Information Design Call to Action

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - It's not news that CIOs today are struggling to keep up with the speed and complexity of business. Like everyone else in an organization, IT professionals are aiming to pick up their pace and their reach. But while many companies are addressing the escalating demand for information by creating larger "storage bins" and making sure they can pull more information through their expansive networks, others have begun to realize that it's just not going to be that easy.

What they need is an approach that will encourage action out of the current computerized clutter. Busy executives can act quickly if disjointed data is shaped into clear analyses and implications. But how? Through information design. This is the art of making complex information speak simple answers to managers' questions. And it's no simple task because the designer has to understand the question, the context, the data and its meaning, and how to communicate it graphically. By designing information in such a way that it's fit for use--making what we call "actionable information" in today's fast-paced, information-overloaded environment--you can construct meaning out of the clutter of disjointed data fragments. It's important to start with data that is clear, truthful, timely and obviously meaningful in the context of the decisions at hand. It must also be distilled to its essence and organized so that it gets its meaning across effortlessly.

Sounds great. But the truth is, companies are painfully short of actionable information, and their CIOs are not using information design practices to create it. In spite of the fact that IT leaders rate actionable information important for decision making--4.8 out of 5, on average--most are not on a track to get there. Three obstacles stand in the way. IT professionals * Are unfamiliar with information design * Do not get their hands dirty with content * Are not thinking graphically Simply stated, IT executives are not tuned into information design. Many of them define information design as making sure the data is regular, clean and accessible by the audience. They believe that well-designed data simply means understanding where information is created, where it's used, how it's maintained, what its rules are for validation and how it flows.

Managing data on this level is very important to most organizations, but it doesn't bridge the gulf to actionable information. Building solid, reliable data and messaging infrastructures is only the start. After consolidating your fragmented data, you must be able to envision pulling out actionable information to drive top- and bottom-line performance improvements.

Unfortunately, most CIOs don't know how. Andersen Consulting's Institute for Strategic Change asked IT executives if they had a process for developing actionable information, and they answered with a resounding no. Eighty-six percent reported that they have no process or that they plan to use the traditional IT requirements definition and data-modeling processes. These are the same processes that have been instrumental in creating today's nonactionable information environment. In either case, they aren't talking about an information design process.

Some information professionals believe their responsibility ends when they've provided users access to information, not actionable information. These IT managers are immersed in managing the computing and data infrastructures--the input side of the equation--instead of focusing on the outcomes their companies need. They're hot on the trail of ubiquitous networks, integrated transaction platforms and well-populated data warehouses. When asked what kind of information will give them an edge in the marketplace, they reply, "That's up to our marketing department." Information designers, on the other hand, unanimously assert that you can't design information unless you understand both the question you face and the data you're using to answer it.

IT executives are not only unfamiliar with the process of information design and reticent about getting involved with content, they also seem unaware of the power of visual analysis and communication. We asked them how they're using graphics. Most mumbled something about PowerPoint and Excel. In contrast, to true information designers, designing information does not mean making slides with bullet points. It means arranging information in a way that communicates it visually. That means breaking out of the constricting business definition of graphics as bar and pie charts. Ironically, IT executives use visual analysis extensively for designing systems architectures and for flow-charting software.

It just isn't on their radar screens for business decision making.

Having well-designed, actionable information will help your company move at the speed of business in eight ways.

HIGHLIGHT OPPORTUNITIES Design information in a way that helps you see patterns in the data to provide insights and point toward action. For example, the history of Harvard Business School's MBA program laid out on one page reveals that the school made big curriculum changes roughly every decade or so--a schedule that no one in the administration was tuned in to. Yet it wasn't a massively exhausting project to put this data together. Creating the chart took a day; it was another few weeks until the staff was able to determine from the information that it was time to revamp its curriculum again--what would be considered blinding speed in any traditional organization.

SET PRIORITIES Good information designers start by asking the question, What's most important here? Then they let the answer drive the design. Since the arrangement of the data changes its meaning, this approach focuses on the fundamentals and lets the data tell its own story truthfully. Designers also pump up the analytic impact by substituting rates and ratios for raw data and distilling data so that it fits on one page. A clutter of raw numbers can become meaty comparisons when charted over time, contrasted to goals or arrayed in one meaningful graphic.

