Four Principles of Providing Information

Posted on October 14, 2014

The Information Problem

A couple of months ago, while faced with a number of design decisions in a project I was working on, I decided to sit down and qualify the fundamental principles of providing information to someone. I felt that there was certainly a systematic way to approach the problem of attempting to serve someone the information that they were either looking for or expecting to receive.

It quickly became quite evident that there were certain decisions I could make that would be desirable to the end user, and other decisions that could make receiving the desired information a painful process. Ultimately, after a lot of thinking, I came up with what I believe to be four fundamental principles that are always relevant when the goal is to convey information in any way to another individual.

The four principles are as follows:

  1. Clarity
  2. Relevance
  3. Accessibility
  4. Density

I will explain each of these principles in detail.

Clarity

Information clarity is perhaps the most easily identifiable principle in regards to how information should be handled. It is also probably the least abstract of the four principles. This principle is relatively simple; information must be provided and presented in an intelligible and unambiguous manner.

Information that is being presented should not be confusing. It should also not require supplementary material or additional searching to understand (at least not when the goal is to be sufficiently thorough).

If the information you are providing to someone else (be it an end user or a friend receiving an email) causes them to do any of the following, your information is lacking clarity (this list is certainly not exhaustive):

It is important to realize that having mostly clear information is challenging but quite achievable. Having crystal clear information, however, is significantly harder. Getting a reply email with followup questions from a colleague is certainly going to happen at some point, even when you thought you explained everything thoroughly. There are users out there who will not understand what you assume everyone understands, forcing them to Google search for what you are attempting to explain. But, this is not necessarily going to be your fault. This may be because they accidentally stumble into material that is too advanced for them, which they are definitely not the target audience of. What is clear to some will not always be clear to others.

Providing clear information requires a strong attention to detail, a meticulous approach towards providing explanation, and a very good understanding of the audience you are reaching out to. It might be pretty easy to know what your colleague or friend knows, but it is insanely difficult to try to anticipate what is clear for all of the 25,000 users that visit your website each month.

As the entity providing the information, you are responsible for its clarity. Your assumptions about your recipient(s) must be reasonable, and you must cater to their needs. Failure to do this will result in confusion, ineffectiveness, and eventually even negligence in regards to your information on the part of your recipient.

Clarity is a sort of foundation for providing information. If your information is horribly unclear, none of the other principles I am going to discuss will even begin to matter. A reasonable level of clarity absolutely must be present.

Relevance

Information relevance is the idea that the information you are providing should be useful to the person you are providing it to. Ideally, our goal with regards to relevance is to provide information whose subject matter is what the recipient expects. That is, we explain or touch on everything they need, without any additional, superfluous or unneeded content.

Achieving relevance is a balancing act. In my opinion, it is better to err on the slide of slightly irrelevant rather than on the side of slightly lacking. Something that is slightly irrelevant may be an annoyance or cause the person who is receiving your information to take a bit longer to digest it. But, by contrast, something that is slightly lacking may actually be lacking a key detail. The last thing you want to do is force your recipient to have to go hunt down this detail on their own, or wait hours or days because they need a followup question answered.

If your recipient does any of the following while taking in your information, your information is likely not completely relevant:

As with clarity, providing information that is relevant to your recipient requires an understanding of your recipient. Why are they accessing this information? What do they expect? What do they not expect but still need?

Google search is a service implements the principle of relevance extremely well. For example, if I search for ‘Python’ in Google, I will not get any references to the animal. All of the results on my screen will be related to the Python programming language. If a zoologist were to perform the same search, it is quite likely that they would get the animal instead (unless they were also a hobbyist Python programmer). The reason for this is that Google catalogs my data and my behavior. In a certain sense, Google understands me and is able to provide what is relevant to me as a result of this. Google search manages to hit information relevance right on the head in this way.

It is almost a challenge to provide absolutely no relevant information. Typically what you write or provide will have some relevance in some way. The goal with regards to relevance, as mentioned earlier, is to find the meeting point between information that is superfluous and information that is lacking.

