Heuristics in Information Design: So that you get only what you need

Heuristics, as we all know, are the rules that govern our uncommon sense. Uncommon, because not all of us can and do rely on it for designing information. Here’s my list of top-five heuristics for technical communicators and information designers:

  • Consistency: I keep coming back to this point – for a reason. It is important that:
    • You communicate one idea in exactly one sentence. (No two ideas per sentence.)
    • You follow a uniform design philosophy across the product/service.
    • You use a consistent terminology across all your work.
    • You use words or phrases that do not have connotations.
  • Minimalism: I can add only one thing to this word. I write and rewrite/edit in the ratio of 20:80.
  • Problem first: I see that my readers do not read my documents for information, but to resolve the issues they face. If this is true in most cases, I must design my documents according to the problems. So, rather than putting “Cellphone installation and configuration,” I should put “How do I set up my phone?” That’s what matters to my customers.
    But that’s not all. My documents should be transparent about the fixed and the fixable issues. I must give extra information, wherever possible, to help usher the readers through to the correct resolution. This is useful also when readers come across those pieces of information, which they do not require. Annotating the information based on problems helps readers make correct choices.
  • Graphical checkpoints: Graphics can effectively establish mental checkpoints. I see that my readers use these checkpoints to map their progress, and later reiterate through those search processes, if required. I recommend to use a combination of words and graphics for better comprehensibility.
  • Interact, not inform: Be human. I think this is the simplest of all the heuristics to understand, and the most difficult to implement. You don’t have to tell the readers about the product, but about how they can use it. So, it is not about the product at all. It is, in fact, about the users (readers in my case).

These generic guidelines, in my opinion, can help correctly shift the focus toward users. The guidelines have helped me prepare usable documents in the past. What heuristics do you apply?