Information Architecture for Audio: Doing It Right

Written by: Jens Jacobsen

Content today is increasingly delivered by audio both online and in the real world. We have radio shows and newscasts, and in recent years, podcasts, audio books and navigation/car assistance systems have been added to the field. Audio is more emotional, as sound effects and acoustic atmosphere enhance content to help deliver its messages. It also affords users the opportunity to interact with content while their hands and eyes are busy (i.e. when doing physical work, driving, walking, etc).

However, the inclusion of audio often results in usability issues that make it difficult for users to access and understand content. That is why we need new tools to organize linear content like audio. Luckily, a wide range of techniques employed in information architecture, journalism, usability engineering and interface design are available. All that’s required is the knowledge to combine them effectively. This article presents a practical framework for designing and implementing audio-based content, such as podcasts.

“There is no reason to over-estimate the importance of writing and thereby under-estimate other technologies of information processing.” Harald Haarmann in History of Writing.

The Problem with Audio

When using audio today, we face challenges similar to those of written text about a decade ago. During this time, information was being transferred from hand-held documents to the computer screen, without being optimized for the new online medium. Now the same mistakes are being repeated with audio. Existing text is read by a narrator, or worse, the text is speech-synthesized by a computer. Audio doesn’t function the same way as written text, so its execution is often poor. The main difference between printed text, be it on paper or on the computer screen, is that audio is linear. You can only consume it in a linear fashion and you have to listen to it at a given speed.

Figure 1: Part of the “Web Trend Map by Information Architects, Japan

For example, Figure 1 shows part of the famous “Web Trend Map by Information Architects Japan”: It’s an excellent example of how information can be displayed in a two-dimensional space. It’s not possible to use one-dimensional spoken text in the same way. When accessing audio, users have no idea how long the segment will last, unless this information is provided by the interface or the narrator states it at the beginning of the segment. Users only have a vague idea of where they are within the narration. If you don’t have any visual hints it’s difficult to determine how much time is left and what topics are going to be discussed. Finding specific content by rewinding or forwarding is difficult. In contrast, finding the next subsection within a text document is very simple. You can easily find a particular word on a page by scanning it or by using your browser’s find function.

Best Practices for Audio

When beginning an audio-related project, ask yourself whether audio is the right medium for your message. In some cases, text is a better choice and in other cases it’s video. Don’t use audio just because you can. If you are certain audio is the best choice, there are several fields to help inform how you implement it. The most important professions we can learn from include:

  • Information Architecture
  • Journalism
  • Educational Psychology
  • Usability Engineering
  • Interface Design

Information Architecture for Audio

The principles of information architecture are exactly what you need to create usable audio. Your approach to creating audio should be similar to developing a large website. In both scenarios you don’t want the user to get lost or overwhelmed by content. For any informational audio that is longer than a few minutes, follow these guidelines:

  • State the Length: Typically the user has no way to assess the length of the audio segment. Sometimes the length is provided by the interface, but not always accessible. For example, if you listen to a podcast with your MP3 player, it might be in your pocket so you don’t see the time and duration displayed on the device.

  • Give an Overview of the Structure: Informing users how the audio is structured helps them find the content they’re looking for. It also gives them the option to directly locate the information they’re most interested in.

  • Introduce the Topic: An introduction helps set the mood and prepares the listener for the content to come. In printed text, such an introduction might seem hackneyed, but with audio it’s good practice to describe a situation the listener knows from everyday life. It’s better not to jump right into the topic, but instead provide some information about it.

  • Provide Orientation from Time to Time: If the audio is longer than a few minutes, help the user form a mental model of the content by repeating its structure from time to time. Tell the user where they are within the content and give an overview of up-coming topics. For longer audio pieces, consider giving users the option to skip sections/chapters via the interface or offer content in segments.

Journalism for Audio

Radio has been around for more than a century, and most of the best practices from radio journalism are ideal for creating usable audio. Here are some of the most important points.

  • Keep it Short: Ideally, audio narration should be shorter than printed text covering the same subject. If you have three pages of printed text, don’t write three pages of text for the narrator. Since users are unable to easily scan audio content and must listen at the narrator’s speed, concentrate on the most important content.
  • Moreover, the sentences and the individual words should be kept short. It is much more difficult to comprehend a long, complicated sentence read aloud than to read it in print.

  • Repeat Often: Repetition is something you usually try to avoid with written text. With audio, however, it helps to get your point across if the most important facts are summarized and repeated. The key is a summary at the end of the audio. It’s also a good idea to repeat the main subjects or themes rather than referring to them by pronouns or synonyms. The text might seem strange when you read it, but as soon as you hear it, you will realize the audio is easier to follow.

