Information Design is Needed Now More Than Ever

an image of a footpath warn through grass, beside a sidewalk. A sign says "please use sidewalk" but it is clear people are not obeying the sign.
Design vs. experience: by Dale Calkins on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dalecalkins/status/774998979054415872

Information alone is not enough to change behavior. As the image above shows, if people have good reason to behave a certain way (in this case to cut the corner across a grassy lawn rather than taking a purpose built path on the sidewalk), they will keep behaving in that way, even if told otherwise (please use sidewalk).

This is why information design is so important. The act of providing directive or information will not influence people if it takes effort to follow the information or directive, or if it feels uncomfortable, scary, or socially isolating to do so. Facebook knows this, and that’s why they design information to be as convenient and comfortable as possible, while maximizing the social pressure to behave a certain way (for example, clicking on a link because most of your friends “like it”).

What science communicators sometimes forget, is that we must take care to present our information in a way that makes people want to engage with it. Most science communicators are drawn to science because they value logic, reason and data (in the picture above, let’s consider this to be the nice even sidewalk). It’s difficult for us to understand that other people do not place the same value on logic, reason and data as we do. Thus, it is difficult for us to understand that logic, reason and data on their own may not be very persuasive.

In contrast to the smooth sidewalk of logic, reason and data, most people (and policymakers among them) prefer the well-worn path of social norms, values, and storytelling. We all take mental shortcuts to get where we need to go on an issue or decision. And those mental shortcuts, like the short cut path worn by many travelers in the picture above, don’t always align with logic, reason or science.

So we, as communicators, need to design our information around people’s tendencies, rather than fighting them (again, something that Facebook does extremely well). We need to understand what’s motivating people to wear a path that often seems at odds with logical reasoning, and we need to communicate in ways that actually reach them. Sometimes we need to find out how to nudge people in the right direction. Sometimes we need to build a disincentive to discourage the behavior we don’t want. But above all, we need to understand why people make the decisions they do, so we can reach them on the path they are taking.

Information Design is Needed Now More Than Ever

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