Category Archives: Design

Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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Summary Plan Descriptions

Why I Love SPDs.

I love SPDs. This is a feeling not universally shared by those clients and colleagues who are tasked with developing and maintaining them (or even most of us who receive them).

When I first began working on SPDs, I didn’t fully appreciate them. I often described them in terms that weren’t always (let’s just say) the most flattering. However, more exposure to these documents has helped me value their finer points.

Benefits make a difference. Benefits are a critical part of employees’ total rewards from their employer. A thoughtfully developed benefits program provides a safety net for employees and their families. How employees participate in these programs can affect their overall financial picture, now and far into the future.

I create multiple communication/education programs associated with employee benefits, ranging from recruiting to new hire to annual enrollment materials and beyond. SPDs assume a unique position in this communication universe. In many ways, they are the backbone of any benefits program.

SPDs are legally mandated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA specifies information, timing and distribution requirements to make sure participants are informed about how their benefits work and legal protections provided to them. [ERISA background]

SPDs provide employees important legal and regulatory details, such as rights and protections provided under ERISA. These include where to go for help; who is responsible for running the plan and what their duties entail; what benefits are insured, e.g., defined benefit plans under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; what rights are in place if a claim is denied; and required notices, such as the Women’s Cancer Rights Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

SPDs are a comprehensive user’s manual and reliable reference tool. The SPD provides information about eligibility, enrollment, timing requirements, benefits provided, where to go for more information and much more. Rules can be complicated and have big financial implications.  [Requirements for a 401k SPD]

Participants are encouraged to read the documents carefully and keep them in a convenient place for future reference. Now SPDs are commonly posted electronically for easy access at any time.

Keeping an SPD up-to-date is the realm of a team of benefit professionals—HR staff, technical benefit consultants, specialized attorneys, and communicators. Legal contracts, insurance policies and documents that spell out how a benefit plan works must be translated into understandable language for the average person. [SPD Development Strategy]

Such an important document deserves our respect. We should all view the SPD as a valuable resource that helps employees find information, use their benefits effectively and appreciate their employer’s investment in their well-being.

For those  reasons, I love SPDs!

Pat Dodd is a senior consultant  at Smith Communication Partners. 

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Ideas Influencing Employee Communication

I often hear clients say: “We want to do something new and different!” or ask “What is new and exciting in employee communication?” While the forms of communication haven’t changed in recent years—print, web, mobile—the approaches we use to maximize these media have.

Generational Overlapping

Audience segmentation by role is nothing new (i.e., HR, leaders, managers, employees), but adapting communications to engage diverse generations is becoming an area of focus. This is where media mix comes into play. For example, baby boomers prefer print and face-to-face communication that is open and detailed. Digitally-native Millennials prefer electronic communication that is meaningful, brief and visual, with the option to get more detail. Surprisingly, Millennials love face-to-face interactions for complex or important subject matter. Sandwiched between the two is Generation X—technically very competent and preferring email or electronic communication with higher levels of complexity.

One way to address diverse generational audiences is through media mix and tone.

Example:

A U.S.-based engineering and manufacturing company has employees ranging from the age of early 20s (millennials) to mid 60s (baby boomers), with an average age of 42 (generation x). For an initiative such as retirement readiness, this overlapping mix of communications will best reach this broad audience:

  • Posters or full-sized banners with stand and a 30 second commercial spot (plays on local kiosks/monitors and website) to generate awareness
  • Postcard mailed to homes to engage spouses
  • Interactive guide with a downloadable/printable PDF
  • Microsite with layered information (page content, PDFs, videos, links), including testimonials (diverse ages and job functions) and a short game or quiz
  • Employee meetings organized similar to a health fair, including a short presentation and various vendor/financial planning experts

The trick to success is to match media to audience preference, even if you repeat yourself using varied forms. The important idea is to reach your audience in the from it prefers.

Sensory Immersion

Sensory immersion creates engaging experiences that heighten awareness and increase engagement. Sight, smell, taste, touch and sound are common in marketing and in the gaming industry but also can play a part in any communication. This approach is particularly compelling for Millennials, who are always hungry for new meaningful and entertaining experiences.

Brilliant images, like those below, when attached to compelling headlines will hook your audience. They can be paired with other sensory inputs or merely suggest the types of experiences your audience finds compelling.

