Three Lessons From Tufte: Special Deliverable #6

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“Information itself cannot inherently be misleading or difficult to understand, but its visual representation or interpretation can be.”Spend any time as an information architect and you’re bound to run into the name Edward Tufte (that’s TUF—tee). Tufte taught information visualization and statistical analysis at Yale University, but he is perhaps best known for authoring and publishing a triumvirate of books: “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, “Envisioning Information”, and “Visual Explanations”.

Because his books focus primarily on producing graphics for paper and on the representation of information, not the structuring of information, many information architects wonder about the value of Tufte’s writing for their work. One of Tufte’s principles, for example, is the data-ink ratio, a means for measuring the value of a graphic by comparing the ink used to the data represented.

Tufte measures the amount of ink used to represent data against the total amount of ink used in the drawing. If data-ink is high, the author has done a good job using “their ink to convey measured quantities” (Display 93). With a low ratio, the graphic has less of what Tufte calls “non-erasable” ink.

Information architects who focus on classification and structuring information might have no use for this principle. Those who stray into the realms of interface design might consider a digital equivalent: the data-pixel ratio, comparing the pixels used for representing the interactive parts of the interface with the total number of pixels used. While perhaps easier to count pixels than ink, such an approach does not take into account the subtleties of interaction, usability, and the need for branded interface elements.

Tufte’s work, however, can be applied to documentation successfully. This article considers three of his principles as they relate to information architecture documentation.

Principle 1: Authorship
Tufte spends fifteen pages in “Visual Explanations” talking about the Challenger disaster in the mid-1980s. In short, the scientists at NASA had an opportunity to stop the launch of the ill-fated space shuttle. Tufte surmises that if they had presented the data better, the scientists might have been able to convince the decision makers not to push the button. Although he spends considerable time in the details of the presentation, Tufte first notes that the title slide did not include the names of the authors.

In my work as a consultant, I noticed that “consulting culture” discouraged individual ownership. Perhaps consulting culture prefers to emphasize the team-oriented nature of its work. Perhaps it comes from the explicit clauses in the employment agreements assigning ownership of intellectual property to the consulting firm.

Regardless of the reason, it’s a habit that must change because, as Tufte says about the slides in the Challenger presentation, “authorship indicates responsibility, both to the immediate audience and for the long-term record.” Without any indication of accountability, a document “might well provoke some doubts about the evidence to come” (Explanations 40).

Examples of including author names on documentation:

  • Sean Patrick Coon’s documentation for the EyeWeb system ( includes his name on the flow for the kiosk, but not the site flow or the search schematic.
  • Jesse James Garrett puts his name on the Yahoo! Mail diagram (PDF) he did for Boxes and Arrows (
  • Erin Malone uses a stylized title bar for her design process timeline for AltaVista (PDF) (

Principle 2: Smallest effective difference
One of my favorite Tufte principles is the smallest effective difference, which says, “Make all visual distinctions as subtle as possible, but still clear and effective” (Explanations 73). The intent of this strategy is to discourage authors from creating a greater visual distinction than the data implies.

There are many different ways to apply the smallest effective difference, and the approach you select depends on the distinction you’re trying to make. In our documentation, we deal with different kinds of relationships. Here are some ideas for the information architect’s standard deliverables.

The flow chart: My now infamous approach to creating site maps, the “bubble” (PDF) diagram, relies on the smallest effective difference for the connections between nodes. The beauty of avoiding the standard org chart approach to site mapping is that it frees the information architect from the boundaries of the rectangle. By using circles, the relationships can illustrate themselves by taking advantage of the distances between them.

In creating the connectors between the nodes, in showing the relationships, I often want to show directionality or hierarchy. Because of the “non-traditional” layout, however, the diagram needed to allow users to follow the relationships whether they started at a node or not. In other words, if her gaze started at the middle of a connector, the user should not have to trace the line to either end to understand the nature of the relationship. Arrowheads would force users to do just this. Taking Tufte’s principle to an extreme, the arrowhead is not the smallest effective difference between the beginning of the line and the end of the line.

Flowchart showing tapered lines to imply directionalityBy tapering the line, starting thicker and ending thinner, every point on the line could imply directionality. Overall the diagram becomes more subtle, without arrowheads cluttering the drawing.

Because the flow chart or site map is all about showing relationships, there are many ways to apply the principle of the smallest effective difference: the different kinds of nodes, the different kinds of relationships between nodes. Other information architecture deliverables are not so fortunate.

The user profile: The principle of the smallest effective difference can apply to writing as well. In the case of the user profile, authors should focus on what makes each type of user different. In explaining smallest effective difference, Tufte says, “Muting … secondary elements will often reduce visual clutter – and thus help to clarify the primary information” (Explanations 74). With a user profile the “secondary elements” are those that do not contribute to the information architect’s understanding of the user’s information needs.

If an aspect of the user type neither contributes to the information architect’s understanding of that type’s needs nor distinguishes its needs from any other group, perhaps it should be “muted.” While eliminating this kind of information from the profile entirely could lead to flat, inhuman depictions of the audience, finding a way to de-emphasize it could make the document more effective.

The wireframe: In a representation of a web page, the relationships are necessarily implied by the layout. The author need not distinguish between two pieces of information because the position on the page implies that relationship. Perhaps where smallest effective difference comes into play for the wireframe is to suggest that information architects do not “over design” the screens.

With smallest effective difference, however, it is possible to go too far. When a diagram does not have a lot of data, creating subtleties where none necessarily exist could make your diagram hard on the eyes.

