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Increasing a Reader's Interest and Comprehension Through Basic Information Design
1999, July (February 23, 2007)
By Michelle Lynn Corbin, President, STC Carolina Chapter

At our June Membership meeting, Tracey Chiricosta presented one of her most popular conference presentations, "An Introduction to Visual Communication for Writers," which she created with Alice Alspach Jones. While it was a good refresher course for many of us, the presentation also provided many interesting, factual tidbits to back up some of the basic tenets of technical communication. In this article, I provide a summary of what I gleaned from the presentation.

Increasing Comprehension by 65%

Tracey framed her discussion with the following key point: If you present information in multiple media, with complementary information, that address multiple learning styles, you increase a reader's interest and comprehension by 65%. Basic design principles are:
  • Learning styles refers to the fact that people learn information from different modalities: visual, auditory, tactual, or any combination of these three. By presenting information in more than one of these learner styles, you will reach more of your readers.
  • Media refers to the different methods of presenting information, such as text, graphics, animation, video, and the list goes on. (For the simplicity of Tracey's presentation, she focused on text and graphics.)
  • Information presented in two different media, for two different learning styles, should be presented in each media that complements or supports one another.

Defining Comprehension: Controlling People's Perceptions

Before delving into explanations of the textual and graphical rules or tenets, Tracey reviewed the concept of comprehension and what that means to information designers. She defined comprehension as (and I am paraphrasing here), "The end product of a process that begins with the perception of the basic features of the information." The key word here is perception. People's perceptions differ based on past experiences, learning styles, among many other human characteristics. Readers view graphics and often see different things. For example, the classic picture that looks like both an old woman and a young woman that is used in many psychology courses and in the Stephen Covey book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Readers review text and understand different messages. To ensure that your readers comprehend your information successfully, you must present both graphics and text that complement one another.

Textual Tenets Explained

Often, we find ourselves trying to defend some of the most basic tenets of technical communication to our product development teams. "Just because," doesn't seem to tip the scales in our favor. In general, these textual rules have become part of our collective common sense because each rule helps to improve interest and comprehension by not forcing the reader to re-interpret or re-code the information to be able to easily understand it. Let's look at the rules, and all will become clear (I hope). For example:
  • Use short and familiar words. Readers use prior knowledge to interpret the meaning of the text.
  • Use concrete and nonambiguous words. Readers think in concrete terms.
  • Use lowercase or mixed case and not all UPPERCASE. Readers use the shape of the word to more quickly process the words and sentences.
  • Use positive statements as opposed to negative ones. Readers process positive statements more quickly than negative ones. Readers often turning negative statements into positive ones before processing them.
  • Use active voice whenever possible. Readers process active voice more quickly and often have to convert the passive voice into active voice before processing the information.
  • Use chunking and ordering to group information. Readers process smaller pieces of information (e.g., chunked and grouped) more easily than one large piece of text.

By following these rules, we help our readers to more quickly and easily process and understand the information

Graphic Design Theories and Principles

How many of you look at a brochure and instantly begin critiquing it or redesigning it? I know I do. Design is an essential part of any piece of information. While some of us might have had formal graphic design training, many of us picked up these graphical rules along the way, as we jumped in with both feet. Some of the essential graphic design theories and principles are:
  • Gestalt theory. The parts of a visual image are analyzed as distinct components. However, the whole image is different from and greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Proximity principle. When visual images are placed closer together, the eyes tend to look at the group of images before the images that are separated off.
  • Continuation principle. When viewing an image, the eyes tend to look in the direction they are directed, such as when an arrow points towards another image.
  • Similarity principle. When viewing images, the eyes automatically make connections between the images by seeing their similarities.

Unfortunately, Tracey was quickly running out of time (she had several different creative exercises for the audience to participate in within the graphic design discussion, which took up some time). Once she covered these graphic design theories and principles, Tracey quickly covered the following guidelines when including graphics in our information:
  • Use an appropriate external shape for framing an image, such as a rectangle shape for screen captures.
  • Consider the size of the image, since size does influence perspective.
  • Use the level of detail that is appropriate to the message. Sometimes a line drawing contains enough detail to convey the message whereas other times a photograph is more appropriate.
  • Place the most important detail of an image at the center, since the eye is drawn to the center.
  • When you manipulate images, be careful about enlarging an image such that you lose the focus or recognition of what the image actually is.
  • Always provide context for your images within your text.

Say it Again: Increasing Comprehension by 65%

Even though Tracey only discussed text and graphics, her message clearly applies to many of the other media that technical writers work with today. To increase comprehension by 65% use multiple media, with complementary information, addressing multiple learning styles. It really is that simple. Enough said. Well said, Tracey!

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