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February 26 2014


January 14 2014


Editing Tips For Business Web Content


The Web is awash in content. A recent Moz article reports that 92,000 new articles are posted online every day. Companies are spending billions on content marketing to enhance credibility, build brand awareness and, especially of late, improve SEO.

Here is what Google has to say about content in its quality guidelines:

  • Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
  • Don’t deceive your users.
  • Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?
  • Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.

Google has always tried to reward great content with high rankings, but today, thanks to vast improvements in its algorithm, Google is better able to actually do it. Its content quality guidelines are perfectly aligned with what every writer and marketer should aspire to.

As A Designer, Why Should You Care About Content Quality?

  • Your brilliant designs will be wasted if they are filled with inferior content.
  • By developing the ability to evaluate content quality, you are able to provide constructive, difference-making input to other members of the creative team, increasing your value as a designer.
  • If you are in a project management role, you must know what needs to be fixed, improved and enhanced in the deliverable’s content.
  • Unless the content meets a high standard of quality, the finished product will undermine rather than enhance credibility, diminish rather than build brand awareness, and damage rather than improve search engine visibility.

Defining “quality content” is difficult. A useful approach is to look at the editing process, because editing is where content theory is translated into cold hard facts. You could argue forever with clients about what constitutes quality content on a theoretical level. But when you break down quality into its specific editorial components, theoretical arguments evaporate.

A sound editing process forces quality into content, no matter how ill-conceived or weakly written the content was in the beginning, assuming it was properly conceived and at least decently written to begin with.

The editing process is more important than most think. (Image credit: opensourceway)

This article examines several aspects of content editing. By reading it, you will learn:

  • how the editing process works for most forms of online business content, including website pages, infographics, landing pages, brochures, white papers and slide presentations;
  • what “big picture” issues and technical editing details to get right before publishing;
  • the different types of editing help you need, and where to find authoritative online resources for DIY editing.

Five Types Of Content Editing

There are various formulas for breaking down editing tasks. For business content, it helps to think about editing as having five specialties.

1. Substantive Editing

Substantive editors are mainly concerned with overall cohesion, clarity, accuracy and effectiveness. They look for incomplete or faulty arguments, unsupported assertions, inconsistencies or gaps in the logical flow of the content, and faithfulness to the assignment’s strategic goals.

2. Copyediting

Copyeditors are mainly concerned with style. Are sentences clear and concise? Is the tone consistent? Are the right words being used? Is the text free of jargon and obscure references? Does the copy adhere to rules of grammar, punctuation and style?

3. Fact-Checking

Fact-checkers are mainly concerned with informational accuracy. They make sure statistics and other quantitative information are stated fully and correctly. Fact-checking is often a research task, but in business writing, it also comes into play at the editing stage — with vitally important impact, as we will see in a moment.

4. SEO

SEO editing ensures that on-page content conforms to SEO best practices and follows the campaign’s on-page guidelines. SEO editing is typically done by a client’s internal or external SEO resource. The more the SEO resource is plugged into the creative process, the less artificial and stilted the optimized content will be.

5. Proofreading

Proofreaders are mainly concerned with technical precision. Different standards apply to different types of content; a list of authoritative editing resources appears at the end of this article.

Editing done here by Johanna Shapiro (View larger version)

If all of these editing tasks are done well, the final product will have the level of quality that readers and search engines desire. In terms of workflow, the editing process follows the order noted above, starting with substantive editing and ending with proofreading. However, as you might imagine, editing is not always linear; documents usually go back and forth between editors and writers as issues are fixed.

Editing Process FAQs

Effective editing is not only a matter of knowing what to do; it also requires an understanding of how to manage workflow and communication. Addressing these FAQs at the outset of your next project will help lay the groundwork for not only a better editing process, but a more enjoyable one.

Do I Need to Hire Five Editors?

No. A talented editor can cover a lot of the work at an acceptable level for most business content. That being said, the substantive editor must be familiar with the product, industry and audience in question, since the effectiveness of the content hinges on understanding the audience’s mindset and needs. The SEO editor must, of course, know SEO inside and out.

How Can I Get Copy Approved More Quickly?

Too much editing can be just as bad as not enough — some firms review and tweak for so long that the content is outdated by the time they approve it. The substantive editor or project manager is the best defence against perfectionism. They are best equipped to recognize when content should be deemed finished and to explain why to clients and team members.

How Much Editing Should the Writer Do?

I would love to hear from the Smashing Magazine community on this one, because it’s a thorny issue. Even writers with a firm grasp of grammar, style and technique submit substandard drafts due to time constraints or lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Competent writers learn as they go, reducing the editorial burden. For example, if a website project requires 60 pages of new content, have the writer start with 10 pages and then give them a careful copyedit and substantive edit. The edits may be numerous at this point, especially if the writer is new to the subject matter. If the next 10 pages come back vastly improved, then you’ll know the writer is catching on.

What If My Client Doesn’t Care About Editing?

Clients might not care about content editing as such, but they certainly care about public image, leads and orders. High-quality content impresses Google, which leads to more search engine visibility, which leads to more traffic and more business. High-quality content also reassures prospects, customers and stakeholders that the company is reliable and competent.

What’s the Best Way to Manage the Editing Process?

One person, generally the project manager or substantive editor, should coordinate all editorial functions and communication and make final decisions. Creative teams have many editing tools at their disposal, but using good old Track Changes and Comments in Word documents is perhaps the easiest way to start. A big challenge is preventing multiple versions of an in-process document from floating around; implement a clear procedure to avoid this. In my experience, the competence of the manager, rather than the tools, will determine the efficiency of the process.

Common Editing Issues

Let’s look at a few specific real-world issues that crop up in business Web copy for each type of editing. These particulars will give you an idea of what to look for if you are doing the editing or looking for an editor or managing the project.

Substantive Editing Issues

  • Here is an instructive, real-life example of how substantive editing produces clarity. In a recent article about writing for slide presentations, I wrote, “Slide presentations are great for a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative approach.” My editor commented, “What does that mean?” I pondered the issue and realized that I didn’t really know what I meant! After further reflection, I changed it to, “Slide presentations are ideal for storytelling.” Moral of the story: Substantive editors don’t always need to make sweeping changes. Often, just knowing what to look for helps to get it right.
  • Keeping content on point prevents content creep. Substantive editors remind clients that a landing page need not be a thousand words long to prompt a conversion, nor a website a thousand pages deep to convey the firm’s value proposition.
  • Substantive editors police all content to maintain consistency of brand messaging.
  • The company’s branding and positioning strategy, the value proposition of the product and service being marketed and the nature of the target audience will determine the content’s style and tone. The substantive editor must be crystal clear on all of them.
  • Building on the last point, a substantive editor — if time, budget and skill allow — injects personality into flat business content by adding storytelling narratives and stylistic flair that speak powerfully to the target audience.

When it comes to substantive editing, Duluth Trading Company’s website does this extraordinarily well.

Copyediting Issues

  • Headlines and headings should be descriptive and, in many cases, persuasive. Additionally, proper keyword placement in headlines and headings is important for SEO, so copyeditors and SEO editors must collaborate closely to balance these requirements.
  • Active voice usually beats passive voice: “John saved $100” has more impact than “$100 was saved by John.” There are cases where the passive voice is preferred; a competent copyeditor makes the proper adjustments.
  • Pronoun sensitivity leads writers to employ tortuous sentence construction to avoid “he” or “she” usage. Also, writers often shift from “it” to “they” when referring to a company. The copyeditor keeps pronoun use smooth and consistent.
  • The wrong word or phrase can do worse than make a company look stupid; it can convey a message contrary to the one intended. My list of commonly confused business words and phrases is a handy reference.
  • Overuse of exclamation points and all-caps conveys HYSTERIA!!!!
  • Copyeditors convert long unformatted paragraphs into Web-optimized formats that employ bullet points, three- to five-line paragraphs, judicious use of bold text, etc. This is an area where designers provide valuable input.

Fact-Checking Issues

  • Sadly, the Web is a stewpot of misinformation, cooked up by marketers who feel pressured to publish. For example, a reader might come across a flashy infographic stating, “70% of Executives Use Tablets!” but, after checking the source, discovers that this “fact” is based on a survey of 25 anonymous respondents conducted by an obscure agency. Fact-checkers protect you and your client from losing credibility as a result of shaky statistics.
  • Fact-checkers make sure that basic corporate information is correct. The company’s name, job titles and the spelling of employees’ names should always be accurate — yet often are not.
  • Fact-checkers review product specifications to make sure they are up to date. The value of this thankless task is appreciated only after, say, a customer orders a $1.5 million printing press that turns out to be 10 feet too long for its production line when it arrives at the plant.

SEO Issues

  • Overusing keyword phrases on a page of content is counterproductive.
  • Varying keyword phrases generally helps search engine visibility and makes content more readable and less “spammy” for humans.
  • An SEO editor might opt to add links to the client’s other relevant content on a given page of Web content or a blog post. If done correctly, these related links build the authority of the client’s website.

Proofreading Issues

  • One space after a period is standard.
  • Capitalization in headlines and headings should consistently follow a predetermined style.
  • Font size and style should be consistent for text and headers from page to page.

In Conclusion, How Much Editing Is Enough?

Practical considerations such as deadlines and bandwidth, along with a clear understanding of the audience, will influence how thoroughly a piece of online content should be edited.


Generally speaking, readers do not hold blog posts to the same stylistic standard as, say, white papers. However, a blog post directed at an audience of scholars, physicians or attorneys will be held to a higher standard.


Visual content such as infographics and slide presentations, perhaps because of their formality, seem to carry more weight with readers than blog posts and website pages. For this reason, producers of visual content have a greater obligation to be sure of their facts, all else being equal. Firms undermine their credibility when they publish graphical material loaded with unsupported or misleading facts, whether intentionally or not.


If a firm has an organized SEO marketing program, then on-page SEO is crucial. If not, on-page optimization alone would probably not be enough to have any substantive impact on search visibility.

Copyediting and Substantive Editing

As for these, there is never any advantage to publishing vague, incoherent and uninspiring material. Some level of review is really a must. If resources are limited, and often they are, use this editing tactic: When in doubt, leave it out.


  • AP Stylebook
    The AP (Associated Press) style is the standard for newspapers and journalists and is commonly used for marketing and PR content. An online subscription gives you instance access to authoritative information on editorial issues relating to general business content.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
    The CMS, published by The University of Chicago, is widely used in the humanities for formatting and citation, and it contains a wealth of information, analysis and insight on issues of grammar and usage. Whereas AP primarily tells you what to do, the CMS also explains why.
  • MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
    This style guide of the MLA (Modern Language Association) is widely used for academic writing.
  • Purdue OWL
    The Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) is a convenient online resource for grabbing up-to-date answers to CMS- and MLA-related questions.
  • New Oxford Style Manual
    This book contains detailed information on UK style. Oxford Dictionaries has helpful tables on British and American spelling and terms for online reference.
  • AMA Manual of Style
    The AMA (American Medical Association) guide is widely used for medical and scientific publishing.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
    This manual is widely used for academic and professional writing in the social and behavioral sciences.

(al, il, ea)

© Brad Shorr for Smashing Magazine, 2014.

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December 19 2013


How to Write a Book

Jonathan Snook knows that writing and publishing are different things, and relates his experience of creating an ebook, exploring the formats and the tools to set you on your merry way. Will 2014 be the year of your book?

December 15 2013


In Their Own Write: Web Books and their Authors

Owen Gregory winkles answers out of authors of web books, the whys and wherefores of writing and publishing them. Everyone loves a book for Christmas, so spare a thought for the misguided soulsbrave folk who write them.

Tags: Content craft

December 08 2013


Kill It With Fire! What To Do With Those Dreaded FAQs

Lisa Maria Martin decries the common reliance on FAQs to deliver important content to users, asking us to bring that content out of the cold and offer it some Glühwein to put some colour in its cheeks.

December 03 2013


What’s in a Story?

In 2006 and 2009, studies were published showing that fiction readers were more empathetic than their non-reading counterparts. In 2012, further studies showed that the areas in the brain that activate when a person tells a story are also activated in the listener. In other words, years of study led researchers to conclude something that most of us instinctively know: that the stories we (as individuals or as companies) tell our audience directly influence the thoughts and actions of those who listen.

Few people remember the year the Titanic sank, although most of us learned it in middle school history. Yet the movie Titanic immortalized every detail of the sinking ship in the minds of millions. Equally, content strategists and designers must constantly tell stories to inform the perspective of their prospective users.

Put simply: stories are more engaging than facts, and we all have the power to tell them. In this article we’ll review not only the importance of stories throughout the history of human beings, but also the ways that we, as content strategists and designers, can create stories that provide context for our target audience.

Why stories?

“People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live, and why.” – Arabian Nights

Storytelling is an invaluable means of communication, dating back thousands of years. Greek and Roman mythology, for example, explained everything from the changing seasons to life and death. One Greek myth is that of Pandora’s box:

Pandora was the first human woman on Earth. There were Gods and there were Titans, but no humans. So each God gave Pandora a gift: beauty, charm, music, curiosity, and persuasion among them. Zeus, ruler of the Gods, also gave Pandora a box (or a jar, in the original Greek), and told her not to open it. Curiosity being one of Pandora’s gifts, she eventually succumbed and opened the box. Out flew disease, hatred, war—all sorts of terrible things. She managed to close the box before hopelessness could fly out.

The Greeks used this tale to explain all of the world’s evils and how humanity could hold hope in spite of them. True, the Greeks could have merely passed along “facts” from one generation to the next. They could have told their children “there is evil in the world, and yet you must continue to have hope.” Instead they used the power of story and, in so doing, created something that’s been with us for over 3,000 years.

Today, well branded companies use a similar approach. Many of us forget that sneakers are not an exciting purchase, yet Nike tells the stories of professional athletes who started out “just like us.” We buy their story and, consequently, the shoes that come with them. State Farm insurance doesn’t focus on paperwork, either. They tell a story about enjoying family time and having friends to help out in times of trouble. We purchase their insurance in hopes of buying into the camaraderie they present.

Content creators are storytellers

But information doesn’t naturally come in story form. On the contrary, many companies begin with “facts” such as “our sneakers decrease knee injuries” or “our application saves users time when they look up recipes.” This non-narrative approach may be less compelling, but what it lacks in panache it makes up for in opportunity. By adding context to facts, content strategists can provide their audience with a story rather than a table of benefits and functionality.

As a content strategist myself, I recently helped a company craft a story to provide the necessary context for their new online community. After speaking with a few of their target users—those in the “nutrition web” space—we began to establish the company’s story. We asked a second group of target users if they would like help finding healthy recipes for evenings when guests joined their family for dinner. We looked for chances to weave story into every aspect of the website: stories about family dinners, stories about children growing up, stories about busy days with only a few minutes to relax. Our target audience responded incredibly and traffic increased!

So how did we do it? In order to develop the best stories, we followed a four-step plan: We Researched our audience, Established our story, Added in details, and Distributed copies.


The first step to communication is learning about our potential audience: where they spend their time, what information they need, what vocabulary they use. We do this through listening.

Ideally our companies have a sense of who their prospective users might be. By interviewing five people (be that as vague as “iphone users” or as specific as “moms in their 40s with teenage kids, full time jobs, working in the tech industry”), we obtain a gestalt of the vocabulary our users are comfortable with (also known as a vernacular or a lexicon) and some of the stories with which they might empathize.

There is no shortcut to this part, unfortunately. Just as there’s no shortcut to learning about a blind date—all the Google searches in the world won’t tell you what you’ll learn during an actual conversation—there is no better way to learn about users than to just sit with them and listen. We do that best by way of ethnographic interviews, interviews or conversations designed to do nothing more than understand who our target audience is and how they spend their time.

The questions to ask are simple: ask users to explain what they do at work all day; ask them to describe the details; learn what acronyms they use and how much work impacts their daily life; ask them about their families; ask them how they spend their free time. Most of all, ask them what frustrates them, at work or at home. Everyone seems to warm up when they’ve been invited to complain a bit!

Establish the story

Once we understand our user’s stories, it’s time to tell our own. For many people, this is the hardest part of the job: crafting a story our company wants to tell.

Nike’s content strategy team clearly follows a trope in which a beginner athlete moves to the pros. Perhaps this is based off research in which many members of their target audience said “if I had better sneakers, I would run more. I always wanted to run a 10 mile race.” Someone who responded this way would obviously feel a connection to a commercial in which an athlete transitions from beginner to winner.

The best product stories are aspirational, providing a gateway into a world created by using the product or service. In service of that story’s creation, content strategists need to frame things with a clear beginning, a middle, and end. Consider the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood:

  • Little Red Riding Hood wants to visit her grandmother. (Beginning)
  • She meets the wolf, who eats her and her grandmother. (Middle)
  • The huntsman kills the wolf, and Red Riding Hood lives happily ever after with her grandmother. (End)

Companies can employ a similar structure. If Motorola’s target audience includes “parents with full time jobs,” and Motorola knows those parents have a common thread of guilt—insofar as they wish they could be in two places, the office and home, at once—the company might craft a story like:

  • Joe wants to spend more time with his family. (Beginning)
  • Joe buys the new Moto X phone, which allows him to work from anywhere. (Middle)
  • Joe leaves the office early, to take his family on a picnic. (End)

Add details

Remember, stories give us context. A story that’s devoid of personalized details fails to create context and, therefore, fails to make a connection. This is why, according to Aberdeen Group, personalized emails improve click-through rates by 14%, and conversion rates by 10%.

