Posts Tagged ‘content strategy

18
May
14

Flat Design & The Way Forward

Over time, in an attempt to keep up with shifting Web design trends, advances in programming have often been adopted under the aegis of a more-is-better philosophy. That is, without regard to the most important issue: How these changes in design parameters affect the site’s ability to communicate effectively with consumers.

As a result, we have seen the proliferation of visual clutter compounded by a desperate, aimless engagement strategy, based on the premise that “something” on the home page ought to grab the attention of any given user.

By contrast, I see in the recent trend toward so-called “flat design” protocols, the potential to make Web design less mechanical and, by corollary, more effective. Furthermore, flat design delivers an effective way to communicate across the multiple access points—just as an increasing number of users take for granted as they glide unselfconsciously between desk- and laptop, tablet, and the device we still quaintly refer to as a “phone.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of flat design, the overview available at Awwwards and Webdesigner Depot will give you all the orientation you need for the moment.

Examples of flat design on view at Design Razzi offer an unscientific sample that nevertheless illustrate its potential to improve digital communication across the board. To be clear, underlying this purely visual point of departure is an equally important shift in communication strategy. That is, toward an effortless rolling out of content that allows the brand’s deep message to speak for itself at a measured pace.

A few examples are enough to illustrate the positive principles at work here.

Inviting.
 Uncluttered, elegant, Munchery.com succeeds due to careful attention to proportion, spacing and line lengths. Additionally, it translates effortlessly to mobile display, enabling the on-the-fly decision making that, as I see it, has emerged as the centerpiece of 21st century popular culture.

 Just as important, the design calls attention to the offerings, not to itself. You get the feeling you’ve arrived at the right place for intriguing dining without any intermediary artifice required to “welcome” you there.

Considering this is also an e-tail site, I see it as a definitive step in the right direction. Here, online shopping continues the brand narrative, driving the deep message all the way home—again without needing an extra layer of promotional metacommunication.

Overriding these accomplishments, see how flat design, by doing away with conventional grid structures, allows language to flow according to its own principles, instead of being treated as merely another design element—and a pesky one at that—whose irregular contours threaten to make a hash of the most carefully planned pixel-width metrics.

Focused.
The elegant branded experience created by bicycle manufacturer Archie Wilkenson stands out for way it focuses its attention on the product—as opposed to promotional clutter. With text an image set out in a spacious array, features and benefits speak for themselves.

Naturally, in such a niche market context, you might assume simplicity is easier to achieve, because the impetus to include “no money down” sales talk is largely absent. In fact, however, there’s no reason to assume that limited promotional incentives could not be easily integrated into this site. It would simply be done without star bursts, flickering arrows, or jiggly banners.

Readable.
Finally, a site like Zirtual.com shows how flat design integrates video (scroll down) into a coherent visual flow. Video is available as an option you can access at your own pace—absent coercive promotional lingo, or moronically redundant instructional copy.

Here again, the site makes an easy transition to mobile, even on a 5” screen. especially important in this context, as the services offered target people too busy to deal with everyday life in real time.

And in clear refutation of the claim “people don’t read online,” this site’s response is unmistakable: “they will if the text is actually allowed to flow naturally as language, rather than confined to design-regulated copy blocks.”

Sure, you can adapt the length, style, the tone, the vocabulary the pacing, the rhythm of the text to match any audience model. But if you want consumers to read your content, you must display it in a legible format. As I see it, this aspect of flat design in the broadest sense offers a way forward to a far more effective and memorable Web experience.

From the most practical book-your-hotel functionality to the most elegant niche marketing scenarios, the improvement these protocols make in clarity and speed of communication have arrived just in time to meet the current rapid shift toward mobile computing. More to the point, they succeed by creating the first truly digital visual vocabulary in a way that humanizes digital communication for the first time.

22
Nov
13

Swimmers vs Divers & the Viral State of Mind

A common talking point among Web developers, whether we’re revamping an existing site or starting from scratch, are the assumed profiles of typical users. We try to predict their:

  • Background, education & culture
  • Specific interest in our branded topics
  • Motivation(s) for visiting our site
  • “Value system” for Web content

We also try to grasp how these and similar attributes will affect their response our message—right now, today, in real time.

Carried out methodically, this line of thought can help us develop sites that acquire, retain, position, compete or share. That is, provided our predictions are based on more than vague generalities couched in specific numbers.

That’s because we need to know what people do—not what numbers do—the people who visit our site. If your theory of marketing derives from a study you read, instead a study you led, you need to wonder how definitive your “findings” are.

