Communicating Complexity via digital channels – NOT Dumbing Down

As we all know, there’s a dramatic difference between effectively communicating a complex topic in an accessible way, and dumbing down.

What is Dumbing down?

Dumbing down usually involves excessively simplifying concepts or removing information altogether. It inevitably dilutes, and sometimes destroys, the value of the information; and has a secondary (but critical) impact – it really annoys the smart people behind the concepts!

One of the great things about the internet – when compared to static materials such as print – is that there are multiple flexible and friendly ways to present complex information without losing any of the meaning or depth of the original content.

At a theoretical or conceptual level I encourage people to think about how they can take advantage of the ‘dimensions’ digital media makes available to them. This metaphor is helpful, but has limitations as you can see from the below table.

Dimensions hierarchy table

Web dimensions

For another similar, and useful, approach to heretical thinking see our engagement claw.

So, what practical and attainable tactics are commonly use to avoid dumbing down?

Content presentation: Rich and high volume (but still accessible)

Websites can hold a huge amount of information (which would be impractical in a printed format). They also allow users to find the information that is relevant to them much more easily. In a book, all users are treated the same. Chapter structures or summaries can assist in directing different readers through the content in different ways, but generally readers work through a book from ‘start’ to ‘finish’.

On a website, navigation and menu structures allow users to jump to and through relevant content. Search and filter functions enable users to refine precisely the information they see. Therefore, the volume of information doesn’t need to be reduced, just organised in a logical, usable way.

Rich media

The video, audio and animation capabilities of a website mean that information can be presented in a variety of different ways. Often a very complex concept is best explained using an animated presentation or video.


Printed materials are always a one-way communication: the author presents a concept, the reader reads it. On a website, communication can go in both directions. Users can be asked to input data specific to their experiences, which in turn can prompt a response back from the organisation. This means the information a user receives is more relevant. What’s more, by interacting with the information, it is more likely to be understood and remembered.

Usage analysis

Unlike printed materials, websites can be analysed to determine precisely how people are using information. How long have users spent on the site? Which pages have they visited? What did they download? How did they come to the site in the first place?

Understanding this level of detail allows organisations to adapt their websites to make them even more effective. Analysis may identify, for example, that users access content in a different order to what was first expected. Or it could reveal that the relative importance of information presented on the homepage needs to change. Consequently, information doesn’t have to be cut back – it is just presented in a more useful way.

Please feel free to get in contact if you are looking for help avoiding dumbing down during you digital communications project.