IA for Good: communicating social impact better

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Notes from my talk at World Information Architecture Day 2018 (India).

On 24th Feb, at WIAD 2018 New Delhi, I shared the overall importance of information design with a particular focus on NGOs.

Information Architecture (IA) is critical for NGOs to translate human or planetary situations, its urgency, and emotions that come with it. It plays a role across stages, from data collection to compilation of stories.

A story of change is not just about impact, it is sensitisation for those who cannot imagine extreme circumstances and are fighting their own daily hustle on the other side of the spectrum.


For my talk, I studied four annual reports from global NGOs to analyse how they share their work as a comprehensive story at the end of the year. They are not my clients and this exercise was taken up solely for this talk.

A Common Mistake: Designing Annual Reports with Medium of Publishing as Priority

Any report today goes in print and web formats to the audience.

For Print: A PDF is published that can be downloaded to read/print later.

For the Web: The report is a part of the website, made responsive to work across devices, summarised as a newsletter and translated as infographics for marketing purposes.

When the medium of publishing takes over everything else, largely two approaches that dictate the project:

  1. Design the print version first so that it can be shipped for production. And then develop a web version of the same report.
  2. Another way is to design an outstanding UI if the focus is to create online reports first and then adapt to a PDF version available for print.

Both cases hold onto the tail of the elephant. It misses the overall picture. Remember, the whole purpose is to move people to take notice, connect and act through the message.

The problem: An appealing UI does not necessarily make it usable. User experience is about usability and relevance. Beyond responsiveness, navigation, and aesthetics.

Ease of navigation was an exotic ingredient of primitive web recipes. Now, it is like salt (add to taste or as prescribed for better health).

Navigation Influenced by the Structure of Information Matters.

IA is the underlying map to communicate complex sets with a goal, keeping user’s context and constraints in mind.

Format adopted keeping user’s time constraint in mind (UX benchmark: news under 15 minutes)

For example, News formats earlier captured the entire day’s events in one hour. This was due to lack of exclusive news channels and also the easy availability of the audience for sixty minutes. Now, everyone wants quick pieces they can skim. News formats on exclusive channels cover world news broadly keeping the user’s ease and time constraint in mind.

Similarly, navigation online should help the user move around a set of connected information with ease and a relevant purpose. While in print, the table of contents serves this purpose to find things linearly.

Case #1: ONE’s Annual Report 2016

Preview of the Interface.

I took the audience through the report online and asked them to put adjectives from the first impressions:

Edgy • Fancy • Minimal • Crisp • Unconventional • Unusual • Cool

Screenshot of the Main Menu.

In this case, every article needs to be read completely to know the larger context — inconvenient for a generic user.

I went through all the articles and labelled each one to analyse the flow.

Summarising the intent of each article.
Making change is never a cake walk. The flow covers the hardships alongside wins to make it real, topped with potential issues for the coming year. It is a great idea to be real and transparent.

Question 1: Can I search information here?

Specifically find the volunteer/team stories or just read the Campaign stories.

No. Broad categorisation and addition of filters make information searchable. Here’s a quick exploration to filter articles in this report.

Colour coding related articles under broader categories.

Question 2: Who is going to read this report?

ONE is a campaigning and advocacy organisation — with more than 9 Mn people around the world taking action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa.

It is not a grant-making organisation and does not solicit funding from the public or receive government funds. It is funded almost entirely by foundations, individual philanthropists and corporations.

My assumption is based on the premise that the key audience is the internal team. While I was putting this essay together, ONE launched their 2017 report. Although the premise appears to be the same, this time each article has a subtitle that hints about the intent 👀

A hint about the article’s context. This was missing from the 2016 report.
Shots from the 2016 Annual report’s PDF. A headline and the author. The article’s context was not spelt out.

Case #2: BRAC’s Annual Report 2016

BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities), an international development organisation based in Bangladesh, is the largest non-governmental development organisation in the world, in terms of number of employees (as of September 2016).

It employs over 100,000 people, roughly 70 percent of whom are women, and that it reaches more than 126 million people with its services.

A preview of their annual report from 2016.

I took the audience through the report online and asked them to put adjectives from the first impressions:

Detailed • Long • Neat • Conventional

I pulled out the underlying structure of the report. Here’s what we have:

The report has 22 sections.

Question 1: How will anyone read this long a report?

For any generic user the attention span online is that of a fly. An engaging, long article that is worth learning from may win better attention. However, reading about someone else’s work in detail misses the point of empathy towards users’ time with tight routines.

Question 2: Will readers come back to the report once directed elsewhere to with the “more” button?

The expected user behaviour is a barrier. To read each section fully, one will read more info elsewhere and be required to come back to the report and repeat this process at least across 8–10 times.

Here’s a way to make the report shorter:

The reader is directed elsewhere, so reading the whole section at one place is easier than splitting the content.

Comparing the Two Approaches: ONE v/s BRAC

ONE.org designed a digital experience with a specific audience in mind. Although the information is not easy to filter but it is neither boring nor lengthy.

