Pictures and Profits

STC-Israel Keynote Speech: Pictures and Profits: The ROI of Visual Information Design by Patrick Hoffman A bit of background about Patrick Hoffman to start: He trained as a technical writer, but has made his mark by making products easier to use mainly by “focusing on visual strategies to improve product usability and international appeal.” He has almost single-handedly advanced the standards of wordless instructions and using graphics to remove the clutter from user interfaces.

For someone who has a passion for the visual, Patrick was an energized and fascinating speaker. He had the packed audience enthralled by his talk and his accomplishments. He basically outlined the processes he took in creating mostly visual instructions for a number of clients.

Picture from Patrick Hoffman's presentation at the STC-Israel convention Patrick began the main part of his talk by showing us a poster that was the complete user guide for a piece of equipment he was asked to document. The equipment was a laser cutting guide for shoes, cutting the shapes from a whole skin of the animal while maximizing the number of pieces cut. Users of this equipment were from many ethnic origins. Anecdotally, Patrick told of his so-called guerilla investigations on his lunch hour, visiting the cutting floor to see the equipment in action.

Guerilla tactics, since he was not exactly following his instructions in preparing the documentation. By talking to and watching the cutters at work, he devised a one page visual chart, which not only explained how to use the equipment, also cut the training time from four days to one. He also found the perfect place to place this chart—on the machine itself. As he explained, the Return on Investment for the customer was considerable: not only did he save them time by checking it all out on his lunch hour; he decreased the training time, the size of the user guide, and costs of translation of the manual. And the bottom line was that with increased usability, sales of the machine increased.

Patrick then discussed the idea of visual interface and the use of icons. Sometimes it is not easy to explain a concept, such as call-waiting, in pictures, but visual representation of information is another form of chunking which we all need to do. He has found that there are generational differences in how people perceive visual cues. Younger people are more willing to embrace symbols. There are cultural differences in icon discernment. Asian cultures, familiar in writing in pictograms, are quicker to follow visual cues. He also believes that there may be gender differences as well where men, for example, read maps, while women navigate with landmarks. Are we heading back to hieroglyphics? Not really, more like pre-book era with scrolling as through an online document.

Another example Patrick discussed was companies, such as Dow Jones setting up hundreds of computers at a time in offices around the world. Or as he described it, “Macintosh delivered by Ikea.” Visual documentation is a way to increase usability while decreasing costs of translation, printing, and money management (translating services or printing in each language locally), as well as decreased shipping and transport costs. To do all this he started from the ground up: video taping with a home camcorder the process of a technician setting up the computer. Using this as the basis, with the help of story-boarding, he helped to develop the mostly pictorial manual for installation. Using clear and crisp illustrations, line art vs. actual photos of the equipment to reduce noise, for example, it was possible to develop a mostly visual yet easy to understand manual.

What about testing? Visual manuals often need to be fine-tuned by testing. Patrick shared many of his ideas for testing usability. He insists that this does not need to be done in a fancy testing facility, but can be done almost anywhere. Individuals can be tested with Skype and a webcam, for instance. The reward for doing the testing can be keeping an inexpensive webcam. Feedback can always be obtained by questionnaires, observation in the field, talking over a beer, and not to exclude information to be gleaned from a competitor’s on-line forum. He also told us how he found subjects for testing: employment agencies. A temp agency can plug in to its data base the requirements of the subjects to provide a number of subjects easier than recruiting. Also, the four hour minimum employment charges for a couple of hours of testing are cheaper than the fees required by testing. Again, Patrick showed how even with testing, a mostly visual user guide is possible and can actually save money for the client.

Patrick Hoffman also gave a lecture as part of the Information Design sessions of the conference: Ages and Images: Tackling the Age-Groups of Our Information Users.

His slides can be viewed on the STC-Israel web site.