What every designer needs to know about people

Behavioural psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk (@thebrainlady) teamed up with the folks at UserTesting.com to offer a free webinar about some of the things designers have to keep in mind about the way our brains work. Weinschenk is the author of 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People (as well as the upcoming book How to Get People to Do Stuff). She couldn’t cover all hundred of her points in the webinar but gave us a run-down of ten of her favourites:

10. People pay attention only to what is salient

Weinschenk showed us a photo of several pennies that had its components—the year, the face, etc.—shuffled around into various positions and different directions. Even though we all handle pennies practically every day, it wasn’t easy to identify which was the correct penny in the photo. Weinschenk used this demo to show that people don’t see everything in front of them; they’re going to notice only what’s most important or most interesting to them.

9. People use peripheral vision to get the gist of the scene

Research by Adam Larson and Lester Loschky published in the Journal of Vision revealed that we can identify objects in the periphery more quickly and accurately than we can identify objects in our central vision, particularly if the information we’re receiving is emotionally charged or may indicate danger. We tend to process stuff that’s in the periphery unconsciously. A lot of design is focused on the central vision—what’s considered “prime real estate” in design—but Weinschenk suggests that we shouldn’t neglect the space around the centre and could use it to evoke a certain emotional reaction in the user.

8. Readers assume that if an instruction is written in a hard-to-read or overly decorative font, the task it’s asking you to do will be hard

Weinschenk notes that there isn’t much difference in the way we read serif versus sans-serif type, as long as it’s large enough and readable. If an instruction is in a hard-to-read font, however, not only do users overestimate the amount of time the task would take, but they are also less likely to follow the instruction, reducing compliance.

7. Miller’s Law is an urban legend

Miller’s Law states that we can store 7±2 items in our short-term memory. More recent research shows, however, that we can really remember and deal with only three to four items at a time.

6. Too many choices can be demotivating

People love to have choices, but having too many can turn them off. Sheena S. Iyengar of Columbia  University and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford published a study in which they offered one group of consumers a choice of tasting six types of jam and another group a choice of twenty-four choices. Although only 40% of the first group stopped to taste the jam, compared with 60% of the second group, 30% of the tasters purchased jam, compared with 3% of the tasters offered more choice. This point is especially important when considering navigation or know how many items to show on one screen.

5. Most mental processing is unconscious

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, documented two levels of thinking:

  • System 1 thinking is fast, intuitive, effortless
  • System 2 thinking is analytical and takes conscious effort. (This is what you do when you’re solving a complex math problem in your head, say.)

Most of the thinking we do is System 1 thinking (System 2 thinking is something we have to engage, and when that happens we have a physiological response: our pupils dilate). As a result, most users are susceptible to priming.

Numbers are powerful priming tools; Weinschenk gave the example that saying “Limit 12 cans of soup per person” compelled consumers to buy an average of seven cans, whereas saying “No limit” compelled consumers to buy an average of three cans. Seeing the number 12 primed them. This point is particularly important when it comes to money, because researchers have discovered that the presence or discussion of money changes people’s behaviour. Weinschenk encourages us to build a relationship with a client first, before mentioning the price of a product or service.

Interestingly, Weinschenk told us that if a riddle or puzzle is written in a hard-to-read or overly decorative font, people get it right more often than when the same riddle is in a readable font, suggesting that the decorative font triggers System 2 thinking. She proposed the radical idea that you should use harder-to-read fonts when you want a user to stop and think carefully about something.

4. People have mental models

People come into new situations with preconceptions and expectations based on their past experiences. Everything has an interface, and that interface conveys the model on which the product is based. The better you understand that mental model and create your product to conform to it, the easier your product will be to use. Weinschenk suggests that, before you do any actual design work, you build in a step to purposely design a conceptual model that matches your user’s mental model.

3. We have two types of communities: those with weak ties and those with strong ties

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar analyzed the optimal size of a community of various species and applied the model to humans. For us, a community of 150 people or fewer is usually a “strong tie” community—we know all of the members personally, and we know the relationships between members. Falling outside of these criteria are “weak tie” communities. “Strong” and “weak” are used as anthropological terms here; strong isn’t better than weak, but designers should be aware of what kind of community they’re designing something for.

2. Speaker and listener brains sync together

Researchers Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson discovered that when a speaker successfully communicates something to a listener, their brains sync up: functional MRI scans show that the same areas of the brain light up in both parties, an effect not seen with writing and reading. Incorporating multimedia in your communications—audio in particular—is much more powerful having than text alone.

1. There’s a part of the brain that makes us focus on faces

The fusiform facial area (FFA) is a part of the brain that processes visual information about human faces. Faces can instantly convey emotional information and so are very powerful images for designers to use. Weinschenk showed us that as a corollary, images that distort the normal proportions of a human face can be extremely off-putting.


Many of these points have interesting implications for editors and plain language specialists. I’m especially intrigued now about the threshold at which System 2 thinking kicks in. Weinschenk showed that System 1 thinking often leads to the wrong answer when a problem is logically tricky. How can we improve our communications so that we can ensure the correct message gets through without having readers engage their System 2 thinking? And how do we, along with designers, find fonts that will spur System 2 thinking when appropriate but that don’t reduce user compliance?

Information Mapping: models, templates, and standards

Today I attended my second webinar by Information Mapping, and it dealt with content standards, templates, and models.

