“To envision information –and what bright and splendid visions can result- is to work at the intersection of image, word, number, art […] the principles of information design are universal – like mathematics.” “We envision information in order to reason about, communicate, document, and preserve knowledge – activities nearly always carrier out on two-dimensional paper and computer screen. Escaping this flatland and enriching the density of data displays are the essential tasks of information design.” – “Envisioning Information” by Edward R. Tufte.
“In today’s data driven world, professionals need to know how to express themselves in the language of graphics effectively and eloquently […] the ability to create effective charts and graphs has become almost as indispensable as good writing.” “Yet information graphics is rarely taught in schools or is the focus of on-the-job-training.” “With computer technology, anyone can create graphics, but few of us know how to do it well.” “Ultimately, it is content that makes graphics interesting. When a chart is presented properly, information just flows to the viewer in the clearest and most efficient way.” – “The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics” by Dona M. Wong.
This week I attended Edward Tufte’s “Presenting Data and Information” in Chicago. E.T. is teaching at Yale and is a leading expert in information architecture whose books are worth studying. It is worth noticing that information theory was first discussed by Claude E. Shannon, an MIT grad working at Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent’s research arm, in the 1940s.
I am now taking time to process my own thoughts and get new discussions on this topic going. From a marketing angle, advancing quality content is key to positioning thought leadership in the advent of emerging technologies. Strategy wise, the working assumption is that topic authorities and first movers can leapfrog competitors and capture significant industry mindshare. This eventually converts into actual market share in capital intensive industries such as network infrastructure and platforms in the telecommunications sector.
As more vendors join a nascent technology space, more voices prompt a pressing need to collaborate, share terms and constructs, as well as making an honest individual difference to rise above the pack. Technology evangelization programs and marketing efforts fostering the diffusion of things to come and innovations are only as good as the information and the intellectual leadership behind them. Success stories involving customers and partners (early adopters) and game changing breakthroughs solidify that narrative with added credibility and reputation.
Instead of just a slide with bullet points, text boxes, or a checkmark table for that matter, I created the above map as an abstraction to help visualize, plot, brainstorm and discuss what I think are key attributes of quality content. Note a sweet spot right in the middle. We can envision elegant content as [a] captivating and engaging, as well as thought provoking and worth [b] consuming, immersing, sharing and referring to. Elegant content results in high response levels and outperforms.
This last statement couples two sets of [a] leading and [b] lagging indicators given the need for defining success metrics based on cause-effect correlations, so that we get to know what works and what doesn’t. Leading indicators are understood as predictors of success (or failure), while lagging indicators become evidence. In this particular case, both [a] and [b] sets talk to the end user’s experience.
As an example, “immersing” entails depth of engagement and interactivity, which includes a feedback loop: a virtuous circle where the end user not only gains new knowledge of interest, but can also annotate, enhance and build new content upon what’s provided.
Reading the above map’s horizontal axis:
- extreme left – oversimplification defeats the purpose of synthesizing content as not enough meaningful information is delivered or the message is just too cryptic
- sweet spot – simple messages that are crisp and condense memorable insights as well as sophisticated ones that appeal to the recipient’s curiosity, personal discovery and intellectual excitement
- extreme right – overly complexity fails to educate, dilutes messages and creates confusion due to diminishing and even negative returns from information overload
Regarding the map’s vertical axis:
- extreme top – time wasters negate any benefits as there is no interest, which triggers a desire to abandon the session and harms reputation in the process
- sweet spot – information that is relevant to the audience and consumable in an user friendly and progressive manner, users can browse and get what they need when they need it on demand
- extreme bottom – time consuming exercises translate into overhead, that is more work than needed to infer information, causing detrimental fatigue and rising opportunity costs
At this point, if you are wondering if my map is just stating the obvious, you will be right. The objective is to deliver a construct we all can easily agree with and a workable framework for measurements. Beyond that point, this exercise has more to do with plotting where any given content marketing project would fall, then discussing observations on best practices, as well as evolving and changing the above visual as needed. Once populated, it becomes an infographic.
Just to provide some examples: content depicting highly technical subjects can easily fall in the lower right if complexity is not adequately addressed; some of the vaporware, smoke and mirrors can populate the upper left quadrant; seemingly simple yet cryptic content finds a home in the lower left.
Meeting Edward Tufte at “Presenting Data and Information” in Chicago, April 2014.
I would also like to take this chance to comment on the fact infographics have grown in popularity. This is also exposing deficits as quite a few happen to perform poorly and others drive misleading insights, confuse the issue, appear gratuitous and become a disservice. The same applies to a fair amount of slideware. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t overgeneralize because presenting data benefits from good graphic work.
Additionally, it makes sense to shift from “presentation” software to “discussion tools” on many occasions. Presentation formats assume a scripted narrative conveyed sequentially slide after slide. Existing technologies allow more options and possibilities. Earlier in the year I created a discussion tool allowing for interactive narratives based on a modular storyboard. Each live customer conversation was actually customized on the fly, as the discussion progressed in real time.
Instead of working with conventional slideware and text box or bullet point style charts, the tool allows instant access to any item by means of an Internet browser, all featuring eye friendly informational graphics as well as relevant photography (no stock photos). If interested, I will be sharing more on this in future articles.