Designing simple tools for complex messages

Recently every news article seems to refer to budget cuts as a result of the global financial meltdown.  I have read 20 different articles and still do not feel like I fully understand the problem.  As a voting member of the British public it is in my government’s best interests that I understand both the scale of cuts required and where these must take place. How can I begin to understand such a complicated subject?  How can the internet help me understand?

In my previous article I discussed how interactive tools could be used to encourage learning on a website.  Online tools and widgets naturally generate a higher level of engagement amongst visitors for a variety of reasons; they are more visual, you can play with them; they help answer your questions!  Tools allow us to understand a subject through exploration and rehearsal without any risk if we go wrong.  We all know the best way to learn something is to do it yourself!  This engaged risk-free learning, I believe, is the secret strength of online tools.   They persuade learning through a subtle and passive process.

I previously referenced the BBC News website in this regard and again on the subject of budget cuts they have delivered a great tool - Budget: What would you cut?

BBC Budget tool showing slide bars against government department spending

Budget: What would you cut?

Using this interactive tool, a user can operate a series of slide rules to determine the extent that they will cut government spending or raise taxes (Warning: SIM City it is not!).  Every time a user completes an action they are told of the consequences.  For example, if I reduce government spending on welfare the tool tells me how much I am reducing the weekly basic pension.

After a few minutes of playing with this tool I felt that I had learnt so much more about the difficult tasks facing us in the next few years.  After reading dozens of articles in the last few weeks and learning nothing, how, after a matter of minutes, did this tool “unlock” the mystery of the UK’s financial problems?

Simple Tool: Complex Task

For starters the tool is really easy to use!  Ten slide bars that I can tweak up and down as long as I want, that’s it!

The simplicity of the interface however, is not the tools’ greatest strength. The tools’ greatest achievement is in taking all of the economic lingo, hazardous maths, media buzz words and veiled political undertones that normally accompany budget cut news articles and condensing them into those ten slide bars.

As a measure of economic policy, the tool is woefully inadequate.  That’s not the point!  The point is to highlight to the average person in the street how difficult the job of managing the financial deficit is and how nearly all aspects of our society will be affected.

It’s a common problem encountered in design where we insist on trying to say everything.  What do people really need to know in order for me to get my message across?

Engagement through consequences

The second major strength of the tool is it displays the consequences of each action the user takes.  Every time I adjust one of the slide bars it tells me the impact upon society.  How many of us feel comfortable adjusting the “Welfare” slide bar when every movement tells us how much money we are taking away from Grandma on a weekly basis?

By prominently displaying the consequences the tool forces the user to ask themselves difficult questions.  “How could I be responsible for reducing the size of our armed services given the conflicts our troops face?”

The tool is successful because it produces real world outputs, which real people can understand and relate too.

The final message: “It’s harder than it looks”

The third strength of the tool is the end target that a user must achieve.  A user is asked to produce cuts or raise taxes that total £74 billion pounds a year.  It is very hard to achieve this target without being ruthless.

The tool is easy to use but it is difficult to get the “correct” answer.  By ensuring that the user must have several attempts at being successful the tool is inherently reinforcing the message that difficult times lie ahead.  When coupled with the prominent display of consequences, the user is left with the overriding feeling that no matter what is done, there is no easy answer to the problem of the budget deficit.

In my previous captology articles I have endeavoured to try to make you think differently about the way you tell (or sell) your messages online.  How many businesses would benefit if their customers had a greater level of understanding about their services or products? Next time you are struggling to convey a complex message perhaps the use of an interactive tool may help?

Given the progress of the web in recent years, the development of interactive tools is no longer a scary prospect.  However, we must endeavour to ensure that these tools are designed to deliver the right message.

Despite not carrying a happy message, the BBC Budget tool is very successful at conveying an understanding to users about a very complex issue.  Another good example of learning through an interactive tool can be found on the Greenpeace website.  I will leave it up to you to critique the success of “Efficient City”.

Finally, having discussed the depressing nature of Britain’s financial future I would like to cheer my readers up with a picture of a puppy, enjoy!

Picture of cute brown puppy