Intentionally Designing Your Digital Communications

We live in a world dominated by digital communications. Considering the various forms of messages, from email to slack channels, our days are filled with virtually translated conversations that fight for our attention. More importantly, they fight for our mental bandwidth which is necessary for comprehension. Given this high demand for one of our most valuable resources, it is amazing to see how often there is little to no effort put into the design of the communication. While in person conversations are filled with body language, tone, and subtext, that provide dynamic flows and indicators for important information, digital communications rely entirely on what appears on the screen. Essentially, it has become a deliverable…but we aren’t treating it like one. It is necessary to intentionally design your information to add signifiers and reduce the cognitive load required by the reader to understand exactly what you are trying to say.

Intentional Design Model for Digital Communications

Intentional Design Conceptual Model by Britain Willcock

By intentionally designing our digital communications we can help fill the gaps that are lacking from in-person conversation. To do this we need to start by putting our audience at the center of consideration, after all, communication is only as effective as its ability to reach the audience. By continually using your audience as a foundational reference point you will practice empathy throughout your process since you are shaping your message for their perspective. To better understand the approach let’s dive into the individual phases.

Phase 1 involves shaping your message to share exactly what you are trying to say in an appropriate and accessible form. This includes considering the formality of the context, potential for storytelling aspects, focus on important points, and overall tone. Bryan Garner dedicates the entire first chapter of the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing to this very idea stating, “Many people begin writing before they know what they’re trying to accomplish. As a result, their readers don’t know where to focus their attention or what they’re supposed to do with the message” (Garner, 2013, p.3). If you catch yourself thinking “it seems clear to me”, Garner will point you back to question number one, “Always judge clarity from the reader’s standpoint — not your own” (Garner, 2013, p.43).

Phase 2 requires intentionally choosing the medium for the message and understanding the inherent capabilities it provides. The medium is an interesting consideration as it often feels rather straightforward. However, there are times where we choose a medium out of habit rather than making an intentional choice. When choosing a platform (i.e. slack, email, memo, presentation, slide deck, infographic, etc.) for communication it is important to consider:

Does the medium align with the nature of the message? How long do you have to create it? How long do they have to read/receive it? Will this be delivered on an individual basis or to a group of people? Will the communication need to continue in a collaborative form? What design potential does the medium facilitate? Does the information need to be presented? If so, virtual or in-person?

It is important to note that not every communication requires this level of detail. Often brief messages shared through collaborative platforms like Slack will be sufficient, but when sending longer messages with numerous details or important calls to action, a more thorough approach should be considered.

Phase 3 involves intentionally using the capabilities of the medium to design the layout and aesthetics of your information to increase comprehension. Even if some attention is put into what is being said, how it is being said is rarely given equal weight. This is unfortunate as virtual platforms allow us to not only to address the words we are using, but also to easily design our communication’s structure and aesthetic. This “how” is so important that Jay Conger, in his article The Necessary Art of Persuasion shares:

As one of the most effective executives in our research commented, “The most valuable lesson I’ve learned about persuasion over the years is that there’s just as much strategy in how you present your position as in the position itself. In fact, I’d say the strategy of presentation is the more critical” (Review, 2013, p.72).

While his focus was on persuasion, which is at the heart of a lot of communication, the concept is equally important in others. Intentionally designing your message to align better with how we think and learn can greatly increase its efficacy by tapping into our visual nature.

After intentional choices have been made around the message, medium, and design, you reach the decision point. This phase requires you decide whether the communication requires further shaping or if it is ready to be delivered to your audience. To make this decision, you need to reflect over the choices you have made, making sure that they sufficiently support and elevate what you are trying to say in a way that aligns with your audience. It is important to try and view the communication with a fresh set of eyes to see if the message is clear and the important points stand out. If the current version falls short, consider revisiting the previous phases to see what areas need improvement. If it is ready for the audience, make sure any elements of delivery are also intentionally considered. If the communication is a presentation, make sure you dedicate the same amount of care to rehearsing your talk as you did in the creation of the message itself.

Applying Intentional Design Principles to Email

To better understand the potential application of the Intentional Design Model let’s look at how it changes an everyday communication: email.

Standard email layout in gibberish

Often emails arrive with little to no formatting similar to the example seen here (note gibberish is used intentionally in order to examine the layout, not the words themselves). Even though modern email platforms provide numerous editing and formatting tools, the majority of emails stick to the outdated rules learned for writing letters. Considering the earlier discussion around losing the tone and indicators from in person conservation, you can see the overall aesthetic is quite bland and nothing has any weight to it. If we take it one step further and remove the words all together, just leaving behind blocks of a similar color to the text, the results speak for themselves.

Email layout, replacing words with color blocks

Essentially, we are left with the digital equivalent of a monotone conversation. What is interesting is we all understand how ineffective monotone communication can be in person, yet often our digital “translation” of our message arrives to the audience in a similar state. It is important to remember that everything they have to go off of to understand your message is what appears on the screen, filtered through their perspective and interpretation.

Intentionally Designed Email

Intentionally designing our emails however, can preemptively work to reduce the monotone feel and layers of interpretation by clarifying our message through design choices.

