Avoiding Costly Document Design Issues Through Guidelines

By | May 26, 2011

The importance of design in Business Communications has never been more critical. Research has shown that companies are sending more and more communications competing for consumers’ attention.  Businesses have only a few moments to get the audience’s attention.  In addition there are increased competing communication technologies and channels available to both the communicator and the audience.  These changes make the publication and distribution of business communications susceptible to errors and increased costs.  There are both direct production and indirect costs, such as increased customer service center calls, that are impacting the bottom line.

Our experience has proven that taking time to develop a communications plan and guidelines upfront can avoid issues which result in delayed or ineffective and costly communication. In the white paper by Robert Linsky, NEPS‘ Director of Information Design, (Improving Customer Experience with Document Design – A guide for Best Practices for Clear and Effective Communications), he  talks about taking a holistic approach to document design.  We suggest taking this one step further and taking the holistic approach to include production and distribution as well as document design. 

We suggest that the communications plan and requirements needs to be done by a cross functional team including the communication owner, the information designer and the production and distribution team.  This team needs to define the:

  • Communication goal (primary and secondary if necessary)
  • The timing from information availability to distribution
  • Channels and media intended for distribution
  • Resources and tools available for creation and production
  • Document size
  • Use of information design
  • Approval and review process

Careful consideration of these elements can assure that the primary goal, for example, presenting a bill and getting paid quickly, does not get lost in a promotional effort to cross sell.  It can also lead to a strategy to manage page counts, thus using less paper and reducing materials costs.  At the same time, adding messaging to transactional documents based on space available without increasing sheets optimizes postage cost value.  

Testing is the second key point that needs to be stressed.  As communications become more complex and highly variable, and multiple channels are employed for distribution, testing is critical.  This is in many ways parallel to complex programming efforts.  You need to test, test, and test.  First, you need to test the specifications and requirements to make sure they are reasonable and meet the communication objectives.  Next you need to test the individual components of the communication: Is the message clear and presented in the order the reader wants it?

  • Is the design right for the various channels and compatible with the attributes of each? 
  • Does the communication work for printed documents as well as online presentation?
  • Finally is the system working right?
  • Do you allow readers to choose a media of their preference?
  • Do you make sure that readers are not getting multiple copies of the same communication?

Failure to test can result in missed deadlines, costly duplication of efforts or, worst of all, the failure to communicate the primary message clearly and effectively.

The last element in our suggested guidelines is the implementation and use of an effective change control procedure.  Nothing can be more costly that having developed an effective communications program only to have it go off the rails because changes were implemented without the cross functional review and sign off, in line with the whole communication plan, goals, and requirements.  It is easy in repetitive transactional communications or multi faceted promotional programs over time to lose track of why certain elements were created the way they were.  Looking at all the process steps in the communication program will avoid costly miscommunication or missed deadlines.  When in doubt, test again before implementing changes.

As Robert Linsky states: As a result, poorly designed documents evoke frustration—rather than understanding and action—on the part of the consumer. Poorly designed documents also result in numerous inefficiencies for the companies sending them, including increased call center inquiries, customer responses that are not in good order (NIGO), confusion in the workflow of employees processing the documents, and excessive paper and mailing costs.”

I believe that following three simple guidelines creates effective and efficient Business Communications

  1. Plan and Document the Communications requirements
  2. Test, test, test
  3. Use a rigorous change management process

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One thought on “Avoiding Costly Document Design Issues Through Guidelines

  1. Asoka Dissanayake

    Yes, we come across many badly designed documents, particularly forms which are difficult to understand. I have seen complex forms designed by banks for their customers to seek loans. It takes a great effort to understand these forms and to fill in details required.

    I think the guidelines published here are worth studying by organizations in designing simpler documents. This will help improve productivity too.

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