Many content strategists miss the mark here. We create an outline (the beginning, middle and end) based upon our understanding of our audience, but we neglect to add personalized details. No one cares about a story of a person who goes for a walk, walks into a house, and then gets kicked out when the owners return. What makes the story interesting is what it expands into. The person changes to a little girl. The strangers become bears! The bears become a family. The family enjoys a morning walk. This explains why they were out of the house. The little girl becomes Goldilocks, a very curious girl, who is always poking into other peoples’ business. And on and on and on.

If Goldilocks had a Twitter account, it would likely be filled with reports on bears, recipes to make oatmeal, and pathways through the woods. These are the personalizations that make a story compelling. Over time, the number of details woven into a social media strategy might expand as the character of Goldilocks (or the brand personality) expanded. The Twitter feed might include information on her favorite types of breakfast, or personalized emails might mention even less-obviously-related items, like a book she happened to be reading.

The story behind our companies must expand in a similar way. What makes Home Depot’s Twitter feed so interesting is not just the deals it offers; it’s the non-hardware-related articles the feed promotes that still appeal to its customers. Customers who align with the Home Depot brand enjoy DIY projects, humorous contests, and family-centric holidays.


Finally we have to distribute the story itself.

In theater, it’s commonly said that the show is not complete unless it has an audience. The same is true of a story. A story is nothing without its audience. The best part is that the same story may have multiple parts—and therefore multiple audiences—across multiple mediums.

Nike’s brand story, for example, is told through their commercials, their website, on their Facebook page, and on their Twitter feed. Nike tells different parts of that story in every communication with every user. They’re not trying to sell; that’s just a byproduct. They’re engaging their audience by offering articles, videos, cartoons, and other news that’s custom-tailored to a given interaction.

But that’s Nike. Not every audience can be found on TV, Facebook or Twitter. Some companies find their users on LinkedIn, or Quora, or Instagram. The key isn’t to go to a specific place. The key is that, through user research (remember step one?), we can learn where any audience member spends their time, online and off. Then we work to join the conversations whenever and wherever they take place.

Tell your story

For each individual brand, we can follow these steps to improve the overall user experience and better engage the user. Every story embodies a personality, which we can personalize for the target audience to make our product or company friendly and focused. Storytelling is in our genes, and it’s a tool everyone on the UX team can—and should—use!

This article’s lead image is copyright Mike Shaheen.

The post What’s in a Story? appeared first on UX Booth.

October 15 2013


Everything in Its Right Place: An Interview with Ahava Leibtag

These days, it seems that nothing’s more hotly contested than the role of content within our organizations: content is the brand, content is conversation, content is king. It’s a confusing landscape even for content strategists, those of us who specialize in the stuff! And that’s what makes Ahava Leibtag’s last book so special: Ahava takes the problem of “crafting good content” head on.

In addition to being President and owner of Aha Media Group, Ahava Leibtag is a content expert, focusing on content marketing and strategy. In her recent book, The Digital Crown, Ahava provides a whirlwind of brand and messaging best practices, examples of successful persona creation and messaging architecture, and even shares advice on how to present content strategy to C-level execs.

After reading the first chapter (free!) of The Digital Crown, we were keen to interview Ahava and get a deeper understanding of her motivations and influences in bringing this book to content marketers and content strategists. Join us as we learn from Ahava’s experience—and then find out how you can get a free copy of The Digital Crown!

You begin your book by comparing a website to a conversation, a comparison that author Ginny Reddish also made in her classic, “Letting Go of the Words.” —
The idea of content as a conversation definitely came from Ginny, although it was also shaped by The Cluetrain Manifesto’s conception of the Web as vast marketplace.

Another one of the guiding principles I advocate in the book is aligning your content with your business objectives. I know that seems obvious and most organizations think they are doing it, but oftentimes they aren’t. Instead, they’re creating content to satisfy stakeholders (rather than customers).

Thinking about content as a conversation between the brand and an audience gives businesses a pragmatic framework.

What other books and ideas inspired you as you wrote The Digital Crown?
Other books that were very inspirational to me were Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson, many of Gerry McGovern’s ideas, and Switch by Dan and Chip Heath. Kristina’s book is foundational; it covers a lot of the details of how to do content strategy; Gerry really wants us to focus on our customers (something I also stress in the book); and Switch spoke to me because, so often, content professionals are tasked with shaping organizational change.

One of the things I write in the book is, “In essence, a company has to experience a cultural shift in order to create outstanding, winning content. Shifts only happen with guiding principles and support.” I learned more about how to do that from reading Switch and I think it’s critical for any content professional—whether in-house or at an agency—to understand how to suggest those changes for organizations.

n one of your examples you discuss the infamous “United Breaks Guitars” video, a shining example of a conversation in which a company lost control. Many companies are criticized for being too controlling of the brand (and losing valuable free advertising), however, such as when Microsoft sued a fan for getting a tattoo of a Halo character. How do companies find the right balance?
Businesses need to decide when to get involved based on risk assessment. We can measure damage in the past, but it’s a lot harder to measure the positives that might have been. (That’s why it’s a good idea to have post-mortems after things like this!)

Strong businesses develop a matrix—something unique to their company—for when and how to should get involved. I also think companies think “control” means directing the conversation, but control can also mean just letting fans know that you are watching, letting people know that you care.

Brand consistency is a very hot topic addressed in your book. What recommendations do you have for companies whose brand is shifting, if the current employees don’t exemplify the new brand?
Brand training. Training is critically important. It’s also important to have employees on the front lines—what about making them do a shift in the call center or going out to the retail stores to learn what is going on?

Being in touch with the customer is vital. In chapter one I tell the story of Brian, a salesperson who initially sells products really well because he focuses on customers. When he goes to product training, though, he starts focusing on products and soon learns he can’t sell a thing because he’s shifted his focus from what the customer needs to what he’s trying to sell.

If all else fails, I think companies are right to change employees, especially when those employees don’t get the brand personality. Let the employee find a job better for them and let the company fulfill its goals. J.C. Penney is the perfect example of this: they hired the wrong CEO, their profits dropped precipitously, and they got rid of him. Right decision. I hope it doesn’t sound ruthless. At the end of the day, employees are paid to do what the company needs them to do.

I love that you compare a brand to a promise. What should a company take into consideration when choosing the right “promise” to make?
Three things:
  • Can employees actually deliver it?
  • Do they truly believe in it?
  • And can they easily communicate what it is to everyone in the organization?
Marshall McLuhan famously suggested that the “medium is the message.” How do you think that relates to the work that we do? Does crafting a unique brand—or a unique message—require crafting our own medium?
I actually cover this exact phrase later in the book, but think it’s the other way around—every unique medium means we need to tweak the messaging. For example, visual content does really well on Facebook because it shows up in the news feed. On Twitter, providing a link to a picture may or may not do well considering how well the link is teased and if people feel like clicking on the link.

Our job is to make sure that content is fueling the sales process (or the achievement threshold: increasing donors, patients, students, public health downloads etc.) I’m not sure how we would craft our own medium, but I do think we need to choose content formats wisely so they appeal to the right audiences in the right place at the right time when they are primed to buy or listen.

Last question! Many companies struggle with the gap between “how they’re perceived” and “how they want to be perceived.” How do you recommend companies deal with this gap?
I have an entire exercise called identity pillars and articulation statements that comprises the bulk of Chapter 7, called Framing your Content. I talk about how to create identity pillars (a tool I created for just this type of brand management), messaging architecture and voice & tone. When you have those three tools, as well as your customer personas fleshed out, you’re ready to start creating some killer content that will convert your web traffic into customers.

Many thanks, again, to Ahava for sharing her insights with us! If you have a question that wasn’t answered above, feel free to ask it in the comments below.

Want to win a copy?

Interested readers can pre-order a copy of Ahava’s book, The Digital Crown: Winning at Content on the Web, on If you’d rather just win a copy, though (and who wouldn’t?), simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment with your twitter handle below, answering the question: what is your greatest challenge with content? How do you hope The Digital Crown will help you address that challenge? Ahava will review the responses within a week of this post, and we’ll contact one lucky winner over Twitter. See you in the comments below!

The post Everything in Its Right Place: An Interview with Ahava Leibtag appeared first on UX Booth.

September 12 2013


Designing The Words: Why Copy Is A Design Issue


The relationship between copy and design has been covered many times on Smashing Magazine. Working in a content-focused industry, we need to keep this issue pretty close to heart; creating great copy is pointless if it is visually uninspiring or unreadable. Likewise, if the content doesn’t deliver, then even the most attractive page won’t hold the reader’s attention.

Yet much of the discussion so far has concentrated on issues such as microcopy — the small bits of text that instruct the reader on how to interact with the website — and the minutiae of user experience. This stuff is essential, of course, but in this article we’d like to broaden our focus to look at some of the fundamental mistakes behind bad copy.

We’ve chosen to do this for two reasons. First, we hope it will help budding writers out there avoid the most common pitfalls of the job. Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — we want to stress the importance of content as part of the user experience mix.

A while back, Elliot Nash discussed the responsibility of the designer. Designers “want control of the entire user experience,” he said. “We want to ensure repeat use, and high engagement — and to do so, we want to design every little piece of whatever it is we’re working on. After all, we are largely responsible for the performance of the result.” However, he argued, “most of us don’t want to own the work it takes to execute this full scale implementation.” For us, leaving the copy out of the equation is a fundamental error.

In practice, design is a process that should happen with content, not just for it, and the practice of creating a page full of lorem ipsum and getting the copywriter to fill in the blanks just doesn’t cut it anymore. The cross-discipline approach of using design as a way to clearly communicate information, known as communication design, is growing. However, no matter how clearly laid out a design is or how elegant the infographics are, our number one visual tool for relaying information to the audience is well-written text.

The Importance Of Editing

Bill Beard has written about the importance of using techniques such as multivariant testing to optimize microcopy. With large bodies of text, this becomes more of a challenge. Fortunately, authors, journalists and copywriters have been wrestling with this challenge for years, which is how we came up with the concept of editing. The main difference between editing and testing is that, rather than observing an average member of the public navigate your copy, you enlist someone who has a wealth of experience in working with the written word.

A lot of editing is nuts and bolts stuff: fixing the grammar and punctuation, removing repetition, and making text easier to scan. However, like many user-centered design practices, it also means delving into the fundamental assumptions behind your writing, addressing how you think about the words, your audience and yourself. It is this process that will turn a precocious but essentially terrible teenage poet into a good writer. Yet, looking at so much of the copy online, in magazines and on billboards, we can see that plenty of professionals out there haven’t yet mastered it.

Below are the three things that every writer and copywriter must learn to avoid:

1. Self-Importance

Of all the mistakes new writers make, this is probably the most understandable. When you begin writing, you want, first and foremost, to make your mark. Your writing isn’t just another entry in the world’s growing collection of largely unread manuscripts; it’s a definitive text that future scholars will paw over for hidden meaning for years to come. You’re the voice of a generation, damn it!

Copywriters face the same problem. By now, probably about half the words ever written were penned for marketing purposes, and you don’t want your work to be another drop in that increasingly deep ocean of marketing blah. You want to stand out, to be something special. That’s why you end up writing copy like this:

“It’s not a journey. Every journey ends, but we go on. The world turns and we turn with it. Plans disappear. Dreams take over. But wherever I go, there you are. My luck, my fate, my fortune.”

Believe it or not, this wasn’t written in the Moleskin of a sensitive teenager. It was written by professionals, advertising a globally recognized brand with a budget big enough to hire Brad Pitt to read it like so:

Both the poor souls behind this crime of an advert and the 15-year-old who writes poetry about how everyone is superficial except himself have the same problem. They both want to stand out, to draw prestige, to be memorable; however, whether due to youth or the fact that they sell scented liquid, they don’t actually have much to say.

So, how do you avoid doing this yourself?

One of the most common pieces of writing advice in the world is “Write what you know.” Conversely, it’s a good idea to know what you’re writing about. You will often save yourself a lot of trouble simply by asking, “Why would anyone want to read this?” The answer could be “because it’s useful” or “because it’s funny” or any number of other reasons, but you should be able to answer that question before putting words to paper. I’m sure no one asked why anyone would want to hear “The world turns and we turn with it.”

It’s a line that doesn’t actually tell the audience anything. It’s the sort of vacuous line that sounds meaningful but contains no information. You can argue that it’s making the case for Chanel No. 5 as a constant in an ever-changing world, but the portentous tone and the layering on of hilarious faux-meaningful truisms, such as “Every journey ends, but we go on,” drown out any point the text could have conceivably made.

The teenaged poet is likely to get better as they get older because they will learn more and will have more to write about. By the same token, if your copy is to carry weight, whether for an advert, marketing copy or a company website, then you’ll need to know what you’re trying to communicate and why anybody would want to hear it.

2. The Wrong Tone

Young writers are a lot like magpies, happy to steal anything that looks shiny and put it to use in their own creation. Studying Shakespeare in school? In it goes. Read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and thought it sounded cool? You’re having that. Enjoy the teenaged banter in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? That goes in, too.

The result is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a writing style. And you know what? That’s fine. As with most things, imitation is a great way to learn how to write, and, with time, copying the good bits of others will mutate into something that conceivably sounds like your own voice.

The same is true of professionally written copy. When Barclay’s heard of cash machines being described as “holes in the wall,” it liked it and took it. World of Warcraft liked the Chuck Norris jokes (or facts) that were getting passed around a few years ago and so got Chuck Norris to appear in an advert based on them.

But if you don’t take tone into account when writing copy professionally, the results can come out a little on the weird side.

For example, check out Kingpin Social. This company offers courses in social interaction. Fair enough — plenty of people out there find it difficult to talk to others, and a company that offers techniques and training to help you overcome that difficulty would be welcome. The problem is that the website uses phrases like, “We will teach you to utilize proven social methodologies that will provide you with success in your personal, career or corporate relationships,” and “Every person deserves the confidence to achieve the optimal result in every social situation.” Imagine somebody using phrases like these in conversation; what opinion would you form of them?

A course like this needs to appear inviting to people who are worried about coming out of their shell, while also demonstrating that this company is made up of people who are good at speaking with others. Using words like “utilize” and “optimal” achieves the exact opposite effect.

The only reason anyone uses those words in marketing copy is to appear clever, and using words to appear clever is what bad teenage poets do. Never say “utilize” or “optimal” when you can say “use” and “best” instead.

Sometimes you end up with a patchwork effect — for example, using a simple, effective phrase like “What We Do,” and then following it up by telling readers that you are “a performance-based retail marketing technology and analytics company focused on helping retailers deliver relevant advertising that converts.”

In user-centered design, one often speaks of “personas.” A persona is a fictional character who represents the typical person you are designing for. You would think about their needs, their wants, the knowledge they will bring to your design, all of which will help you to construct a design around them.

A good way to avoid this pitfall in your own copy is to try the reverse. Think of your client’s business as a character you’re writing dialogue for. What sort of person is this business? What are their likes and dislikes? What sorts of things are they likely to say? Read the copy out loud. Does it sound like the sort of thing your imaginary person would say? If not, why not?

A particularly good example of this is the Scottish craft brewery Brewdog. Everything, from its website to its packaging, is written to sound like somebody you wouldn’t mind going for a beer with — passionate, funny and just a little surreal.

brew dog_2_mini
Brewdog — passionate, funny and just a little surreal…

The Dead Pony Club drink is introduced thus: “Being shot from a Hoppy Howitzer beats the hell out of trotting round a submissive paddock. That’s why the internal combustion engine got mounted onto two wheels.” But it avoids the territory of “The world turns” by adding, “This pale ale is chopped, tuned and ready to roll. Fuel up and hold tight, this little thoroughbred kicks like a mule.” However unpoetic the language, there’s never any doubt that the copy is talking about beer.

3. Self-Awareness

This is perhaps the hardest and most important thing for any writer to learn. It’s why many of us just don’t bother. We all dive in at the start without hesitation, enjoying the sheer joy of creation for its own sake and assuming that we’re producing pure written gold merely because we’re the ones doing it — until one day, it suddenly occurs to us, “What if I’m not any good?” Yes, I know, it was a surprise to me, too.

Some writers simply shake this thought loose and carry on as before. Many others stop right then and there, too paralyzed to ever dare setting down another word. However, every writer has to go through this step before they actually start being good. It’s when they start asking the question mentioned at the beginning, “Why would anyone want to read this?” and they start working to come up with a good answer. It’s when they start trying to read their work with eyes other than their own; and if you can’t do that, then copywriting really isn’t where you want to be.

Writers who struggle to overcome this obstacle are often so focused on selling their product that they forget the advert will appear in a wider context — with disastrous results. This is probably why Sony produced a series of incredibly racist billboard ads for its Playstation Portable. It’s also likely why American Apparel thought Hurricane Sandy was in any way an opportunity for social media marketing. At the time of writing, the Royal Bank of Scotland has just hit a marketing disaster because its campaign, which tells people to “Search RBYes,” doesn’t take into account that Google autocorrects “RBYes” to “Rabies.”

Sadly, teaching someone to “be more self-aware” is not really possible. Most of us learn to do it by making a lot of mistakes. But, more than anything, it takes a bit of imagination, the stuff that both copywriters and designers are supposed to have in droves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that designers now have to be fully proficient copywriters who can proofread and redraft words while setting layouts. Nor does it mean that copywriters need to be wizards with design software (although a little knowledge of the basic tools and concepts wouldn’t hurt). However, it certainly means that copywriters and designers need to work more closely together than ever before.


If you would like to learn more, we strongly recommend reading The Craft of Words, Part One: Macrocopy by the Standardistas, a great exploration of how design and copywriting intersect. All too often, design and copywriting take place in their own little bubbles, with each practitioner unaware of what the other is doing. But for the copy to be of any use, the writer needs to be aware of the context in which it will appear.

