Web design (0): The science of communication

Orlando-Web-Design

A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.- Tim Berners-Lee

[ 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Today, we have the technology to design websites that do justice to Berners-Lee’s vision without getting bogged down in code and pixels. Web design is communication and there is a science to communicating well. (Which is not the same as science communication, that’s another blog altogether.)

Communication: What’s the story?

At heart, humans are storytellers and a website is a place to shape a narrative, tell a story, and create an experience. Fictional journalism and creative non-fiction exist because we have long recognised the power of a story to move us and influence our behaviour. Charles Dickens would read out parts of his novels to the wealthy as entertainment whilst raising money for Gt Ormond St Hospital for Sick Children.

But, Napoleon Bonaparte was right when he said a picture is worth a thousand words.
The Illustrated London News was created in 1842 and had 60,000 subscribers in that year alone, after someone realised that newspapers sold more copies when they had pictures in them, especially ones which showed a face or place.

Moreover when we can change our focus and present data visually or, we rearrange museum artefacts according to an alternative plan, we create new insight. Investigating the patterns of our world can further our understanding of anything we choose to focus on.

Hitler might not have invaded Russia if he had taken a close look at the Minard Map showing how Napoleon’s invasion went badly wrong. Nowadays, Minard would have produced a computer simulation, or BBC drama to convince Hitler that he was not invincible.

User experience: Finding the tribe

Once we have a story to tell. We have to find the right audience. It is no good telling a medical tale of blood and gore to an audience who wants to know when the next My Little Pony conference takes place. The golden rule of user-centred design for websites is: Know your user.

One way is to create case studies of users, and user profiles, so that when we design our My Little Pony community website we know that Lucia, a 25-year-old male who works as an electrician and lives in a duplex in Pasadena is typical of our audience. Thinking of Lucia makes the design more specific and relevant to the intended user group.

We can also learn about our users, the main factor in our design process, through the field of cognitive science. We need to understand user motivation. What makes a user happy? We need to manage user perceptions and responses to fulfill user desires. We need them to join in and love what we do.

Another way is to just ask the user, with focus groups, and questionnaires, which is less exciting but just as useful. Whilst we are there we could even give them a card sort, so that they can tell us where they expect to find information and facilitate our content strategy.

Content strategy = Digital publishing + information architecture + editorial process

Content strategy has a Gestalt feel to it, like website design itself, which leads to the sum above becoming more than its parts. Information architecture may say where content lives. Content strategy says when content lives, and editorial process is more than just spell checking.

Questions to ask:

  • Does the website need to have great usability which is measured by being: effective and efficient; easy to learn and remember; useful and safe?
  • Can a user ask and know: Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?
  • Is the content better presented by the no-function in structure principle? (Pinterest anyone?)
  • How do we guide users to our key themes, messages, and recommended topics?
  • Do we wish to grow our audience?
  • What type of search engine optimization is best for attracting visitors?
  • Do we wish to analyse the market online to check we are reaching our segment?
  • Which content-management system is best for us?
  • Are we web standards compliant?
  • Is the content working hard enough for our users?

These questions can be used to analyse content gaps and plug them so that the user is getting what he or she needs and feed that back into beautiful content, before running headlong into our social media campaign.

Social media: Sharing and caring

During Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year TV series, she created a community. Her message was: You are not alone. Oprah knows that we all want to feel that we matter. We want to be included a community and to be heard in conversation. We want to feel connected, so that we can be open and participate in life with others.

At its best, social media offers this, but all those Instagram selfies and tweets about what you had for breakfast can make even the nosiest among us ask: What is the point of twitter?

Oprah and her network OWN reach out to its audience via social media and networking and give us all a masterclass in how these tools should be used.

Evaluation: Is it working?

How do you know your web site is working? The cultural probe of course. This is when you give your user a way to give feedback whilst going about his or her daily business, in the form of a diary, in order to capture user context. Other ways of evaluation include the usability laboratory with questionnaires and exercises, or click capture software or business style web analytics.

Each method has its own pros and cons, but is ultimately useful.

Humans are fascinating creatures and will always find new and interesting ways of using whatever you create either by necessity or by not understanding what the designer intended in the first place. This is known as serendipitous design which in itself is another exciting field which needs to be communicated – scientifically, of course.

[Part 1]

Emerging technologies: New ways for shared experiences

Victorian travel

Recently, Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian described the year 1995, as that old, slow world you could describe the way George Eliot described life before the railroad.

Solnit goes on to describe her stately 1995 routine: She read the newspaper in the morning, listened to the news in the evening and received other news via letter once a day. Her computer was unconnected and so, behaved like a word processor on a desk.

Nowadays, her computer is more like a cocktail party full of chatter increasingly fragmented streams of news and data, leaving Solnit to feel like an anachronism in this completely different world.

As a computer scientist in 1995, my experience was quite different. I already had my first webpage: ‘Hello World!’ and felt connected. I was a graphics programmer and HCI researcher, and I loved sharing information on newsgroups or by email. I lived in Switzerland and was thrilled when the UK newspapers went online. I no longer had to wait for day old news from good old Blighty. Technology helped my research and enriched my life daily.

Ten years on, I trained to be a journalist. During the course, we were told to read all the newspapers everyday and then pitch articles which were very similar to the ones already in the paper. Anniversaries of public events and the deaths, marriages of famous people, were always good fodder to fill up the papers. And a spot of ambulance chasing could get you that human interest story.

It did strike me as all a bit old-fashioned. So, I shouldn’t be so surprised that Solnit feels left behind. This new technology is threatening her way of life when really it could be helping her. And it is interesting that Solnit compares the rate of change today with the Victorian railroads and the fast changing world back then. It is a satisfying comparison.

Alison Byerly, in her book, Are we there yet? Virtual travel and Victorian realism recently reviewed in the TLS, compares chat rooms to railway carriages, SimCity to hot air balloons, and blog links to K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. She also gives a lovely example of Victorian armchair travel when she describes Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc (1851-6), which was an interactive scene of a full scale chalet exterior, a pool of water containing live fish, and ten Saint Bernards who would trot about the auditorium delivering packets to chocolate to children. Smith targeted people who would never actually go to Mont Blanc. It was too far and too expensive to travel in their lifetimes. But they could go along to his exhibition and experience the thrill of the ascent.

Today, with a click of a button, we can watch footage of people climbing Mont Blanc and eating chocolate on YouTube. Byerly mentions virtual reality (VR) as another parallel for Smith’s exhibition: but really how many people do you know have a head-mounted display and data-gloves? And really is VR what we need? After, it is a shared experience we are seeking, something we can talk about and take part in together in order to understand. Elsewhere in her book, Byerly gives examples of Victorian full-scale recreations of train crashes and other disasters.

Recently, the New York Times ran a long feature called Snow Fall online about an avalanche at Tunnel Creak, Stevens pass, Washington. There are slide shows of the deceased and their families, pictures of the history of Tunnel Pass, and a computer-generated simulation of the avalanche. It is a great piece of journalism enriched beautifully by technology. It is the modern day equivalent of the Victorian exhibitions.

According to Wikipedia, journalism began in 1400s. Italian and German businessmen wrote down the latest news and circulated it to their connections in the city. The practice grew, especially during wartime so that the people back home would know what was going on. Journalists were providing a service – informing and updating peoples’ lives.

And, now we have access to the latest news all the time. From the simple #hashtag on twitter to longer news articles which are presented in a magazine format by Flipboard. But it is not always new information that we need. Sometimes, we need in depth analysis and explanation, a shared experience, a shared understanding.

At best, journalists are recorders of our time. They bring us life changing historical events, perceived injustices, and remind us of things we should never forget. They write it down and revisit so that we don’t forget. Good journalists articulate our thoughts and connect to our minds. Now they can do this better than ever with insightful visualisation whilst connecting information to give us insight and enlightenment.

Magazine mogul, Chris Anderson, started the TED talks because he felt that television wasn’t challenging enough and he believed intellectual mobility was the future. In an article in the Guardian, Anderson talks about crowd-accelerated learning, and bringing intellectual stimulus and experience to YouTube audiences by the world’s leading thinkers.

The positive adoption of technology by broadcast media and TV networks (like OWN) and some journalists is exciting. Many broadcast and media courses now teach emerging technologies and so the potential is there to create enriching and enlightening features that educate us all.

Emerging journalism: a new way of sharing experiences.