Digital Messaging: Stage vs Page

[April 8, 2011]

Despite theories of digital user experience that celebrate Brevity as the only virtue, there are times when a site needs to convey a large amount of information. Does that mean that such content density is ultimately unsuitable for digital space? 

As I see it, it’s a matter of staging. 

While there might be a practical limit to how much content a site can present, there’s no reason to decide the issue prescriptively. Before you bite the bullet and replace any block of text with an unordered list of touch points, take a moment to rethink the flow and internal organization of your content. 

The first step is to re-imagine your message in more fluid terms by abandoning the print-based model we flatter ourselves to think we’ve outgrown. 

Communication in print is understandably linear—a fact of life as much to do with tradition as it is with paper. In digital space, moreover, you have the opportunity to pace your message as a director does in film, building your story through a series of scenes or visualizations. Beyond that, digital space also offers the opportunity to roll out its message through more than one type of content.

Storyboard the message.
Realize that and you’ve had yourself all the epiphany you need. You’ll no longer conceive your message in terms of words or even language. You’ll craft it to unfold idiomatically in a dynamic, multidimensional medium. If the prospect seems daunting, you’re in good company. 

Stroll over to a typical Web address and you’re confronted with a mishmash of rigidly stratified offerings:

•Here’s a text block
•There’s a video window
•Here’s a quiz
•There’s a Facebook feed

And there, underfoot, is the wild underbrush of honking buttons, blinky slide shows and whirling widgets that distract visitors from your central theme. Of course, an experienced digital designer can make even this chaotic assemblage of committee-validated boxes look organized and, occasionally, even beautiful. But, as I see it, the prize will go to the visionaries who get beyond this “good enough” standard. 

Let’s get real: in its current state, digital space uses only a fraction of its potential to communicate. That’s because we’re still thinking in terms of isolated, static pages. What’s needed is a new narrative flow that blurs the boundaries between text, image, video, sound—and the page itself.

Imagine if users could drag selected blocks of copy into a video window to illustrate a point. Consider the boost to coherence and continuity if a video or still image could be dissolved into text to reinforce the site’s umbrella theme. Ultimately, this fluid cross-referencing of content from all sectors of the site would liberate digital space from the prevailing print-page model.

Reblock the experience.
Within current technical limitations, the larger problem is one of order and proportion. Given an array of relevant assets in different media, Web-crafters must solve several knotty problems:

•Creating coherence and stylistic unity across those media
•Finding an efficient, memorable and motivating path to convey their message
•Integrating each of these elements into an ongoing narrative
•Engaging, entertaining, enlightening—to empower repeat visits

As it stands now, we’re great at giving users lots of choices, but terrible at shaping the net takeaway of their ‘net experience.

Adjust the focus.
And that brings me back to staging. With all of these unresolved issues, it’s no surprise our expert corps of usability consultants continue to sacrifice emotional impact at the altar of Brevity. I sympathize. In this state of affairs, tiny little paragraphs make the illusion of integration a heck of a lot easier to create.

But let’s be clear: There’s nothing inherently un-digital about long-form copy. What’s needed is not fewer words but a more idiomatic way to roll out digital content in any form. Again, the root of the problem lies in the very concept of building a Web “page.” A page is flat, limited, solitary, one-dimensional. By contrast, a valid digital unit would be virtually limitless, interdependent and multidimensional. 

Sure, it’s an elusive goal, but it’s one we can achieve in increments. Let’s start by recognizing that a Web presence need not be a flow of text punctuated by design elements, video, stills, flashy buttons, groovy fonts—and then wrapped in a blanket of hastily downloaded, pre-fab templates. Let’s focus on the story we want to tell rather than the content blocks we feel obliged to manufacture, in slavish obeisance to received wisdom.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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