Front page image credits: Sean MacEntee.

(al, ea, il)

© Sam Wright for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

September 03 2013


Flat And Thin Are In


In the last several years, we’ve seen a rapid shift in software and app interface design, from 3-D and skeuomorphic to flat and minimal. Although this trend has become nearly ubiquitous, let’s take a moment to consider how we got here and what influence it’s having on interface design as a whole. Additionally, I’ll share some tips and considerations on designing flat interfaces.

Interfaces on a Windows Phone 8 and Apple’s iOS 7.

What Happened?

So, how did the collective consciousness swing from a love of all things textured, beveled and drop-shadowed to a desire for flat colors and simple typography? Many factors have fuelled this transition, but here are a few that stand out.

Information Overload

As a constantly connected culture, we deal with a nonstop flow of information, some of it important and relevant, most of it not. We are constantly evaluating, filtering and, of course, creating content, and it all gets pretty exhausting. In addition, much of our content consumption has moved to devices with small screens, thus exacerbating that feeling of overload. Becoming overwhelmed is all too easy, and a reduction of clutter in a user interface (UI) can create a little visual zen.

Free of clutter: Geckoboard‘s visualisations are designed to make key data easy to interpret at a glance.

Simplicity Is Golden

In a similar trend, a lot of disruptive Web apps and services are offering highly focused tools with extremely limited feature sets. Whereas traditional software developers tend to load their products with a glut of features to justify the high price tags, this shift towards focused micro-apps favors simplicity over feature set. Simpler apps mean simpler interfaces.

Beautiful and minimal: The Blue weather app by Oak.

Content Is King, Again

As so often happens when new devices and technologies enter the market, we become fascinated by what they can do and how we can advance interactivity. This interface frenzy is usually followed by a return to a focus on content. Media consumption, whether of text, audio or video, is probably the activity we engage in most on our devices, and for that use case, we just want the interface to get out of the way.

Technological Literacy

As smartphone and tablet adoption has rapidly penetrated all user demographics, concern about the obviousness of controls has reduced. Whereas we once feared that users might miss a button if it didn’t pop off the screen, we are now willing to explore subtler interactions. Windows 8 and Chrome for Android even support touch commands that start off screen, without any visual indicator.

Fitbit’s dashboard is a bright, bold, and easy approachable visual identity.

Technology’s Influence

Most software will be limited by the platform on which it runs. Screen dimensions and pixel density are the confining factors of hardware. A minimal interface demands a very limited design palette, which means that every element needs to sing. Typographic scale and font weight will largely determine both the aesthetics and usability of a flat design.

If your target devices can’t handle that level of nuance, you’re out of luck. As screen size and pixel density continue to increase on mobile devices, thinner and smaller type can be presented with better clarity. Of course, support for @font-face has also boosted the appeal of minimal typographic-focused designs.

Live sales monitoring with Wallmob: keeping track of the figures from any device that has a browser.

Responsive Design

With the proliferation of connected devices of various dimensions, UIs have had to become more fluid, and the responsive design movement has responded. While responsive design does not call for a particular aesthetic, one could certainly argue that flat UIs lend themselves to it more easily than many other styles. The other advantage of minimal design is the reduction in page weight and loading time.

To the point and weightless: OnSite. (Larger view)

Best Practices

OK, enough with the theory. Let’s get down to some practical considerations. Creating an effective minimal design is surprisingly challenging. As you strip away common UI tricks (drop shadows, bevels, textures and the like), you quickly realize how important the few remaining elements become. While the following tips are mostly universally applicable, they are especially relevant to flat UIs.

Before You Begin

As with any project, the first step is to ensure that your chosen style makes sense. Before diving into a flat design, make sure it aligns with your target users’ sensibilities and your target platform, devices and application type. Following a trend is pointless if it’s the wrong solution for your project.


The process you follow is pretty important, no matter what style you are adopting. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when aiming for simplicity.

  • When designing a minimal interface, I often seek inspiration from the pre-PC era, when designers and artists did more with less. This is a perfect opportunity to revisit some of the design greats, such as Josef Müller-Brockmann and Wim Crouwel. I also look to minimal painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, architects such as Mies van der Rohe and industrial designers such as Dieter Rams.
  • Walking away from the work is also helpful. Flat and minimal design is all about nuance. So, taking a break and coming back later with fresh eyes is often more effective than hammering away.
  • Comparing versions side by side is also helpful. After moving a line of type up and down by 5 pixels for 20 minutes, I’ll save two versions and compare them; the better option is quickly revealed.
  • Because the relative scale of objects plays such a critical role, check your design concepts on a variety of target devices early on to confirm that they work.
  • As you work, keep asking yourself, “Do I really need that?” Getting attached to an item that you find clever is so easy, but we must always look for elements to cut or simplify. Ditching something that you’ve put so much work into is always hard, but editing is critical.

Global Closet: an interactive game designed for National Geographic Education by The Workshop.


The grid plays a crucial role in so much of interface design, and no exception here. As you attempt to establish order and make usability intuitive across a project with a restricted set of visual elements, the grid is there to help.

  • The grid establishes more than visual order. Use it to define content and functional groups. You don’t always need a line or box to group a set of objects. Simple alignment and spacing can help the user understand an interface’s structure.
  • Try breaking the grid with elements of particular importance to really draw the user’s attention. Without fake 3-D trickery, basic layout principles such as scale and placement become the best elements by which to establish visual hierarchy.
  • Experiment with a denser grid than you are accustomed to working with. When you dramatically reduce the visual palette, you may find that the design supports a more complex structure without feeling messy. See what additional information you can convey through placement alone.

Live School iPad app by Rossul Design.


Obviously, color is always a key component of visual design. With minimal interfaces, it is even more critical.

  • Consider a broader palette. If you’re like me, then you feel that a narrower palette usually leads to a more functional interface. Ending up with an overwhelming rainbow is all too easy. Here’s your chance to really stretch; and with so few elements to work with, you can feel good about expanding the palette.
  • When setting the palette, test your selected hues across a wide value spectrum to make sure they behave in lighter and darker versions.
  • You’ll probably want to experiment with tone on tone and stark type. Experiment with your palette early on to ensure that you have enough range for both subtle and high-contrast elements.

TriplAgent‘s visual design makes use of a stunning color palette.


When it comes to flat content-driven websites, typography is the hero.

  • While serifs are certainly an option, san serifs almost always feel cleaner.
  • Look for a font family with a wide variety of weights and styles. You certainly don’t need to use them all, but a broad selection will help you define the hierarchy more sharply, and you might also find that certain weights render better in certain environments.
  • Don’t be afraid to pair fonts with extreme differences in size and weight to create visual order. Try pairing an oversized ultra-thin font for headlines with a small medium-weight font for the body.
  • Watch out for legibility in fonts. It sounds silly, I know, but you will be asking a lot from your chosen fonts, so make sure they have great legibility at any scale.

Clean and legible typography on Siteleaf.


In a flat UI, indicating that an element is interactive can be tricky. Here are a few methods I rely on.

  • Contrast is key. If the majority of the layout is white, then you could give interactive elements some color. If the design is primarily text-driven, then you could use simple iconography. If the headlines are large and all lowercase, you could make links small and all uppercase. You get the idea.
  • Conventional placement helps as well. If you use a slim chevron for a back arrow, place it in the upper-left corner, where users would expect to find the back button.
  • As you layer more features on the page, making every interactive element look like a button wouldn’t make sense. The interface should be as intuitive as possible. But in cases where interaction is particularly complex or unexpected, make it easy to recover from mistakes.
  • Drop-downs, modal windows, fly-outs and other layered elements can be troublesome to implement in a flat design. Leverage sharp contrast, borders or tinting to visually separate the levels of interaction.

Design elements presented in a simple layout and with optimal contrasts: Taasky.

Wrapping Up

I don’t believe in hard and fast rules in design. Seeing designers so heavily invested in creating extremely clean and simple user interfaces is pretty awesome. Does exploring flat design mean using absolutely no gradients or shadows? Of course not. In fact, some of the most intriguing work I’ve seen recently balances flatness and dimension by presenting content intelligently while keeping the interaction intuitive.

In this highly connected, information-rich and feature-packed digital world we live in, minimal design’s widespread resurgence is refreshing to witness. It is by no means the right solution for everything (no style is), but when applied thoughtfully and appropriately, it makes for a highly usable and enjoyable digital experience.

(al) (ea)

© Adrian Taylor for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

August 13 2013


Designing with Code

To code or not to code? For designers, that’s a very contentious question. Clients like designers who code because (among other reasons) that’s one less body on payroll. Design advocates, on the other hand, often see code as a technical limitation that stifles creativity. To make matters worse, the information ecologies we all work in refuse to stand still. By looking carefully at some of our favorite arguments, however –and by taking them within the context of our ever-evolving digital landscape –we can begin to make a case for when working in code makes sense.

Several years ago, Andrew Maier penned an article on the use of prototypes in website design and development. In light of my own recent work in prototyping, one of the comments to that article stood out:

Any kind of prototype that involves programming or markup sounds scary to me –that’s the fastest route to a “developer-y” looking site rather than a truly designed –graphically as well as functionally designed –site.

This comment caught my eye because it is the same concern I often hear today, a full three years later. And here’s why this is a big deal: given the content and information architecture challenges that the responsive, multi-context web presents there are now better reasons than ever before to integrate coded prototypes into the design process. By paying close attention early on to the integrity of the narratives we create at the most basic level of communication, we can build the foundation necessary to effectively articulate those narratives far and wide.

Why we’re afraid to commit

If pressed to describe their relationship with code, many designers would hunt around for the “it’s complicated” checkbox. We may have already been sold on prototyping (see Todd Zaki Warfel, Jeff Gothelf, and Stephen Hay if you’re not yet convinced), but we’re still afraid of our beautiful UX getting all bent out of shape and smudged up by an engineering toolset (and mindset).

The source of this dread is no mystery. In his seminal 2004 book on design in technology, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper writes that “when engineers invent, they arrive at their solution through a succession of practical, possible steps. Because of this, their solution will always be a derivative of the old, beginning solution, which is often not good enough.” Cooper goes on to argue that interaction designers are in a unique position to break this cycle of derivative solutions by “keep[ing] a healthy suspicion of all assumptions about what cannot be done.”
Whether they’ve read Cooper’s book or not, many designers have implicitly heeded this advice and translated it into an “I design it, you build it” workflow. In many cases, this delivers the results Cooper promises: designers and developers frequently challenge one another to synthesize new ideas and novel solutions –ideas and solutions neither of them would have been able to come up with on their own.

What’s different now

With the growing need of responsive web solutions and adaptive, flexible content, there are new reasons for designers to roll up their sleeves and get into “code.” Since HTML is, at its core, a layer of description wrapped around content, working at this level helps designers think more critically about their content and about the architectural implications of that content. While considering markup won’t replace our content audit, user research, or taxonomy work any time soon, it can increasingly function as an important part of the design process.
HTML prototyping helps us discover and vet the IA step Information Architect Dan Klyn refers to as “choreography,” or the “appropriate unfolding” of content: the link between taxonomy and the interaction-level design typically represented in prototypes. When we address the architectural underpinnings of our content’s choreography early on, we ensure that we haven’t driven off course, and left our intent on the side of the road. What’s more, the benefits of HTML prototyping present themselves when we apply even the most basic of HTML’s elements. Creating a linear, semantic document calling out our navigation, header, teaser, aside, and paragraph elements forces us to think critically about how these elements relate to each other in context.

Now look at that same document on a tablet, or on a phone. Does it tell the same story? Does (should) it follow the same choreography? We might find that our content needs to break into summaries or teasers at different places in different contexts. We might also find that the navigation patterns that work on a phone are overly simplistic with regards to the desktop experience. Each of these insights forces us to think about how our content models need to adapt to accommodate new contexts. (For an in depth and practical look at creating content models, see Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Content Everywhere.)

Why it matters

In her brilliant book Content Strategy for Mobile, Karen McGrane encourages us to stop thinking about content in terms of “pages” and to start thinking about it in terms of “packages.” A content package might contain things like long and short headlines, teasers, summaries, body copy, and pull quotes. Early HTML prototyping helps us decide which of these elements we need –and helps us think of them as pieces that combine across contexts to create a cohesive experience.
Whereas many of the excellent, commercially available prototyping tools are centered around interaction and design, early HTML prototyping is a way for us to begin to prototype our information architecture –and to test the architectural hypotheses we’ve laid out in our conceptual and taxonomy work. It also puts us in the right frame of mind to break out to the page metaphor.

In her keynote at DrupalCon in May, Karen McGrane traces the history of the page metaphor. This ubiquitous concept comes to us –surprise –from Xerox, maker of printers. Of course they would think about content in the digital age as coming together on pages: pages have been the cornerstone of their business for over a century! When we move to thinking of content as a resource that can be pulled into view when and how it is needed, we’ve already taken a huge step toward creating the responsive and adaptive information environments we need to meet the demands of the mobile ecosphere.

How to get started

So how can you get started designing with code? Both Jeff Gothelf and Stephen Hay stress the importance of sketching. I’ll reiterate that here: although our goal is to eventually end up in code, sketching out your rough ideas before diving into markup will keep you from committing to mediocre ideas you’re reluctant to change because they’re already saved to disk.
Use pen and paper or a whiteboard to work out a hypothesis and then write your markup to match. Does it work with your content? Check it out on mobile, on a tablet. Revise and refine. Consider how your content needs to adapt to convey the same concepts in different contexts.

There’s no way around the fact that you will need to understand the basic elements of HTML and CSS. Fortunately, these are not overly complicated and online resources abound. HTML alone allows you to author structured content in a semantically correct way. CSS (with help from media queries) allows you to shape the visual hierarchy of content and adjust it to different contexts.
If you’re new to HTML and CSS, learn a little bit at a time –and fake what you can’t build. You don’t need to have a fully functional AJAX calls or form validation in order to gain insight. Stephen Hay suggests capturing and printing screenshots to show to stakeholders early in the prototyping process. This way you can show exactly the ideas you want to convey without risking stakeholders getting caught up in the fact that a button doesn’t work, or links aren’t yet connected to their destinations.
Finally, allow your process to grow and develop over time. It will. We may never strive –or want –to be standards-compliant, cross-browser, front-end rockstars, but with a little bit of knowledge, practice, and experience, HTML prototyping can become a valuable addition to our content strategy and information architecture toolkit.

The post Designing with Code appeared first on UX Booth.

July 16 2013


Authentic Design


The recently popularized “flat” interface style is not merely a trend. It is the manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb visual excess and eliminate the fake and the superfluous.

In creating new opportunities, technological progress sometimes leads to areas of excess. In the 19th century, mechanized mass production allowed for ornaments to be stamped out quickly and cheaply, leading to goods overdecorated with ornament. A similar thing occurred in recent years, when display and styling technologies enabled designers to create visually rich interfaces, leading to skeuomorphic and stylistic excesses.

In its desire for authenticity, the Modern design movement curbed the ornamental excess of the 19th century, making design fit the age of mass production. Today, we’re seeing the same desire for authenticity manifest itself in the “flat” trend, which rejects skeuomorphism and excessive visuals for simpler, cleaner, content-focused design.

The Birth Of Modern Design

In 1908, Adolf Loos, an influential Austrian architect, wrote an essay provocatively titled Ornament and Crime. The modern ornamentalist, he claimed, was either a “cultural laggard or a pathological case. He himself is forced to disown his work after three years. His productions are unbearable to cultured persons now, and will become so to others in a little while.” Even more boldly, Loos asserted, “The lower the standard of a people, the more lavish are its ornaments. To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal towards which humanity is aspiring.”

What triggered such an attack on ornament? To understand the mindset of this pioneer of modern design, we must first form some idea of the state of design in the late-19th century.

The advent of the steam engine ushered in an era of mechanized mass production. As the art critic Frank Whitford writes, “Steam-driven machines could stamp, cut and fashion almost any substance faster and more regularly than the human hand. Mechanized production meant lower prices and higher profits.”

But while the method of production shifted from hand to machine, the style of goods did not. Most every product, from building and furniture to fabric and cutlery, was adorned in an opulent coat of ornament, built upon the grand spirit of the Renaissance.

An inkstand The Great Exhibition
An inkstand showcased at The Great Exhibition of 1851, a celebration of the best manufacturing from around the world. The use of ornamentation here is extreme but not atypical.

Historically, handcrafted decoration has been expensive to produce, serving as a symbol of wealth and luxury. With the advent of mechanization, imitations of those same sought-after ornaments could be stamped out cheaply and quickly. Rather than stop and think about what sort of design would be best suited for mass production, manufacturers jumped at the opportunity to copy historicized styles at low cost. The result was the flood of garish, low-quality products that Adolf Loos, along with other pioneers of modern design, railed against.

In The Decorative Art of Today, famed architect Le Corbusier bluntly asserted that trash is abundantly decorated, and that, “The luxury object is well-made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture. It is to industry that we owe the reversal in this state of affairs: a cast-iron stove overflowing with decoration costs less than a plain one; amidst the surging leaf patterns flaws in the casting cannot be seen.”

Montgomery Schuyler, an influential critic and journalist, condemned the heavily ornamented 19th-century facades, saying, “If you were to scrape down to the face of the main wall of the buildings of these streets, you would find that you had simply removed all the architecture, and that you had left the buildings as good as ever.”