CREATE CONSENSUS Experts think of information design not only as a process but as a product. It provides a common platform for people to compare their mental models and bring them into alignment quickly. The members of one high-tech leadership team thought they knew what they wanted for their website. Through one session with an information design professional, where each executive's personal perspectives were sketched out in real-time, they found out how far apart they were. The process let them see and discuss what they'd been missing--each person's hidden assumptions and unspoken needs that would have undermined consensus sooner or later. Root Learning, a consulting company that specializes in using information design to help leadership teams communicate their strategies throughout the organization, develops a series of poster-size graphics after intensive meetings with executives. These graphics convey the company's business challenges and strategic directions. Then the company's leaders use them to facilitate conversations with their employees about where the company is headed and what each part of the organization can contribute to making the journey successful.

COMMUNICATE CONVINCINGLY Information should tell its story in a clear, simple way so that even the most casual observer gets the message as effortlessly as possible. Get your audience's attention with provocative headlines and color, then make your message jump off the page with good information design.

According to Edward Tufte, a Yale professor of political science, statistics and computer science, the space shuttle Challenger was lost as a result of poor information design. In fact, the night before the launch, concerned engineers sent a disorganized jumble of data points about launch failures to NASA flight headquarters. If the information had been designed correctly--say, in a simple chart showing the correlation between outside temperature and O-ring failure--the command team would have seen immediately that the decision to go ahead that chilly morning would have been a terrible mistake.

SOLVE THE RIGHT PROBLEMS Executives can't solve performance problems or take advantage of business opportunities unless they see them clearly. A pharmaceutical company couldn't tell why it was losing market share--despite voluminous data on physician prescriptions. When information designers boiled the data down to a two-page spread, it pinpointed the problem--an influential doctor had changed his prescribing patterns. So they targeted the physician personally with a renewed marketing effort.

HELP PEOPLE FIND THEIR WAY AROUND The information professionals we talked to use information design to help customers figure out how to use a product or find their way around the website. And good navigation can make the difference between a delighted customer and one who turns his back on you in disgust. For example, a few years back, a major computer company asked Krzysztof Lenk and Paul Kahn of Dynamic Diagrams (now an arm of Cadmus Communications) in Providence, R.I., to evaluate a customer's experience of setting up a notebook computer. Lenk and Kahn ordered one of the machines to be delivered to their office and started the video camera rolling as they unpacked the boxes. Inside they found a computer and 27 other items, six of which were boldly marked, "Open me first." It turned out that all six of these items were marketing literature and had no instructions for getting started with the computer. Their report documented just how slow and stressful the setup process was, and the computer company asked them to design a solution. They created a map--a large diagram that you'd lay out on your computer table showing you exactly where to place each component you had ordered and exactly how to connect it. Clear and simple.

MAKE FASTER DECISIONS ROUTINE A large restaurant chain was able to make substantial improvements in restaurant operations by designing a graphical evaluation format. The design condensed a 40-page report into a two-page spread depicting how performance varied across restaurants. In addition to spotting laggards easily, managers were able to quickly see whether the results of pilot improvement programs were paying off. Netscape was able to improve its website by hiring information designers who started by simply documenting Netcenter's current state--graphically and in graspable bites. Once all the engineers at Netscape could see the flows, they could easily discuss how to improve them.

INSPIRE BREAKTHROUGH INNOVATION Information design can be used to help your organization find, confront and use provocative information--new trends, wacky ideas and unsettlingly discordant facts. A major manufacturer discovered the power of designing information for breakthroughs. It wanted to stimulate its design engineers to shift their focus from simply designing new products to providing insights into the ways people would use these products in the future.

And the manufacturer wanted fresh new ideas to set a radical course. To put the team in the right state of mind, it papered the walls of a room with a broad array of information snippets about demographic trends, lifestyle changes, technology projections and such. The executives felt that if the engineers stepped back and looked at this collage of information, they would gain fresh insights. The result? This window into the future created more confusion than inspiration. So the manufacturer hired Donovan and Green (D&G), working with Richard Saul Wurman, an information design company, to clean up the mess. D&G (now a division of USWeb/CKS) and Wurman started by organizing the data into a system of panels--each with a broad subject like "time deprivation" or "aging population."

