At the conference
our Institute ran in 1990, I offered what may seem a simple definition of what information designers do. To paraphrase:
Information designers create and manage the relationship between people and information so that the information is accessible and usable by people.
Note five things about this definition:
1. The terms ‘create’ and ‘manage’ are side by side, suggesting that designers’ responsibility extends beyond the creation of designs. It extends through implementation and monitoring to management over the long term.
2. It’s not just about information, but about the relationship between people and information—what some people today call ‘collaborative experience design’.
3. The most important word in the definition is people. And the word people is deliberately used instead of users, target audiences, or consumers, all of which presume a particular relationship. I make no assumptions about the relationship that people have with information. That is something we discover as part of the collaborative design process: working with people.
4. The term accessible covers what today’s information architects refer to as ‘findability’. But accessible has another implication, one of inviting people in, being welcoming, open, and approachable. I may be wrong, but I see no reference to these all-important characteristics in the information architecture toolbag.
5. The term usable is not to be taken in the narrow functional sense defined by the usability community. That narrower definition came later in works like Jacob Nielsen’s Usability Engineering (1994). My sense of usability is broader, with the implication of being useful and even helpful.
What seems on first reading simple is not. Moreover, it is not an abstract definition, but a practical account of what our practice and research is about. The services we offer our Members leads to accessible and usable information. The research that we do is directed at finding new and sometimes better ways of making information accessible and usable.
This definition has served us well. But it is an incomplete description of the professional practices we have developed, researched, and refined at CRI.
As those of you who are regular readers of this blog will know, I put a great deal of emphasis on evidence: being able to substantiate claims one makes about the effectiveness of communication and information design by appeals to evidence.
If you look at any of our case histories, you will see that evidence collected collaboratively with people plays a central role in the process and determination of the outcome of a project. This appeal to evidence is not an add-on feature but an intrinsic part of our practice, as we have developed it. Our research has repeatedly shown that information design without the necessary evidence of working with people to create the designs is incomplete and almost certainly not of an agreed high quality. We therefore need to update our definition of what information designers do, to reflect this fact. So our newer definition is like the old, but with an important addition:
Information designers create and manage the relationship between people and information so that the information is accessible and usable by people, and they provide evidence that the information is accessible and usable to an agreed high standard.
This definition is a much fuller statement of what professional information designers do.
If you consider yourself to be an information designer and you do not provide this type of evidence, my view is that you are not doing your job properly.
If you are in the business of employing information designers, interaction designers, experience designers, information architects, or whatever you care to call them, and they do not provide you with evidence that their designs are an improvement on what went before from the point of view of the people who have to use them, or that their latest innovation is both accessible and usable at an acceptable level to people, I think you should look elsewhere for professional services in this area.
As a footnote to this little rant I would add that the ‘democratisation of design’ that has got so many designers and their critics agitated, following Bruce Nussbaum’s rant on the subject, misses the central issue of why we need professional information designers, and why DIY design is a bad idea.
A professional designer will provide evidence that their designs work; a DIY designer will not, nor will the legion of traditionally-trained designers not working at this professional level. Moreover, part of that evidence is a demonstration that one has designed with people instead of for people. Maybe the DIY is as good as traditional design. In the absence of evidence, who knows? But I do know that traditional designers who claim that they are better than the DIY designers should seriously think about the evidence they have to back their claim, before they start complaining.