Neurobabble is the marketeers’ skewed misappropriation of cognitive science and a pain in my neck. Someday less busy I intend to give you my take on this pest in thorough detail. In the mean time I suggest you read the scienceblog article on how the brain does not work. It popped up in my twitter timeline and I felt I had to give it some more exposure.
The computer metaphor for the brain seems just too appealing for the Silicon Valley technovangelist to pass up, which is why you should be very, very sceptic about claims of artificial intelligence rooted in their culture. At least now you may know why.
Much more than just a rant against Google’s name policy, when Charlie counts the ways in which assumptions fail you can learn a lot about communication. Always question your ethnocentricity as you might not even be aware of your own biases. Try to find out how your audience perceives what you are showing them. Showing neglect to account for their needs and wants and for their history and culture will come back to bite you.
As an aside to the privacy debate regarding “real names”: what I don’t understand in all this Google hubbub is the amount of people who fear for their Gmail accounts. Who in their right mind would give away access to the most robust of all internet protocols (yes, when zombies eventually arrive the last Internet thingy that will probably still work is your mail) to a shady third party that is accountable for nothing while freely admitting to scouring mails for data? Don’t be evil my zombie outrunning glutes!
Oh, I’m on G+ alright, if only to see what it’s all about. They may take my online life, but they will never take my freedoooo… Well, not my mail at least.
I understand the sentiment of tech people who see old ideas revisited and touted as new - but there is one thing you should never forget: There is merit in revisiting old ideas from time to time.
The concept of the hyperlink for example is much older than the invention of the world wide web. Without adapting indexing techniques of millennia gone by to new environments and technologies however, there would not be a world wide web. And yet even today where we apply links to generate a ubiquitous infrastructure for accessing content on the internet we don’t utilize their full potential. Bidirectional links anyone?
So I suggest you approach these new takes on interactive movies and nonlinear storytelling with an open mind. After all, technology has changed and recent innovation might allow these old ideas to thrive where they failed before.
5 Things Binge Drinking With a One Legged Stripper Taught Me About Marketing
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
He was a great sport, though. He taught me lot about partying beyond the point of passing out. Perhaps I even learned something about not relying on first impressions. Alas, I remember nothing about that night. Binge drinking does that to you I hear. Not that I ever drink. Was there even a one legged stripper?
You could already have known that there was nothing to be learned from the experience just by reading the title. It is a variation of one of those self-help internet tropes that piss me off. Everyone is a marketer these days. People are “optimizing” their titles to entice readers to click on them. But blindly following advice that is littered across get-readers-fast-blogs is bound to hasten the rise of the army of mindless thought leaders.
Taking a page from the book of life and adding a human touch to your teachings is probably a good idea to connect to your audience. True epiphany is greater still, yet hard to come by. Reversing the process and putting a generic backstory to your preconceived ideas just to follow a common it-works-to-attract-readers marketing scheme will eventually turn life lessons into a meme that ridicules genuine revelation.
Seriously, stop it. Already I am starting to avoid titles like that. All too often they feel like a scam. I don’t know how many of my readers have been disappointed by similar unsubstantiated claims of what-life-taught-me-about-living to the point of shying away from them, but I do know enough about communication to tell you that feeding your readers generic material is not a sustainable strategy. While we’re at it, unless you want to become a final boss in the army of brain dead thought leaders don’t create lists just for the sake of it either. Once a scheme gets too common it no longer works. Even if I follow one of these “optimized” titular links, just to satisfy my curiosity, I am already eager to dismiss your ideas. Are these really the clicks you are looking for?
Who would have thought a one legged stripper would be a marketing sage. If only I could remember…
Porting Content Across Distribution Channels: Multiscreen Strategies
Here’s why transmedia design is one of my favorite challenges in communication: I like it because it makes the choices you face in communication tangible. Things you usually don’t waste a thought on when you compose your message all of a sudden start to matter if you create content that needs to work in various media. Not only is this a great exercise to learn from. Judging from the way media are evolving into an interconnected ubiquitous ecosystem this is going to be more than an exciting media experiment. It will be something we need to work out to cope with the new media reality.
So when I came across this gem of a slide show on multiscreen strategies that doubles as a poster child for great slide design on slideshare I just had to share it. (via lab - a blog resource for innovative broadcasting applications in German)
“Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains.”—Neuropsychologist Roger Sperry, 1964 – one of history’s many cases for networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity (via curiositycounts)
“You’re reaching through a window, then putting your hands into a box, to perform your task.”—Matt Gemmell describes cognitive load and the advantages and disadvantages of native applications in Apps vs the Web. (via 9-bits)
Andy Rutledge almost nailed it. When he posted his unsolicited redesign of the New York Times he introduced his idea with the preface
Digital News is broken.
Then he tried to repair it with some alternative web design practices. And although he scraped success a couple of times he failed. He was bound to. Digital News cannot be repaired by web design in its current state, because web design in a sense is part of the problem. Without saying as much, Khoi Vinh stated that
the argument that the redesign’s author makes is not quite so persuasive, mostly because it makes some rash assumptions, misses some critical realities and, perhaps worst of all, takes a somewhat inflammatory approach in criticizing the many people who work on the original site.
Actually the rash assumptions are where I feel Andy went closest to home. There is a deeper problem with the way information is relayed to customers. And there is a deeper problem with the role designers play to help organizations communicate. Hence Khoi is right that there are some realities a designer will have to face. With them she usually faces the need to see those realities as constraints bearing on the design process.1
Back to the specific problem of web design. What does a designer do? She manages design constraints. One of the more recent problems she has to deal with is serving the same content not just to various browsers, but devices with vastly different screen sizes. There are tablets now and smart phones and different resolutions and what have you.