They created an information architecture so that the reader could explore ideas, discover linkages and drill down--the further one read, the more detailed the answers became. Finally, they used the same structure for each panel so that an engineer could move easily from one to another without losing his or her place. They removed the clutter from the walls in this room and replaced it with the panels. What was the impact of their contribution? The company has documented that its design engineers generate more ideas that affect the future of its business than ever before.

Executives who want to use actionable information to manage at the rate of business must bring information design into their organizations. But it won't be as simple as hiring a few information designers. Information designers can bring information to life for a strategic decision or design a website so it speaks volumes to customers. And companies should use them this way by all means. The point is, it's just not enough.

Executives must make information design part of everyday information management. That means integrating information design with information technology and data management--exploiting the leverage you get by combining your ability to process transactions quickly, to manage data so that it's clean, accurate and consistent, and to design information to communicate its true message in a hot second.

Jane Linder, a former professor at Harvard Business School and IT executive at Polaroid, currently works for Andersen Consulting's Institute for Strategic Change. She can be reached at Drew Phelps is a research associate at the Institute and can be reached at

ATTENTION TO DETAIL The U.S. Army is using actionable information to make complex decisions at lightning speed Building actionable information is a tall order, but it is doable. Just ask the U.S. Army. Four years ago, the Army's training doctrine command took a look into the 21st century and concluded that it had to make a substantial change in the way the organization worked. Its vision hinged on actionable information.

The Army believed it could improve the fighting force's speed, flexibility and effectiveness if it could give everyone real-time answers to three key questions: Where are we? Where are our subordinates? And where is the enemy?

Sounds simple, but it frequently took as long as seven hours to answer these questions in the field so that an officer could make a decision about what to do next. Business leaders' ability to come to grips with urgent issues--such as a competitor's price change--is often no better.

The Army started a four-year initiative to create one division--15,000 soldiers--of 21st century land warriors. They provided a computerized map--what they called a "common operating picture"--at each command level, from the soldier to the general. Like a strategic video game, it displayed a running view of friendly forces, enemy forces and critical supplies collected by a variety of transponders, sensors, drone-mounted video cameras and GPS information. And the information design was tailored to the individual in front of the screen. The division commander could see the whole threat region, while the sergeant inside a tank saw the terrain relevant to his or her unit.

Seeing the big picture changed everything. The commander could sketch out a battle plan on the screen with a light pen. At the touch of a button, it would be transmitted to his staff so that they could talk together about the plan. In seven minutes--not seven hours--the commander could issue a new operations order. And this one's got the benefit of direct field input.

Having actionable information changed the pace of decision making for the Army by two orders of magnitude. That, in turn, changed the pace of battle and enabled the soldiers to handle more complex activities on more fronts. When they started the initiative, this division was ranked as the least ready deployable force. Now, when they face off against the Army's other troops in training exercises, these soldiers are lethal.

First, they changed what it means to be an information professional in their organization. They call them signal officers, and they're responsible for both intelligence and information management. Furthermore, every soldier and officer has the responsibility not just to pass data along but to ask the right questions, to judge what's important and to draw implications.

As you might imagine, such a redistribution of authority shakes a traditional hierarchy to its foundations. And it changes the way they manage. They can see a problem and take a decision at a pace that doesn't leave room for double-checking or dithering. Finally, the Army was able to create its real-time common operating picture because its leaders had the courage to face the truth. When the troops are failing, it's obvious to everyone. Many business executives would prefer to control perceptions more carefully. They frequently forgo the chance to fix real problems when it means facing the issues honestly.

-J. Linder and D. Phelps

GETTING STARTED Courageous leaders will embrace information design in spite of the challenges once they know what to do Pilot information design for a mission-critical issue. Ask the hard questions like, What business are we in? What key plays will determine whether we are successful?

Start developing a new breed of information professional. You won't get the business edge you need with old-fashioned cross-disciplinary teams. You'll need individuals who have the breadth and depth of skills to cover all three information domains. Train and recruit individuals who know how to do data-intensive research on important business problems, who've gotten their hands dirty with IT and who can communicate graphically. Then aggressively build literacy across your organization.

Ask line executives to lead the charge in making information actionable.

There's nothing easy about transforming your organization into one that uses actionable information to move at the speed of business. There are a thousand reasons why you won't be successful, and you have to fight off every one. What will the biggest leadership challenge be? Standing up for the unvarnished honesty you get when you embrace information design. -J. Linder and D. Phelps.

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