A recent article on document design in the WSJ shakily raised the question: Is a poorly designed memo […]

A recent article on document design in the WSJ shakily raised the question:

Is a poorly designed memo at fault for not warning the president the nature of the terrorist threat.

In many ways it’s a retread of the butterfly ballot controversy, and the Challenger controversy, but I think it’s a controversy worth raising again and again until careless attention to design stops killing people.

Here is the article (PDF) (html). Here is the redesign of the memo.

Here’s what wasn’t printed from my interview (lightly edited for coherence):

Q: I’d like to talk about the PDB and the redesign – especially what wasn’t working in the original

A: I can’t blame the president for having a hard time with the memo: it’s a mess. Everything is wrong with it: bad writing, bad design and no sense of hierarchy. Presidents of large companies can only give a few minutes to most issues brought before them; it must be far worse for the president of the united states. Bush has to be able to judge in a few seconds how much of his precious time needs to be devoted to an issue in a memo: this one wasn’t helping him.

People scan newspapers for a number of reasons: too much daily information, difficult reading conditions such as subways and buses, etc. Journalist like yourself write using the inverse pyramid. This allows the reader to immediately understand what the article will cover and if it is relevant to their lives. It’s the same with writing for executives; they are so deluged with information they have to scan as a survival trait.

Imagine if that first sentence was “Data from reliable internal and external sources indicate Bin Ladin planning a large scale attack on an US target.” from there you can move on to bullets

  1. Nature of threat
  2. Likelihood
  3. Timeline
  4. Recommended action
  5. Sources include
    1. name & relevant quote
    2. name & relevant quote
    3. name & relevant quote

This way the president can glance over the memo to understand the threat and then dig in to richer information that can help him decide how to act.

Adding color and graphs would improve both scanability and impact. Imagine if every memo had bargraphs displaying a scale of how severe the threat was, how urgent the issue was and how trustworthy the data sources were. Bush could then compare that memo to those on corn production and diplomat dinner schedules and know where to place his attention.

In a strange way it’s like designing a comparison shopping site like Yahoo! Shopping– you know when users are searching for a camera, they want to be able to look over a number of stores who are selling the camera and quickly see if it is a brand they know, what is the user rating, how much is the price… the president may need to know how severe is the issue, how much time does he have to respond, how trustworthy is the information.

And he has less free time than an average shopper.

(I’m not a presidential adviser, so hard for me to say what he needs to know, but let’s use those factors as strawmen)

Q: “what is information architecture?”

A: A profession devoted to making the complex clear, via information design and content organization. It requires an understanding of human nature when faced with mountains of data.

Some good definitions here
1. The structural design of shared information environments.
2. The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets,
online communities and software to support usability and findability.
3. An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of
design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Q: What is the growth of the info architecture field since you’ve been involved

A: When I first started, there were very few IAs out there. But the growth of data has resulted in information overload, and trouble means opportunity. There are hundreds of dedicated practicing IA’s, and thousands of people who make IA a part of their work. Data is useless, knowledge is invaluable, someone has got to make one into the other.

Q: Have you ever heard of/seen a company that tries to apply usability principles to internal communications.

Yahoo! does. During a major Yahoo! property redesign, every single day the product manager sent out html email updates. Each item was a bullet point, and each item was color coded green, yellow or red depending on how much danger it was of slipping.

The Senior VP could take a look and in a second he knew where he needed to spend his time straightening matters out, and where he could relax. It was a very successful project, and those simple daily memos made everything run a bit more smoothly. I bet Bush would have enjoyed a similar design. After all, shouldn’t a red flag be red?

Q: Do you know what the readership is like for “Boxes and Arrows”? Any sense of how many readers you’ve got, and whether it’s grown during the two years it’s been around?

A: In our first year, we had 1001117 page reqs, in 03 we had 2337704, and this year’s numbers suggest we’ll grown by another half. (aka half again each year.) our mailing list went form 2000 in year one to 6000 to year 2.

