Information Mapping™ is a formal methodology for writing usable documents. It provides techniques to analyse, organise and present information to maximise its effectiveness.
The methodology was initially developed in the 1960s in the US. It is often described as research-based since all its techniques and principles are derived from research in human factors, cognitive science, etc.
The methodology is owned by Information Mapping Inc, based in Waltham Massachusetts. Partnerships are established worldwide to provide Information Mapping training and support in other countries.
methodology in a nutshell…
Information Mapping™ provides a simple three-stage process for creating documents: analyse, organise, present.
- Information Mapping™ identifies all information as one of a limited series of types (eg process vs procedure vs principle, etc).
- The key activity when analysing information is determining its type.
- Information Mapping™ provides a series of principles on how to organise your information types.
- Key to the principles is:
- breaking information into discrete, bite-sized chunks (called blocks) on a single topic
- limiting the number of blocks in a topic (called a map, hence the name of the methodology) to 7±2. This magical number is the theoretical limit of human short-term memory. Organising information around this limit helps users comprehend the content without feeling overwhelmed.
- Information Mapping™ provides recommendations of the most effective formats for presenting each of the information types
- Additionally it provides principles to help ensure the document is easy to scan/speed-read.
The methodology introduces two new organisational units for documents:
- block – a single unit of information (= one information type) on a single subject. Can contain text, tables, images, etc. To be “blocked” it needs to be visually distinct from other blocks (the presentation standard is a line above/below) and with a label that describes its content.
- map – a collection of blocks (7±2 ideally) on a single topic. It contains all the blocks on the given topic as well as an any introduction/conclusion block(s) required.
Above the map, mapped documents are organised into sections, then parts. Key at all levels is adherence to the 7±2 limit (eg a section should not have more than 9 maps, a part no more than 9 sections, etc).
what are the advantages?
There are three real advantages for organisations in adopting Information Mapping™:
- improvement in document quality
- upskilling/appraisal of new writers
- standarisation of large writing teams
A great deal of research has been conducted to quantify performance benefits when adopting IM. While your own figures may differ from the scientists there is no doubt that a well written IM document is easier use, particularly for reference (easy to scan, easy to find specific content, easy to understand that content when found).
Information Mapping provides a framework that crystallises a great number of principles and techniques that good writers use anyway. It is therefore an excellent tool for:
- raising the level of new writers
- ensuring an acceptable rate of output for new users (no more writer’s block)
- providing an assessment framework for helping good writers explain the issues with bad writing (without it getting too subjective/personal)
Since the methodology is definitive in its principles, it is invaluable when trying to ensure a consistent and standard output across multiple writers. When well written, mapped content can easily be assigned/re-assigned between writers with everyone “understanding” exactly what each topic is to contain and how to provide it.
By adopting the methodology, organisations are also able to draw upon existing mapping trained writers to augment their in-house development teams. Eg if you need 5 manuals written, and only have resources for 2 of them you can outsource the others confident that the format/style will be consistent for all.
what are the disadvantages?
There are no real disadvantages, just two issues it is best to be aware of before committing to it.
Traditionally (i.e. it predates the internet) Information Mapping™ is a paper-based approach. Now all of the techniques and principles are equally applicable online, but it does take some flexibility/creativity to make best use of the online format and adhere to the presentation guidelines.
To this end it is recommended you spend the time to review/define a formal mapping template for any online document before your writing team get too far into its development.
Information Mapping Inc. say it all the time, and I agree with them: simply using the mapping template does not a mapped document make. The presentation is the tip of the iceberg (in workshops they used to say presentation was maybe 20% of the method’s power).
The recommended presentation is the optimum based on the research, but you are free to manipulate to better fit your own needs.
On most Information Mapping™ workshops, participants are provided a template and formatting tool (called Formatting Solutions) that facilitates development of IM-formatted documents. This is a series of MS Word templates/macros to speed up the production of IM documents. If skilled (or willing to pay) these templates can be customised for your own needs.
what are the alternatives?
A large number of training companies offer technical writing courses. And most of them will include principles similar to those in Information Mapping™. However IM probably rules the roost in terms of research-basis and consistency.
The only other method that probably came close to the rigour of Information Mapping™ was “Read-to-Do”. However we’ve been unable to find any recent references to this alternative, so perhaps it has fallen by the wayside.
how do I learn Information Mapping™?
You can only learn the method by attending a formal workshop organised by Information Mapping Inc or one of its partners. Depending on your location a series of workshops are available for different writing needs (eg writing memos vs writing technical handbooks).
All partners offer the workshops as public or in-house. In-house workshops are good if able to train your entire team, particularly if you can spend the time up-front to help customise the course content/templates (eg use your own materials during the exercises, etc).
how do I find out more?
The Information Mapping Inc website contains a lot of useful information and research on the methodology, including examples.