From the IA lens, the shortcomings are:

  1. One is expected to read each article to know the context. Assumption of having a lot of time at hand from the user is not practical.
  2. Assuming everyone knows about ONE and its goals is also not in favour of all users.
  3. Also it doesn’t form a content guide that can be built on each year.

BRAC designed a print version for the digital user. It is neat and searchable, but disconnected from the user’s context.

From the IA lens, the shortcomings are:

  1. The user is expected to read a report of 22 sections on screen.
  2. 8–10 sections direct the user to read more elsewhere, this is an inconvenient format.

Information Architecture is beyond category creation. IA also informs the user about how to use the product, navigate to find specifics and get the job done within expected time.

It is a far more detailed framework unlike what it is assumed to be. It is not about answering questions correctly. It is about creating scenarios for people to respond and connect, and have a positive experience.

Case #3: Landesa’s Annual Report 2016

What they do.

They secure land rights for the world’s poorest people. Here’s a preview of their online report 👇🏽

I took the audience through this online and asked them to put adjectives from the first impressions:

Unclear • Numbers focused • Long

This is the broad structure of the report:

The weightage of each section across the report is ranked based on the size and detail for each. 1 being highest and 5 the lowest.

Question 1: Who are the people making progress on the ground?

The human story of the team behind the change is missing. Their struggle, techniques and wins that lead to success on-field. The CEO’s letter is the only piece representing the team across countries.

Also, the focus of the report is only on one stakeholder (the donor). A small portion talks about the people who benefitted but with limited information.

Stories of change does not share a complete picture 👇🏽

The focus on “Stories of Change” is notably less and unclear.
The stories are neither informative nor stitched as a narrative with detail.

Question 2: What do you think the report is doing?

Building a Relationship or Aiming to Steer Behaviour of one Stakeholder.

With donors in focus, the overall message from the report is distorted. An annual report is a piece to rejoice 365 days of work with crisp stories that celebrate successes, see gaps and gear up for the next year. A note of gratitude to the donors can be another piece of communication altogether.

An annual report is a compilation for internal review of the work, acknowledge team effort, inform supporters and create an archive for others to influence their decision to join the cause (when they dig deep into the growth of the organisation).

Question 3: What happened here?

There is a gap at the first step.

  1. Unclear intent
  2. Poor information compilation
  3. Weak communication strategy

One leads to the other. Lack of clarity leads to a dominoes effect to set a misleading premise for the project and a messy output.

Case #4: Movember Foundation’s Strategic Investments Program Report 2016

A screenshot from their website’s home page.
This is a PDF report we are analysing. Full report here.
The table of contents of the report.

This looks like a complex table. However, when someone reads through the sections, there is a clear take-away. The table of contents is precise and the reporting is crisp (each case study is wrapped up in two pages).

The data is very technical and this could have been a complex product to read. But, care was taken to make it simple, effective and translate the crux effortlessly through design.

This is a chart of the broad branches from the report.

Question 1: How was a technical report made easy to understand?

The Movember Foundation’s Impact is sub-categorised as sections that are relatable in human terms. It covers varied stages, from diagnosis methods to living a better life after diagnosis and treatment (see content pockets below).

The programs are categorised based on stages of medical intervention. The language is simple with no frills.

Question 2: What made the case studies palatable and not boring?

A typical case study is loaded with jargons along with a structure like, “Introduction — Problem — Solution — Result/Impact.”

While this is logical, making the structure relevant to the subject is better. In this case, the very first section talks about “What this project means for Men.”

This is an excellent example of user-focused approach done right. Since, their cause is to save men from suffering, this section quickly explains why the program was taken up and how it aims to help.

Section three explains the technical aspects of the project in a crisp format to bring out the actual work done apart from the intention shared earlier.

Any medical research takes a long time to materialise and find itself in the market for commercial use. Therefore, it is not necessary that every program would come to a close in the same year. The fourth section handles this portion of explaining the progress of that program for the respective year.

The content guide is thoughtfully crafted with a reason and made into simple capsules.

Sections of the Case Studies.

Question 3: What is the benefit of this approach?

This report is categorised in two steps: One is a broad category for program-type based on medical intervention. Having a system like this makes it like drawers to file future case studies each year.

Second is the structure of the case studies that serve as a content guide or information pockets. Even a new recruit can get a general sense of what to write under each section based on a sample case.

This approach helps in building content with a consistent voice and tone over regular intervals of time.

Also, as a repository of all programs, this report can serve as a master to make specific reports compiling fewer sections. Information is repurposed easily for a relevant audience without starting from scratch.

Information Architecture helps in setting conscious goals for any piece of communication directed at multiple stakeholders, which is always the case for business or communities.

It is a tool to get clarity, verify that complete information exists and cross-check the relevance for the end-user.

That’s me at WIAD. (Picture Credit: Rasagy Sharma)

More from the talks at WIAD 2018, New Delhi can be found here.

If your work involves sorting information, I would love to know how you approach it and what are the common challenges. Do share your thoughts below.

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