Accessibility

Information accessibility is about the flow of actions that the recipient of your information has to take before he actually receives it. Unlike relevance and clarity, accessibility has nothing to do with the actual content of the information itself. Accessibility is also not directly applicable to simple forms of communication (such as an email) or basic information (such as a static webpage with no navigation whatsoever).

Accessibility is the idea that your recipient should have to take as few steps as possible to reach or find the information that he is looking for. Accessibility also means that the recipient should be able to easily find the information he is looking for, even if he does not know exactly which steps to take to find it.

Many services fall far short of making information (or functionality) easily accessible to their users. An example of very poor accessibility I encountered recently was when I was attempting to manage my recurring payments in my PayPal account. As it currently stands, PayPal makes cancelling a recurring payment a five step process. Worse yet, I was unable to find this solution on my own, I had to Google search “paypal cancel recurring payments” because the option to view and manage them is buried so far down in the user options.

As a PayPal user, it is quite evident that managing where my money is going should be one of the most important things to me. PayPal’s decision to make it so difficult to manage recurring payments (coupled with the fact that you are forced into recurring payments with certain services you purchase using PayPal) is an example of very poor accessibility.

A general example of excellent accessibility is the availability of an ‘omnisearch’ that many services and products now offer. This feature is typically a search bar located on the homepage or dashboard of the service. Typing into the search bar will usually provide a comprehensive search of all types of options and content. For example, typing ‘change password’ into this type of search bar in most services will instantaneously load a link to the account management page that allows you to change your password. This is fantastic, because as the user, I just need to type in what I want to do and perform one click, and I am in a spot to perform said action.

In the end, determining whether the principle of information accessibility is being applied well enough is subjective. Generally speaking, the more easily accessible, the better.

Density

Finally, information density is about providing the proper scope of information to your recipient. This principle is about how compact or ‘condensed’ the information you are providing is. Compared to clarity or relevance, this is a relatively abstract idea that I will explain carefully.

Information can be clear, relevant, and accessible yet be provided with the wrong level of density, making it significantly less useful than it otherwise could be. Information density is also unique in that it is manifested both through actual content (like clarity and relevance) as well as through design and functionality (like accessibility).

The general idea behind information density is to supply the recipient with information in a way that allows him to spend as little time as possible digesting it, while still giving him everything he needs or expects.

This may initially sound like information relevance. That is not the case, however. If we go back to my ‘Python’ Google search example. Google returns results about the programming language and not the reptile because it knows that the programming language is more relevant to me. This has nothing to do with density.

A great example of the principle of information density in action in the form of an activity digest email that many services provide. Suppose I get a daily digest of new posts of a particular forum I visit. The daily digest is designed to summarize the new content from each day, emailed automatically at the end of the day. The daily digest will likely list at least the title of each post, and a link directly to it. But there are other pieces of information which might also be worth including.

For example, the digest may also include the specific time that each post was made, or the author of each post. It may include the number of replies each post has, or even include the first few sentences of each post. And to contrast this, we can think about the daily digest of a forum administrator rather than a regular user. The forum administrator may be more concerned with user activity and statistics rather than individual posts, so he would prefer that the daily digest simply included the number of posts made that day, in addition to the number of user logins, pageviews, replies, etc.

None of these pieces of information are irrelevant. Yet changing which ones are included changes the density of the information. One other facet of information density is that most ‘condensed’ information is provided with an option to expand the information. In the case of the user facing daily digest, this is a link to each forum post, allowing him to access the full post.

Altering the density of the information that you are providing to your users can completely change how your product or service is used. It can change how much time users spend on it, how many visit, and most fundamentally, how the service itself ends up getting used. It is this fact that makes information density a crucially important principle to consider when designing a service that provides information.

Summary: ‘I-CRAD’

I believe that these four principles are a comprehensive approach to providing information. They are applicable to virtually every type of environment, service, or product in some way. Their implementation can also spell the difference between a booming success and a total failure.

To recap, the principles are:

The way I have come to remember these four principles is using the acronym ‘I-CRAD’. That is, Information Clarity, Relevance, Accessibility, and Density.