Harrods store building
Harrods’ current building in London was completed in 1905 to the design of architect Charles William Stephens. The facade is typical of Victorian architecture. (Image: Michael Greifeneder)

Louis Sullivan, the architect known as “the father of skyscrapers,” called for restraint by suggesting, “It would be greatly for our aesthetic good, if we should refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years, in order that our thought might concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude.” Below is an image of one of Sullivan’s buildings. The ground floor is decorated, but the upper floors are surprisingly modern for a 19th-century design, especially when contrasted with Harrods’.

Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store building
Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store was originally designed in 1899 for Schlesinger & Mayer. The simplicity of the upper floors here is striking for a 19th-century building.

During the 1920s, a new movement emerged in Germany known as the untranslatable word Sachlichkeit, which has a sense of “factual,” “matter of fact,” “practical,” “objective.” The Neue Sachlichkeit movement in the field of design sought pure utility. German architect Hermann Muthesius explained how this idea of utility could be applied to style, to produce something he called Maschinenstil, or “machine style.” In his own words, we find examples of this style in “railway stations, exhibition halls, bridges, steamships, etc. Here we are faced with a severe and almost scientific Sachlichkeit, with abstinence from all outward decoration, and with shapes completely dictated by the purposes which they are meant to serve.”

Instead of attacking ornament, other pioneers of modern design focused on elevating functional form on a pedestal. In 1934, an exhibition curated by modernist architect Philip Johnson was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, titled Machine Art. On display were various pieces of mechanical equipment, such as airplane propellers and industrial insulators. The idea was to highlight beauty of form in objects that were purely functional. For the modern design movement, decoration was not necessary. Beauty and elegance were to emerge from the design of the content itself, not from a superficial coat of decoration.

Slutzky teapot
This teapot was designed by Naum Slutzky, goldsmith, industrial designer and master craftsman of Weimarer Bauhaus. The clean, utilitarian design has not a trace of ornament — an almost mathematical solution to the given problem.

It took much of the first half of the 20th century for the Modernist movement to prevail, but eventually traditional styles and techniques were surpassed by newer approaches. In his book Twentieth-Century Design, Jonathan Woodham notes that the Modern aesthetic was characterized by “clean, geometric forms, the use of modern materials such as chromium-plated steel and glass, and plain surfaces articulated by the abstract manipulation of light and shade. The use of color was often restrained, with an emphasis on white, off-white, grey, and black.” Modern design had shed its opulent coat of ornament and instead sought beauty in a harmonious fusion of form and function.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Modern design movement on the whole can be characterized as anti-ornamental. New styles came and went, such as the popular movements of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Some styles, such as Futurism, pushed for an exaggerated technological aesthetic, while others, such as De Stijl, sought harmony in a limited palette of colors and shapes. But underlying the outward shifts in style was the steady movement away from needless ornament, a movement towards a cleaner, more restrained form of design whose beauty lay in the style and shape of the content itself, rather than in external decoration.

Digital Ornament

If we compare the history of modern design with our short history of software and Web design, a parallel can be seen. In the same way that mechanized mass production resulted in an overuse of ornament, so did advances in display and styling technology result in the heavy use of decoration in software interfaces and websites. Designers in the early years of the Web were especially explorative on this front, using animation and sound together with images to produce excessively rich and often garish experiences.

Early operating systems with graphical user interfaces were still fairly basic in their look and feel. Granted, real-world metaphors were used where they could be, such as for images of folders to denote file directories and buttons with bevels to let the user know they could click on them. But the overall aesthetic was fairly flat and restrained. Regardless of whether the designer wanted to deliver a richer visual experience, the low resolution of the black and white displays limited them.

Mac OS 1
Using only two colors for the first Mac OS graphical interface, Apple managed to convey depth, textures, buttons and icons that mimicked real-life objects. The appearance of the interface was constrained by technology, rather than by the designer.

As technology evolved, designers were granted greater visual freedom with their interfaces. With Windows XP, Microsoft introduced a colorful style throughout, giving it a somewhat physical appearance, with plenty of highlights, shadows and gradients.

Apple went even further with the release of Mac OS X, styling the interface with shiny plastic bubbles, brushed aluminum and lifelike icons. As time went by, the visual styling of operating systems grew in intensity. Microsoft gave Windows a shiny, transparent glass-like theme, while Apple introduced even more materials and skeuomorphic cues into its desktop and mobile systems, such as leather textures in its calendar app and realistic page-turning effects in its book reader.

Windows Vista
The Windows Vista interface featured the Aero theme, with its shiny, glass-like window chrome.

Styles that imitate real-life objects and textures are said to be “skeuomorphs” — that is, design elements based on symbols borrowed from the real world, for the sole purpose of making an interface look familiar to the user. Recently, designers have started questioning the logic of styling a notes app as a paper pad, or of adding leather and page-turning effects to a calendar app. These effects provide visual interest, but they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces.

OS X calendar
The current version of OS X’s calendar features a stitched leather texture and torn paper edges to give the appearance of a physical calendar.

With the latest release of Windows 8, Microsoft took a brave step away from such superfluous visuals, attempting to give its operating system a wholly digital and, in its words, “authentic” look. The latest interface is built upon the principles that Microsoft developed for its earlier mobile release, presenting the user with an aesthetic that is almost wholly devoid of textures or imitations of real-life objects.

Instead, Windows 8 relies on typography, spacing and color to bring order and elegance to the digital canvas. Real-life effects and superfluous styles are discarded, and all that is left is simply the content itself. Much as Muthesius once submitted railway stations as examples of Maschinenstil, the designers at Microsoft point to examples of railway station signs as inspiration for the new Windows interface, previously known as “Metro.”

Windows 8 live tiles on the start screen
Windows 8’s start screen breaks away from the old desktop design, being composed of flat, colorful live tiles, instead of icons. The tiles are not merely a stylistic choice: They allow useful information to be displayed on the start screen in the manner of a dashboard.

The Web has seen a similar transformation over the years. Early table-based and Flash-based designs gave developers pixel-perfect control over their interfaces, and so designers did not hesitate to create visually rich containers for their content. As we began to grasp the fluidity of the new medium and to disconnect presentation from content using CSS, Web design became more restrained. Highly decorated containers could not change their width and positions easily, so designers used fewer images and relied more on simpler CSS styling to make their layouts more adaptive and easier to maintain.

The latest evolution of responsive design (which is to adapt a single page to suit various screen sizes and devices) as well as the move among designers to work directly in code from the start, skipping visual editors such as Photoshop, moves us even further towards a simpler, content-focused Web aesthetic, one that derives its beauty from typography, spacing and color rather than from a heavy use of textures and decorative images.

Most recently, Apple, the leader of skeuomorphism, has taken its first step towards digital authenticity with the latest release of its mobile operating system, iOS 7. Gone are the stitched leather textures and ripped paper edges, replaced by a minimalist, mostly flat interface, with colorful, simplified icons and semi-translucent surfaces.

Comparison between Apple's iOS 6 and iOS 7 interfaces
Apple’s iOS 7 is a radical turn away from skeuomorphism. The old design of iOS’ Calculator app is on the left, and the one for iOS 7 is on the right. The grainy texture, bevelled buttons and shiny glass are all gone, replaced by a mostly flat, functional interface.

Authentic Design

What ties the pioneering days of Modern design to the current shift in software and Web design is the desire for authenticity. This drive towards greater authenticity is what moved designers to scrape away ornament from their work over a hundred years ago, and this force is what is moving digital design today towards a cleaner, more functional aesthetic. But what exactly makes design “authentic”?

Authentic design aims to pierce through falsehood and do away with superfluousness. Authentic design is about using materials without masking them in fake textures, showcasing their strengths instead of trying to hide their weaknesses. Authentic design is about doing away with features that are included only to make a product appear familiar or desirable but that otherwise serve no purpose. Authentic design is about representing function in its most optimal form, about having a conviction in elegance through efficiency. Authentic design is about dropping the crutches of external ornament and finding beauty in pure content.

In authentic design, style is not unimportant, but it is not pursued through decoration. Rather, beauty of form depends on the content, with the style being a natural outcome of a creative solution. As Deyan Sudjic commented on the design of the iconic Anglepoise lamp, “How the lamp looks — in particular the form of its shade — was something of an afterthought. But that was part of its appeal. Its artless shape gave it a certain naive innocence that suggested authenticity, just as the early versions of the Land Rover had the kind of credibility that comes with a design based on a technically ingenious idea rather than the desire to create a seductive consumer product.”

The Anglepoise lamp
The design of the Anglepoise lamp is an ingenious solution to a real problem. But the resulting form, which is an effective solution, turns out to have its own aesthetic allure.

In digital design, authenticity means a few things, which can roughly be summarized as the following:

  • Embrace the digital look.
    We do not have to mimic textures such as metal, wood and leather on a computer display. They are not what a digital interface is made of, so pretending that it is makes no sense. This does not mean that a design should have only plain flat backgrounds colors — rather, it means we should not try to imitate or be restricted by textures from the real world.
  • Do away with skeuomorphism.
    A digital book need not imitate physical paper as one turns the page, nor does a note-taking app need to look like a physical paper pad, with a leather cover, torn edges and a handwriting-styled font. Skeuomorphism is not always bad, but it always introduces needless constraints on the interface. For example, while a paper pad is static and one dimensional, a digital interface need not be; but as long as the interface is made to imitate a paper pad, it has to bear the constraints of the physical metaphor.
  • Make the style content-centered.
    Focus on the content rather than on its styling and decoration. You might think this point is trite, but how many times have you seen an off-the-shelf theme on a website? A theme is always built on dummy content and so, by its very nature, could never be an optimal representation of the content it will eventually hold. Building themes with dummy text pushes the designer to focus on styling and decoration, rather than on content, because there is no content yet to work with. Only when you work with real content can you begin to truly transform function into form.

Not Minimalism

Design whose beauty lies in function is not the same thing as minimalism minimalist style. With the former, the designer seeks to remove the superfluous, to make the product easier to understand, to make it perform better and to make the most of its medium. The latter seeks to create a minimalist aesthetic, to give the object an aura of simplicity and cleanliness. One is a fundamental principle of design, the other a stylistic choice.

Flat UI
The Flat UI theme kit, by Designmodo, is an outward representation of the underlying shift towards authentic design. But as a style, “flat” is a choice, not a necessity.

It would be a mistake to rigidly apply a minimalist design aesthetic to an interface as a style in the hope of making the interface simpler and more digitally “authentic.” For example, ruthlessly eliminating visuals such as shadows, colors and varied background styles would not necessarily make an interface easier to use. In some cases, it would achieve the opposite by undermining hierarchy and focus, which were established by those very shadows and background colors.

Outlook 2013
Outlook 2013’s interface was updated to fit Windows 8’s modern theme. But with the interface being flattened, all of the content and menus were merged onto a single white plane, becoming more cluttered as a result.

In The Laws of Simplicity John Maeda posits, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.” The final warning is important. Removing things often leads to simplicity merely because the user has fewer items to process. But removing visual cues that help the user mentally process the interface — such as graphical elements that group items, that differentiate buttons and labels and that make things stand out — could do exactly the opposite by giving the user more work to do. So, rather than guide the design by style, guide it by principle.

Why Authentic Design Matters

The Rise app is a perfect example of digitally authentic design. The alarm clock is a problem that has already been solved, but Simplebots decided to tackle the concept from scratch, rethinking the interface in the context of a purely digital canvas.

Rise app
In the Rise app, the user sets the time with an innovative full-screen slider, with the background color changing to reflect the color of the sky.

Rise’s interface features a full-screen slider, with a background color that changes to reflect the color of the sky at the time you’ve set. It shows no attempt to mimic a physical clock or a physical slider or real-life textures. Instead, the designers have fully embraced the touch canvas of the mobile phone, creating an experience that is designed from the ground up to make the most of its medium. The innovative design not only makes for a great user experience, but elevates the app above others in the marketplace.

An interface like Rise’s is only possible when you tackle a design problem wholly within the context of the digital canvas, rather than by translating solutions from the real world. The digital screen allows for abstract forms, animation, bright colors and uniform shades. It need not be limited to a subdued palette or static representation, nor must it be bound to skeuomorphic forms. By figuring out how best to represent content using the pixel grid, we can arrive at better, simpler solutions, innovative interfaces that feel at home on the screen, designs that provide a better user experience and that stand out from the crowd.

The recently popularized “flat” design style may be a trend, but it is also the manifestation of a desire for greater authenticity in design, a desire to curb superfluous decoration and to focus on the content itself. Technological progress sometimes leads to excess, as mechanized mass production did in the 19th century when ornament became overused, and as display and styling technologies did during the early years of Web and software design. But ornamental excess was curbed over time by the pioneers of Modernism, who sought beauty in function, and today’s excesses in software will in time be curbed by an underlying desire for authenticity in design.


  • Bauhaus, Frank Whitford (2010: Thames & Hudson)
  • Twentieth-Century Design, Jonathan M. Woodham (1997: Oxford University Press)
  • Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner (1991: Penguin Books)
  • The Language of Things, Deyan Sudjic (2009: Penguin Books)
  • The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda (2006: MIT Press)


© Dmitry Fadeyev for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

June 18 2013


A Confab Recap

Kristina Halvorson issued a strong call-to-action during her opening keynote at this year’s Confab Minneapolis event, saying: “Part of my job as a content strategist is to get people on board with content strategy. You are a salesperson.” Through the next two days of Confab, speakers provided tools to make this challenging dream a reality.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing two Confab speakers, Jonathon Khan and Melanie Moran, in preparation for my attendance of Confab Minneapolis. While writing the introduction for that interview, I spent some time reflecting on why Confab is such a meaningful conference to me:

[Speakers at Confab] talk about writing from the perspective of thinkers – journalists, creatives, researchers, and readers – instead of merely dwelling on its marketing value. It’s a whole new world, connecting writing to design, turning copy into content.

Kristina’s call-to-action during this year’s event – “You are a salesperson” – especially rang true. As an independent content strategist, I work with three types of clients:

  1. Clients who know what I do and value it
  2. Clients with a rough idea and interest in what I do, and
  3. Clients who simply don’t “get” content strategy.

By far, the third category is the most difficult: in addition to doing my job as a strategist, I have to teach these clients about governance, content creation, content curation, and content modeling. I also have to continually prove my own value. It’s the single most frustrating aspect of my work.

Communication techniques

Fortunately, this year’s speakers also taught me how to value both my clients who understand my work, and the clients who need me to be their guide. It’s advice I’m excited to put into practice.

Show them you care

Some clients love content strategy, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s on board. The easiest way to get people invested in content strategy is to listen, not speak. Listening shows clients that we want to understand the problem at hand. Stakeholders may not care about content strategy, but they do care about finding a solution to their problem. Once they hear their solution lies in a content audit, authoring guidelines, a governance plan, etc, they’ll jump on board. We might call it content strategy; they just call it “what works.”

Ask the right questions

During her keynote, Kristina focused on the top 10 issues that content strategists face. Many clients want future-friendly, multi-channel, single-source, magical-unicorn-meat content. It’s depressing to be the bearer of bad news, telling clients they need to trudge through the boring world of organizing content before they get to the fun “future” stuff. The solution is to remind clients that we’ll get to the future-friendly, multi-channel, single-source, magical-unicorn-meat content by starting with simple questions, such as: why do we need it; what already exists; and where is it?

Find your voice

The first step in building a content strategy isn’t necessarily a big, expensive, full-site, multi-channel redesign. Tiffani Jones Brown explained the value of starting small in her talk, Voice Lessons: Finding Your Company’s Personality. Voice is a combination of personality, energy, and the experiences clients have with your company – all the words that represent a brand. Before touching a page on the website, it helps to reassure clients that we’re not starting from scratch; we’re making a record of, and using, their own, personalized language.

Be Honest

One of the most valuable talks I heard at Confab this year was Ahava Leibtag’s talk, Winning the Work: Making the Case for Content Strategy. Ahava drilled down to the heart of a common content strategy concern: what if I’m not right for the job? Her advice? Be honest. In a worst case scenario, you are freeing up your time for projects to which you’re better suited. And in a best case scenario, the client decides to work with you, and has reasonable expectations! In addition, every prospective client appreciates working with someone who recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses.

Put the “Strategy” in content strategy

Many clients fear the unknown of “content strategy,” and they want to see either a process, or a list of deliverables, neither of which come naturally to a flexible content strategy. In Responsive Web Projects: How to Plan a Successful Discovery Process Steve Fisher and Alaine Mackenzie offered some suggestions for helping to create a process that clients can understand… even if the process doesn’t exactly match the sample one that ships with Microsoft Project.

Stay out of the silo

Silos are for farming, not content strategy,” Steve Fisher told us. It’s easier said than done. Even as a proponent of knocking down silos between development, content strategy, and design, content strategists occasionally advocate for silos when working with management! A “heads down” approach and preference to work with clients who already “get” content strategy builds a wall between the strategist and the client; part of breaking silo walls down is teaching clients what they don’t understand.

Get started

Every conference leaves my head awhirl with new plans to change the way I work with my own clients. Starting now, I’m getting out of my private “content-knowledgeable” silo and advocating for content strategy. Feel free to follow my lead with these first steps:

  1. Provide some therapy for new clients. Ask them what keeps them awake at night, and how they feel about their content.
  2. Offer content strategy as the solution, not the issue. For clients who haven’t worked with a content strategist before, this will help frame the process.
  3. Talk about the process. The process is flexible and ever changing, but it does exist.
  4. Stay honest, stay optimistic. It’s easy to get jaded when “selling” your skills, particularly if you feel like you’re doing false advertising. Instead, engage in honest discussions with new clients; that’s enough to sell the value of content strategy!