Principle 3: Layering
“Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information” (Envisioning 53). In a way, this sentence—which begins the chapter in Envisioning Information on Layering and Separation—captures the essence of Tufte’s work (and reminds me of the statement made by my dog’s trainer, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.”). Information itself cannot inherently be misleading or difficult to understand, but its visual representation or interpretation can be.

By layering information, authors have an enormous opportunity to eliminate confusion. Misapplication of information layers, however, runs the risk of causing further confusion. Says Tufte, “For every excellent performance, a hundred clunky spectacles arise” (Envisioning 53). What makes layering so challenging is that through layers, authors often create “non-information patterns and texture.” If authors do not effectively separate the layers, they can combine to create nonsense or chartjunk [see note below], further obscuring the message.

Layering is important to information architects because information architecture does not live in a vacuum.

To help information architects apply layering, let’s first explore two reasons why people get confused with our documentation.

Context: Information architecture, while a craft in and of itself, belongs as part of a greater process. By taking a project’s information architecture out of context, clients might experience a variety of misunderstandings that really center on a misunderstanding of how the decisions were made. There are a handful of ways to set the context of an information architecture:

  • Business strategy
  • User needs
  • Functional requirements

Implications: Perhaps this is less about confusion and more about misinformation. How many information architects have experienced the dreaded meeting months after the IA documentation was approved where clients explode because the visual designs are not what was expected? No doubt the good consultant sets expectations, but good documentation can help in this matter by showing the visual design, maintenance, or operational implications of key IA decisions.

Through layers, then, information architects have the opportunity to build a more complex story—to include other elements to the data set. With additional plots, however, comes the potential for added confusion. Although there are several techniques for creating a layered diagram—color, value, contrast&#151jthese will only contribute to misunderstanding if not applied consistently. Each layer must include only one kind of data; and conversely, every data of a particular kind must appear on the same layer.

What happens if the author removes a layer from his or her diagram? Visually, if the author has done her job well, the diagram itself will look like it isn’t missing anything. On the other hand, the person looking at the diagram will get an incomplete story.

Ultimately, the presentation of an information architecture depends on the people using it. Tufte’s principles must be applied in ways that are appropriate and relevant. Layering business strategy context within a diagram for the visual design team, for example, may not be useful. Illustrating the various relationships inherent in the content types of a content management system through the use of Tufte’s smallest effective difference may be more relevant to the engineering team than the client.

Tufte begins his first book with a treatise on “graphical excellence,” which lists nine basic principles from “show the data” to “encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data.” Perhaps this is where information architects find themselves furthest from Tufte’s teachings: his principles do not take the motivation of the user into account. What drives Tufte’s drawings is the data alone. Indeed, for information architects, the deliverable’s audience must guide its design as much as the data does.

*Note:* Tufte’s term for visual elements that obscure data under the pretense of contributing to it. A heavy grid on a line graph is perhaps the best example.
Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank.

Understanding PowerPoint: Special Deliverable #5

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“Friends don’t let friends use PowerPoint.”
—Thomas A Stewart, Fortune Magazine, February 2001
PowerPoint: the software we love to hate. Has there been any other software since the dawn of the personal computer that has earned so much criticism? What is it about PowerPoint that has

(Yikes! Bullets! PowerPoint has me in its clutches!)

Sure, we’ve all experienced frustrations with Microsoft Word. (Case in point: When I cut-and-pasted the above quote from into my document, Word insisted on preserving its web formatting. Why?) As irritating as Word and other applications can be, only PowerPoint has a bona fide counterculture.

As part of this counterculture, people have written articles and books on the art of the presentation, the history of PowerPoint, and how the application will be the undoing of the business community (Greed, shmeed!). Of course, these are topics of interest relevant to all.

The purpose of this column is to explore the art of deliverables for information architects. (Keep this in mind as you post your comments.) The question at hand is not, “Does PowerPoint suck?” The answer to that, as we all know, is yes. The question is, in fact, “For information architects, does PowerPoint suck?” Or, more to the point, “Even though PowerPoint sucks, should I use it for my deliverables?”

To be fair, much of the criticism of PowerPoint is directed at the features that allow authors to create complete presentations with almost no effort. Ignoring the design templates and the AutoContent wizard, however, PowerPoint still has some obvious shortcomings. These limitations do not make PowerPoint useless. Instead, by recognizing PowerPoint’s boundaries, we can use it more appropriately.

For information architects, there are at least two ways to apply PowerPoint in your day-to-day activities. For each application, I’ll describe the reasons for using PowerPoint in lieu of some other program, and its potential shortcomings.

PowerPoint for short reports
I’ve recently made the switch from consultant to client, and the consultants I have been working with love PowerPoint. I think Microsoft must sponsor new employee orientation at major consulting firms because since starting my new job in June, I have seen more decks than on a good night in Atlantic City.

Even when I was a consultant, I noticed a proliferation of the use of PowerPoint among people with advanced business degrees. When I was thinking about doing graduate work, I was told that in pursuing an M.B.A. I would get two things: a network of business contacts and a crash course in PowerPoint.

Most of these PowerPoint presentations contain many, many words. The slides are dense with text. Seeing fifty slides with the copy all crammed in like that is just disturbing. When I see those presentations, I wonder why the author did not just make a document in Word.

PowerPoint is a fine tool for preparing reports if you never intend to project or present them, but there should be a reason for using slides instead of pages.

A couple years ago, I wrote a usability evaluation for a Spanish telecom’s website. After some deliberation, I decided to use PowerPoint instead of Word to prepare the report. I had two primary reasons.

