Designing Information

by Neil Verplank (bio) email neil Other articles

    What exactly is Information Design? Well, have you ever sorted your books alphabetically? Organized your recipes? Rearranged your desk? Then you've done some information design. And although people have been organizing information for a long, long time, information design as a defined field of study is relatively young.

    When it comes down to it, everything is information -- everything we look at, taste, touch, smell - it can all be quantified by information. There are 26 letters, about 1,500 words and 7,600 characters on this page, which tells you absolutely nothing about its content or purpose. By itself, information is often meaningless; it is only when taken in some context that information has any real value. Information design is about meaning -- assigning, conveying, even discovering meaning in a sea of data.

    We have a tendency to think only of accumulated words and numerical data as "information" -- conjuring up images of telephone books, databases, libraries, charts & graphs. Indeed, these are familiar forms of Information Design -- someone has thought about how to arrange the information you're seeing.

    But take a minute to look at the nearest chair. Is it plastic? Wooden? Metal? Does it have padding? Arms? A table attached? Is it in a long row of chairs, or sitting near a table or desk? The pieces and parts of a chair help inform us of its purpose. The designer has arranged the features of the chair to suit its particular use; that same arrangement helps tell us how and where we might expect to find or use that chair.

    Equally, however, we inform the chair - we are able to put it in context because we are familiar with the concept of "chair," and have seen one in probably just about every imaginable setting. We can distinguish a high-chair from an office chair because we've sat in both at one time or another. We imbue the chair with meaning through experience. Of course, the chair helps inform us of its purpose - its lines and materials have meaning and convey information about how you would use it; however, it is our own experience that lends context to the chair.

    More traditionally (if there can be traditions in such a young field), information design is the process of creating the underlying structure in new media - the web in particular. It is the process of defining and arranging the information that will be made available to the users. It's tempting to think that this is merely a process of inclusion - picking all the things you want to say and show, and doing so, but particularly with large and complex sites, it is not nearly so easy.

    Perhaps the easiest way to explain is with a simple example. Stanford University is having a reunion of the Mendicants, an all-male choir. Since 1963, there have been 203 members, each having participated for a varying number of years; in each year, exactly one member was the "pitch pipe" - the leader of the group. This description is one way to "display" information about the Mendicants.

    Another way is to simply list all the information, as on this page. As you can see, the description and the list have little in common -- you could draw the textual description from the page listing all the members, but you could never create the larger list from the short description above. However, neither way necessarily answers the questions people are likely to ask: "who's coming to the reunion?" "who else did I sing with?" "where's mr. x these days?" The above description leaves out virtually all the information, and although the listing page contains a lot of information, it's hard to sort through visually -- it's hardly very helpful.

    Here's another way to arrange the information. Now we've codified the information on the list by adding columns, spacing and color - you can see that years flow from left to right, and it's apparent what group of people started together, as they're visually "grouped" through indentation and left justification. I've also added color to indicate which people led the group in a given year, and you can see how long someone participated by the length of the bar. However, you now have an incredibly large and unwieldy page to look at. To cheat a phrase: it's hard to see the trees for the forest.

    Instead, let's insert a page that let's you "ask" some questions of the data, and get an answer. Now you can only get the smaller and more obvious response. We could also make each name a hyperlink to that person's biography, address and email, adding another layer of information to the page, but you get the idea.

    As you can see, none of the pages are necessarily appealing - they still need a graphic designer's touch - but you begin to see that deciding what to show, what to leave out, and how to represent different aspects of the overall glut of information can make an astonishing difference.

    So, although we speak of information, it is in fact meaning that we are looking for, and meaning requires a dialog -- a speaker and listener, a reader and writer, a figure and ground -- a perceiver and the perceived. If we look to a chair to find its purpose, then it is convenient to think of the chair as the speaker -- a dialog doesn't necessarily require two people - it only needs a question and an answer. If we look at the different lists of Mendicants, it's immediately apparent that although all the pages theoretically contain the same information, some arrangements are decidedly better than others at helping you understand what you're looking at.

    To me then, information design is the process of giving meaning to a set of data, whether that data is words, numbers, or visual information. More specifically, it is the process of organizing data so that it will have meaning for its intended audience. And data need not be numbers or words - any information can be given meaning through organization and context.

"Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, and that is all you need to know."

    Information Design is as much about finding beauty as it is imparting logic. I'm probably on dangerous ground here - after all, beauty is an extremely subjective term. The point is that good information design creates meaning through an intuitive organization that is, or should be, readily apparent to the viewer; the meaning becomes apparent through symmetry, patterns, colors, spacing, and the smaller elements and choices that have been made that combine into something I would call beauty. I think well-founded design, including information design, transcends anything obvious to become beautiful in its own way.

    There are some that would argue that making information "beautiful" is the interaction designer's roll. As with the Stanford example, there are levels of beauty; the results page you saw was hardly "beautiful" from an aesthetic perspective. Yet you are able to learn things about the people, such as what group started together, even though it isn't necessarily pointed out on the page. There is a subtlety to the information you're acquiring. Hyperlinks are a perfect example of this - no one has to tell you which words on the page are links, they "reveal themselves" to you.