The post A Confab Recap appeared first on UX Booth.

May 21 2013


A Taste of Confab 2013

“Content is king.” It’s been the prevailing trend the past few years, but at Confab – a conference of Content Strategists – attendees seek more than just trends; they seek stories. UX Booth editor and resident content strategist Marli Mesibov reached out to some of the strategists speaking at this year’s Minneapolis-based event to learn more about what’s driving their current narratives.

When I first walked into Confab in 2012, I felt as though I had finally found home. During their workshops and talks, speakers discussed the “hows” and “whys” of writing, rather than merely the benefits of having content. They talked about writing from the perspective of thinkers – journalists, creative, researchers, and readers – instead of merely dwelling on its marketing value. It was a whole new world, connecting writing to design, turning copy into content.

It’s no wonder, then, that I’ve been looking forward to Confab 2013 since the day I left the event. And now that it’s only two weeks away, I can barely contain my excitement! In the weeks leading up to the event, I’ve begun conversations with this year’s speakers in order to learn more about areas of content strategy we don’t often hear about. Jonathan Kahn and Melanie Moran share their stories.

Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change

Let’s begin with Jonathan Kahn. He’s a busy man. Jonathan organizes events (Dare Conference, Confab London, London Content Strategy Meetup), presents worldwide (Webdagene Oslo, CS Forum Paris/Cape Town, IxDA Dublin), and writes extensively (A List Apart, Contents, lucid plot) about the revolutionary changes facing organizations, and why it’s so hard to overcome them.

With a background in web development, he’s also worked as an information architect, user experience consultant, and content strategy advocate. Jonathan is the Principal of Together London. He shared the story leading to his presentation, Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change.

For most of my career I told myself I was a firefighter, rushing in at the last minute to fix screwed up web projects. Recently, though, I discovered why I told myself that story: I was avoiding the scary part of my work, the difficult questions.

Today, things are different. My interactions with the content strategy community have helped me craft a new story, and it goes something like this:

  1. The internet puts new demands on our content. Customers expect useful, usable content across channels and devices, all the time.
  2. Organizations (usually) aren’t setup to deal with this reality. People avoid talking about content because it’s messy, political, and hard to do well.
  3. So our content is a mess, and nobody takes responsibility for fixing it. This creates problems for both the business and the customer. It also drives us crazy.
  4. Content is important, damnit! It’s a business asset. Content strategy provides a way for us to fix these problems, helping us spread the word about the value of content throughout the organization and around the world.

The content strategy story is all about asking hard questions: What content do we have? Is it any good? Why do we need it? What’s our messaging architecture, our voice, our tone? Which other departments do we need to work with? How can we create a sustainable plan for commissioning, editing, publishing, and maintaining content over time?

This story is a framework for making content strategists vulnerable. Brave. Able to put more of ourselves into our work. At the same time, there are ways in which this story can be limiting. To understand why, it’s important to discuss a challenge that almost all content strategists face: governance.


Governance includes the standards, policies, and procedures made to allow an organization to care for its digital operations over time. In theory, a governance plan ensures our content strategies stick, but it rarely works. Writers don’t follow our voice guidelines, marketers ignore our message architectures, and developers create apps without considering the complexities of content.

We’re doing good work, but it isn’t sticking, which feels like a terrible waste of time. Why won’t people follow our guidelines? Recall the first point I made in the content strategy story above: “the internet puts new demands on our content.” While that’s true, we’re scared to ask the obvious follow-on questions:

  • Why does the internet put new demands on our content?
  • Why is the business environment changing so quickly?
  • What does that mean for our business models? our siloed organizational structures? our “waterfall” development process? the software we buy? the agencies we hire?

These questions terrify us because we’re afraid to face the truth: content strategy is just one piece of the challenge of digital transformation. Our governance attempts fail because we’re working backwards: governance can only sustain culture, it can’t create it.

So what does governance look like when backed by the notion of digital transformation? To make our organizations sustainable, we need to change culture in a way that’s broader than content strategy, incorporating practices we know little about: service design, agile development, and cross-functional teams. Once we understand this, we can start changing our organizations’ culture, today.

Readers can learn more about how to affect a cultural change within their organization by attending Jonathan’s talk. It’s happening at 2:50pm on day two of Confab Minneapolis.

Content Strategy in Higher Education: Uniting Print and Web

Next we hear from Melanie Moran. Melanie is the Director of Integrated Communications at Vanderbilt University. Her presentation this year, “Content Strategy in Higher Education: Uniting Print and Web,” highlights her team’s year-long, ongoing journey towards cohesive, cross-platform storytelling.

She’s looking forward to learning from content experts from many different sectors and bringing home a passel of great ideas. In the meantime, she shared the thought-process leading to her presentation.

I’ll always remember when the light bulb went on for me – when I learned the importance of content strategy. I was sitting in a meeting of campus communicators at Vanderbilt University. I had just returned from conducting an hour-long interview with a faculty member, a professor whose research explored neuroscience and education. I needed his thoughts to inform a story I was writing for the web.

Just then, across the room, a colleague from another office reported that she, too, was writing a profile of a faculty member – for one of our print magazines. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the same guy. She had conducted the same research and was writing the same article.

This is crazy, I thought. Why was web not involved in planning for digital content to support print stories? From that moment forward, my colleagues and I began seeking ways to shake content out of its container – be that container print, web, video or even a press release. It eventually paid off in more innovative storytelling, expanded social media impact and a more strategic use of print.

How did we do this? Here are some of the key elements that informed our content strategy:

  • Story first

    Forget the deadlines; forget the Facebook and Twitter beasts that need to be fed. Forget about that for just a minute and ask, why is this a great story? You can have the most interactive website or jaw-dropping magazine around and no one will read it if the stories are lame. Story first, always.

  • Exploit the platforms

    Now that you’ve got your story, think about the many ways to tell it across different platforms. What is told with a photo or graphic on Facebook can then push to a feature on your website; can be explored in detail in your print publication; can be told via a video on YouTube. You get the idea. This will likely mean writing different headlines, using different images and even showcasing different parts of the story for different media – but that’s okay. Let go of the need to show everyone everything on every platform and disaggregate the story for maximum portability.

  • Strategy, not reflex

    We all know the perils of the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. And I know it’s 2013 and many of us have already mourned and moved on from print, but for many people it remains a relevant, effective way to reach their audience.

    Vanderbilt’s alumni magazine, for example, lives in the homes and offices of alumni around the country and world. Its physical presence connects them directly with Vanderbilt through dynamic storytelling and gorgeous photography and illustrations. We support this connection heavily with digital, of course, but print remains an important and compelling component of our strategy.

  • Analytics, analytics, analytics.

    It was beautiful, it was epic. You laughed, you cried. …but did anyone read it? How was the social media engagement? Did it drive traffic back to your website? Picked up by media? Put yourself on a pretty strict plan of analytics tracking and use it to refine your content strategy. Then share what you find with decision makers, as data drives most organizations. Being able to provide it in relation to communications will elevate others’ understanding your work and the impact it has on your brand’s strength and reputation.

Readers interested in learning about cross-channel storytelling should join Melanie Moran at Confab Minneapolis. Her session begins at 9:40am on day two of the event.

See you there?

So, there you have it. Confab Minneapolis begins on Monday, June 3 and – in addition to Jonathan and Melanie’s – the workshops and talks range from content measurement and modeling to creating content in a zombie apocalypse.

As always, Confab features a mix of well known and up-and-coming content strategists. I’m particularly looking forward to Catherine Toole’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s “Write Like a Human, Think Like a Robot.”

Who are you looking forward to seeing?

The post A Taste of Confab 2013 appeared first on UX Booth.

May 06 2013


New Defaults In Web Design: How Much Has The Web Really Changed?


Responsive design is about more than just layout; it’s about designing for the Web, which means, mostly, for people with browsers. And that’s just about everything we know about the people who visit our websites: they are probably using a browser. All the rest we just don’t know.

Up until not so long ago, we used to base our designs on some rather general assumptions about screen size and input type. With the rise of devices with various screen sizes and alternative ways to interact, these assumptions have turned out to be unreliable. We need to upgrade the defaults that we use when we start designing our websites.

A Closer Look

People keep saying that the Web has changed. But has it really? Let’s take a look at all of the things that have actually changed.

Screen Sizes

In the 1990s, the Web was 640 pixels wide. In the early 2000s, it grew to 800 pixels. A few years later, we decided it should be 1024 pixels. But five years ago, all of a sudden, something strange happened. A device with a very small screen entered the market. Suddenly, our ideas about the size of the Web did not work anymore. Later on, tablets entered the market. People hold these things however they want. Today, the height of the viewport could be bigger than the width! But is that new? Not really.

Screen sizes, shown in a non-flexible medium. Photo and work by Aram Bartholl.
Screen sizes, shown in a non-flexible medium. (Photo and work: Aram Bartholl)

We never really knew what size the window of our visitors would be. We just assumed it was at least the random pixel width that we felt comfortable with. These numbers were always arbitrary, and there were always people who could not see the entire website. We simply ignored them.

“Everyone Has a Mouse”

We’ve always assumed that everyone uses a mouse. Even though we knew that this was not always true, most designs completely ignored alternative ways of interacting. People who had to use a keyboard, for whatever reason, had a very hard time interacting with our websites.

But because most people did use a mouse, and because back then many designers thought that designing only for the majority was OK, we created websites that were unusable for a lot of people. And this turned out to be a growing number. Many mouseover interactions are completely dysfunctional on a touch device. Because people love these devices, and even managers and designers use them, they are harder to ignore.

“Everyone Has Broadband Internet”

Another thing we always assumed was that everyone had a super-fast Internet connection, at least as fast as our own. And if they didn’t already have it, they’d have it soon. This was again mostly true; speeds were increasing. But today, more and more people use crappy, unreliable 3G connections all the time. If you’ve ever travelled on a train in The Netherlands, you know what I mean. And if you’ve ever had to rely on the mythical “free hotel Wi-Fi,” then you know for sure that the assumption about the ever-increasing speed of our Internet connections is just not true. This is a big change in our thinking; we really should consider these users. This will have a major impact on what our designs look like.

“Everyone’s Computer Gets Faster Every Year”

It used to be true that computers would get faster and faster. If you waited half a year before buying a computer, you would get one that was twice as fast, for the same price. This was true of new desktop computers, but mobile devices have priorities other than processor speed. The most important thing for a phone, for instance, is battery life: you really don’t want to have to charge it after every phone call.

And there’s another trend: instead of creating ever-faster devices, many manufacturers are starting to sell ever-cheaper devices. Many people care about price and battery life more than about processor speed. This is also not new: what happened to your old computers? You probably sold them or gave them away. People keep using old stuff. Not everyone has the same hardware as we designers do.

“All Monitors Are Calibrated”

Well, we always knew this to be untrue, right? Only the monitors of visual professionals are calibrated. Most other monitors don’t display colors accurately, and many monitors are downright crappy. Most mobile phones that I’ve tested have pretty decent screens, until you start using them outside, in the sunshine. If you’re lucky, you can read the content, but you definitely cannot see the subtle gradients in low-contrast designs.

I haven’t even mentioned “modern” black and white screens. These, too, are not new. People have always used crappy monitors, and people with bad eyesight have always visited your websites. It’s just that more and more people are seeing a subpar color palette. Instead of buying a state of the art monitor, buying a cheap monitor and several low-end devices to test your work on might be a better investment.

All of these things are not new. In 2002, John Allsopp wrote the monumental article “A Dao of Web Design.” People such as Jeremy Keith and Roger Johansson have written about all of these facts for years and years. And yet, somehow, we’ve always managed to actively ignore them. But we really can’t anymore. The Web actually did change in the last five years, with new devices, new browsers and many, many cool new features. We need new defaults. The old ways of creating websites just don’t work anymore.

This Is Responsive, the excellent resource about responsive design by Brad Frost.
This Is Responsive, the excellent resource about responsive design by Brad Frost.

In the past few years, we’ve been actively researching new ways to deal with all of these different screen sizes. But apart from responsive design, there are many more challenges in today’s ever-growing pile of devices. We have to find new patterns of interaction: we need interfaces that work on any device. Maybe we have to reconsider that enormous photo carousel on the home page, now that we know that not everyone has a cheap and fast connection. New defaults are emerging, and I’ve collected a few for you here.

The things in this article are not new. Many clever people have written about them in many articles and many books. But these ideas, like all good stories, have to be repeated many times so that people understand and remember them.

New Default: Activate

I initially titled this section “New Default: Touch.” But I came to realize that “touch” has a different meaning for everyone. Some people, like me, think of a single tap when we hear the word. Others think about swiping and complex gestures. That’s why I settled on the heading “New Defaults: Activate.” All devices, no matter what kind of input they offer, let the user activate something in some way.

With a mouse, it’s a click; with a touch device, it’s a tap; on a keyboard, it’s the “Enter” key. There are ways to activate things by voice, and by waving your arms in the air. And many devices offer more than one way to interact. The only thing that all of these devices have in common is the action of activating. Most of them are capable of doing many other things, too, but all of them can activate stuff.

Only recently have we really started thinking about alternative methods of user input. We used to assume that everyone uses a mouse. Hiding content and showing it on mouseover was considered to be a decent design pattern. And it used to work for most people — until all of these wonderful touch devices entered the market. What should a device without a mouse do when content can be revealed only with a mouse? Different devices have different solutions. Let’s look at a simple drop-down menu.

You can find a live example of this navigation pattern right here.
See a live example of this navigation pattern.

When you hover over a menu item, a submenu appears. But apart from hovering over an item, you can also simply click on it to follow the link. Now, what should happen when you tap on the item with a touch device? Should the submenus appear, or should the link activate? Or both? Or should something else happen? On iOS, something else happens. The first time you tap a link like that, the submenu appears; in other words, the hover event fires. You have to tap a second time to actually follow the link. This is confusing, and not many people will tap a second time. On Android, the submenu appears and the link is followed simultaneously. I don’t have to explain to you that this is confusing.

It’s very well possible to think of complex solutions whereby you define different interactions for different input devices. But the better solution, I think, is to make sure that the default interaction, the activate event, just works for everybody. If you really need to, you could choose to enhance this default experience for certain users.

For instance, if you are certain that someone is using a mouse, you could enable some mouseover interactions. Or if you’re sure that someone has fat fingers, you could make small buttons a bit bigger. But only do so in addition to the default activate interaction, and only if there’s no doubt about it, and only if the enhancement would really make things better. Those are quite a few ifs, and some of them, such as the mouse usage, are very hard to detect — especially on devices that offer more than one way to interact, such as a laptop with an optional mouse, touch pad, camera, microphone, keyboard and touchscreen. Give it some serious thought. Do you really need to optimize for a mouse?

New Default: Small Screens

Growing is easy. Most things grow. Babies grow, trees grow, curious minds grow. They don’t grow by themselves, but you don’t need much energy to make things bigger. This is just what things do when they live. While shrinking things is definitely possible, it’s also much harder. You could, for instance, compress a car to a fraction of its original size. A compressed car does have a certain aesthetic appeal to it, but it is definitely not as useful as it was before. The same goes for websites. Shrinking a desktop website does not always result in a pleasant experience on a small screen.

Trees grow on their own, cars are less usefull when they shrink.
Cedro di Versailles by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone clearly shows that things grow. On the other hand, the work Papalote Goliad by American artist John Chamberlain shows that shrinking can be aesthetically appealing but may result in less useful results.

To build a responsive website that works on all kinds of screens, designing for a small screen first is easiest. It forces you to focus on what’s really important: if it doesn’t fit in this small square, it is probably not terribly important. It forces you to think better about hierarchy, about the right order of components on the page.

The same principle that we follow for interactions — whereby we design the activate event first and enhance it later — applies to graphic design. We should start designing the things that we know everyone will see. That’s the content. No matter how big or small a screen is and no matter how minimal the feature set of a browser, it will be able to show letters. Because this is about the only thing we know for certain — since color is absent on most Kindles, most of the latest CSS doesn’t work on old browsers, and layout is of minor importance on small screens — starting with the text is logical.

I wrote an in-depth article about defining breakpoints on the basis of typography, so I won’t repeat every detail here. But the basic idea is that you start by designing the relationship between the different font sizes. Almost everyone, no matter what device they have, will be able to see this. When the typography is done, you would start designing the layout for bigger screens; you can think of this as an enhancement for people with bigger screens. And after that, when the different layouts are done, you could add the paint. And by paint, I mean color, gradients, borders, etc.

I’ve presented this as a very strict way of working; in real life, of course, things are not as rigid. I’m not talking about “activate only” or “small screen only.” When I say to start with typography, I don’t mean that you aren’t allowed to think about paint at the same time. Rather, I’m trying to find the things that all of these different devices, with all of their different screen sizes and all of their different features, have in common. It just seems logical to first design this shared core thoroughly. The strange thing is that this core is often overlooked: Web professionals tend to view their own creations with top-of-the-line devices with up-to-date browsers. They see only the enhancements. The shared core with the basic experience is often invisible.

New Default: Content

The way we designed our websites until recently was by putting a header with the logo and navigation at the top, putting the subnavigation on the left, putting some widgets on the right, and putting the footer at the bottom. When all of that was done, we’d cram the content into the little space that was left in the middle. All of the things we created first — the navigation, the widgets, the footer — they all helped the visitor to leave the page. But the visitor probably wanted to be there! That was weird. It was as if we were not so confident in our own content and tried our best to come up with something else that our guests might like.