  • Use Mental Pictures: Good journalistic audio sparks the listener’s imagination. It not only makes the piece more entertaining, it also helps the user understand and remember it. Try to create pictures in the listener’s mind. Describe what they might see and feel if they were in your place. For example, let them hear the sounds of the location where your story is set.

  • Take Advantage of the Possibilities: Different styles of speech, tone, speed and dialects can be used to create memorable audio. When the language is too formal, you lose credibility and narration is more difficult to understand.

  • Don’t Overuse the Thesaurus: This is another piece of advice from radio journalism. When you use overuse synonyms, you decrease comprehension. The listener has to decipher the synonyms while the narrator continues talking, so he might not understand some of the text. For example, when referencing Japan, avoid using the terms “Nippon” or “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Here is an example of how to structure an audio sequence:

1. Greeting
2. Introduction (i.e. audio length, what subjects/topics will be covered and how the user can interact)
3. First section of content
4. Describe the structure (i.e. summaries, repetition, overview and acoustic bumpers)
5. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 until all content is delivered
6. Conclusion (i.e. summary or what action users can take next)
7. Farewell

This structure is derived from the typical sequence of a radio show and has been successfully adopted by many podcasters.

Educational Psychology for Audio

Much research has been conducted on reader comprehension and written text, notably the work of Norbert Groeben from 1972 onward. Most of the results show that the techniques from information architecture and radio journalism cited above are also valuable for creating accessible content to be used in an academic setting.

  • Keep Short-term Memory In Mind: It is important to write short sentences and to repeat words rather than using synonyms.
  • Design Audio Content for Different Reading Speeds: Research shows that reading speed varies by individual, depending on age, familiarity with the subject, education and other factors, so it’s important to adapt the complexity and the reading speed of the narrator to your intended audience.

Usability Engineering for Audio

Because audio differs, some of the established techniques used in web development cannot be applied audio. Wireframes, card sorting exercises or eye tracking can be used to evaluate information architecture or interface design, but these techniques do not work for developing and testing audio content. Still, we can borrow from usability engineering when including audio:

  • Design for the Target Audience: It’s still uncommon to apply the techniques of user-centered design to audio, but do convince your design team to produce content for the users, not its creators.

  • Create Personas: Personas are the perfect method for representing your target audience, so use them.

  • Create Scenarios: Usage scenarios are a technique you can successfully apply when creating audio content. It is crucial to understand the user’s:
    • Environment (i.e. quiet or noisy)
    • Access Possibilities (i.e. Do users need to rely on their eyesight or hands right now? When driving or working out eyes and hands are mostly occupied.)
    • Mood (i.e. passive/reclined or active/leaning forward)
    • Expectations (i.e. entertainment or information)
    • Experience (with interface as well as with content)
  • Test With Users: If possible, test early versions with selected users from the target audience. Usability testing in a research lab is best, but informal tests are a good start.

  • Conduct Log File Analysis: Do your statistics. Look at which files are most frequently downloaded (and the least). Correlate the files with their content and then produce more of the successful content types.

  • Consider Users’ Goals & Tasks: Figure 2 shows that audio delivered over the web has a different level of interactivity than, say, just listening to the radio. Apart from listening on demand, users can forward or skip through audio. They may also be looking and interacting with other materials at the same time they are listening.

Figure 2: Depending on the context, the amount of interactivity varies.

What’s more, knowing user’s expectations is crucial to creating the appropriate content (Figure 2). With audio this is more important because it is difficult to skip irrelevant information.

Interface Design for Audio

Finally, give careful consideration to the interface that provides access to and control of audio content. Again, the well-known principles of interface design apply. In general, give the user as many hints as possible about what to expect from the audio—before he even starts listening.

  • Provide a concise description of the content.
  • When linking, make it clear that an audio file is linked.
  • Explain how to locate content within the audio piece, if possible.
  • Include metadata (i.e. ID3 tags in MP3 files that are shown within the playback software, as well as on portable devices).

Figure 3: Podcast page of “The New Yorker website”:

Figure 3 shows the podcast page of the The New Yorker magazine. Much of the information on how to subscribe to the podcast and how to download the audio file is in text. Some short links at the end of the paragraph might work better.

Figure 4: Metadata in iTunes

Above is a good example of metadata displayed via iTunes (Figure 4). Note the long description; it’s concise but not suitable for scanning.