First, knowing that the report would have to be translated for a Spanish-speaking audience in a relatively short period of time, I used PowerPoint to help me keep my ideas concise. As I was writing the report, I selected words very carefully to ensure that the translation would be easy. (I knew enough Spanish to evaluate the site and to know whether the report’s translation would be straightforward, but not enough to do it myself.) In doing so, I had to express my ideas succinctly and efficiently.

Ultimately, PowerPoint forces you to be a better writer. People who prepare decks with lots and lots of text do not see the opportunity to find fewer words to say the same thing. Only by selecting your words carefully and eliminating redundant thoughts can you create effective reports in PowerPoint.

(Ironically, the report was never translated. The client knew enough English, I suppose, to make sense out of my carefully crafted prose.)

The second reason for using PowerPoint in this case was the integration of images. I used screenshots to illustrate the usability critique. PowerPoint, for all its faults, allows users to create layouts with no mess or fuss. Making it easy to paste a screenshot and plop in call-outs is why PowerPoint was invented. The business plan from 1984 for the original PowerPoint contains the passage, “Allows the content-originator to control the presentation” (quoted in the aforementioned New Yorker article).

Microsoft Word, by comparison, allows you to integrate images and add call-outs, but trying to do either can be an exercise in complete frustration. Inserting screenshots into Word is like popping pimples: it is messy and painful, and does not necessarily lead to satisfying results.

Unfortunately, while PowerPoint encourages us to be better writers and lowers the learning curve for including illustrations, it does come with a lot of baggage. The resulting usability report for the Spanish telecom was more than 1,300K. PowerPoint does not optimize file size and therefore can be unwieldy to transport.

Ultimately, the key to creating reports in PowerPoint is to keep them short. My usability evaluation came out to 43 slides—perhaps 10-15 too many. In retrospect, I might have developed two files: a Word document for the bulk of the report and a PowerPoint deck for the supporting illustrations.

PowerPoint for simple website documentation
Whatever PowerPoint’s original intended use, the program has grown and sprouted mutant extremities. Like most applications Microsoft gets its paws on, the basic requirements of PowerPoint stayed the same, but they have been interpreted so broadly that the application has tried to become all things to all people. At its heart, PowerPoint still gives users the ability to put text and graphics on “slides,” but it mutated when Microsoft added functionality to give users more power in manipulating the text and images.

It is in these mutant extremities that information architects might find tools for creating website documentation like site maps or flow diagrams, using the assorted built-in shapes and connectors for example. The decision to use PowerPoint instead of some other application to create a site map should be driven by two things: scope and cost.

If you want to use PowerPoint to diagram a website, you must ask yourself: How much do I want to say? What is the scope of my diagram?

Scope refers to the number of different kinds of information you present in a document. In creating a new diagram, perhaps the most important design decision is determining the number of data points (or “dimensions”) you would like to represent. In our business, a diagram can represent a variety of dimensions: web pages, the relationships among them, the user path through them, the supported user segments or business goals, the requirements satisfied, content types, etc. Every one of our diagrams represents one or more of these dimensions.

Scope also refers to the amount of data covered in each dimension. For example, a diagram can document ten webpages or ten thousand. In creating a diagram, you must identify how much you’re saying within each dimension.

Edward Tufte, author of “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” and other books on visualizing information, refers to the breadth of data points and the scope of data within each point represented in a diagram as the diagram’s “resolution.” Like the resolution of your computer display, it is a measure of how much information is fit into a given space. Tufte criticizes PowerPoint because it is inherently a low-resolution medium—you can only address so much data using it.

Tufte is, no doubt, correct. Norvig’s representation of the “Gettysburg Address” in PowerPoint shows how it can strip ideas expressed in prose of their power. Equally ridiculous (and illustrative) would be a representation of Minard’s famous “Napolean’s March” in PowerPoint: clip art soldiers and thermometers come to mind.

Perhaps you find yourself in a situation where you simply need to represent one or two dimensions: a high-level conceptual view of the content types supported by a content management system, or the basic facets of a thesaurus. If your data set is small, PowerPoint can be good enough for producing a diagram to illustrate it.

Cost drives the decision to use PowerPoint as much as the scope of the work you’re doing. Cost is determined by several factors, not the least of which is commitment. PowerPoint is ideal for small gigs: doing a bit of low-profile pro bono work or your friend’s wedding website, or working with colleagues on a low-budget side project.

In cases when you cannot commit a lot of time to develop full-fledged, professional-looking documentation, PowerPoint can serve as a low-cost production vehicle. (Jesse James Garrett offers a PowerPoint version of his visual vocabulary, a nice standard for producing website documentation.)

Cost is also driven by portability: how easy is the final product to distribute? While PowerPoint compromises portability in terms of file size, the program does afford widespread support. People are more likely to have PowerPoint installed on their machine than Visio. Adobe Acrobat Reader also enjoys a large install base, but its electronic collaboration capabilities are limited to comments. Users cannot directly manipulate the content in a PDF file unless they have the full version of Acrobat. (One feature I’ve found myself wishing for in PowerPoint is Word’s “Track Changes” function, which allows users to pass a document around and keep track of who made which edits.)

But, the intent of this article is to identify the factors to consider when choosing a tool, not to recommend one over another. PowerPoint is a low-cost tool that affords rapid development time and seamless delivery, but it can only support documentation with a limited scope.

A Fourth Use—Making a Deck of Cards
PowerPoint may have its faults, but there’s no better way to make a deck of cards quickly. Here’s a trick I’ve used for years to prepare for card-sorting exercises.