But rather than pollute the page with all kinds of links to get people out of there, we should really focus on that thing in the middle. Make sure it works. Make sure it looks good. Make sure it’s readable. Make sure people will understand it and find it useful. Perhaps even delight them with it!

Once you’re done with the content, you can start to ask yourself whether this content needs a header. Or a logo. Or subnavigation. Does it need navigation at all? And does it really need all of those widgets? The answer to that last question is “No.” I’ve never understood what those widgets are for. I have never seen a useful widget. I have never seen a widget that’s better than white space.

A typical news site with more attention for widgets versus the complete focus on the content on Medium.
Compare a typical news website’s attention to widgets with Medium’s complete focus on content.

By starting with the content first, you can come up with some very interesting solutions. For instance, does the logo really need to be at the top of every page? It could very well go in the footer on many websites; such as in digital style guides or on pages for registered users. Many links that we used to put in the subnavigation might work better in relevant spots in the main content.

For instance, the option to add extra luggage to a flight booking might be most effective right there in the overview of the flight, instead of in the middle of a list of links somewhere on the left of the page. And when looking at the hierarchy of a page, does the main navigation look more important than the main content? Most of the time it shouldn’t be, and I usually consider the navigation to be footer content. A simple “skip” link at the top of the page could either take the visitor to the navigation or fetch the navigation and show it at the top of the page.

In this era of responsive Web design, we need many new clever solutions. As we’ve seen here, our old defaults don’t work anymore. We need to reconsider how we work with interaction, how we approach design and how we shape our content. But we need to think about one other very important thing, and that is where our content comes from.

New Default: The API

Luke Wroblewski wrote a fantastic article about designing an application for the command line first, and then enhancing it for different needs. This is not just a nerdy idea, but a very practical idea, too. If you are able to design and develop your own application, you could test the functionality relatively easily before even starting to think about what it will look like on different devices. This requires designers to work with developers to design a feature that at first works only from the command line. If the feature does not work as expected, then you merely have to change the API, rather than also a bunch of visual designs. Once the API works as you want it to, enhancing it for all of the devices and screen sizes that you want to support becomes easier.

Most of the time, you wouldn’t design the entire API of the application that you’re building. Most companies would choose a content management system (CMS) of sorts or a specialized tool to help them achieve what they want to do. I’ve always been amazed that CMSes are so often chosen only by technical people and business people. This causes many problems during the design process.

Developers and business people have different goals than designers. Developers want stuff that is easy to develop on. Business people want stuff that’s cheap. But designers want to make the best and most beautiful things possible. These goals can easily conflict.

I’m not saying that designers alone should choose the system, but they should definitely be a part of the decision-making process. I’m convinced that the selection of CMSes will improve. And I’m convinced that CMS makers will start to improve their products once designers get involved. Right now, all CMSes I know of deliver hostile cruft unless you tweak them extensively.

But it works the other way around, too. If designers are involved in the selection process, they will have a say in the choice of tool and will understand how it works, what’s possible, what’s easy and what’s hard. This will result in designs that are based in part on the tool, not just on imagination. This is an important part of the design process that has not yet been optimized. Right now, the command line and the systems that deliver the content we design for are the domain of the developers, and designers have nothing to do with them. That is a pity. Just as you would want to take advantage of the knowledge of developers in the design process, you would want to take advantage of the knowledge of designers in the development process.

Progressive Enhancement

If you review the sections above, you’ll see that what I’ve described is nothing other than progressive enhancement. You start with the content, then design the content and optimize it for different screen sizes and devices, and after that you can further optimize for very specific features such as mouse usage and fat fingers. Many Web developers build websites according to this principle. They transform the beautiful Photoshop documents that they receive into all of the different layers described above.

This can work out fine if the developer has a good sense of design and a delicate attention to detail. But if they don’t — which is often the case — this can easily result in crappy usability and ugly details. I’m not saying that designers shouldn’t use Photoshop anymore. If that’s your tool, go ahead and use it. But do remember that you’re designing the layers of the Web, not the layers in Photoshop. There’s much more to the Web than a single beautiful image. People will see our creations in innumerable ways. We design for all of these people — remember that. We don’t just design for the CEO with a laptop. We also design for the people on the train and the people with “free hotel Wi-Fi.”


I’ve mentioned Photoshop a few times because it’s still widely misused for designing websites. One reason we have a hard time with progressive enhancement in the design process is due to a lack of good Web design tools. The tools we use are built to wow; they mostly help you to create the “paint,” not to design the core. Fortunately, more tools are popping up with very specific functions in the design process. These are micro-tools such as the International Measure Slider, which helps you to define breakpoints in your grid; tools such as Gridset, which helps you to create grids for different screen sizes; and excellent tools that help you to define typography. By incorporating these tools into our design workflow, we might start making better stuff.


The Web has always been a weird, borderless, flexible medium. In the last couple of years, we’ve started to realize that designing for this medium is fundamentally different from the design work we’ve done previously. The fixed dimensions and the singular ways of interacting that formed the basis of all types of media that we’ve worked with for centuries just don’t work on the Web. This truly is a unique medium.

We have to find new defaults, new starting points for our design process. I’ve explained some of these new defaults here, but of course there are many more. The way we work with forms, for instance, could probably use a whole series of articles by itself. Some new starting points are well established by now, but I’m sure many more will be invented in the near future. I am curious to hear about new patterns and new defaults that you have discovered and have used successfully in your projects.


© Vasilis van Gemert for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

April 25 2013


Responsive Layouts: How To Maintain Hierarchy Through Content Choreography


One of the issues we need to be concerned with in responsive design is how to maintain hierarchy as elements on the screen are resized and reflowed. Trent Walton first called attention to the issue with his post “Content Choreography,” which showed how visual hierarchy gets lost when columns are dropped below one another.

While techniques exist to help with part of the problem, the solution also requires conscious thought in how you structure blocks of content in your HTML. You need to think about how you’ll want to rearrange blocks of content as your design moves from single to multiple columns.

What Is Content Choreography?

As a layout changes from a widescreen to a tablet to a smartphone, the number of columns is usually reduced from three or four down to one. The typical and easiest solution is to drop the columns one by one and stack them on top of each other.

Diagram showing how columns drop in a typical 3 column responsive design
The figure above shows three columns of content. The lines below the two right columns indicate that each will drop below the main content as the screen’s width decreases.

Once you’re down to a single column, the layout is constrained by the source order of the content blocks in the HTML. Whichever column comes first in the HTML is displayed at the top; whichever column is next in the HTML goes right below; and so on down the stack.

Unfortunately, this means that information that is highly visible at the top of the page when multiple columns are present ends up being far down the page as one column drops below another. If content is important enough to show at the top of the page when viewed on a widescreen browser, do we want to bury it on a smartphone screen?

All of the information in your sidebar column probably isn’t as important as all of the information in your main content column, but some of the sidebar content is likely more important than some of the main content.

Two examples of single column responsive designs
The left side of the figure above shows a single column layout, where each column drops in its entirety below the previous one. The right side shows elements from each column mixing with other elements.

The left side of the image above shows the typical column drop. As the design is reduced to a single column, the content inside each container or column is dropped below all of the content in another container.

Ideally, the visual hierarchy would be maintained, and the content in different columns would intermix as the design moves from three columns to two to one. We’d also like more control over the display order of content, beyond the HTML source order. Both scenarios are illustrated on the right side of the image above.

This greater control over the blocks inside containers is what’s considered content choreography. I assume Trent chose the word “choreography” as a metaphor for how we’d like to orchestrate the movement of blocks of content as our layout changes.

Our current development practices don’t make this choreography easy. What they do make easy is dropping entire columns one below the other, which means that everything inside one column must always end up in its entirety above or below everything in another column.

Two Problems in One

What I’ve described above are really two separate problems:

  • Source order
    In a single-column layout, blocks of content will display in the same order as they’re located in the HTML structure. Unfortunately, the best source order for one layout isn’t necessarily the best source order for another.
  • Intermixing content
    Instead of having to drop entire columns of content below one another, we’d like to mix blocks of content from the different columns in the single-column layout.

The first issue has some technical solutions on the way, one of which is just about here. The second issue will require that we change our thinking in how we develop layouts.

Solving The Source-Order Problem

In time, there will be several solutions to the source-order issue, in the form of new CSS specifications. Depending on which browsers you need to support and what you’re willing to do to support them, one of those specifications may already be here.

Three specifications that we’ll likely find ourselves using in the future are:

The second and third of these specifications have almost no support in current browsers. Surprisingly, Internet Explorer is leading the way with both. IE 10 supports regions and grid layouts with the -ms vendor prefix. No other browser offers any support at the moment, so we’ll have to wait on these specs a bit longer.

Flexbox, however, has pretty good support. The spec has undergone some changes, and two versions are currently supported by browsers. If you don’t mind mixing the old and new syntaxes, you can get flexbox to work in the current versions of almost all browsers.

Opera mini and IE below version 10 don’t support any flexbox syntax. However, you can use the Flexie polyfill to add support for IE. Flexie uses the old flexbox syntax, but it does support IE as far back as version 6. Flexbox deserves its own article to be explained in detail, so I’ll point you to some articles I’ve written showing the old syntax and the new syntax, as well as one that walks you through the new syntax to set up a responsive layout that overcomes the issue of source order.

Suffice it to say that with a single CSS property, we can essentially tell our documents to display blocks of content in a different order than how the source code orders the blocks in the HTML. Jordan Moore has also written about flexbox and content choreography, and he’s created a demo to illustrate.

What you should take away from this section is that solutions to the source-order problem are coming soon — one of them very soon. It won’t be long before we can easily rearrange blocks inside a single container. However, rearranging blocks inside one container isn’t the same as rearranging them across several containers.

Solving The Intermixing Content Problem

Unlike the source-order problem, the issue of intermixing content across columns doesn’t have a technical solution. It’s up to us, and, ultimately, it means we need to wrap content in fewer HTML containers.

We’ll have to dig a little deeper into the problem to understand why this is so.

CSS Visual Formatting Models

CSS offers several visual formatting models, such as the normal document flow, floated elements and positioned elements. Flexbox is part of another, the flexible box layout model. In all of these models, elements are located relative to a containing element.

We can make it look as though elements are not bound by their containers, but they still are. For example, you could float an element that’s inside one column and give it a negative margin so large that it appears to be located in another column, however, elements in that other column won’t reorient themselves. To these elements, the floated element is still in the first column.

Other elements in the first column may relocate themselves to fill the now vacated space, but elements in the second column won’t. Even positioned elements are positioned relative to some parent, although that parent might be the html element itself. When you absolutely position an element and move it somewhere on the screen, other elements won’t get out of the way. We need them to get out of the way, though, if we’re going to intermix page elements.

With a little thought and CSS, you can usually figure out some way to rearrange elements inside one container however you like. With a little more thought, you can even make elements in one container appear to be located inside another, although you’ll usually have to position the elements in that other container with more complex CSS and with what Harry Roberts refers to as “magic numbers.”

If the term is new to you, magic numbers are those numbers we use to make something work in a single particular instance. They typically stop working as soon as some other value changes, and, given the nature of responsive design, other values are always changing. Magic numbers in CSS are best avoided.

We Need to Give Up Containers

For the last few years, whenever we’ve wanted to move a group of adjacent elements to a certain part of a layout, we’d wrap those elements in a container and write CSS to display the container somewhere in the design. I’m sure you’ve used CSS selectors like #wrapper and #container more than once.

We need fewer of these HTML containers and more CSS virtual container classes that we can apply to different elements as needed.

In other words, instead of this…

<div id="container">
  <div>Content here</div>
  <div>Content here</div>
  <div>Content here</div>

… we need more of this:

<div class="container">Content here</div>
<div class="container">Content here</div>
<div class="container">Content here</div>

In the latter block, each division might have a different class name or perhaps different additional classes applied. This allows for greater flexibility in rearranging them in the layout. In the first block of code, the three content divisions will always reside inside their parent container.

I’m not suggesting that the first block of HTML above should never be used. There will absolutely be times when wrapping several divisions of content with a container makes sense. However, if you want some of those blocks to intermix with elements in other columns, then you’ll have to think more in terms of the second block of HTML above.

With CSS, we have the ability to rearrange blocks inside a container. We don’t have the ability to break content out of one container and move it inside another container. If you want more mixing of blocks, then you’ll need fewer containers.


While there are currently far more instances of websites that are dropping columns wholesale, there are certainly websites that mix content in one column with content in another column.

Let me first offer a detailed look at my own website, since I’m most familiar with it. I’ll follow this up with a few other websites that intermix content in slightly different ways.

A Personal Example

Around the time that Trent coined the term “content choreography,” I was working on a redesign of my website and was trying to figure out how to mix content blocks as the layout changed.

The image below shows the top of a typical blog post on my website when the browser is wide enough to accommodate two columns. Click the image to see the live post.

Meta information such as my name and the publication date are in a column to the left, while the article’s title, main text, images, headings and so on are in a column to the right.

Screenshot of post from Vanseo Design with two-column layout
My website when the browser is wide enough to accommodate two columns.

Seeing the layout, you might instinctively think each “column” is wrapped in its own container and that I’ve floated both columns left or right; it’s how I would have developed this layout a few years ago. But doing that leads to the problem of one of the columns being forced to drop below the other on small screens.

Below is the same page as a single column on a narrower screen. The meta information from the left column sits below the article’s title from the right column but above everything else in that right column. Both “columns” of content have actually been inside the same container all along.

Screenshot of post from Vanseo Design with single column layout
My website as a single column on a narrower screen.

The image below presents a more abstract view of what’s going on. On the left, you see the layout as it appears when displayed as a single column. On the right is the two-column version of the layout.

Every element is its own unique block and serves as its own container. The page’s main heading is its own contained block. All of the meta information is inside another container directly below it. After that, every paragraph, subheading and image is also its own self-contained block of content. The same goes for anything else that might end up in a post, such as a block quote or code block.

Abstract diagram showing content on Vanseo Design with single and 2 column layout
A more abstract view of what’s going on.

On small screens, all of the blocks display in the source order. On wider screens, I shift this entire single “column” to the right by adding a left margin to each individual block. In the CSS, I have a long list of selectors with a single line of declarations. When I want something to appear in the “left column,” I float it left and reset its margin to zero.

The solution is hardly perfect. Blocks pulled into the virtual left column won’t slide up or down. They simply move to the left. This solution doesn’t enable me to display something from the bottom of the article at the top of the left column. But, hopefully, this illustrates how rethinking containers can help us intermix content from different columns into a single column.

The Next Web

The Next Web mostly drops columns down as it rearranges from three columns to one, but it does intermix elements at the top of the page.

Screenshots of The Next Web

The image above shows the website displayed as two columns (on the left) and a single column (on the right). The blue outline shows the container around elements at the top of the page. You can see that the secondary stories to the right of the top story drop below it but remain above the other stories, due to the way the containers have been set up.

In the single column, the images in all of the first three stories are now physically the same size, so the hierarchy has changed. However, the second and third stories are still seen as “less important” because they come after the top story.

This intermixing is achieved by thinking in advance of which elements will shift columns and by placing elements that need to be rearranged in the same container, separate from other containers of content.


Time magazine intermixes content across columns and containers. Notice how the “Latest Headlines” section (in the green container) moves from the right column at the top to just below the main image and story links in the single column.

Screenshots of Time Magazine website

While not shown in the image above, the row of four images on the left follows the “Latest Headlines” in the single column. The remaining content in the right column drops much further down. You can see this by viewing the website directly.

The website achieves this intermixing by ignoring most of what I’ve said in this post about using fewer containers. Instead, it uses JavaScript to rewrite the HTML, moving elements in and out of different containers as the layout changes. It is another solution to this issue, although better planning up front is preferable.

Enoch’s Fish & Chips

The navigation on Enoch’s Fish & Chips’ website integrates with the logo and company blurb when the layout is a single column:

Screenshot of Enoch's Fish and Chips with single column

The navigation (and the tagline further down) moves to the right column when the browser is wide enough to accommodate multiple columns.

The website rearranges these elements similar to the way I rearrange elements on my own website; the logo, navigation, blurb and tagline are each a separate container. To move them around, the website uses positioning instead of floats, but otherwise, the principle is the same.

Screenshot of Enoch's Fish and Chips at 2 columns

Closing Thoughts

Many of us have, understandably, been taking the easy way out with responsive layouts. When the width of a screen cannot accommodate a column, we’ve been dropping the column in its entirety below other columns. In some cases, this is perfectly fine. In others, it breaks the carefully designed hierarchy.

We face two issues in maintaining the hierarchy. The first is having to follow the HTML source order when the layout is a single column. The solution to this problem is a technical one and is coming in the form of new CSS specs that will allow the display order and the HTML source order to be different.

The second problem is less technical and more a challenge to how we think about structuring our HTML, particularly to how we use containers. Elements can’t move from one container to the next. We can fake it with complex CSS, or we can rewrite the HTML with JavaScript; but, ultimately, if we want to intermix elements, we’re best of using fewer HTML containers to create columns. Instead, we should leave more of our content blocks in their own containers and use CSS to create virtual columns in the layout.

This solution doesn’t confine our elements to structural containers and instead enables us to more easily rearrange the elements in different layouts.


© Steven Bradley for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

April 10 2013


How To Sell The Value Of Mobile To Clients


As Web designers and developers, we see the value in supporting mobile devices every day. We’re well-versed in tactics and techniques for adapting our work to mobile. Our challenge is to be equally well-versed in selling our clients on that value as being something in which they need to invest precious budget dollars.

The Mobile Imperative

I’ve been describing what I call the “mobile imperative” for a few years now when talking to clients or advocating support for mobile devices in Web design projects. The mobile user experience is not an add-on. It’s now a major part of the Web as we know it, and our clients’ content and tools will appear on an increasing number of devices, screens and contexts.

As the distinction between the Web on desktop and mobile continues to blur, supporting mobile is increasingly something we do as part of every website design or build. It should become second nature to us, but there are still additional costs: design enhancements at multiple breakpoints, testing across a wide gamut of devices, defining and maintaining media queries with associated CSS or JavaScript, perhaps even a distinct mobile-oriented website. To those who are less informed, these may be seen as unnecessary enhancements. The traditional websites that they’ve been acquainted with for the past 20 years may be all that they interact with or deem necessary.

Some clients come to us requesting mobile support. They know they need it; they know its value. They come with reasonable budgets in hand for a traditional website, but additional funds to support the extra effort that mobile requires didn’t make it into this year’s marketing allotment, and their scope checklist has already been pared down. We don’t want to turn them away, but we have an obligation to ourselves and to our business to bill all of our clients on the same terms.

Our responsibility as Web professionals is to educate and inform our clients, to impart upon them the value and necessity of supporting mobile and, for those worthwhile clients and projects we don’t wish to turn away, to craft a solution that can achieve their goals within a realistic budget.

Start By Listening

Even the simplest of websites don’t conform to a one-size-fits-all solution. We’re trying to deliver a website to our clients that will hold up for a few years’ time, that should work on today’s devices and those we haven’t yet seen.

Any recommendation we make to our clients, whether it be to have a responsive website, to have separate mobile and desktop websites, or not to worry about mobile at all, should be based on an understanding of our client’s needs. More often than not, supposedly fixed variables such as budget, scope and timeline can and do change. Must-haves become secondary goals in light of other considerations. The project that the client brings to you is not necessarily the project that the client actually needs.

Listen to your client’s needs and constraints, and really seek to understand the nature of their business and their situation. This should help shape your recommendation. If you listen carefully, you should also be able to determine how best to make the case for incorporating mobile support into their website project.

My experience is that clients typically come with something in hand that they’re hoping to achieve, or they exhibit distinct values that we can speak to. I’m going to look at how to make the case for mobile to clients who fall into one of four likely categories: data-driven, competitor-driven, cost-driven and socially conscious.

The Data-Driven Client

When trying to convince someone of anything, data and statistics are your clearest and most objective tool. Fortunately, the Web is an incredibly measurable medium, and a ton of data exists on usage behavior and adoption rates.

Here are a few recent stats I’ve been citing:

The evidence is clear: The shift to mobile is well underway. As important as the Web is to any business or institution, mobile is the Web and is just as important. If data and numbers would make the case for your client, show up with enough studies to overwhelm them with mobile’s impact.

According to Pew Internet, in 2012, 55% of mobile-phone owners went online. 17% of all mobile-phone owners went online mostly via their phone. We’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into supporting IE 6 for fewer users than that.

The Competitor-Driven Client

Has your client come to you with a lot of competitors’ websites in hand? You’re in luck. You have a client who’s establishing a standard among other websites as a measurement of success.

Your job is to set a standard that your client should aspire to. Do your research on mobile-friendly competitor websites and try to compile data and examples that you can use to highlight the benefits of a more intuitive, engaging user experience.

If you come up short finding a direct competitor, find an industry of similar complexity or with a similar target audience or comparable demographics. Find examples, and have your client try them out on your mobile devices. Encourage your client to empathize with users who will encounter and interact with their website and make decisions accordingly. Explain to them that mobile users are growing less patient and that a frustrating mobile experience could hurt their perception of the brand, and show how an optimized mobile experience will make it easier for new and existing customers to forge deeper relationships with their business, resulting in more purchases or revenue.

And if your client is really competitive and not just keen to check out the competition, then encourage them to spend the time needed to really optimize performance. Aim higher than just to have the best-looking website. Design and build the fastest-loading, easiest-to-use website there is.

Two websites, one industry: On the left, Vascore (designed by Jodi Vautrin and coded by my firm, Clearbold) uses responsive techniques to adapt the design to mobile screens. Another firm’s website, on the right, falls short.

The Cost-Driven Client

In many small businesses, any spending on marketing comes straight out of the owner’s pocket. Those dollars are hard to part with. Marketing teams at larger companies might be seeing their budgets cut based on other shifts in their industry or business, or they might not get to apply for more funds until they’ve put together next year’s budget.

Empathizing with your clients and putting yourself in their shoes are important. They’ve come to you for a reason. They’re not trying to gouge you; they’re seeking access to the services you provide within their own reality or constraints.

If they’re in a position to free up more funds, help them to justify that or to present the case to their superiors. Emphasize that increasing their up-front investment in a sustainable, future-friendly website will decrease the likelihood that it will need to be redesigned or reworked in a year. Remember that the goal of responsive Web design is not to create five different designs at five different dimensions. The goal is to establish a fluid, flexible design system that will adapt to different contexts. Those contexts may be screens on mobile devices and desktop monitors. In a year or two, those contexts might be embedded screens in refrigerators, TVs or Google Glass. Future-friendly responsive design seeks to anticipate the unknown and reduce the need for additional work every time something new hits the market.

If cost truly is a factor, what sort of constraints can you impose on the design process to keep things in check? What sort of tools can you leverage to minimize effort, while still addressing your client’s unique needs and positioning? Responsive front-end frameworks, such as Zurb Foundation and Twitter Bootstrap, are a great option in this scenario. Zurb Foundation 4, recently released, has shifted to a mobile-first approach and emphasizes performance.

One of our clients approached us with a budget in hand and some content to build an intranet for a hospital department. The website would feature simple navigation, a staff directory, news postings, a calendar and highlighted stories, and it needed to support iPhones and iPads, which had been adopted by the physicians in that department. We turned to Zurb Foundation to streamline development and design.

We found this project a great opportunity to upend the traditional design and development process. With the content provided, we skipped wireframes and comps and whipped up a complete prototype of the website using Zurb Foundation, which we presented to the client. With their approval, we applied design elements to enhance the user experience — typography, colors, photography — all within the grid-based structure provided by Foundation. Sticking to Foundation’s grid and leveraging ready-built components kept us on schedule and on budget. The launch met with rave reviews.

Relying on a framework may run contrary to our idea of work as craft, but we should be willing to acknowledge cases where using one to deliver a mobile-friendly website in the face of other constraints is a solid win.

A responsive framework such as Zurb Foundation defines columns that float side by side on large screens…

… and that reflow into a single column for small screen dimensions. We’ve shared a streamlined demo on our website.

The Socially Conscious Client

If your client appreciates your efforts in building websites that are accessible to those with physical impairments, consider that Internet access is fast becoming a basic right and necessity in modern society. An Android smartphone offered by a cellular carrier may be the closest we get to universal broadband Internet access.

The mission of the Web Standards Project, founded in 1998, includes “delivering sites that are accessible to more people and more types of Internet devices.” On 1 March 2013, in a post titled “Our Work Here Is Done,” it said that “the web as an open, accessible, and universal community is largely the reality.” By relying on semantic, standards-based HTML markup and leveraging ARIA roles and best practices, we can be confident that the content we put online can be accessed with assistive technologies. Good markup is good citizenship, and accessibility means ensuring that everyone has equal access to the Web.

But enabling software to parse the content on a website and enabling users to interact with a website on small screens are two different things. When we look at the migration of content and tasks onto the Web — job postings and applications, breaking news and weather alerts, healthcare records, social networks — accessibility is about more than screen readers. It’s about access to the Internet, and for more and more people, the Internet is a small screen. We need not only to support interactions on mobile screens, but to ensure content parity. Supporting mobile, too, is often done by stripping out content. But omitting content to fit a smaller screen is not equal access — it turns mobile users into second-class citizens.

According to Pew Internet, 17% of all US mobile-phone owners “go online mostly on [a] cell phone.” Among young adults and non-whites, that number is even higher, as it is among those with an annual household income lower than $50,000 and those who have not graduated college. In developing countries and on other continents, mobile phones may be the general population’s only means of accessing the Internet. Investing in semantic markup and a mobile-first approach ensures they can access your client’s content, too.

Ignoring mobile not only means ignoring a significant segment of society, but risks limiting the ability of many to find work, to find information or to enjoy equal access to what are becoming essential rights. If your client is sensitive to these sorts of issues, then this valuable insight should resonate with them. In some industries and with some types of information, such as job postings and healthcare data, ignoring mobile could one day constitute discrimination.

Mobile Is An Opportunity

If you’ve been doing this for a while, like I have, then you’ll know that the growth of the Web has been painful at times, with browser wars, table-based layouts and Flash. Mobile offers some kind of a “reset” button. It gives us a chance to do things right from the outset. Future-friendly, mobile first — these aren’t trite buzzwords. They represent a shift towards building websites that are accessible and intuitive for users, while being sustainable and profitable for our clients. We have the opportunity and incentive now to create websites that are platform-agnostic, that allow content to reflow and shift to fit different contexts and that can adapt to dramatic shifts in user behavior over time.

At the same time, we have more work to do. Quality assurance across multiple devices, better up-front planning, and coding for multiple design breakpoints all add layers of time and effort to a standard website build. Every project offers a chance to try a new tool or technique, and we’re still finding our way to best practices. However, as Elliot Jay Stocks puts it, “once you overcome that initial struggle of adapting to a new process, designing and building responsive sites needn’t take any longer, or cost any more money.” It’s just a matter of finding and adapting a new design process and using it efficiently.

The key in all client interactions is to understand the goal before focusing on the specifications, to listen, and to present a solution to the client that addresses their needs. That solution, and how you present it, should instill confidence that their investment in your work is sound.

At this stage, mobile is always on the table for us. More often than not, by adjusting the scope and expectations, by seeking out options that fit the budget and requirements, by informing and educating our clients in alignment with their values, we can find victories big and small in our projects and do our part to move the Web forward.

(al) (vf)

© Mark Reeves for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

April 08 2013


Campaigning With Personality: How To Raise Your Email Above Inbox Noise


If we look at email from a signal-to-noise perspective, then one-to-many emails are undeniably in the “noise” category; people are exceedingly good at ignoring them. Even Gmail and Hotmail are helping us ignore them by providing smart inboxes that sort incoming messages.

Emails from our families, friends and coworkers, however, are “signals.” We go out of our way to read them. But those emails aren’t the only ones — on occasion, we’ll happily read messages from businesses or complete strangers. Why? Because these emails are interesting, engaging and, most importantly, full of personality.

We’ve become very selective of what we consume in order to keep from drowning in our overfilled inboxes. Emails from Dad or a lifelong friend take priority, because they’re people we know and trust. Emails from outside our circle? Not so much. Our brains have an upper limit; we don’t have the capability to focus on an unlimited number of things, and our mental ability to care about the things that do interest us wanes over time.

But ultimately, we crave interaction, whether it comes from a trip to an unfamiliar part of the world, from conversations with friends or from the deluge of stories delivered by the 24-hour news cycle. We need to be engaged by ideas and people. It’s built into our psychology.

So, what can we do to make our email more engaging? How can we make sure that people are eager to read it? What gives an email personality? Before we can answer those questions, we have to overcome a couple of problems.

Information Overload

The first problem, as unintuitive as the notion might be, is the inability of humans to multitask. In “The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen shows that more and more evidence is being found to indicate that our brains simply aren’t wired for it. Despite what many believe, performing several tasks at once (like sitting at a computer and browsing the Web while talking on the phone and taking notes) isn’t multitasking, because we aren’t actually doing all of those things simultaneously.

What we’re actually doing is moving laterally, and switching quickly from task to task. Because of this, we end up in a state of “continuous partial attention,” a term coined by Linda Stone to describe the broadening of our focus from one task to many. Whether or not this sort of divided focus is a bad thing depends on the context; it serves us well at our desks, but take that phone conversation behind the driver’s wheel, and the effect is detrimental.

Our failure to maintain a high level of interest in a subject can be traced to what’s known in psychology as “secondary traumatic stress disorder,” colloquially known as “compassion fatigue” (see the chapter by Charles R. Figley in the “Sources” section below). You’ll find compassion fatigue in just about any caregiving profession — therapists may eventually need therapists of their own, and doctors’ bedside manner might cool over the years. You’ll also find it in customer service, where burnout is common. The growing cynicism over the state of news media is another clear example, as people become wearier of the “always on, always a scoop” environment. To combat that fatigue, news outlets double down on their tactic, and the problem turns into a cycle. So, compassion fatigue is our second problem.

To capture someone’s attention, we have to overcome these issues. For email, it lies in convincing people to take that first look, and then getting them to care enough to hang on for the long term. As people become more exacting of what they allow in, we creators need to become just as discriminating about what we put out.

The Subject Line

Getting people to take that first glance at an email can be difficult. Inboxes all seem filled to the brim, so finding a good hook is important. Writing captivating email content arguably starts in one place: the subject line. There’s no shortage of theories on what tone works best, or which words to avoid, or how long a subject line should be. It’s not an exact science, and a wealth of studies out there prove it. One of the more interesting looks at subject lines comes from the recent re-election campaign of US President Barack Obama.

Back in November, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Joshua Green on the short, familiar subject lines used in the Obama 2012 campaign emails. “Would love to meet you,” “Do this for Michelle” and “Hey” are three examples of subjects the campaign used.

Some of them read more like subject lines you’d find in spam than anything from the President’s camp. They’re not much better than what I’m seeing in my own junk folder today: “Let’s hang out!”; “Check this out”; “Hey!” In fact, I recall receiving the “Hey” email from the Obama campaign and immediately marking it as spam. Seriously? The Obama campaign sending an email that opens with “Hey”? Get real. That’s absolutely spam.

As it turns out, I was in the minority.


“Hey” was incredibly popular, and that email raised quite a bit of money for Obama. The single-word subject, incredibly light in tone considering its source, came out of left field and snagged the attention of millions of people. A casual tone for a decidedly non-casual topic worked as a hook and got people to open the email. Green goes on to highlight how the Obama campaign team didn’t stop there — it kept iterating and testing and running with different quirky subject lines, and in turn raised a large portion of its $690 million worth of online donations through emails. But the subject lines always kept that simple slant.

The Content

The success of the Obama for America emails didn’t just come from the subject lines, and the team didn’t reach everyone it targeted on the strength of “Hey” alone. The subject lines were the initial draw, but the content of the emails, written in a familiar and conversational tone that belied their lofty source and that subverted expectations, made them effective. (See “Message Machine: Reverse Engineering the 2012 Campaign” by Jeff Larson and Al Shaw in ProPublica.)

An archetypal example of an email driven by great content is Dave Pell’s NextDraft. Pell crafts each issue of NextDraft daily, with content curated from the day’s most important or interesting news, along with a smattering of related stories. What Pell does with NextDraft is undeniably successful: Today, the newsletter goes to more than 25,000 readers, and every month more than 2,000 new ones sign up. The open- and click-rate numbers for NextDraft remain so consistently high that they put the rest of his industry — media and publishing — to shame; the average open rate for NextDraft hovers around 57%, compared to an industry average that checks in at around 17%. Click rates are similarly impressive at around 30%, versus a industry average of just 4%. By all measures, Pell’s doing it right.


Much of the reason why NextDraft works so well comes down to the way he handcrafts each issue. Pell takes a different tack on writing, blurring the line between one-to-one and one-to-many emailing. “I am writing my content to be read as a newsletter,” he told me. “It’s not a repurposed blog. I write it as I would write an email to anyone.” The distinction that website and email content should be handled in fundamentally different ways is spot on. The contrast between the two is stark, yet many of the emails arriving in our inboxes today can be considered “website, extra small,” when they should instead be purpose-built to better suit the more personal environment that email makes possible.

Pell also likes the relative permanence of email “in this era of Facebook and Twitter streams, where the news seems to flow by in the blink of an eye,” and he says there’s a benefit to the fact that “a newsletter is right where you left it.”

The Audience

Crafting kick-ass subject lines and content won’t get you anywhere, however, if you’re writing to the wrong people. Recognizing your audience and what they expect is an important factor in crafting a successful email. In Pell’s case, NextDraft emails are written in a voice and tone of familiarity, which resonates with his readers and makes each issue valuable to them.

Knowing your readers is easier when you have a narrowly defined audience, like Pell does, but it’s not always clear from day one who your audience actually is; the readers of the Obama for America emails had all, at some point, opted in to receive the emails, whether through a petition, a donation or any of the million other ways there were to land on the campaign’s list. But over time, not everyone stuck around.

There’s a certain level of attrition in any audience. When I received my first Obama for America email, I immediately marked it as spam. Those “Hey” subject lines matched a pattern that I considered spammy, especially coming from a source that I didn’t believe would use such casual language. That doomed the endeavor from the start; working at MailChimp, I’m already preoccupied with junk email, so the notion that I’d mark the email as such isn’t really unusual (unless “Democrat 30-something user-experience designers working for an email service provider” is a segment of the population they’re specifically targeting — in which case, the subject line shows a lapse in judgment). So, admittedly, I’m probably not a good representation of who the Obama folks were trying to snag with those subject lines.

But the majority of their readers didn’t go anywhere. In this case, the remaining audience was very likely composed of Democratic and independent supporters of the President. That audience is part of what’s known in psychology as an in-group: a cluster of people who share a collective identity (see Henri Tajfel’s article listed below). Taking this into account, the notion that “Hey” worked makes a lot more sense when you also consider what your average email recipient expects. Obama’s “Hey” and a spammer’s “Hey” both work because we see “Hey” from our friends all the time; as an audience of social animals, people are already receptive to these short titles.

