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.

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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: