5 Tips: Communicating complex information successfully via digital media

R&D-based organisations – such as RDCs, CRCs and Government research agencies – spend a great deal of time, money and brainpower undertaking complex research. Sometimes the most challenging part of the project is communicating the results: the information can be lengthy, interrelated and complex.

So, how can we present the information in a way that is accessible and understandable without losing depth or meaning? Here are five suggestions …

1. Go beyond text

When a variety of different communication methods are combined, information is more readily retained, the user becomes more engaged and understanding increases.

One of the advantages of the internet is its ability to incorporate text, imagery, audio and video together in the one place. We often:

  • Use diagrams to explain the relationships between different concepts or sets of data
  • Use infographics to provide context and perspective
  • Use illustration or animation to make complex information less intimidating and memorable
  • Use video to demonstrate a process or practice, or just present information in a different way that makes its consumption low effort

For an example take a look at the Water Sensitive Cities CRC website. This organisation is leading its field, both its function and its research outputs are rich and complex, so on their website the team decided to use many of these tactics.

2. Use the ‘Slow Reveal’

Just because there is a large amount of information to communicate doesn’t mean you must communicate it all at once. By organising and presenting your information in a hierarchy, users can be guided towards more in-depth information at a speed that is appropriate to them.

This is generally directed by the navigation structure (sometimes called an Information Architecture) – how the pages fit together and how the menu is configured and presented. But the user journey can also be influenced by providing modules of information (eg 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 etc) that a user is encouraged to consume sequentially, or even simple ‘read more on …’ links.

The technology does not need to be sophisticated, it is thoughtful planning that makes the user experience great.

One example (that arguably reveals a little too slowly!) is the Dairy Futures CRC homepage banner. It displays and explains the primary functions of the CRC in a visual and concise form.

3. Reverse the journey

If you know what information your users are looking for before they come to the site, you can direct them to the that information much more quickly. Typically, 80% of your users will be interested in 20% of the content. Establish what your top five most useful or sought-after pieces of information are and display them prominently on the home page.

An example of reversing the journey can be seen on the homepage of The People in Dairy website. It displays the 10 issues that dairy farmers find a challenge and links directly to the pages that contain answers.

The ‘reverse the journey’ approach can be made considerably more powerful using interactivity  for example decision support tools…

4. Use decision support tools

A decision support tool is an online device – often framed as a quiz or a questionnaire – that asks users to input information about their particular situation and provides a recommended action, or set of actions, based on those inputs.

They can be very powerful in their ability to direct users to the precise information they need. On a website with hundreds of pages and dozens of potential solutions to a problem, decision support tools can dramatically increase the engagement of a user who may otherwise become overwhelmed, not find the information they are seeking and leave disillusioned.

Some time ago we helped create a decision tool that enabled farmers to find solutions to salt damaged land (common in periods of drought) by answering 4 simple questions… The alternative was reading 400 pages of content!

A variant of this is making a recommendation. This approach is used in a highly sophisticated way by retailers such as Amazon, but can readily be scaled back using clever (but cheap) widgets, or simply by making a best guess (proving links to multiple related pages).

5. Use colour

This is an age old approach and one that works very well online.

The colours you use on your site can help in two ways. Firstly, colour can help elicit a certain response. Blue, for example, is said to have a calming effect which is why it is regularly used by technology companies selling complex services.

Secondly, colour coding (or colour keying) can be used to help users subconsciously group pages, topics, or types of information, together, making the site more manageable and easy to navigate. Users are less likely to get lost in a multifaceted site when colours are used as ‘signposts’.

We have successfully combined this approach with the use of real world metaphors on many occasions, including this ‘live library‘.

We hope that this is helpful. Feel free to contact us with feedback or questions.