the end result, we disagree on how to get there.

There are writers (plain language experts), graphic designers (those more visual), user experience experts, software developers, psycologists, sociologists, usability experts, etc. the list is long and, to me, confusing. Some of us work online (user interface), some with paper documents (me), some in small formats (PDAs,) etc, yet somehow we are all trying to do the same thing.

Many people i meet think that what they do is the solution. I disagree. My premise is that in order to deliver information clearly and effectively, all of our expertise needs to come together.

I often tell plain language experts that if they show me a document where the language is terrible, i will make it seem to the reader that they understand it because of the way i organize the information within the document. On the other hand, it you give me the same document written in very clear plain language, i will make it so it will be totally unreadable.

My point is that it all has to work together. My hope is that with this blog, contributions from others and a meeting of the minds, we can create a unifed powerful industry working together.

i hope that this blog will set up a dialogue among the many different practitioners.

Let me hear from you.