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: What’s the story?

pic borrowed from maltatimes.com

Deepak Chopra defines social media as the extension of our brains. He believes that we are all creating and contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or global brain, every time we Tweet, Facebook, and share online.

It is an exciting thought and a digital extension of the sentiment expressed by personal development author Jim Rohn when he said: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

With social media, it is so easy to pick five inspirational voices with which to create new neural pathways in your own brain. With our portable devices, these people can be with you wherever you go, ready with a wise word anytime you want to think something different. And you can be the inspirational voice in someone else’s brain.

And yet! Sunday, was International Friendship day. Some twitter users marked the occasion by having a day of #twittersilence. The tag and silence was used as a protest against the online abuse certain high-profile women have been subjected to on twitter. Other users felt that by having 24 hours silence, the trolls would win, so they carried on tweeting using #shoutingback or #inspiringwomen tags.

Online abuse and web-based hate crime is the dark side of social media and indeed, of humanity. In the Guardian, Police Chief Andy Trotter called on social media companies to crack down on crimes committed on their platforms, saying they have the ingenuity to come up with solutions.

Trotter’s solution is a good one. Social media platforms could automatically police online hatred. It is common enough in the workplace to bounce back email when it contains unacceptable words. Couldn’t social media do the same and train users to be kinder to each other?

After all, uses who engage in this sort of behaviour are breaking the law. Do users need to be educated about the legalities of using social media? Attacks on individuals such as politicians and celebrities have long been common, even applauded in traditional broadcast media, so the line between ‘righteous’ commentary and plain old abuse has been blurry for a while.

In June, the Daily Mail published an article claiming that Hilaria Baldwin was tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral. The Guardian has a full outline of the events here.

The first question when looking at this ‘news’ item has to be: What’s the story? Is it news to report someone’s tweets with an intent to criticise? Wasn’t there enough news that day already? The funeral of a great actor, the continuing crisis in Syria, the violence in Egypt.

With everyone now having the tools to delivers ‘news’ and provide commentary, a lot of it doesn’t go through the standard filters of veracity, ethics, and media law that used to happen when newspapers and trained journalists did all the publishing. Even before the change in the broadcast landscape there was a thirst for celebrity news, which was gradually changing from admiration to criticism.

Is this a good use of our global brain? Chopra believes that we should form a community of humanity so that we can use social media as a tool to spread love, wisdom, and positive transformation rather than hatred and abuse. It is easy to criticise but hard to provide solutions.

We are all capable of wielding great power for good and for bad with the social media tools we have at hand. As Peter Parker‘s Uncle Ben said, mangling up a bit of Voltaire as Peter Parker got used to his spidey-powers:

With great power comes great responsibility.

We must teach ourselves to take responsibility for our actions and our words and think carefully about the effect they have on other people. If we created an environment where everyone felt valued and heard, perhaps the need to attack others online or in print would diminish. And in that space who knows what we could achieve?

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.

Emerging Technologies: OWN the technology

Oprah Winfrey Network Pic

Back in 2008, Oprah Winfrey hosted a series of webinars with Eckart Tolle to discuss his book A New Earth.

There were 10 online sessions. Each recording was streamed live on the Internet and viewers could skype in with their questions which were answered in real time or they could leave questions on the online forum on her website. The webinars were put up on oprah.com so that people coming late to class could catch up in various formats: video, audio, and transcript. Users can still access these various formats , along with a workbook, book club discussion, and other meditation recordings at oprah.com’s bookclub.

Oprah ended The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, and inspired by her New Earth webinars and using lessons, revelations and aha moments from the show’s history, began Lifeclass in the same year. Oprah had been inspiring viewers to be their best selves from her TV show, and technology had caught up with her.

Season One Lifeclass aired weekdays on her wonderfully named TV network: OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) with nightly webcasts on oprah.com to complement each on-air lesson. She was joined by spiritual teachers and self-help experts. Viewers would skype in. Previous guests of The Oprah Winfrey Show sometimes appeared to share their life learning. And Oprah would read comments and questions off her facebook wall or oprah.com online. It was a completely new way of broadcasting and interacting, especially since the emphasis was on the self-actualisation of viewers.

Lifeclass went on tour for Season Two so that most of the webinars were filmed in venues with enormous studio audiences. Season Three took place in Chicago and Texas. And Season Four Lifeclass debuted The Social Lab website online community. It is an example of directed learning with questions and journals for viewers who can then connect to the broadcast as usual live via skype, facebook, and twitter with the discoveries they have made about themselves already shaped ready for them to communicate. And if something they have written resonates with a topic on Lifeclass, then a producer may get in touch with them to be on a class, or to use the words they have written.

OWN’s other uplifting show, and the heart of OWN, is called Super Soul Sunday. Viewers can tweet Oprah when it airs and it is filmed for TV and is available on the Internet on-demand for a period of time. This is a direct TV extension of her radio talk show on Oprah & Friends, Radio Sirius XM called Soul Series, where she talks to spiritual writers and teachers to discuss the big questions in life: Why are we here? What is it all about? The archives are amazing and available to download to listen as a podcast.

Sometimes one of the teachers, as in the case of Dr Maya Angelou, is profiled at the same time in her O Magazine which you can read online, on your ipad subscription, or in print. And throughout the program whether on OWN TV, or on the Internet, or on-demand on the web, Oprah invites viewers to tweet or facebook her and to watch the movie shorts provided by Soul Pancake which started life as a website for users to create and think on life’s big questions.

If you follow Lifeclass, or belong to Oprah’s online community, OWN will send you email to invite you to the next class, or Meditation Challenge, or read a blog about what’s in it for you, or preview content which will be broadcast on OWN. Follow her on twitter, and you get lots of interesting links there. And best of all, when a program airs, Oprah will be tweeting along, giving her opinion, and responding to the opinions of others.

OWN is demonstrating how to collect and use the various strands social media at its best. It is a masterclass in participation, openness, conversation, community, and connectedness whilst giving people something good of which to be a part.

Online doesn’t get better than this.