Statistical variables vs the variability of human nature.
But even assuming a best-case scenario, there’s still one more behavioral category that, as I see it, is usually overlooked: The natural variability within one and the same person. Take a quick look in the mirror and realize that, unless you have some rare form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, your behavior operates within a range.

Though you may usually follow a certain routine when you, say, visit a Web site, there will be times when you break the mold.

So we must assume that users we identify as eager to absorb our branded message will not always care to make an in-depth exploration of our content. No matter what other targeted attributes our site visitors may have, they’ll occasionally fall into one of two categories:

  • Swimmers
  • Divers

The difference is depth of involvement on a visit-by-visit basis. And it strikes me that, considering how jam-packed a typical Web site is, paying attention to your customers’ alter egos just might have a shot at lowering the volume on the boing-boing sound associated with rising bounce rates.

Swimmers skim for essentials.
In this context, “paying attention” means staging your message with a two-tiered approach. By all means, build your Web presence so it can accommodate whatever attention mode your audience might be in at the moment. For Swimmers, you’ll need a user path that delivers your complete, albeit “essential” message along the smallest possible trajectory.

That is, chuck out the marketing speak, the promotional manipulation, celebrity endorsement—or that flaming gibberish about JD Powers and Associates—and just tell your Swimmers what you want them to do. In other words:

Make your digital presentation action-oriented.

Whether it’s view a 15-second video, activate an animated bar graph, call a sales rep, take a survey, solve a silly puzzle, or enter a sweepstakes—give your short-attention-span visitors something very easy to do, and make it rewarding.

No, not to you, to your visitor. At least, I assume the only reason you’ve posted something online is that you have something rewarding to deliver. If not, no amount of SEO, strategic brainstorming or blog-squinting can save you.

Divers delve for reasons to care.
On the flip side of this duality are the Divers, people actually eager to “learn more” about your brand. But be warned: To make their deep dive meaningful, you must create a clear, efficient path for them to reach the specifics—and only those specifics they’re actually interested in. Otherwise, they might run out of oxygen and click away.

Keep in mind the attributes underlying a typical viral video: the razor sharp honing of a concise message by a tantalizing concept. You want people to listen? Give them a reason to care—and a feel for the emotional logic of your offering.

Now, can anybody actually do this, or am I asking for the moon?

Well, a step on the path I propose is on display at TED.com, the Anti-Tea Party if ever there was one. Click around on its navigation and see how effortlessly the site enables you to filter, fuss and fidget with the content until you strike the balance that strikes your fancy. My personal favorite is the “SURPRISE ME” button—for people with a real interrest who don’t know where to go, but want to get there fast.

Here’s an example of what a what can happen when we pick our heads up from the pixels and think about people. Sure, just adopting the nav logic at TED.com isn’t going to tip the balance in your favor. But if you can catch the viral thought process it suggests, you might come closer to developing a Web space both Swimmers and Divers can comfortably inhabit.

 

24
May
13

Walking Away from the Grid and the Rail

In 2013, when the Internet is still routinely force-fit to specs made for print, out-of-home, retail or broadcast, it’s easy to fall asleep every night believing a Web site is simply an electronic newspaper.

Excuse me, but what a waste.

As CPUs muscle up, pixel densities climb, sound systems deliver stadium acoustics and the promise of artificial intelligence looms on the horizon, digital space is going through a reality change. As these ramped-up technologies converge on our touchscreens, we now have the opportunity to walk away from mechanical grid-plus-right-rail formats—and evolve an inherently digital idiom.

Ironically, the same consumers we’ve convinced to trade-in their traditional worldview for a digital screenview are now more immersed in digital communication than we are. While we continue to crank out flat arrays of boxes, consumers are swiping from screen to screen with a grace reminiscent of simian brachiation. And lest we forget, gamers around the world are now logging billions of hours battling boredom with ‘bots. As I see it, that leaves between 90 to 95% of all Web sites woefully behind the curve.

Viewscreen: On.
How do we address this mismatch between the idioms users respond to and the idioms we speak in? As I see it, we must develop a new visual vocabulary in which text, image, animation and video would narrate the brand story in a series of engaging experiences.

So, if the marketing team at Volvo (as of 5-24-13) wants to tell consumers their product is “designed around you” they might think to demonstrate what that means, and not expect consumers to “see for yourself” by stumbling into the showroom. At the moment, the intriguing idea of a car designed around consumers merely serves as a lead-in to a dissertation about “Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC).”

Posting documentary-style videos on a You Tube channel is not enough, not least because users have to leave the site to find them. Besides this site-hopping message deployment merely adds remote boxes to the standard grid. A Facebook page, when linked to from a Web page, is still just one more carton of promo for users to ignore.