Creating usable audio is not difficult when you follow a few simple rules. These mostly stem from the creation of usable content in the form of text. Information architecture, journalism, educational psychology, usability engineering and interface design provide plentiful tips for doing so. Most of the methods used in these fields can be applied to the creation of audio. To summarize, the main guidelines for usable audio are:

  • Write with your audience in mind.
  • Structure your content by providing an overview at the beginning and giving an introduction to longer audio pieces. Be sure to include a summary at the end.
  • Follow the rules of radio journalism for creating easily understandable narratives.
  • Rely on a familiar interface or put your design in front of users if you digress from a familiar practice.

If you follow these tips you will be able to create audio that is easily accessible, engaging and helps to communicate your message, not only intellectually but also emotionally. After all, emotional quality is one audio’s main advantages over text.

Comics for Consumer Communication

Written by: Rahel Anne Bailie

The rising popularity of the comic as an internal communication device for designers has increased our ability to engage our stakeholders as we build interfaces. Yet, social service agencies looking to provide services to hard-to-reach groups like immigrants, cultural minorities, and the poor have taken pride in innovative outreach methods. In situations where traditional printed matter is a barrier, graphical methods can be used very effectively to communicate with audiences.

From guerilla theatre to testimonials, posters to graphic instructions, users have benefited from alternative communication methods, particularly in situations where education or cultural barriers make it difficult for people to access services important to their well-being and safety. In some cases, the comic book format has been used as a way to help people get access to critical legal help. This case study from my time as a Publication Manager at the Legal Services Society (LSS) of British Columbia (BC) could inspire the use of comics outside the development process.

The Situation

BC has over 253 First Nations tribes (known as “Native Americans” in the United States), which is about one-third of all First Nations in Canada. Seven of Canada’s eleven unique native language families are located exclusively in BC. When BC joined Confederation (Canada) in 1871, the provincial policy of the day did not recognize aboriginal title to the land, so no treaties were signed with the First Nations unlike in other provinces.

Instead, the federal government made it a criminal offence for a First Nation to hire a lawyer to pursue land claims settlements, and removed a generation of children to residential schools, where many were abused and traumatized. As a result, many tribes were left in an ongoing state of economical and social upheaval, with rampant unemployment, social problems, and poverty.

The Legal Services Society (LSS) in BC is the provincial agency that provides legal aid to poor and marginalized residents of the province. Prior to the crippling budget cuts the government imposed in the late 1990s, LSS also provided public legal education material to people who didn’t quite qualify for legal aid but certainly needed it. They may not have been quite poor enough, or they were poor enough, but legal aid didn’t cover their particular problem.

LSS knew that solving some of the smaller problems up front would keep them from escalating into larger problems – problems that would then qualify them for legal aid, but also would be devastating for their lives.

In 1995, the LSS asked its Publishing Program, where I was the manager, to collaborate with them on some self-help material for First Nations women. The Native Services Department wanted to help these women understand their rights in the area of family law, specifically around the issue of spousal violence. Based on the number of women who came to social service agencies for help, LSS recognized that there were a number of issues that were not well understood and, if caught early, could be addressed to prevent larger legal problems.

The agency decided that it was within its mandate to produce a publication for this population segment, and the two departments began the process of creating the publication that would eventually be called Getting Out: Escaping Family Violence.

Why the Comics Format?

LSS produced all publications collaboratively. In this case, the two departments explored different formats, and ultimately chose the comic form. Comics’ graphical format could draw low-literacy women to pick up information off a publication rack. LSS had previously done one other publication in comic book format, which had worked for that audience.

The issue of family violence was a sensitive one, and the LSS had to be sure that the audience would not consider the graphical format of the publication condescending. To take the pulse of those who would use the publication, we conducted several focus groups in places where women would gather for learning (e.g. literacy, friendship, and women’s centers).

We used an approach that combined outreach, usability testing, literacy skills improvement, immigration intake, and legal education. We’d bring food and beverages, humbly ask questions, and be the learners instead of the teachers. Particularly with an all-women’s group, it was important to do something based around food. Participants would often bring their children, and they would ask us questions and giggle over our perspectives.

For this publication, a comic book format seemed to be a natural. The literacy levels in First Nations communities have been cited as being significantly lower than the general population, particularly in rural areas. Conveying the nuances of family law to a low-literacy population segment was one challenge; another was understanding specific cultural references that could be missed or become “localization” barriers.

Considerations similar to those for producing publications in different languages apply to those being translated from “majority culture English” to “minority culture English,” or same-language localization, so to speak. There may not be a language difference, strictly speaking, but significant dialectic differences apply, graphics are very culturally-specific, and emphasis differs between cultures. In this instance, we had to localize our content to make it relevant to our First Nations audience and not concern ourselves about whether the publication resonated with other people sitting in a legal aid waiting room.