Q: What are big topics in IA circles right now?

A: IA is going in two directions right now. Many folks who are “hands on” IA’s are becoming master craftsmen of taxonomy design and navigation systems. Others are going in a slightly tangential direction– working on complete user experience strategies that encompass multichannel design based on business priorities. Both are thrilling: the hands-on IA’s are embracing things like topicmaps and emergent classification tools like Wikis, while the big-picture IA’s are becoming involved in organizational innovation and user experience strategy. Overall its an exciting field, with a lot of innovation and experimentation.

Q: What’s going to be the challenge for the next few years?

A: The challenge in the next few years is two-fold; one is how do we push forward to the next generation of knowledge management. By that I mean how do we harness the vast amount of information that is out there– every day physicians prescribe the wrong medicines because as humans they can’t keep up with the massive amount of new knowledge flooding the field… sometimes this limitation results in a less than effective treatment, sometimes it actually result in death.

The information space is growing so rapidly its becoming harder and yet more crucial we keep it human-manageable. I think this is one of the reasons we’re seeing search get so much attention– its one potential solution to the problem.

The second challenge is exactly what you spoke of earlier… how are we making sure what we’ve learned is getting out there. That’s one of the reasons I founded Boxes and Arrows– it’s critical that as advances are made, they are shared. That way we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, instead of reinventing the wheel….

Also see: every breath death defying: IA in the WSJ

Correction on the WSJ article: I am no longer President of AIfIA, that role is now Peter Morville’s. I was AIfIA’s first year president.


Add Yours
  1. 1

    I am surprised that documents meant to be fit to land on the US president desk can be so dull in their appearance. I ignore how many such documents can make up for a daily batch of issues claiming attention, and if there is any rule stating that whatever they are, once upon the president desk they are all to be regarded as fit to claim unconditioned attention.
    These things should be known prior to make any decision.

    Anyway there is no doubt that under every kind of approach, from gestalt to mere COMMON SENSE, a mere text document that means to bring attewntion to an issue of regarded devastating concern could allow at least, for instance, for bold texts to stress the most meaningful pharases and red texts to point out the sources.


  2. 2

    Redesigning Presidential Briefs.

    Christina has an interesting article about poorly designed memos. In particular, the poorly designed memo that the president received about the terrorist threat. Greg Storey also talks about this brief. He even created a redesigned intelligence preside…

  3. 3

    I read this article and what I found most interesting were Mr. Tufte’s comments….

    “I think the design’s irrelevant”

    Hmmm. While content is most important, design is very important as well. If the information is presented in such a way that it does not make sense, or does not call attention to the most important elements then a document loses its effectiveness. In fact, poor design can render a document downright useless.

    If design is not important then why do we have headings, italics, or bold. Obviously these are techniques used to bring emphasis to certain aspects of a document. Graphic Design is the art of visual communication. Many non-designers take for granted the intricacies that are involved. They usually only see the final documents and know that they work. Most do not take the time to analyze why they work.

    Information Architecture and Graphic Design are both very important when it comes to visual communication. To dismiss either one of the two and only emphasize the other is a mistake. While I respect Mr. Tufte’s experience and knowledge in the area of Information Design, I must disagree with his assessment of Greg Storey’s work.

  4. 4
    CM Harrington

    I am so glad you posted this less abridged version of your WSJ interview. As I have been a part of the newspaper publishing universe for longer than I’ve been able to sit up (my parents were in publishing), I can only say that I “feel your pain”.

    Journalists have to fill what is left of the space on a page in between advertisements. With the WSJ, things are slightly different, but they still have a finite space in which to sell their story. They will always butcher quotes, misunderstand technical jargon and generally screw up any reporting that isn’t a part of their individual core interest.

    I am very glad publishing has become ubiquitous with the advent of lightweight CMSs and the WWW. We can finally see as much information on a topic as we dare to click.


Comments are closed.