A corporate content standard is a set of guidelines for everyone in an organization to follow to ensure content is written, formatted, and stored in ways that make it easy to retrieve, understand, and repurpose. Content standards facilitate team authoring, updates and revisions, compliance (particularly if the content will have to be audited), and migration to content management systems.

A content standard forms the basis for templates and model documents. Templates outline the format and content requirements for a specific type of document (fill-in-the blank kinds of documents, good for simpler content), whereas models are basically prototype documents that serve as a standard for creating subsequent documents (good for more complex content, like engineering reports).

To create a content standard, you need to understand

  • your users (e.g., Who are they? What do they know? What do they need to know? How do they access information?),
  • your content (e.g., How complex is the content? Are there graphics involved? Do you need to include special warnings?), and
  • the technologies used to access the content (e.g., Will it be paper based or online?).

Once you’ve created the content standard, you need to deploy it. Training will be involved, at all levels of your organization, and you may have to overcome an institutional resistance to change. Encouraging the shift in mindset among writers from creating full manuals, say, to topic-based authoring will be key.

In the Information Mapping content standard, the content is modularized into blocks, which are separated visually with lines and white space. On paper, a two-column grid is used, where labels are set off to the left, allowing users to easily scan and find what they need. As a result, the lines of text are short, resulting in reduced eye fatigue. The standard makes use of bullets to highlight important information and tables to present structured information. Information Mapping’s FS Pro software is a Microsoft Word plug-in that helps authors create content to the Information Mapping standard.

We were shown some examples of documents using the Information Mapping standard—or some modification thereof. A major advantage of the standard is its flexibility and adaptability for different types of content and presentations. One example I particular liked was a set of job aid cards used to help workers troubleshoot problems on a light rail transit system. Each card guides the user through solving one problem and features an illustration and clear instructions. The cards are colour-coded for easy recognition and retrieval, and should a procedure change, a single card can be revised without having to replace the whole set.

This webinar reinforced many of the topics introduced in the last one I attended, and again, although it was essentially an infomercial, it offered a lot of solid suggestions for content creators and editors. What I appreciated about the notion of a content standard is that it’s more than a style guide for how to write text—it emphasizes the importance of uniformity in formatting and file naming and hierarchy for easy information retrieval. These are areas that have the capacity to vastly reduce redundancy in content creation, regardless of the size of your organization.

This webinar, along with others in the Information Mapping series, are archived on the company’s website.

Introduction to Information Mapping

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.

Information types

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

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.

EAC Conference 2012, Day 2—Plain language in 2012: what’s new?

The plain language movement is about 30 years old but is currently undergoing some exciting changes, including a push to recognize plain language as a profession. Dominique Joseph, a board member of the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) gave an overview of some of these developments and highlighted a key role that Canadians are playing in this international movement.

The International Plain Language Working Group includes members from such organizations as PLAIN, Clarity (which advocates for clear legal language), and the Center for Plain Language. It is advocating for a standard definition of plain language, along with formal training and certification based on certain standards. Its first recommendations were published in the Clarity journal in 2011.

Among the first new steps is a move towards a broader definition of plain language—namely, clear communication. According to the working group, “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find, understand and use what they need.” One important aspect of this new definition is the notion of “intended readers”—writers are not catering to low-literacy readers but to the target audience, and the definition is outcomes based. Also, this definition explicitly incorporates design; usability in a holistic sense—not just at the word or sentence level—is a key consideration.

The European Union has funded the development of an international clear communication program, which consists of multidisciplinary courses designed to close the current educational gap and features a mix of plain language training, information design, and usability techniques. Although the main partners are European universities, a Canadian university—Simon Fraser University—has joined the project. It hopes to launch a pilot program in the fall of 2013. This program will be based partly on a survey of the work of plain language professionals to define course learning outcomes.

Plain language expert Karen Schriver undertook a project to review over 500 research papers, from a number of disciplines, including cognitive psychology and education, on how people read and how writing, design, and technology affect readers. The review covers everything from features at the whole-text level (e.g., summaries, headings, organization and genre cures, repetition, text density, and topical structure) to sentence-level features (e.g., syntax, voice, anaphora, negatives, embedded conditionals, etc.). She’s discovered that some commonly accepted guidelines are reinforced—for example, ragged right text helps readability and a type size of between 10 and 12 points is appropriate for most print documents but type size of between 12 and 14 points should be used on screen. However, she has found some gaps in the research—more attention should be given to graphics, for example—and has come across a few accepted ideas that have been disproved, such as Miller’s Law about having a list no longer than 7±2 items, which really applies only to short-term memory and not to writing. Having a concrete summary of the results of this research (Schriver is in the process of writing a book on this topic) will offer plain language practitioners credible and authoritative guidelines.

Another exciting recent development in the field of plain language was the signing into law of the Plain Writing Act on October 13, 2010. The law requires U.S. federal agencies to communicate using plain language. The European Commission also has a clear writing campaign that spans multiple languages and aims to improve the quality of original documents so that they’re easier to translate. It is launching a pilot project to add a quality control component—i.e., editing.

As Joe Kimble shows in the new edition of his book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, using plain language can save government and businesses a ton of money. The book features case studies that show the many benefits of plain language.

To find out more about where there plain language movement is heading, Joseph suggests the following: