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]

Storytelling: The power of fiction

Storytelling clipart

A book is one-to one experience. A secret you share. And when you close the book it leaves an opening in you – Jeanette Winterson

When I was a teenager in English Class at school, I remember hearing a short story about a family at night: The kids have gone to bed, the mum is tidying round, the dad is drying the dishes. Mum then goes to check on the children. When she comes back, she says:

‘Are you sure they don’t know anything?’

Dad hangs up his tea towel, puts his arms around her and says:

‘Yes. I am sure.’

They turn off the lights and go to bed, knowing that the world will end that night.

At the end of the reading, the teacher said, ‘Now, it’s your turn, what would you do if the world was going to end tonight?’

A classroom full of teenagers’ responses, strangely enough, I don’t remember, but the story I do. So much so that 20 or so years on, often when I am in kitchen loading the dishwasher or putting dishes away, I think about that story. And I also remember that era, when the threat of nuclear war and the end of the world seemed to be a real possibility.

Recently, in a review in the TLS, Martha Naussbaum says the English novel was a social protest movement from its inception, written specifically to creating feeling amongst the wealthier classes. She cites Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, and the empathy-altruism hypothesis – the work of social psychologist C. Daniel Batson – which demonstrates that specific ways of storytelling can motivate people to help those in need in a way that facts and figures cannot.

There are so many examples of powerful storytelling. Sitting here, I think of Toni Morrison’s description of the tree-shaped scars on the back of Sethe, the runaway slave who murders her children rather than have them be enslaved and whipped (Beloved). I think of concentration camp inmate Victor Frankl’s non-fiction account of how he was told to rub his cheeks each morning so that he would look healthy enough to work and avoid being sent to the gas chambers that day (Man’s Search for Meaning). I read both books just once, yet the stories they contain will remain with me forever. They changed my perception of the world and my historical understanding of the times and places in which these stories were set.

Fictional journalism or creative non-fiction, is a field of writing which has developed from factual reporting to a more subjective slant precisely because it recognises the power of storytelling and the power to influence readers’ opinion. So much so, that according to Wikipedia, Joan Didion, the famous new fiction writer believes, that the media tells us how to live and that journalists must be closely observed because of the power they wield. In the same way, storytelling is often used in advertising to create an emotional reaction in potential customers, and we believe these stories: We will be sexier, happier, healthier if we buy that new car, or that big chocolate ice-cream. Stories can be incredibly influential and not always in a good way.

Fictional fact-presentation such as case studies or descriptions of individuals in medical journals can be powerful in a good way. Ones I have read about chronic renal failure, were presented alongside facts and figures, and in a sidebar described how someone born without working kidneys could grow through dialysis onto transplant and into ‘normal’ life.

The same goes for the breast cancer literature I have read. Individual stories of women and men from diagnosis through treatment were highlighted throughout the pamphlets and presented a pattern of how to manage and what to expect. They were like signposts indicating the way through a journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell said in life, often we are not searching for the meaning of life necessarily, but for the experience of being alive and how to understand it. As in the medical literature, stories can be our guide. They can explain things to us, things that we might know subconsciously, but which we only really appreciate once we have read them in stories or myths. Stories highlight patterns which we can follow like landmarks on the horizon and enable us to make our way to a more satisfactory life.

Other times, stories can inspire us to be truly great. Campbell encapsulates this theory in his best known quotation Follow your bliss. He says that we are capable of knowing and experiencing rapture and bliss but sometimes we just don’t know how. Stories, again can be our guiding star and they enable us to realise our potential, gain wisdom, or live fuller and better lives.

Sometimes stories tap deep into our psyche and give us the answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking.

The key though, is to find the right story, the stories which resonate with us, the ones which change us, and the ones which make us want to change the world. Otherwise, as Campbell once joked, we might end up just following our blisters.

Visualisation: Information is power – just avoid drowning in data

 Map of Great Fire of London Copyright © The British Library Board.
(The Great Fire of London map at the British Library website)

In the 1530s when Henry VIII realised that dissolving the monastries would get him much needed assets, he commissioned a map of London, paying particular attention to ‘lawless’ Southwark. He wanted to see if the borough had any money he could take off them. Henry VIII was a smart man, he knew that the right sorts of information bring wealth and power.

I saw the resulting map last year at the British Library exhibition London: A Life in Maps along with many others – maps of wills and estates, Victorian cab fare maps, cycling maps and tourist maps. Each map was primarily motivated by the need to learn more about an area of London in order to make or save money, especially when making your way around the ever growing London.