Intentionally designed email

Taking the same email from before, we can apply some elements of intentional design and arrive at a visually interesting and easier to understand piece of communication. Even without understanding the the text, your brain can automatically start to understand the structure and begin to parse apart the message. Bold headers indicate main subject points and help divide the information in to smaller, manageable chunks. Color is used to follow a thematic idea throughout the correspondence, helping the reader to connect the dots. The highlight draws the eye and adds a level of importance to a particular piece of information.

Color blocks of intentionally designed email

When we remove the text in this second version, we see visual intrigue by providing meaningful variance to the message. Notice the use of the word “meaningful.” It is important that the choices are done intentionally to help elevate important sections and ideas. Adding variance simply for its own sake can take away from the communication by distracting, and even confusing, the reader. When used intentionally, visual formatting can increase comprehension and reduce the cognitive load needed for understanding. To do this effectively it is important that through phase 1 of the model you clarify exactly what you are trying to say. Through that process you will identify the important aspects that can later be emphasized through design choices. Formatting allows us to use both the verbal and visual parts of the brain, creating better connections and increasing comprehension.

Gestalt Principles

It is interesting to note that these formatting changes also align with the Gestalt Principles of Visual Perception:

Gestalt principles visualized

These principles provide insight on how our brains automatically use visual cues to help organize information. The law of proximity shows that we group things together based on how close they are in space. Similarity draws attention to the fact that we automatically group like things together. Finally, the idea of the focal point shows us that in a group of similar objects, our eyes will be draw to what is different.

Alignment with Gestalt principles

Looking at the email once again, we can see how these principles take shape. The headers work with the law of similarity since they are of equal size, weight, and orientation. The use of colored font throughout does this also, by connecting a theme across various lines of text. The chunking of the text into sections creates a visual sense of proximity, telling our minds that words within it are semantically related. Finally, the highlighter tool draws the eye as a unique visual feature, creating a focal point.

Research

While understanding how the changes to formatting can better align a message with how our brains are wired is important, it is also beneficial to examine real world scenarios to truly grasp the impact. First, to better understand the context, we will look at some data analysis regarding email engagement. Then we will explore an experiment which tested comprehension levels of regular versus designed text.

In 2019, an analysis was done of over 10 billion emails to better understand the level of engagement across a variety of industries. It showed that in 2018 the average time spent reading an email was 13.4 seconds (Litmus, 2019).

While this already may feel quite short, it doesn’t actually paint the entire picture. When you look at the percentages, we can see that there are quite a few emails that are looked at for a much shorter amount of time:

These data points show that the average may be thrown off by outliers as 38% of emails are looked at for 8 seconds or less. Yet, in marketing emails still have an unmatched ROI of 42–1 (Litmus, 2019). Considering how long most emails are read, combined with how important they are in business, it would make sense that we should format them to be as clear as possible.

In terms of comprehension, an interesting study was done by Sung-Hee Jin in which 141 students were divided into two groups. The first group received standard text. The second group was given designed text, which was formatted similar to the email design shown earlier. All of the students were given 20 minutes to read the materials and then were all given the same test. Those who received the designed text saw a 31% increase in average comprehension (Jin, 2013, pp.248–55).

Designed text can significantly increase comprehension

That is an incredible increase. Imagine if your business emails became that much clearer for the reader. Not only would this reduce their cognitive load in deciphering the information, but it could also lead to more time saved in the future, since fewer clarifying questions would need to be asked and important pieces of information wouldn’t go overlooked.

Moving Forward

The Intentional Design Model can be applied to everything from a memo to a presentation with a slide deck. The key is to make intentional choices in the construction, centered around your audience, that help draw out or support important parts in your message. By utilizing visual elements, you tap in to the dual code nature of our brains by accessing both the visual and language centers in harmony towards comprehension. This can help elevate a standard communication into the realm of building a connection with your audience. It should be noted that with certain messages the process would go rather quickly and may result in no real changes, sometimes a standard quick chat message is all a communication needs, the key is to think about how you can make it as clear as possible for the receiver.

Britain Willcock is an information designer, communication strategist, and all-around connection builder. He holds two Master’s degrees, an M.F.A. in Acting (Regent University) and a M.S. in Information Design and Strategy in Communication with Data (Northwestern University). His passion lies in shaping communications to better align with how we think, understand, and learn in order to build connections between people, as well as people and ideas.

References

Garner, B. A. (2013). HBR Guide to Better Business Writing (HBR Guide Series) (Kindle ed.). Harvard Business Review Press.

Jin, Sung-Hee. (2013). Visual design guidelines for improving learning from dynamic and interactive digital text. Computers & Education. 63. 248–258. 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.12.010.

Litmus. (2019). Litmus Report: Email Read Time Increased by 21 Percent. Retrieved 11 October 2020, from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/litmus-report-email-read-time-increased-by-21-percent-300875977.html

Review, Harvard Business. (2013). HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Communication (with featured article “The Necessary Art of Persuasion,” by Jay A. Conger). Harvard Business Review Press.

Britain Willcock is an information designer, communications strategist, and all-around connection builder.

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