  • Sight—Given our age of rapid technology, such as email, smart phones, the Internet and social media, sight can be challenging to engage and maintain. We have become accustomed to tuning things out due to oversaturation, so there needs to be a visual hook and strong sense of hierarchy. This can be achieved with unique typography, provocative imagery (especially macro imagery) and/or use of solid geometric shapes with bold color. Evoking the sense of sight can tie in nicely with communications that focus on the future.
  • Smell— Did you know that we can recall 10,000 unique smells! While we can’t reasonably infuse scents into most employee communications, we can certainly suggest them through imagery in a way that triggers recollection of a smell, and the feeling(s) associated with that memory. For example, the aroma of a steaming hot beverage on a cold morning that also warms your hands, or the smell of roasting marshmallows over a fire as you prepare to indulge in s’mores. Stirring up these memories can come in handy when communicating healthy behavior, such as eating delicious and healthy food, engaging in yard work in the spring or taking a relaxing vacation at the beach.
  • Taste—As with smell, taste is something we can suggest through imagery that can trigger a memory and feeling to make a more personal connection with the audience.
  • Touch—Print appeals to the tactile sense, including various weights of paper and textures that can enhance or support a communication. Embossing/debossing and coatings such as varnishes also can elicit the sense of touch. It is more challenging to engage touch electronically, but we certainly experience it with gaming and phones (vibration) and here again, we can use macro photography to tap into the sense of touch. For example, drawing people in with the feeling of holding a sparkler, the rough texture of new money or the gentle softness of a fluffy pillow to rest your head on.
  • Sound—We can use sound to enhance a video or influence the mood of a website or interactive environment. See what Volkswagen did with sound that resulted in a 66% increase in taking the stairs that were positioned next to an escalator: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw. Today we can’t cost efficiently integrate sound into a print employee communication, but we can suggest it in a way that can trigger a memory so it comes to life in our minds.
Infographics

Infographics blend information and visuals in a minimalistic way to help people comprehend content. This approach oftentimes is used to convey complex concepts, processes and/or to visually break up dense content. After all, 65% of people are visual learners!

Long Format Websites

With over 80% of the U.S. mobile market using smartphones, we have had to start thinking more about the user experience on an array of devices—computers, tablets and phones. This means thinking more about adaptability of the communication (look and functionality).

Example:

For a long while web page design has been focused above the fold to eliminate scrolling. Now, those same web pages have a different experience on smartphones, meaning lots of scrolling— there’s no way to avoid it with a small device. As a result, design has begun moving toward long format or scrolling pages.

Designers are finding advantages to this, such as creating a fluid and creative storytelling experience (this dovetails nicely with sensory immersion and appealing to millennials). It also promotes interaction, has greater user consistency from one device to another and it opens the door for training or other game-like experiences.

Face-to-Face

Rapid technology has enabled organizations of all sizes to work effectively with communication that is fast and electronic. Conversely, the explosion of easy digital communication, is also creating a desire for face-to-face interactions for significant situations, such as organizational transformation, annual benefit enrollment and retirement readiness.

Certainly this won’t be the only touch point with employees for a large communication initiative, so the content should be high-level and offer additional resources for greater detail. PowerPoints or similar tools can be used to guide the conversion and should be used to tell a story that provides meaning to employees. In other words, avoid “death by PowerPoint” or reading the slides word for word. The face-to-face interaction is more about humanizing the message and providing employees with the opportunity to listen and ask questions. The high-level presentation should be fluid so it can be distributed/posted and make sense to the end user. Here’s an example of a creative and fluid PowerPoint that tells the story of how Google works: http://www.slideshare.net/ericschmidt/how-google-works-final-1#20.

Innovate to Engage

There are many creative approaches that can both attract the attention of a diverse workforce and align with budgetary needs. Next time you communicate an initiative to your employees, instead of printing the same old letter-sized booklet or emailing a PDF, consider:

  • Addressing various generational media preferences
  • Increasing engagement through sensory immersion
  • Maximizing comprehension by matching images to content with infographics
  • Building fluidity and story-telling into mobile and desktop web design
  • Meeting face-to-face to increase impact
References
http://www.generations.com/
http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/11/millennials-surpass-gen-xers-as-the-largest-generation-in-u-s-labor-force/

Kara Pernice (2016), Top 10 Intranet Trends of 2016, Nielsen Norman Group

https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Rankings/comScore-Reports-January-2016-US-Smartphone-Subscriber-Market-Share

Natalia Lumby (2016), Sensory printing: engaging all of the senses, Graphic Arts Magazine

PewResearch (May 2015)

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