The purpose of this article is to present my ideas related to the concept and profession of information design. My analysis and thoughts will be based on Saul Carliner’s contribution to information design and technical communication. I will discuss his current influence to the field as well as the most relevant ideas presented in his articles:
- A Three-Part Framework for Information Design
- Information Designer’s Skills in the Technical Communication Career Path
Some years ago when I was in school, I used to go to libraries and spent some time reading encyclopedias. Today, I can still go to a library and find encyclopedias, but I also have Google. Not so long ago, we spent hours doing tasks that would take us seconds today. Just remember how much time you devoted to find directions to a place you have never been before, or the time you spent getting the latest stock quotes. Information today is quick, available, and in many cases, free. Technology created an information revolution that has changed our lives.
We already found the way to make information accessible, and now, we are more concerned about information design and architecture. The purpose of this article is to share my thoughts related to information design and Carliner’s contribution and influence to technical communication.
According to the International Institute for Information Design (IIID), information design is the defining, planning, and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments it is presented in with the intention of achieving particular objectives in relation to the needs of users.
Writing a great document takes more than writing words. A great document is a piece of art that involves planning, thinking, knowledge, structure, creativity, visual design, and quality assurance among other things. Information design is a systematic set of frameworks, tools, and methodologies used to create great documents that improve user experience.
Saul Carliner's Contribution and Influence to Technical Communication
I admire people who contribute to humankind by creating and sharing ideas, theories, frameworks, methodologies, and tools that change and improve other people’s lives.
Saul Carliner is a revolutionary thinker that has contributed significantly to the information design field and technical communication profession. Saul Carliner is recognized internationally and his ideas and work have been adopted by companies such as Microsoft, IBM, UPS, 3M, and more. Some years ago, Saul Carliner was the international president of the Society of Technical Communication. Today, Saul Carliner is working as an independent consultant and as an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University in Montreal. To benefit the technical communication community, Saul Carliner shares resources such as articles, books, worksheets, and quick references.
Saul Carliner has explored and written material related to information design. Among all the material related to information design, you can find two interesting articles:
- A Three-Part Framework for Information Design
- The Information Designer’s Place in a New Career Path
I will discuss in detail some ideas, thoughts, and facts that Saul Carliner presents in these articles and that I found most interesting.
A Three-Part Framework for Information Design
This article explores the limitations of document design and provides some definitions of information design. The author also describes the three levels at which document design occurs and presents a framework that helps information designers to cover all the aspects of document design.
Saul Carliner starts the article by exposing the fact that many different tasks are involved in preparing documents; so many tasks that document design “broadens the role of technical documentation beyond the boundaries of writing and page design.” According to Carliner, technical communicators in the past 20 years were concerned about writing the document; however, some technical writers devoted more energy and time to visual design (layout, typography, colors, and so on), and choices of media (online help, Web sites, help files, and so on). Some technical writers forgot that users are more concerned about the content than the form. I really agree with the author’s idea that today lots of documents are visually attractive, but lack “thought-through technical concepts” and don’t help users to solve problems. Knowledge and technical accuracy should be the principal ingredients of a great technical document.
“Somehow, the practice of design as improving the appearance of pages and screens has replaced the concept of design as problemsolving, even though published definitions of document design suggest otherwise.” (Carliner)
To address this problem, the so-called concept of information design emerged. As I discussed earlier, writing a great document takes more than writing words and information design is concerned with all the different activities and tasks involved in creating a great document. The author shares different definitions for information design, but the one I found most compelling is:
“Information design helps explain things and uses language, typography, graphic design, systems, and business process improvement as its key tools. Information design is focused on users and is committed to using usability and other research and testing to find out whether its products actually achieve their objectives.” (Text matters 1996)
To help technical writers, Carliner proposes a model that approaches information design on three levels:
- Physical: The ability to find information. While designing information, technical communicators should be concerned with providing the means to help users to find information and satisfy their knowledge need.
- Cognitive (intellectual): The ability to understand information. While designing information, technical communicators should be concerned of providing the means to help users to understand information.
- Affective (emotional): The ability to feel comfortable with the presentation of the information. While designing information, technical communicators should be concerned of providing the means to motivate users to use information.
The following figure presents Carliner’s three-part framework for information design, which exposes the different issues and processes that a technical communicator should consider while developing documents.
Figure 1. Physical, cognitive, and affective—A three-part model of design for technical communication products.
The author concludes the article by presenting the strengths and limitations of the framework. I really agree with him that a strength of the model is that it actually acknowledges the broader role that technical communicators might have and places them in one framework. As all models, it is limited because theory is not the same as practice; however, the model considers many interesting points that should be considered to write great documents.
Information Designer’s Skills in the Technical Communication Career Path
This article continues the author’s discussion of how technical communicators today need skills that involve more than “wordsmithing.” The work of technical communicators has changed so much that companies have created new positions that refer to technical communicators as information designers or information architects. A new profession was born.
According to Carliner, information designers are professionals that act as architects of projects, solving the complex communication problems presented by project sponsors (that is, the programmers, engineers, marketing professionals and others who hire us to communicate their technical content with a group of designated users) and developing the blueprints of the solution that will be both acceptable to sponsors (Robinson and Robinson 1989) and effective with the intended users.
The idea that I found most interesting in this article, is that information designers need knowledge related with three fields:
- Technology: Information designers need to develop competencies in the technology they are communicating. Knowledge and expertise of the technology will help them to create accurate and solid conceptual documentation.
- Industry: Information designers need to be aware of the way one or two industries work. They can then use that knowledge to better target material to an intended audience.
- Business: Information designers need to understand budgets, schedules, constraints (financial and competitive), and project management in general. A document is a project.
The author concludes the article by recognizing that technical communication is an interdisciplinary field and that various types of information designers exist depending on the specific needs for each company.
“More than a job description, information design is a cultural shift for technical communicators that can have profound effects not only on our jobs but on the way we approach our work." (Carliner)
This world has infinite resources of information and the information design field is concerned with all the elements that helps us to create information resources that are valuable to users. Information design considers the different aspects of document design that work together in harmony to create great documents.
Technical writing involves information design; and to be a great information designer you need business skills, project management skills, graphic design skills, people skills, writing and editing skills, and the most important thing: technical expertise and knowledge on the field that you are writing about.
If you are a software engineer or technical writer, I strongly recommend you to start reading and researching about information design. Understanding the different components of information design and using the resources available to improve document design will help you to create great documents.
"One of the most important skills for almost everyone to have in the next decade and beyond will be those that allow us to create valuable, compelling, and empowering information and experiences for others." (Nathan Shedroff)