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Ensuring access to information

Image of a panda eating bamboo.

It's a daily occurrence to video call people on the other side of the world on my mobile as I sit drinking expresso in some artisan coffee shop, whilst connected to the largest repository of information ever. But as a child, I remember sitting on an old Mac, watching still/slow video streaming from a camera in the panda enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. My mom shouted that I needed to get off the dial-up as she needed to make a phone call, thinking this was mind-blowing.

Why is this important? It shows how the Internet has changed the world and us relatively quickly. Our ability to connect to the Internet and access information has removed many of the geographic and financial barriers we have in learning more things, looking for answers and connecting with people.

Exchange and interaction with information

This open exchange of information and ideas will ultimately lead to finding all the answers to today's and tomorrow's problems. It’s also changed how we think and interact as humans. We no longer see the transmission of information as a single-liner message but as a dynamic and growing interactive source of knowledge; as humans, many of the factors that kept us apart are now of no importance.

Humanity and the Internet are now linked, with the growth of the information on the web or the machine; as anthropologist Michael Wesch said, "The Machine is Us/ing Us." With this is mind, we’re obligated to try and make accessing the vast volume of information as easy as possible, removing as many limiting factors as possible. 

We have to design a way for people to attach thoughts and content to information; we no longer have the information in the linear form found in books. It now lives as a network of individual points that relate to other pieces of information, and we can quickly jump from one to another.

The problem is that it becomes easy to miss some contexts and the progressions of people's thoughts and understanding. We need a different way to understand how to present thoughts. One that allows the presentation of information in a linear fashion. Linking depth on specific elements and mixing this with the more extensive web of no-liner information comfortably. 

This change creates the need for an Information Curator, someone or a group who looks at how information is curated, its relationships and its presentation. A field that, although it’s advanced quickly, is still in its infancy as we’re all trying to find our way.

Presentation of information

Accessibility to information has always been a concern, and the printing press was responsible for the first significant leap. Later, the work of Louis Braille made the same information available to people who were blind.

With the growth of technology, it’s possible to present information in many different ways, such as screen readers. Still, as I discovered in a training session, a lot of planning and testing needs to be done for a screen to work well for both the visual user and the screen reader. 

The correct tagging of images and many other things needs consideration; it’s no longer just visual design, and as technology and our understanding of how people can interact with information grows, this area of expertise will grow almost daily.

What does this mean?

For an individual or organisation to present a piece of information is no longer just someone writing or filming a piece of content. To be appropriately done, it's the work of several people with a wide spread of skills and knowledge. Or, at the very least, an established and defined process that tries to encompass everything.

We need to think about our interactions differently and how easily the recipient will understand them, even to the point of perhaps presenting the information in different ways and levels to make it accessible.

What it means is that it’s now something that we need to consider whether we’re pushing out information to market a company or adding to the ever-growing database of human thought and understanding.

What are we doing in CIVIC?

We began by forming a Usability Team, bringing research and accessibility skills to the company, who ensured we considered usability at each step of every project. Key to this was internal training, raising awareness across each team and then developing role-specific training.

The UX team began to work with clients more closely to structure and better understand the information they’re presenting, how best to do this, and ensure that the interactions allow for the needed two-way exchange. From understanding user and business needs, developing information architectures, to how to write user-friendly copy. While constantly ensuring everything was accessible and inclusive in its design.

The Development teams introduced new techniques and technology and removed some old ones. Development starts with a better understanding of the needs of the user/s and their limitations.

We’ve developed our User-generated content engine, which is heavily used in education and have begun to look at how we can create answers to some of the questions that we and others see.

Accessibility and information structure are now linked, and there is no perfect answer; all we can do is keep asking questions and find answers.

How accessible is your content? Have you considered who your users are and how they need to digest it?