On Tuesday I attended a free webinar led by David Singer, content development manager at Information Mapping. The company does clear communication consulting, training, and implementation—for a host of clients across different industries—based on a method developed by psychologist Robert E. Horn.
The method provides a systematic way for authors to create structured, modular content that’s easy for users to find and understand. Singer demonstrated, with a before-and-after exercise, how presenting information within a paragraph often buries it, whereas a table, for example, can make retrieval of certain kinds of information much more efficient.
Singer noted that although people think clear communication and plain language is all about lines, labels, and white space to break up information and make it easier to read and digest, the presentation aspect is really just the tip of the iceberg; before the information can be presented, it must be analyzed to ascertain the best way to organize it.
The Information Mapping method is a set of best practices with three major components. It uses
- the theory of information types to allow you to analyze your material,
- information management principles to help you organize your content in a modular and hierarchical way, and
- units of information that allow you to present your content for quick retrieval and understanding.
Most information falls into one of six information types, as identified by Robert Horn:
- procedure—e.g., instructions on how to do something
- process—e.g., description of how something works
- principle—e.g., description of a standard or a convention
- concept—e.g., description of a new idea or object
- structure—e.g., description of an object’s components
- fact—e.g., empirical information
Using information types helps writers work efficiently, making it easy to see contradictions, redundancies, and gaps. Different information types are best presented in different ways, so by classifying content into information types, writers can easily decide how to present information, and users quickly recognize what they’re looking for.
Information management is based on three principles: chunking, relevance, and labelling.
- Chunking: group information into small, manageable chunks.
- Relevance: limit each group or “unit of information” to a single topic, purpose, or idea.
- Labelling: give each unit of information a meaningful name.
Miller’s Law states that our short-term memory can typically store 7±2 items. By grouping information into smaller chunks and labelling each group, we can vastly increase recall. The label primes your user to expect and be receptive to the content.
Units of information
Singer demonstrated that for a lot of information out there—business information is a particular example—narrative paragraphs are inefficient at conveying an idea quickly. Information Mapping supports the notion of information blocks, each of which encompasses a single main idea. Each of these blocks might consist of sentences, a list, a table, a graphic, or multimedia, and they are labelled and visually separated from one another (by a horizontal rule, say).
These blocks are put together into an information map, maps are grouped into topics, and, finally, topics into documents. Having information in modular blocks allows for easy storage and quick retrieval; they are easy to revise and update.
Although this webinar was largely a marketing exercise for Information Mapping (the fact that the company refers to its technique as “The Method” did make me feel a bit like a cult recruit)—and, of course, I knew it wouldn’t be giving away the farm by divulging all of its secrets in a free session—there was a good deal of sensible information in it. We’ve been using narrative paragraphs for so much of our lives that it’s easy to forget they’re often not the best way to transmit information.
What I’m curious to learn more about is how each of those blocks of information is best indexed and stored for easy retrieval by writers hoping to reuse and repurpose content.
Information Mapping’s free webinars are archived here. In addition to the informational one that I attended, “Information Mapping: What Is It? How Can It Help Me?”, there are others addressing managing and reusing content and writing in plain language. Another free webinar will take place November 20, covering standards and templates.