Open Microsoft Word. Yeah, you’ll have to use both evil applications.

In the View menu, select Outline.

Type the list of terms into your outline. Be sure that each term is assigned the Heading 1 style. If you’d like to include other elements on your cards (a term’s definition, for example) add them as sub-items under the term. Those sub-items will be assigned styles Heading2, Heading3, and so, depending on their position in the hierarchy. Ultimately, each Heading 1 term will appear as a card, and any associated lower-level headings will appear as items on that card. Do not use any other styles for items on the cards. Microsoft Word can only export Heading styles to PowerPoint.

Now for the tricky part: Once you’re done with your term list, from the File menu, go to Send To and select Microsoft PowerPoint from the sub-menu.

The system does the rest! PowerPoint will open a new presentation file and place each of your terms on a separate slide*. If you want to adjust the layout of the cards, select Master > Slide Master from the View menu. You can move the main heading text field into the center of the page, increase the font size, etc. Changes to the Master Slide will be reflected on all the cards. To turn them into cards, print several slides on a page. Nine slides to a page works best, though sixteen works well, too.

Now all that’s left is to track down the paper cutter in the Marketing department!

* Note: The Send To feature is limited to about 200 terms. If you need more cards, simply cut-and-paste your Word outline into your PowerPoint outline.

PowerPoint for presentations
For simple reports and website documentation, PowerPoint can be a useful tool. Ultimately, however, it was designed for presentations, and as an information architect, at some point in your career, you will find yourself doing a presentation—to sell your business, to educate clients, or to deliver the conclusions of your work.

The title of this article, “Understanding PowerPoint,” is an homage to Scott McCloud, who graced us with his book “Understanding Comics”. PowerPoint is neither as misunderstood nor as interesting as McCloud’s medium, but he makes several points that can be applied to the dreaded application.

McCloud describes comics as a dance between imagery and words, integrated movement in which “words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone” (p. 155). Like comics, presentations have two components: what is spoken and what is projected on the screen. (You could even say it has a third: the “leave behind,” which many presentation gurus insist should be a separate piece from the other two.)

Seth Godin, in his piece “Really Bad PowerPoint,” suggests that people using the application should keep the projected portion of their presentations at the emotional level and the spoken portion at the intellectual. Use PowerPoint, he suggests, to project images that touch your audience and state facts in the spoken part.

Godin’s advice may be valuable for beginning presenters, but for more experienced users, I prefer McCloud’s dance metaphor. Writes McCloud, “the more is said with words, the more the pictures can be freed to go exploring…” (p. 155). And later, “When pictures carry the weight of clarity in a scene, they free words to explore a wider area” (p. 157). The key word here is clarity.

Of course, with presentations, we’re not talking about scenes. But we are trying to tell a story—we would like to carry our audience from a common beginning (“Once upon a time…”) to a believable conclusion (“…and they lived happily ever after.”). Like it or not, PowerPoint is designed to be a storytelling medium, and your presentations should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, like any good story.

The vehicle we use to carry our audience must be a satisfying combination of two channels: spoken word and projected image, audio and visual. The words the audience hears must support the images it sees. The images it sees must illustrate the words it hears.

Comics, because they are an art form, have the liberty to “explore,” as McCloud would have it. But a presentation is a means to an end (usually either selling or educating) and the opportunities to explore are limited. That should not stop a presentation from being a complete story, though, using spoken words and projected images to transmit a message deeper and more complex than either medium could do on its own.


powerpoint.gifThe two main factors you must consider when selecting a tool are the complexity of the data set and the cost. Regarding the data set, consider how many variables you are trying to represent, and the range of values in each variable. For the overall cost, consider the burdens of production and distribution. Having established a simple data set and a low cost, you might consider PowerPoint for your documentation needs, with the understanding that using it may have some implications, such as a large file size and the need for succinct writing.

You’ll find many ways to use PowerPoint effectively in your work as an information architect. PowerPoint is a hybrid: it does many things moderately well. Because it is a single program that allows you to combine simple layouts with diagrams and prose, it is both an ideal tool and ripe for misuse. Tool selection is a design decision like any other—have good reasons for your decision and know the limits of the tool you choose.

Tip o’ the 10-gallon to Mike Lee, leading the IA pack in Baltimore, for inspiration and reading suggestions.

Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank.

Three Visio Tips: Special Deliverables #4

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“Whether you love it or hate it, if you are an information architect you will probably find yourself using Visio at some point in your career.“No column on information architecture deliverables would be complete without at least some mention of tools. Occasionally I will use this space to provide helpful suggestions on using some of the tools adopted by information architects. In this case, I’ll offer three tips on using Visio, Microsoft’s diagramming application. (Michael Angeles has already written an excellent article on Visio automation.)

Whether you love it or hate it, if you are an information architect you will probably find yourself using Visio at some point in your career. When that time comes, these three tips on styles, backgrounds and the F4 key will be indispensable.

Styles and Formats
Visio, while offering a lot of flexibility in applying styles to shapes, does not do much to help users understand the distinction between Style and Format. While they are inextricably related, they refer to different things. To help you distinguish, consider this table:

  Fill Pattern  
  Fill Color 1  
  Fill Color 2  
  Line Pattern  
  Line End  
  Line Start  
  Line Weight  

Each of these attributes describes one aspect of the “style” of a Visio shape.