What if, instead, Volvo illustrated that thought in an immersive digital environment? The story behind “Designed Around You” would help users appreciate the engineering, aesthetic and social challenges that drive the process of building a car—and help them grasp why Volvo adds value to their lives.

Bullets in abeyance.
Now, this approach in no way obviates the display of factoids or order buttons. But the site would be oriented toward creating a seamless, dovetailing branded experience with multiple access points.

One thing this approach does obviate: throwaway copy devoted to promotional nonsense. In a branded experience environment such copy is a distraction—a little like the advertising vignettes broadcasters wove into the first generation of TV sitcoms.

Besides, times have changed. In a tight economy, the phrase “Don’t Wait—Order Now” continually begs the question “Why?” If you think the answer is a series of bullet points, you’re on your way to another digital makeover and another parade of customers who arrive at your showroom with no idea why you’re better than the competition.

Not, mind you, because they don’t have enough facts, but because you’ve failed to endow your brand with memorable emotional resonance. And that resonance, in today’s world, is what a growing swath of Americans associate with immersive, digital entertainment.

Encouraging trends.
You can already see baby steps in the adoption of a new digital idiom. Certainly the goings on at OK Studios suggest a point of departure. Here flash programming helps ratchet up the engagement level—but that’s not the whole story.

The site also delivers pages composed of surprising imagery and loose-limbed copy, working in concert to create a branded mood / voice. And while you could argue OK Studio isn’t hemmed in by the necessity to hawk merchandise, it’s easy to see how an e-tail component could be handled in this idiom.

As a cursory Google search will tell you, these are trends and tendencies explored by a number of adventuresome Web designers, including, unfortunately, cartoonish “3D” approaches that interfere with consumer engagement by adding extraneous layers of “realism” to the interface.

But enough. At issue here is not what programming technique to use. The point is to find a way to communicate in digital space that’s truly idiomatic to the medium. It’s something that needs to evolve at its own pace, but does require one inciting incident: The decision to walk away from the Grid and the Rail.

20
Apr
10

The Content Strategist’s Axe

[April 20, 2010]

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of talk about content strategy, even to the extent that it might now be “the next big thing.” Now, this topic has been around for some time and I’m a little surprised to see it’s getting so much attention, as if it were the latest Apple app or Justin Bieber download.

But when was content strategy not on our minds? Am I to assume that, up until recently, Web site development has been a process in which content blocks were simply thrown together willy-nilly?

Having analyzed a large number of Web sites over the last few years, I guess that’s quite possible. And considering that one piece of advice consistently given by content strategy consultants is to “know all the content on your site,” I see the issue is woven more deeply into the fabric of digital space than I realized. The situation is so bad that people are actually hiring consultants to snake out their Web sites, Roto-Rooter style, and find out what bubbles back up through the drain.

So perhaps the sad fact is that the digital revolution has so far been carried out in a singularly haphazard way. As I see it, the root of the problem is a generalized obsession with all-inclusiveness: We expect each Web site to do too much.

Original. Fresh. Relevant.
By now, if we are to believe the statistics, it’s clear people are popping on and off Web pages in mere seconds. Given that, should we really strive to pump every consumer-facing site full of “the best of the Web,” including newsfeeds linking to other sites offering “the best of the Web?”

Surely, if we are to believe that the average American has the attention span of a gnat and the education of a Fifth Grader, our only hope is to provide more narrowly focused and more frequently updated content. Just as important, that content should be original. In fact, if a site can’t deliver original content on a regular basis about a particular range of topics aimed at a specific target, I doubt there’s any reason for it to exist at all.

Even within merchandizing space there’s room for frequent updates on shopping trends, consumer advice and advocacy. How much more useful the average e-tail site would be, if it came out for or against product lines or market trends.

Sharpening the blade.
Seen from this perspective, maybe the way around the content strategy dilemma is not to hire more consultants, but limit what’s posted to information immediately relevant to visitors. And by “immediately,” I mean to strike out 99% of what, through a never ending chain of word associations, often ends up on a Web page.

Given that, perhaps the only content strategy tool you’ll ever need is a scalpel—or in some cases, a pick axe. If you don’t believe me, take a good hard look at the featured content on a dozen or more sites—even those from major brands. Can you honestly say that more than 1% is worth saving? Look long enough and you’ll even discover that a large amount of it is even copied verbatim from some other source.

Chances are, once you carry out this exercise, you’ll realize that the best thing you can do for your Web site is start over from scratch. This time, build your content strategy around only those topics that directly support your brand message. If it’s true that “brands are becoming media,” then what you show on your channel is more than a window display: it’s the store itself.




Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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