Elements of Development

The commitment of the LSS to create effective material for our users extended to all aspects of the publication process.

The publication process included iterations of oversight, content creation, production, and user input.

Authoring–The content creation was undertaken by seeking out a subject matter expert in the topic area, usually a lawyer or case worker in one of the field offices. The author gathered profiles, based on cases from offices around the province, and distilled the important legal information that went into the publication. For this publication, I hired a television screenwriter named “Candis Callison”: who was from the Tahltan band of First Nations to provide an authentic voice for the comic book.

Editorial–The editorial process was done in-house. For this project, the process included editing the script to fit the comic book genre. I also worked with the artist to ensure that the number of panels would fit the booklet format, and the dialog would fit the panels. Once the substantial edit was done, in-house staff did the copy edit. Then the Native Services lawyer, also First Nations, reviewed the publication for legal accuracy.

Production–As positions opened in the department, I was able to hire more culturally and ethnically diverse employees so that, eventually, we were able to produce and proofread material for diverse cultures and languages. (We produced material for recent immigrants, as well, in Chinese, Farsi, Spanish, Punjabi, and Vietnamese.) The new staffed helped greatly during the back-translation, where a publication is translated back into English to ensure translation integrity. In this case, the back-translation was not for language, but to ensure that cultural references were effective.

Art, A Critical Element

An LSS employee was friends with a budding artist named “Brian Jungen”: who was of Dunne-za (a First Nations tribe) and Swiss background. His artwork provided authentic visuals for the initial book. His work now hangs in the Vancouver Art Gallery, amongst other places, and I like to think he looks back fondly on the project.

How The Book Came About

The structure of the book took shape as the artist and I divided the script into chunks to fit the drawings, and then the drawings as necessary. As the Publishing Program manager, I took on the role of substantive editor for the writing and graphics. I also worked with the artist to figure out how to get exactly enough panels to fit the amount of print space allotted.

The structure of the book needed to be in multiples of four pages — minus both covers, the copyright page, and the title pages — and couldn’t exceed 8 pages of actual panels, to control costs. The story had to stay coherent within these constraints and couldn’t focus on the local color at the expense of delivering the legal message. All of that took quite a bit of balancing to keep the interest, use the right level of language, and keep the key legal phrases that would be important for someone to know. In the end, it worked.

Much like any other localized material, we had the material checked by a lawyer to ensure that no legal concepts were compromised during the “translation,” and then the material was tested with audiences to determine effectiveness. The Native Services Department fieldworker took copies of the storyboards out on a road trip to band offices and friendship centers.

We held our breath until word came back through the “moccasin grapevine” that the results were well received. This feedback loop was critical because it provided the opportunity to incorporate any changes that came up from the test.

In the End…

The publication story line opens with a guy in a plaid shirt (it has to be a plaid shirt) having an altercation with his wife. Then they’re at a pow-wow in a truck (it has to be a pick-up truck) where she warmly greets an old (male) friend. Then they’re at a party where he’s being abusive to his wife. By the end of the publication, the wife has identified that his verbal and physical violence is not acceptable, gotten a restraining order by following a few simple steps, and taken some basic legal steps without incurring huge legal costs.

click for cover detail of Getting OutClick for panel detail of Getting Out

One of the dialog bubbles states “… If he tries to do any of these things, we will arrest him again for breach of bail,” and then explains what the term “breach of bail” means. Another panel explains that, “If you live in a rural community far from the cities, Crown counsel [a prosecuting attorney] travels from community to community. You may have a different lawyer at the trial.”

The “insider” cultural perspectives made me feel a bit of a voyeur, but that very characteristic was what made it so effective. The 8.5” x 11” saddle-stitched booklet was immediately identifiable on the publication rack by its distinctive graphics. Also, the title, Getting Out, reflected the vernacular used by women in the community caught in situations of domestic violence so it was an instantly recognizable phrase.

The agency ran a modest print run of the publication, partly to contain printing costs in case of waste, and partly to gauge reaction to the publication. The booklets were distributed to legal aid offices, band offices, and other social service agencies where women were likely to go when they found themselves in marital distress. Offices and agencies were notified of its availability, and I mentioned it in passing during a radio interview.

The demand for the publication soon depleted the initial print run, and another was requested. The frontline workers liked the format, and handed it out to the women who didn’t quite qualify for legal aid but who clearly wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer. Gathering post-production metrics was not a strong point at LSS, but by the measure of popular opinion, it was a winner, and the exercise was repeated with a companion publication entitled The Ministry Took My Kids, about parental rights when children are apprehended by social services.

Click for cover detail of The Ministry Took My KidsClick for panel detail of Getting Out