    Both meaning and beauty can arise from a well-thought out structure. I don't necessarily mean that it's the information designer's role to make information look "great," rather that good information design is about creating clarity among and even between the ones and zeroes, the words and spaces.

    Ultimately, we perceive information through structure, by distinguishing between figure and ground. It is the task of the information designer to make certain that there is meaning in the underlying structure. Good information design is able convey meaning quickly, concisely and consistently. Do not be fooled by these adverbs - finding a cohesive structure that is able to quickly impart the same meaning to many people, with the elegance and grace that good design demands is no easy task.

    By the way, to distinguish -- interaction design is about how you see the data, information design is about what data you see. Interaction design is about creating the lens through which you look at the information, information design is about the underlying structure and data. These processes go hand in hand -- the interface needs to be informed by the underlying structure; yet thinking about the lens through which you will look is imperative in order to organize the underlying data.

    The challenge is to find a structure that makes sense not only to the designer, but to the programmer, the database experts, and ultimately, to the many users who will interact with the data. Edward R. Tufte has a wonderful book entitled Envisioning Information that dramatically illustrates the difference between bad, or "ugly" design, and good or "beautiful" design by showing the same sets of data in a variety of ways. It's immediately apparent that a chart of raw numbers, when compared to a well thought out graph makes all the difference in how easy (or difficult) it is to find meaning in a set of data.

Dynamic Layers of Meaning

    One of the specific challenges the web offers is that of dynamic information. Large web sites and underlying databases afford multiple different views of the same information, depending on who you are and how you've arrived at your particular view. Information can appear on multiple pages, in multiple contexts, and on a variety of platforms. The web is fundamentally interactive and dynamic - you move through the information in a very active way, unlike any other medium.

    This presents an extraordinary challenge to the information designer: a book, magazine, newspaper - they are all static. Even television is a one-way broadcast channel, and the only real option you have with a program is to turn it on or off.

    Not so with the web - the experience can be tailored to each individual, the underlying information is constantly changing, and your context for viewing is incredibly dynamic. The Mendicants is one example - we moved from a very static list to two dynamic and different views, depending on what context you see the information in; one view even highlights you (if you're an alumni). As the amount and complexity of the data grows, so does the information designer's task.

    Probably the single most important tool in a large and dynamic site is the database - literally a warehouse of information potentially available to the viewer. How do you decide what goes in the database? How do you create relationships in the data? And finally, how do you show the right information to the person who's asking? How do you personalize the data for each individual viewer? Should you even try?

    I think one of the best ways to answer these questions is to put yourself in the position of the viewer - how do you make the data relevant to the person who's actually looking at it? The very first thing I do when designing a site or a database is to write down a long list of questions I think any user is likely to ask. This includes not only John Doe, but your clients, friends, and your company itself -- all are likely to be using the site.

    Getting feedback from the client and other users about the questions they ask is equally important. Then, sift through the questions and find the short list - the most common and obvious questions. Sometimes this process is straightforward -- sells books; when someone walks into the store, the first question is, "what do you like to read?" Indeed, if you take the time to fill out a profile, that's exactly the question that you get asked. It's also helpful to layer the questions - are you a new user? are you an employee? These simple but important questions dictate the questions to follow. Someone who's used the site dozens of times isn't likely to have the same questions as a first-timer.

    It's also helpful to think about what the required questions are. For instance, to be able to answer, "what time is it?" or, "what's the weather like?" you must ask "where do you live?" There's an important point here, and that is that in order to personalize a user's experience, you don't necessarily have to have an individual profile -- "what's the weather" has the same answer for a fairly large group of people - you don't have to know their name or their street address to answer that question.

    You must also think about the answer, specifically, the form the answer must take. Probably the shortest answer to "where do you live" is a zip code - 5 digits that pinpoint someone's location well enough to answer questions about time and weather. You don't actually need someone's name and street address.

    Conversely, it's important to think about what kinds of questions people are willing to answer - a zip code isn't very personal, and is easy to give up, especially when it results in narrowing down the response. Providing a list of favorite books is fairly personal, but again, Amazon doesn't necessarily need a street address in order to make recommendations. The point is, it's important to think about what information the user will be willing to give -- asking irrelevant questions isn't likely to produce a willing response. Once you've bought a book, and need it shipped, the user will have to identify their location, and it becomes a relevant question.

    The single best way to identify valuable questions is to imagine yourself in a one-on-one conversation with a user. If you expect people to return to your site frequently, you can up the ante -- imagine that you have begun to get to know the user. You would hardly want to ask your best friend what their name is; conversely, you probably wouldn't ask a stranger deeply personal questions.

    Probably the single biggest mistake designers make is focusing solely on whether or not they like what they see, whether or not it makes sense to them -- the real question is whether it makes sense to everybody. The mark of truly good information design is that the answer, the page, the site makes sense to everybody who's going to look at it, from the casual passerby to the most intimate user, and that everyone has a reasonable and pleasant experience. You don't want to annoy your best customer with trivial information you should already know; equally, you don't want to frighten away a virtual stranger with a lot of information that just doesn't make any sense.


by Neil Verplank (bio) email neil Other articles