Thus, for the above shape, I could fill in the table like this:

  Font Arial
  Size 12pt
  Style Bold
  Color White
  Fill Pattern Checkerboard
  Fill Color 1 White
  Fill Color 2 Black
  Line Pattern Dotted
  Line End None
  Line Start None
  Line Weight 4pt
  Corners Square
  Color Red

All of the information in the table constitutes the shape’s “style.” “Format,” on the other hand, refers to the attributes of the text, fill or line components of the shape (i.e., the right column of the table). Format will always be qualified with one of these components of a shape. You could never talk about a “shape’s format.” You could, however, talk about a shape’s line format, a shape’s fill format or a shape’s text format.

The relationship between Style and Format now becomes straightforward: a shape’s style is the sum of its text, fill and line formatting. This becomes important when you select a shape’s style from the Style menu. In doing so, you affect the format of the text, line and fill of the shape. (Actually, you can define a style with one, two or all three of these formats specified, but the default styles in Visio include all three.)

A confusing aspect of the Style feature is that Visio offers a style menu for each of these shape components. I can select a shape and then select a style from the Text Style menu. When a style selected from the Text Style menu includes formatting for fill and line, you might get this prompt:

Text Style menu

Visio is asking whether you want to style the shape with the fill and line formatting as well as the text formatting. It’s asking, in other words, if you’d like to apply the formatting to all the attributes defined by the selected style, or just to the text.

Backgrounds and Text Fields
By creating a background, you can carry common elements through several pages in a single Visio document. Visio allows you to define many backgrounds, and you can assign any one background to any foreground page.

To create a background, select “Page…” from the Insert menu. You’ll be presented with the page properties dialog box:

Page properties dialog

Be sure to select “Background” under Type and give your background a meaningful name. In Visio, backgrounds are pages in the document. They do not get printed, however, like regular pages.

When you click OK, you’ll see a blank Visio page. For the purpose of this tutorial, we’ll use the background to put my name in the lower right-hand corner of every page in the document.

Background text

Now, to put the background to use, create another page with Insert > Page… This time, however, the page type should be ”Foreground.” Be sure to give this page a meaningful name as well, since we’ll be using it later. To apply our background to the page, select its name from the Background menu.

Background menu

Now, when you click OK, you’ll see a new page with my name at the bottom.

Page with name at the bottom

Backgrounds can be particularly powerful in combination with Text Fields. A text field is a variable space in a text area that Visio automatically fills in depending on the type of field you specified. For example, you could use a Date text field to automatically fill in the date.

When a text field appears on a background, it will draw its information from the foreground page assigned to it. This is particularly useful if you’d like the page name or page number to appear on every page.

To do this, create a text area on a background page. In the text area, insert a text field for “page name.” Then, any foreground page with that background assigned to it will show the page name. Here are the particulars:

Return to the background page you created by clicking on the tab in the lower left corner of the Visio window. Create a new text area on the page. While the cursor is blinking in the new text area, select “Field…” from the Insert menu. (If the cursor isn’t blinking in the text area, you will not be able to select “Field…” from the Insert menu.) You will be presented with the Text Field selection dialog box.

Visio offers an enormous selection of text fields to choose from. To stick with the example, we’ll use the page name. That field is categorized under “Page Info.”

Note how Visio gives you the opportunity to format the text field. This is particularly relevant to date and time fields.

Now the page name appears. Because we’re still editing the background, you’ll see the name of the background page. Switching to the page we created previously, however, shows that the text field automatically changes depending on the page.

Relevant and meaningful page names

You can see why it is important to give pages relevant and meaningful names. By combining backgrounds and text fields, it is easy to create professional-looking deliverables while minimizing the chance of sloppy mistakes through typos or missing information.

I love F4. I discovered this little trick reading an article on before it was merged into Microsoft’s site. The F4 key is Visio’s keyboard shortcut for the “Repeat” command found in the “Edit” menu.

Edit Menu

Now, I know what you’re thinking. In many Windows applications, this command is represented by the shortcut Ctrl-Y. In many applications, Ctrl-Y is a shortcut for the “Redo” command, an undo for the “Undo” command. In other words, if you undo something and change your mind, you can hit Ctrl-Y and it will take your work back to the state prior to the Undo command.

Visio’s F4 is different. In fact, if you do an Undo, the menu command changes to Redo and the keyboard shortcut becomes Ctrl-Y.

Edit Menu

Hitting F4 means, “Repeat the last command I issued.” One use of the Repeat command is to apply formatting to several shapes at once. To do this:

  1. Select a shape.
  2. Change the format of the shape (for example, line weight).
  3. Select other shapes, holding Ctrl to select more than one.
  4. Press F4.

You’ll see the shapes you selected adopt the same formatting. This feature is limited in that the Repeat command repeats only the most recent command given. Try this experiment:

  1. Select a shape.
  2. Change the line weight of the shape.
  3. Change the color of the line.
  4. Select other shapes, holding Ctrl to select more than one.
  5. Press F4.

Instead of adopting both the new weight and color of the line, the other shapes will only adopt the new color.

Visio offers a number of other techniques for applying the same style across many shapes (styles, layers and the Format Painter tool, among others) and F4 is not necessarily the best choice in all situations. The real value in F4 is its ability to repeat a duplication action.

After duplicating a shape, pressing F4 will create another duplication of the shape in the exact same relative position. The best way to describe this is to show it.

I can create a square and duplicate it by holding the Ctrl key and dragging the square to a new position. The top left corner of the duplicate is one-eighth of an inch lower and to the right of the bottom right corner of the original.

Duplicate in relative position

Now, by pressing F4, I can create a second duplicate whose relative position matches that of the first duplicate.

Second duplicate in relative position

If I press F4 again, a third duplicate appears, also in the same relative position.

Third duplicate in same relative position
And so on.