All sorts of media queries and CSS wizardry can be used to create device-agnostic web design through content choreography. Trent Walton creates beautiful solutions when he orchestrates
the best experience possible at any screen size or resolution.
However, even these beautiful solutions don’t make up for yet another sad reality:
Content is a black box in web design.
More often than not, especially in Digital News, web designers literally create boxes into which content is poured. The content itself is almost completely opaque in the design process. Then they push those boxes around and perhaps add some embellishments to try and make the content more appealing, more easy to digest, more accessible. And yet they do all this without ever touching the information hierarchy and flow of the content they are supposed to serve. Thus there is a severe limit to the effectiveness of their designs that is beyond their reach. Relying on web design principles omits the larger scope of transmedia communication.
This is where my perspective differs from that of designers and I freely admit to rash assumptions and the appeal to a fairy tale land of customers willing to reshape their organizational structures. In my view the content should be part of the design process. I don’t mean that every news item should get its own bespoke design, there is a limit to my naïveté, you know. Instead I propose that Digital News can and should create hooks in the content.
Content must be systematically modularized respective to its meaning. Only then can it be ported across various media.
To a certain extent web designers understand this when they are asking for semantic code. Some hooks already exist to work with an information hierarchy in your design. A headline is marked differently than body text (or better be, lest you invoke the wrath of the hypertext markup demons). Accordingly, part of Andy’s proposal was to only serve headlines on mobile devices. But current html code cannot solve the problem. The content itself must be structured in such a way that it can be served respective to each set of specific constraints across different media.
Incidentally structuring their content semantically is something that news outlets have naturally evolved to do. There are established news design conventions: Apart from headlines journalists routinely craft the lede and the deck, and they use frameworks like the inverted pyramid among other things. Unfortunately these practices have never been systematically applied or augmented outside of the media they evolved in. This is part of the problem why traditional news reporting struggles in new media.
Here’s why web design is bound to fail: The web is only one such new medium, albeit a precarious one, because it provides an infrastructure for other media as well. None the less it is paramount to understand that better code is not the answer. HTML really does not help you structure your information flow in a video format, for example.
To illustrate how you need to structure your content semantically to prepare it for various media I’ll need to explain the two dimensions in which media operate. The thing about media is that they not only transport, but also shape your message. But at least there is a method to the way they do it, so we can use this to our advantage.
The first dimension is that of functional constraints. This seems quite obvious: Visual information is useless in a medium like radio. But it entails a great deal of subsequent decisions you will have to make about what kind of information you wish to convey, as much of that information you will have to encode separately. Take the tone of voice from which you may deduce if some one is being serious when he makes a dismissive comment. Unless you tell your readers about his facial expression and his markedly pitched voice, crucial information to correctly decode the meaning of what was being said is missing in writing.
The second dimension is that of social conventions and recipient expectations that frame content in a medium. You perceive the same information differently if it is presented to you by different sources. Picture Glen Beck on Fox News calling for the extermination of what he claims to be a cancer of society. Picture the millions of viewers believing his every word, buying into the hatred and fear. Now imagine that the very same words about a world wide conspiracy and sinister forces working to rob you of your livelihood were broadcasted on The Onion. Let’s face it, were it not for the framing property of their platform the message of many pundits had long crossed the border to being satire.
We will need to address both dimensions of media because they both shape the message we send through them. News organizations are but one example of where serving the same content across different media does not equal serving the same message. And yet they are in a position where an innovative content architecture would be the most visible and hence have the greatest impact on user experience.
We could, for example, repurpose distinct modules for various adaptations of the same story or news item through semantic structuring of content. The creation process for an item would then become a collaborative storyboarding process. This story board would be shared by different editors, videographers, designers and illustrators who could pick those elements they need for their own creations.
More importantly for our purposes of solving the black box problem: Out of the storyboard structure we could automatically serve our content to different distribution channels. The functional and social dimensions of each medium would dictate the way the modules are arranged across devices and platforms. Popularity for example, unlike Andy suggested, is actually a highly relevant element of a news item. All of a sudden we could have a semantic hook to the boxes.
Sure, a custom made content architecture is a big investment. Most likely it amounts to a proprietary solution that only works for the specific conditions within the content creation structure of one particular organization. But content architecture is only meant to address the specific constraints of content creation for that organization in the first place. For them it may solve several problems that go well beyond a nice looking page on every device. It could streamline internal information flow as well as the output of semantic information. No more stupid stock photo fails.
Outside of news organizations this is not utopia, mind you. Law enforcement has long been organizing heaps of information into meaningful structures for an ongoing case. The medical field has tools of its own to structure and manage information. Sometimes the professionals in the creative fields have yet to catch up in working out how to use new technologies to their advantage.
Why go through all the trouble of trying new applications? Because new media are still in the middle of a major change. Some of that change is due to new technologies augmenting and changing the functional dimensions of these new media. But the more substantial shift is that of public adoption of thusly augmented information channels.
The social conventions that evolve around media oftentimes are quite different from what early adopters or creators had in mind. Still, one change I feel comfortable predicting is that of the growing importance of transmedia communication. When communication technology comes in several forms and sizes, yet becomes more and more connected and ubiquitous, the content will have to follow suit.
There’s an interesting side story hidden in the depressing fact that as a designer you will have to adhere to constraints that are, in fact, political. Like you cannot remove links from the main page because some internal subgroup of the organization you are dealing with will raise hell for not getting the exposure of that link, however useless it is semantically. Internal power struggles trump user orientation. Now, just briefly imagine it were not a designer but rather a high profile consultancy doing the redesign. Stepping on people’s toes without consideration for operational constraints ironically is what business consultants are notorious for… ↩︎