In part, this was because travelling around London has always been a daunting thing to do and if you don’t know your way around, you can waste a lot of time and money on convoluted travel. Visualising how everything was connected was impossible to do until Phyllis Pearsall personally pounded the streets, all 3 000 miles of them and put together the world’s first A to Z. She realised that London had to be presented as a cohesive system of streets, buses, and tubes. Like all fantastic ideas, it is so obvious – but back then no one had ever thought of it.

This wasn’t the first time cross referencing different types of data could help people. In 1830’s Dr John Snow used a map of London on which to plot water pumps next to cases of cholera in order to identify how the disease was being spread. He concluded that it was an infected pump near where the outbreak had occurred, and not an airbourne miasma which was the hysterical masses feared. Once he had identified and closed the infected pump, it was easier for Joseph Bazalgette to get the support he needed to build sewage systems which are still used to this day.

Breaking news infographic style

Many online journalists have adopted the same visualisation techniques to present breaking news. They have maps which plot events and eye witness accounts either by video or audio. This information is put up online, as it happens. People get an immediate insight to events good and bad and can make informed make decisions that may save lives.

Techniques range from sophisticated virtual reality programs to simple line graphs. Sometimes this is done well as in the Dr Snow example, other times techniques can be badly employed. Edward Tufte has written extensively about the way to avoid chart junk so that more meaningful graphics can be produced either by hand or as in the case of scientific visualisation by harnessing the power of computers.

In meteorology, molecular modelling, and medicine, computers show us things we could never have seen otherwise: the inside of a bone, or a hairline fracture not detected on an x-ray but visual in a 3D rendered pelvis.

Even football is given a helping hand. Redbee’s Piero software uses live footage from football matches and ties it to a virtual stadium to calculate the exact coordinates of players and the ball during those crucial moments not seen by the referee or caught on camera. Piero creates new virtual camera angles (or viewpoints) and approximates what happened so that the right decisions can be made.

Recognising and reading the patterns

Previously we thought that the field of artificial intelligence would produce systems which could crunch through the numbers alone and present the solution to us. Now we know this is still for the future. We humans are adept at recognising patterns and making links in an almost intuitive manner which is impossible to replicate in a computer. Cognitive scientists try to crack the secrets of the brain and our minds to understand how we reason. Until the time when we can let our machines reason with us, we need to stick with and have control over what we want see.

Football technology is an ideal application for visualisation as there are a limited number of rules to represent and a field of play to be modelled which gives us all of our constraints and the context within which to search. Other applications such as monitoring bridges or the people/traffic flow through a town can be without boundaries so we are left just to literally stare at the waves of data as they happen.

To counter this feeling of being deluged, we need good systems which we as the viewers can interact with and which we, the users, can fix constraints and context. In this space we can then explore and search, using interactions which are translated into algorithms. We exploit and manipulate new viewpoints (like Piero does), we fixate on a viewpoint, we apply analogies and metaphors to find different ways of interpreting what we see and then we transform or combine our data, again to find different viewpoints. The problem is, we sophisticated humans can do this automatically, computers can’t yet, they can only flag up certain patterns that we have told them about.

Maps: Ideal information systems

Exploration is difficult to support, often because the visualisation aspects of software often dominates to such an extent that basic functionality is compromised. Information is presented to the user in a potentially misleading manner and the wrong conclusions are drawn. To counter this, there needs to be a direct correspondence between the human perception of the physical world and the abstract computer-internal representation. Maps are a perfect example of this correspondance and have worked well for centuries. Henry VIII obviously knew how to manage his data.

Google Maps allows you to look at the abstraction of the map and superimpose it on the photographic representation. You can zoom in and look at the trees and houses and still be aware of the street names. This is an accessible form of augmented reality which would have been difficult for the man in the street to imagine on such a widescale i.e., the whole world, even ten years ago. Imagine what Henry VIII would have done with such information at his fingertips, whilst sat in his palaces. He would have zoomed in on Southwark borough and had a magpie’s view of the rich pickings.

Using patterns to shape our world

Escher picture

In the 1990s, Erich Gamma changed the way I thought about software engineering forever! Gamma visited the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne where I was a PhD student, in order to give a seminar on design patterns.

The idea of extracting a solution template from a piece of software to turn it into a pattern which can be reused, was to me, an exciting step forward in software engineering. Instead of reusing software from a library that needs to be maintained and ported as necessary, abstracting the solution and creating a pattern repository gives software engineers a toolbox of meta-level solutions.

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