And so on

This technique is useful for positioning objects consistently across a drawing, and for creating grids of objects. To create the grid below, I selected a column of text boxes, duplicated them with Ctrl-drag, and then pressed F4 to make each additional column.

Duplicated text

Regardless of which party you fall into – Visio naysayer or Visio supporter – these tricks can help make your experience with the application more efficient. Visio is filled with tricks like these, but these three are among my favorites and the ones I use most often to get the job done. I hope you’ll use the discussion area for this article to post your own Visio tricks.

In the next column, we’ll compare the standards available for creating information architecture documentation, and help you decide which standard is right for you. (If you have suggestions for standards I should look at, please drop me a line!)

Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank.

Where the Wireframes Are: Special Deliverable #3

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“The page description diagram is a tool to allow designers and information architects to stay comfortably within their own realms without compromising communication.”In 1998, I was working for USWeb/CKS, perhaps the largest Internet consulting firm at the time. Information architecture was new to the organization, and I was the only one in the Washington, D.C. office who had the chutzpah to call himself an IA. At that point, we hired a new creative director, and together he and I formalized the user experience group in our office. As part of that process, and based on our own bad experiences, he told me that I needed to find a way to take design out of information architecture.

He was referring, of course, to wireframes, though at the time we called them page schematics. We’d been burned too many times, and it started creating a rift between the visual designers and me. A wireframe, as you probably know, describes the contents of a web page by illustrating a mock layout. Usually wireframes are rendered in some kind of drawing program, like Visio or Illustrator, but can also appear as bitmaps or even HTML.

It would have been easy for me to resent the directive. After all, I’m an IA, that’s what we do! But I could see the value in his suggestion, particularly since I’d experienced conflict on projects where I’d trod a bit too heavily on designers’ toes.

The conflict arose after clients had seen the wireframes. The layout, even explicitly caveated, would set their expectations, and they did not appreciate screen designs that strayed too far from them, no matter how carefully crafted. Clients also struggled to talk about information priorities, taxonomies, and functionality. Placing these concepts in a layout made them more accessible, but our conversations were too tactical, and their feedback had more to do with design than with structure.

We tried using wireframes as a strictly internal tool: no client viewing allowed. But as much as a wireframe helped designers visualize the functionality and interaction of the site, it cramped their style. Designers who stuck close to the wireframes did not exercise their creativity, and all our sites started to look the same.

These are the two main risks associated with wireframes: client expectations and designer innovation. (There are others. See below.) While strategies exist to mitigate these risks, they are not 100% avoidable. When the creative director asked me to “take design out of IA,” I had to make a choice:

I could pursue risk mitigation strategies, learning how to set client expectations better and work with designers to avoid compromising their creativity.


I could develop a different approach to documenting information architecture, one that would avoid these issues completely. Devising a way to communicate issues that sit squarely in my court means no more conflict with designers over client expectations or layout. Such an approach would also force clients (and designers for that matter) to talk about content, priorities, and functionality —the issues we needed to address in early stages of the project.

The first option felt desperate, as if I were the little boy trying to plug the dam with no end in sight to the number of leaks. (In college, I took a class in social ethics. The professor, Gary Comstock, once said that if people are fighting over pie, make a bigger pie.)

It was on the redesign of in 1999 that I decided to try a different approach. After building a site map, which described the relationships between the web pages, I created the first “page description diagram” —a bigger pie, as it were.

In a page description diagram, the content areas of the page are described in prose, as in a functional specification. The content area descriptions are arranged on the page in priority order. Typically, I will define the horizontal axis of the diagram as the page priority. Thus, content areas described on the left side of the page are higher priority than those on the right side of the page.

Page Description Diagram Mock-Up

Page Description Diagram Mock-Up with Component Layouts. Click to open a high fidelity PDF of diagram.

With this approach, the diagram represented the two main issues: priority and content. I found that I could include layouts of individual content areas to show, for example, how the “check flight status” form might look. These mini-layouts helped our client visualize the interactivity, but did not lock the designer into any particular approach. Our conversations with the client focused on the nature of the content and functionality and the relative priority of the page contents.

On this particular project, the art director appreciated the approach. He found he could focus more on creating a synergy between the brand and the functionality, rather than being forced into wrapping colors around a predetermined layout. At the risk of speculating on his thoughts too much, I wonder if he had to spend less effort than he would have with a wireframe, which predisposed him to a particular layout.

The page description diagram, by demonstrating priorities and providing a context for the content and functionality, gives visual designers the information they need to create an effective layout. On any given web page, a piece of information can have more or less visual weight depending on the use of color, contrast, typography, and position. But these are the tools of a visual designer, the fundamentals of graphic design, and no business of the information architect.

If a project requires an information architect, the scale of information must be vast. Without a person who understands the nature of the information, other people on the team would spend their valuable time trying to get their heads around it, preventing them from focusing on their own tasks. Information architects who have to worry about layout are distracted from their tasks: defining functionality, content, and structure.

Ultimately, designers are paid because they are good at thinking about visual relationships. Presumably, an information architect focuses on relationships among information, categories, and content, not among shapes, color, and contrast. The page description diagram is a tool to allow designers and information architects to stay comfortably within their own realms without compromising communication.

(This idea, of course, reopens the “defining the damn thing” discussion. Perhaps some definitions of information architecture include page layout, but as a creative director who must consider the interests of both architects and designers, I need to draw a discrete line between the two.)

