How to present copious and complex information to multiple audiences

This is another great question; if it had a simple answer we (at LCubed) would be out of jobs! The question was posed by a senior science communicator, and goes:

What are the steps in determining how best to present masses of complex information to various audiences via the web?

Usually when I ‘answer’ questions what I am actually doing is explaining a process to follow or a framework that can be applied to inform a situation. By the nature of the work that we do and the projects we deliver, there are very few straight ‘answers’.

To address this question I need to go further than referring to a framework, and talk about layers of processes and approaches.

So avoidance aside, how do we go about working out how to present copious and challenging, in-depth and complicated information via a web property?

Here is how I will ‘answer’ by:

  1. Presenting an overarching process flow
  2. Getting into detail: The “how” and “what”
  3. Provide some examples of common outcomes

NB. You might think of these as strategy setting and tactical implementations.

Strategic Process: Understand, Create, Deliver

The fundamental process that we at Lcubed use follows these steps each and every time. The portion of time spent in each area changes; for simpler projects we might almost immediately ‘get-it’ and know “what to do”, for other more complex / larger projects we might spend more time “understanding” than on the other steps in their entirety.

First we “understand” the topic, next we “create” a solution architecture or blueprint, and then we “deliver” or build according to the plan.

Sounds pretty straightforward?

At one level it is, follow these steps, best outcomes guaranteed… easy. However for many traditional web designers / developers, not so:

  1. Most technically minded people are skilled in their chosen field/subject (e.g. coding), however they are probably not so good at truly “Understanding” (see below for a definition of understanding) – particularly where the topic is challenging
  2. To create really great outcomes (in complex projects) we must not only “understand” the topic but also the people, the environment, stakeholders, real world objectives and much more.

Genuine “Understanding” is so much more comprehensive and involved than is obvious on the surface. Many people don’t ‘get’ this and are so are miles away from having proven processes in place that address it.

Drilling down: The “What” and “How”

Digital Communications projects can be scheduled in a number of ways, we tend to use a simple waterfall approach (see figure 1 below), at least for the non-development steps in the process.

Figure 1: Waterfall project process, illustrating: Understand, Create, Deliver

Phase: Understand

Description: Comprehensive understanding of the topics, people, objectives, environment and more. Internalising of all of this enabling creative (yet relevant) suggestions, efficient decision making, empathy and resonance between the project team. It also reduces/eliminates frustration!

Process, actions frameworks: Workshops that utilise frameworks: “Audience Objectives and Priorities” analysis, stakeholder and user consultations (use cases).

Phase: Create

Description: The creation (through various approaches) of documentation for the blueprint solution to be delivered. Usually covering multiple components e.g. website, interactive objects, social media / outreach, applications etc

Process, actions frameworks: Use of Lcubed frameworks: 4 Pillars, Engagement Claw. Early demonstration (wireframes / mock-ups) and user validation via testing.

Phase: Deliver

Description: The design and build of the solution as defined in the blueprint. This is the task that many believe to be what we web people ‘do’ However in the world of complex projects these activities move to a new level, particularly in production and management. See figure 2 below.

Process, actions frameworks: The delivery predominantly requires/includes interface design, technical development and importantly (in complex projects) a significant quantity of project and stakeholder management and oversight.

What skills when?

An alternate way of breaking down the project process is by focusing on the areas of work and skills needed throughout, Figure 2 below illustrates this, it shows that towards the beginning of the project (during solution architecture) Understanding and Creating are key, whereas toward the latter half, the more ‘technical’ skills rise in importance.

Figure 2: Skill / knowledge / activity areas throughout the project lifecycle

Figure 2: Skill / knowledge / activity areas throughout the project lifecycle

Real world example

Moving on from the theory, we have examined the actual project lifecycle of a number of successfully delivered projects that have been complex in nature. Figure 3 below provides some real world levels of effort and focus required at key project stages.

Importantly in this graph of actual effort and focus (we aggregated the data from several projects as captured in our time booking systems), you can see just how much effort goes into Understanding and Creating; between a third and a half of the project effort (this assumes interface design is categorised as part of the create phase).

Figure 3: Actual (aggregated) project lifecycle – illustrating proportional areas of work and effort

Figure 3: Actual (aggregated) project lifecycle – illustrating proportional areas of work and effort

Common tactics or outcomes

For (digital communications) projects of a more complex or challenging nature there are common themes or outcomes that are reliably (and successfully) deployed. These are by no means universal or mandatory however, they are valuable and often used.
Here are a few examples:

  • Metaphors: Metaphors are very helpful at both a macro and micro level. For example when housing a significant topic (usually hundreds of pages) we might use the metaphor of a university or a library. This allows us to convey that the information is significant (expectation setting), but also structured and thought through.
  • Learning Objects: Interactive (virtual) objects that people “play with” to understand a topic or concept, also used to influence or direct online journeys. The real world equivalent might be found at a museum like Science Works in Melbourne.
  • Colour Keys and Icons: Helping people understand where they are or that information is grouped. When these are used well, people will often not notice them unless directly asked about them.
  • Slow Reveal: Revealing of information over time or in a step by step process. For example people may need to read Page A (and even answer questions on its content) before accessing Page B. This might be used to assist a user through a complex process.
  • Reversing the Problem: This approach attempts to convert the content / concepts / information into decision tools or other mechanisms that remove the need for people to understand the content in its entirety before taking action, or even just so they know/understand what to read first.

Wrap up

In brief then, the truth is that there is hardly ever a “one size fits all” approach or answer to the “million dollar question”. However there are a multitude of tools and methodologies that when used in a thoughtful manner will (eventually) result in a web solution that not only presents masses of complex information, but does it in a way that is engaging and really useful for visitors leaving them informed and likely to return.