Whenever I show a page description diagram to designers, they love it. It provides more information without compromising their processes. Information architects, on the other hand, have mixed responses. Some latch onto the concept, eager for some relief from common project problems. Others do not see value in the approach, perhaps because they have not faced the same issues, or perhaps because they have associated their craft with wireframes, they cannot conceive of one without the other.

Page description diagrams do not have to replace wireframes. Indeed, if we are to grow as a craft, we must find additional means for communicating information architecture ideas. Just as laptop computers and desktop computers do similar things but are used in different situations, wireframes and page description diagrams can also peacefully coexist as useful information architecture tools.

The Pros and Cons of Wireframes

These lists originally appeared on the poster I presented at the ASIS&T 2002 IA Summit in Baltimore, “Where the Wireframes Are: The Use and Abuse of Page Layouts in the Practice of Information Architecture.” You can find the poster at


  • demonstrates a site concept quickly, allowing clients to react to content placement and rendering
  • can provide guidance to visual designers with respect to information priorities
  • allows for usability testing early in the project lifecycle
  • can elaborate on a singular vision for the site
  • can facilitate collaboration between design team and information architects
  • is easy for clients to understand


  • hinders creativity and innovation by imposing (real or imagined) limits on design team
  • distracts client from tasks at hand: evaluating page priorities, understanding information relationships
  • is not necessarily HTML-ready if not developed to scale
  • is not necessarily HTML-ready if developed without “chrome”
  • does not provide accurate usability testing results
  • relies on other documentation to provide a complete picture
  • does not consider color, typography, and other brand identity elements
  • requires time to wrestle with layout details, which might change in final design anyway
Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank. Dan has taught classes at Duke, Georgetown, and American Universities and has written articles for the CHI Bulletin and Interactive Television Today.

Coherence, Context, Relevance: Special deliverable #2

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Those of you who witnessed the spectacle that was the deliverables panel at the IA Summit in Baltimore might remember my presentation about the qualities of good documentation. “When a document tells one story, it is coherent. Coherent documents are easy to understand, because every last bit of ink contributes to the overall message.”

This article will expand on that presentation and offer some practical advice on producing deliverables, whether they were visual or prose. Those information architects preparing deliverables face three basic obstacles:

• How to get started.
• How to establish the purpose.
• How to stay on track.

The three qualities of good deliverables – coherence, context and relevance – map to these challenges, more or less, with a bit of overlap.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator asks his students to describe a building. One student struggled to begin the writing assignment, and the teacher suggested that he start by describing the brick in the upper left-hand corner of the building. According to the story, the prose flew from the student’s hand once his teacher had provided a starting point. Unfortunately, preparing information architecture deliverables does not come with as easy a solution.

Instead, start the documentation process by identifying the singular story. The story might be as simple as “how users get from point A to point B,” or as complicated as “how user roles K, L, M and N interact with each other through the system.” By establishing a theme for the document, you can easily identify what details contribute to telling that story.

(Consider storytelling in other media. My father, the film professor, says that every scene in a movie should either elaborate on character or further the story. Everything else is just bad moviemaking.)

After deciding upon what story to tell, you can identify the types of information (Tufte would call them dimensions of data) that would best illustrate it. These data points include web pages, relationships between web pages, form widgets, information hierarchy, user roles, time, system topology, user tasks or any other piece of data that came out while gathering requirements. Having listed the dimensions of data, you can then identify which few will form the basis of the story; the rest are just supporting cast.

Some information architects might be tempted to put too much information in their documents. While the heart of the practice is in the details, information architects can not afford to compromise the integrity and quality of their thinking by overcompensating with inappropriate details. No doubt that information should be captured somewhere, and if it comes up, it might be a signal to rethink the deliverable’s story. (As an example, I had one creative director complain to me about an information architecture document that tried to explain the data model for the content management system of the site, distracting from the documentation of the user experience.)

When a document tells one story, it is coherent. Coherent documents are easy to understand, because every last bit of ink contributes to the overall message. Coherent documents are easier to start. Usually, you can use basic shapes to represent the major information dimension (say, web pages) and then lay additional dimensions on top. Above all, let the data do the talking (the best diagrams I have created create themselves).

Telling a story is one thing. Ensuring your client “gets it” is another. Understanding the message of the document is not enough. Your client must understand where this particular document fits into the entire project. Since information architecture is a stepping stone in the process of building an interactive system —goal-setting and requirements-gathering on one side, designing and developing on the other side— it has a relationship to what came before and what will come later. Good documentation explains these relationships.

One technique that works well is to reproduce portions of previous documentation on your deliverable. Often, a list of goals, requirements or user roles works best. Depending on how you set it up, this can address the entire context, both pre-IA and post-IA. For example, I frequently include a list of high-level business goals on the same page as the site map.

A list of goals helps remind the client where the project started. To help the client understand where the project is going, I compare the project goals to IA and subsequent phases of the project, like design and content strategy. For each goal, I indicate which project phase addresses it:

Project Phases

In this table, the black dots indicate that the output of a project phase significantly addresses the goal. Grey dots indicate that the output of a project phase only somewhat addresses the goal. While you may have to provide some explanation, this device accomplishes three things:

  1. Provides some context by reminding clients of the project goals.
  2. Sets expectations by showing what will be addressed in subsequent phases.
  3. Protects the information architecture from having to address every project issue.

The last point is important. Because information architecture is usually the first design documentation in a project, clients have high expectations for it. Showing clients that IA addresses many, but not all, project issues can diffuse these expectations.

Using a device like the one above helps set the context for the deliverable, so it doesn’t have to tell your story in a vacuum. Such a device can be expanded, however, to show why your story is important in that context, to show precisely how and why it contributes to the project. On the panel, I said that the best way to show relevance is to make the document self-referential. By way of further explanation:

Documents that tell a linear story explain the project along one dimension. Requirements documents, for example, might start with project goals, then talk about users, then list the requirements. When parts of the document refer to other parts of the document ( e.g., requirement 2.3 is related to goal 3.4; user personas Carol and Dave yield requirements 4.0 through 6.0, etc.) the story becomes more solid. Subsequent documents can build on this foundation and continue to refer to it. Through these relationships, a document justifies itself.

Perhaps the thought of a document justifying its being is a bit too existential. But many information architects spend a considerable amount of time doing this anyway. In creating relevance in a deliverable, an information architect does not have to defend his or her work.

There are a lot of things that make deliverables good: coherence, context and relevance hardly constitute a comprehensive list. But by focusing on techniques that achieve coherence, context and relevance, information architects can address the challenges of starting a document, focusing the document and explaining its value. Tight deliverables – ones that go beyond simply dotting I’s and crossing T’s – are, in the end, more valuable to clients and project teams.

In the next Special Deliverable, we will look at a topic that easily ranks in the top five Most Controversial IA Issues. While we won’t be venturing our own definition of information architecture or comparing Visio to OmniGraffle, we will look at the wireframe and it’s relationship to design.

For more information:

2002 IA Summit: Deliverables Panel Presentations

Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank. Dan has taught classes at Duke, Georgetown, and American Universities and has written articles for the CHI Bulletin and Interactive Television Today.

Opening Pandora’s Box: Special Deliverable #1

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Boxes. Arrows. Of all the things to identify with information architecture, this magazine chose to take its title from two shapes; shapes that are fundamental artifacts in our documentation. You could just as easily be reading “There are days when I wonder if all I’m good for is making pretty diagrams. I worry that if you take away the site maps and wireframes, that there isn’t much to an information architect.” “Thesauri and Facets,” “Annals of Controlled Vocabularies,” “Taxonomy Today,” or a hundred other clever alliterations of the various abstractions Information Architects play with. But it is through documentation using boxes, arrows and a myriad of other shapes that we represent those abstractions.

The best part of my job as an information architect is preparing deliverables. While fraught with frustrations —endless details, typos, inconsistencies —the process of documenting a system’s functionality or information structure is creative. It is creative in that we are at once designing the system and designing the documentation to represent that system.

The parallel processes of creation and documentation feed off each other. Through the documentation, we come to a better understanding of our own conception of the system. As we develop a clearer vision of the system through the documentation, we find ways to improve the system.

Good information architects do not have to be good designers, but they must be able to explain their ideas well. If your organization is anything like mine, information architecture is the first foray into the design process, the first time the client sees a solution to the problem. Requirements, objectives and even user models simply state the problem, providing a context for the solution. It is the information architect that puts a stake in the ground: the finished product will look like this!

Our deliverables, therefore, become high profile. Clients, who until this point perceived requirements gathering as merely regurgitation of what they told you, are eager to sink their teeth into something fresh. Developers are eager to start thinking about the system architecture and technical engine. Designers are some combination of eager and suspicious, depending on your organization.

All the hoopla around our deliverables can be concerning, if not downright scary. Thus, this particular box —that of Pandora —is opened. What flies out might be frightening:

Scary thought #1: Information architecture is defined by its deliverables.
There are days when I wonder if I will be making site maps, or documenting taxonomies, or arguing over wireframes for the rest of my life. There are days when I wonder if all I’m good for is making pretty diagrams. I worry that if you take away the site maps and wireframes, that there isn’t much to an information architect. Which brings us to scary thought number two.

Scary thought #2: 20% of a deliverable provides 80% of its value.
Are there particular parts of your document that get the most attention? The 80-20 rule might well apply to deliverables, where 80% of your effort goes into producing something that’s only 20% valuable. Have you ever had the experience where clients or team members virtually ignore your documentation, especially after you’ve worked really hard on it? Or maybe you’ve had clients ask you, “I paid you how much for this?” No doubt every information architect has wondered whether there is value to his or her work, especially if the bulk of the work is captured in physical deliverables.

Scary thought #3: Information architecture is a lonely occupation.
Many information architects are alone in their organizations. All but addicted to SIGIA-L for a little companionship, they mostly toil without an ally, a mentor or a collaborator. People from other disciplines provide occasional useful banter, but these information architects are starved for shoptalk. Information architecture can feel a bit like baking someone else’s cookies, churning out the same shapes every day without an opportunity to branch out.

Despite these and the other demons haunting the practice of information architecture, this particular box holds hope.

Glimmer of hope: Information systems will quickly grow more complex, and continue on that trend.

As audiences face increasingly difficult information landscapes, our outputs will become more valued, our role will become clearer and our community will grow. A world rich with information demands concise documentation. Without it, the value of the information itself diminishes. With companies spending more money on information and knowledge, they will expect the systems built around them to be useful and efficient. The role of the information architect becomes abundantly clear in this type of environment.

But for now, we are on the forefront, perhaps the pre-Golden Age of Information Architecture. And we have a lot of work ahead of us. Through this column, Boxes and Arrows will seek to elaborate on the preparation of deliverables, a crucial component in the maturation of our field. As we explore, we will no doubt encounter more scary thoughts, as well as more glimmers of hope.

In the next installment of Special Deliverables, Dan Brown reviews the concepts of Coherence, Context, and Relevance and why they matter in IA documentation.

Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank. Dan has taught classes at Duke, Georgetown, and American Universities and has written articles for the CHI Bulletin and Interactive Television Today.