There’s a quote that reads, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” The remaining readers were already predisposed to open any email coming from the Obama camp. They made up a more narrowly defined audience that was emotionally invested in these campaigns, and they were exactly the right group to target.

The Source

Over the long haul, the combination of a catchy subject line, interesting content and an ideal audience will certainly get an email opened and read, but it also nets something else that contributes to long-term success: trust. When people subscribe to a list, they’re actively seeking a relationship with the creator and trusting that the communication they receive will have some value.

Here again, NextDraft is the perfect example. Dave Pell’s readers rely on him to curate, summarize and deliver each day’s important or compelling news stories. That’s a big responsibility for Pell, especially considering that some of those readers might be using NextDraft as one of their few news sources.

In a world where everyone has too much to worry about, many people can’t keep up with current events by seeking out stories from specific news websites, and instead rely on aggregators — be they friends, blogs or half-hour comedy news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Given this, we can see how Pell himself acts as a news source. He isn’t simply forwarding content from various sources; he’s selecting meaningful stories, offering commentary and helping the reader to digest each item — much like an anchor you’d see on a nightly news round-up.

Pell has developed a trustworthy voice with a sense of gravitas, but he can also be funny and lighthearted, and his tone changes to suit the news he’s summarizing. Pell’s personality, combined with his interesting and reliable emails, builds trust. His emails resemble something we’d receive from a friend. Pell says there’s “a certain level of intimacy to the exchange… People let me into their inboxes, and if they have something to say, they can just hit reply.” This openness to discussion makes his readers trust him even more, and his conversational style of writing makes him more accessible as a creator.

Practical Application

The principles followed by Obama for America and Dave Pell are building blocks that we can apply to any other email campaign.

Knowing the audience might be the most important piece of data to have before that first campaign goes out, although we may not know who exactly that audience is. In the beginning, casting a wide net is OK. Eventually, defining the audience more narrowly will be essential; that broad view that we start with makes it harder to find what works moving forward. Specialization is key. We can begin to focus on a more narrowly defined audience simply by asking ourselves who we’re writing for, by finding our in-group. Is that group comprised of industry peers? People with similar cultural interests? Friends? We can adapt our content and style based on this better understanding of the audience. We can come to a place where we’re sending them email they actually want to read over and over because, in the end, it’s something we’d read ourselves.

Once we’ve defined our audience, then crafting subject lines that work is about fitting the right peg in the right hole. It’s not an easy task, but we can home in on what piques our readers’ interests and develop a good hook by using our own preferences as a baseline. What would I like to see? What would get me to open this email? From there, we can iterate. Just talking to family, friends and coworkers to get an idea of what subject lines hit the right note for other people is a great place to start. Once the audience is a little larger, something more formal, like A/B testing, is a logical next step. With feedback from others, we then have a chance to develop our voice and tone and write in a way that keeps people interested and that fosters the relationship between creator and consumer.

Panic uses beautiful emails with a friendly tone and voice.
Panic uses beautiful emails with a friendly and helpful tone and voice. Larger version. (Image Source: Lucien W. Dupont)

Writing good email content is a craft of its own, and one that isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. We can start with some good baselines, however. Email isn’t a long-form medium, and in a world that’s becoming increasingly mobile, lengthy and wordy often does more harm than good. Write like the audience is distracted. We’re dealing with small screens, busy lives and short attention spans — every email benefits from being short and sweet. What we write should be focused, clear and concise. We can better serve our readers by formatting content into digestible sections. If we have a lot more to say, then linking to external content or even returning to the topic in the next email might make sense; the semi-permanent nature of email allows for some episodic risks to be taken. Remember, too, the importance of design in email. Presenting content in a beautiful way, whether through images or typography, can also improve how readers respond to emails.

Even given great content, the importance of creating a two-way relationship with readers can’t be overstated. Building a connection and making an email something that our subscribers have a stake in is necessary for success. Trust is at the root of that connection. If we’re able to provide readers with something of value that doesn’t just add to the background noise of life, then they’ll find the time and commit to hearing what we have to say. This bond is the ultimate goal for creators. A little personality goes a long way when it comes to making email interesting and worthwhile. People don’t want neutral email; they want intriguing and familiar. If the Obama campaign can get away with a “Hell, no” in its subject line, we can all find a way to pour a little bit of our own personality into what we write. Humans are social animals by nature, so why not make emails more sociable?

One-to-many mass email is, by definition, a largely impersonal venture, so email often ends up boring and lacking in character. But with care and attention, we can buck that trend and create emails that mean something to people. By getting to know your audience and writing to them in a personable and conversational way, your email can rise above inbox noise. It can be about human connection.



© Fabio Carneiro for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

March 27 2013


When Traditional Solutions Fall Short: Navigation For Mega-Sites


For most websites, navigation is not particularly challenging. A primary navigation bar, supported by sub-navigation, is often enough.

Typically, sub-navigation displays the parent, siblings and children of the current page. A persistent primary navigation bar shows top-level pages, allowing users to move between sections.

However, there is one class of website for which this traditional form of navigation falls short. It is what I refer to as a “mega-site”.

What Is A Mega-Site?

A mega-site is typically owned by a large organization that encompasses a broad range of services or products. The organization also often supports a diverse user base.

Organizations with mega-sites include institutions such as the BBC, companies with diverse portfolios such as Microsoft, government bodies, higher-education institutions and large charities that run many campaigns, such as the World Wildlife Fund.

These websites:

  • are extremely large,
  • are many levels deep,
  • are made up of many micro-websites and subsections,
  • cater to many audiences,
  • have multiple entry points.

Websites of this size and complexity bring some unique navigational challenges.

The Challenges Of Navigation On Mega-Sites

At our company, we do a lot of work on mega-sites, and they can prove to be particularly challenging, especially when trying to use traditional navigation.

Traditional Navigation Cannot Support Depth

The deeper the website, the more that traditional navigation struggles. Navigation can comfortably accommodate three levels; beyond that, one of two things happens. Either the navigation expands to the point where more screen real estate is dedicated to navigation than to content (a problem made worse by the sheer number of pages on a mega-site), or higher pages in the information architecture no longer appear in the navigation.

In the latter case, if the user is deep within the website, they will lose the context of where they are because they are not seeing where the current page fits in the website’s structure.

Image showing navigation dominating page real estate
While traditional navigational approaches, combined with breadcrumbs, can scale to accommodate mega-sites, they do so at the cost of ever-increasing real estate. Larger version.

The latter problem can be partially mitigated by well-implemented breadcrumbs. However, this is not the only issue with traditional navigation.

Traditional Navigation Cannot Support Multiple Entry Points

Traditional navigation can confuse users who enter the website via a micro-site or subsection.

Take a student who is considering attending a university for post-graduate studies. This person is probably more interested in a particular faculty or school than in the institution as a whole. They could, therefore, very well enter the website at that level, rather than at the university’s home page.

Another example would be a single mother wanting to know about child benefits. They are more likely to arrive on the benefits subsite than on the government’s home page. In such situations, the user’s focus is on their current context (i.e. post-graduate studies or child benefits). They are not immediately interested in the broader mega-site.

Unfortunately, traditional primary and secondary navigation exposes the user to this broader context, whether they want it or not.

An example of a site with confusing navigational labels
Does a section labelled “Research” on a university’s page refer to the entire university or just the school being viewed? What about when the same label appears twice but goes to two separate places? Larger version.

To make matters worse, the current context can actually alter the user’s perception of the navigation items. For example, would our post-graduate student think that a link labelled “About us” is about the school in question or about the larger institution. In some extreme cases, you can even find the same navigation labels being used for both the current context and the broader institution (for example, information about the university and about the school might both be labelled “About us” on the same page).

How, then, can we solve the navigation problems of mega-sites?

Navigation Solutions

As with all things, there is no perfect solution. However, there are solutions that are a step forward from navigation better suited to small websites. The first of these solutions is the most radical.

Get Rid of Navigation Entirely

I first heard of this approach in Russ Weakley’s talk about doing away with traditional navigation back in 2006. It rejects the idea of imposing a navigational structure upon users, instead allowing them to find their own path through the website.

This is achieved by making each Web page a standalone document and tagging it with appropriate meta data. Users can then find pages through a combination of search and navigating by tags. Pulling in links to related documents based on the meta data associated with each page would also be possible.

This approach has several advantages:

  • It supports a website of limitless size.
  • It is ideally suited to users who come to the website from a deep link.
  • It allows for a much more dynamic relationship between pages and easily accommodates pages being added and removed.

Of course, it is not without its challenges. While individual sections of the website could still have a landing page (for example,, the business may well struggle with the idea of not having a specific website to manage. More importantly, this approach relies heavily on having well-tagged documents and powerful search functionality, both of which are hard to achieve with a mega-site.

That said, it is an option, and one that shouldn’t be quickly dismissed.

Split the Website Into Smaller Micro-Sites

Another approach is to break the mega-site into a number of smaller more manageable micro-sites. This is the approach adopted by the BBC.

Instead of treating its Web presence as a single entity, the BBC has broken it down into subsites, such as news, sports, TV, radio and so on. Each website has its own navigation and thus avoids the problems associated with mega-sites.

The way the BBC avoids a disjointed experience for users who move between micro-sites is to ensure consistency in top-level navigation and in the user interface.

BBC web presences
The BBC avoids being a mega-site by splitting its Web presence into a number of smaller websites, while maintaining consistency in navigation and design language. Larger version.

Although the BBC’s micro-sites do vary in appearance, they make use of the same primary navigation, and also have a consistent design language for things like typography, layout and modules. This language, defined on the BBC’s Global Experience Language (GEL) website, is consistent enough to ensure a stable user experience yet flexible enough to cater to different audiences and subject matter.

It is a fine line to walk. Make each micro-site too different and users will become confused by changes in the UI. Make them too similar and users will be thrown off upon finding that the website does not have a single navigational structure.

Use a Breadcrumb-Driven Approach

A third solution is the one adopted by It does away with dedicated areas for navigation, and instead uses the page’s content to link to its children. It then uses breadcrumbs to help the user identify where they are within the navigational hierarchy and to move back up the tree when needed. website relies almost exclusively on breadcrumbs for navigation. Larger version.

The approach has many advantages. For a start, it minimizes the space dedicated to navigation, while at the same time allowing for much more detailed descriptions of each child. In that sense, it is the simplest, cleanest and easiest to understand of the approaches.

It also translates well to mobile devices, which account for 45% of’s Web traffic.

The prominent breadcrumbs make clear to the user where they are on the website, while in-page navigation to child pages makes the next step obvious. Most of all, the emphasis on content, rather than navigation, appeals to me the most.

Unfortunately, it does have its downsides.

By relying entirely on breadcrumbs and in-page links to children, the user has little context of their current position. They are unaware of the siblings of the current page and of the overall shape of the website (for example, they are unaware of the top-level sections).

This is not a problem if the user is trying to complete a specific task and the website has catered to that task by bringing all content related to it in a single place. However, when a user is in general research mode or when the content related to the task is spread across multiple pages, this approach can prove frustrating.

The frustration is caused by the breadcrumb navigation requiring the user to navigate up and down the website’s structure. There is no way to enable jumping between sections.

Fortunately, there is a hybrid approach, which uses breadcrumbs as the primary navigational tool, but augmented with more traditional navigation.

My Preferred Solution

My preferred solution is inspired by the navigational approach used by BBC Sports before GEL was introduced.

Instead of running them horizontally, the BBC flipped the traditional breadcrumbs vertically. At the end of each breadcrumb list, the current page also showed its children. When you reached the bottom of the tree, the navigation would continue to display the siblings of the current page, instead of its children.

Screenshot of the old BBC sports website
The old BBC Sports website used vertical breadcrumbs as the primary navigation tool. When the user entered a section, such as football, all other sports (i.e. the siblings) would be removed, focusing the user on the subject at hand. Larger version.

This approach grouped all navigation together in a single place, gave the user a clear sense of their location and reduced the space dedicated to navigation. Yet, it still suffered from the problems of

When working on the University of Brighton, we proposed BBC Sports’ approach, but added one important thing. We suggested keeping a consistent top-level navigation bar. While this adds more navigation to the page, it gives the user an instant overview of the structure of the website. This enables users who require information from multiple sections (say, a prospective student researching courses as well as accommodation) to jump quickly between those sections.

In many cases, this is enough to create a simple yet powerful user experience. However, it does not address the need to be able to see the siblings of the current page.

Showing Siblings While Using Breadcrumb Navigation

So far, I have considered two possible solutions to this issue.

One works on the assumption that siblings often have a relationship with each other; they are part of the same story, if you will. On that basis, the simple addition of “next” and “previous” buttons (such as you find on many blogs) might be enough of a solution. Users could then move between siblings with the single click of a button.

An alternative approach would be to make each level of the breadcrumb navigation a flyout menu, thereby exposing the siblings of that level. This would enable the user to jump to any sibling on any level of the website and potentially do away with the need for a separate primary navigation bar.

An example of flyout breadcrumb navigation
By adding flyout menus to the vertical breadcrumb navigation, you give users quick access to any sibling on any level of the website. Larger version.

This could work whether you use vertical breadcrumb navigation or traditional horizontal breadcrumbs.

That said, I haven’t tested this approach, and some will have concerns about touch devices.

More Ideas Needed

As you can see, the issue of navigation on mega-sites is a thorny one, and there does not seem to be a single obvious solution. One of the primary reasons for writing this post is to open a discussion on the subject and hopefully encourage the exploration of some alternative approaches.

As a result, I would really appreciate your thoughts in the comments section and any examples of alternative navigational approaches you have found.


© Paul Boag for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

March 12 2013


Everywhere All at Once: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Print design is not web design. This we know. And a design that works well for the web may not translate to mobile and handheld devices. True, true. But is there a way to ensure that content – the “stuff” around which design orbits, after all – can be communicated effectively regardless of the medium in which it’s presented? This isn’t a problem limited to visual designers; it affects the entire organization. Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s new book, Content Everywhere charts a path away from the web’s previously popular, one-size-fits-all approach.

The motto guiding NPR’s API is abbreviated COPE: “create once, publish everywhere.”

Now, there’s an idea. Wouldn’t it be nice to publish everywhere, rather than once for desktop, once for mobile? Once for this app, once for that one? Robust content frameworks such as COPE challenge the rather simplistic notion that designers can create templates beforehand, into which content is added after. They come from a place where content strategists, information architects, and visual designers – the entire organization, really – work together in preparation for publication; where content is viewed as a system, rather than a two-dimensional “deliverable.”

Sara’s philosophy frees content from its container.

And the book bringing this idea to a broader audience? Content Everywhere by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. We jumped at the chance to read it and, afterward, implored her for an interview to better understand her perspective. What, exactly, is the ethos guiding this movement? And how does she see it affecting content strategy as a profession?

We don’t blame you if you’re just as fired up as we are. And if you haven’t had a chance to read the book just yet, don’t worry: we’ve got details on how you might win a copy after. Enjoy!

Hey Sara, thanks for taking the time to chat! What inspired you to document your understanding as a book? Are there other mediums you’ll use to share Content Everywhere, well, everywhere?
It all started in the summer of 2011. I’d long been thinking of the content I worked on as a system, not just a series of pages. I was pretty involved in decisions around content structure and architecture simply because I wanted the content to work – to be more usable and easier to find. I’d never formalized any of that thinking, though, or really even considered that it might be something other content strategists weren’t doing.

Then Ethan Marcotte’s book came out and I realized the time was right. Responsive design makes it nearly impossible not to deal with content in a substantial, deep-dive sort of way. So I wrote some blog posts and started to talk about this stuff when I was subsequently approached about writing a book.

Of course, I’ve given conference talks and workshops about this idea (I try to keep my Lanyrd up-to-date); I’ve written articles where I can. But one of the most important ways I spread this thinking is simply by bringing this ethos – that content is a system, and that we have to change not just templates but our practices—to everything I do. It’s changed how I tackle projects, talk to and educate clients, and collaborate with project teams.

So how would you say this notion intersects with other user experience design concerns: findability, accessibility, aesthetics, etc.?
Clear, purposeful content is also well defined, structured, and organized. This benefits everyone. Metadata and content chunks make content easier to find because they enable things like faceted search and also give you better deep linking – not to mention more ways that you can jigger your internal site search engine to give more relevant results. Clear labeling of content – according to what it is, rather than big blobs of text – tends to aid accessibility as well.
In order to “chunk” content you’ve proposed content modelling, a process frequently employed by information architects. As content strategists take on tasks such as content modeling, where do you see the line between IA and Content Strategy?
I don’t. That’s not to say that they’re the same discipline – or that they’re interchangeable – but content strategists and information architects have many shared concerns and practices, and I don’t see a problem with that. In fact, we should share concerns. You can’t have too many people on a project who care about content. You just have to be willing to cede control over some of the things you could do, but the other person might be better equipped for – and vice-versa.

I’d also like to point out that information architects adopted content models from database developers in the first place. It’s not like any one discipline has a lock on them. In fact, precious few IAs – or content strategists, for the matter – are currently using them, and that’s a shame, because they’re really a great, cross-disciplinary tool. I suspect it’s because we’ve placed a lot of priority in recent years on interaction design (IxD) rather than IA. IxD is an important discipline, to be sure, but lovely UI patterns alone won’t solve the problems so many sites have: content that’s buried, lost, disconnected, and generally difficult for users to find and use.

Many of the things for which you advocate – metadata, for example – feel poorly handled by today’s basic, off-the-shelf Content Management System (CMS) software (such as WordPress). Do you believe that architecting and maintaining a robust system of content necessitates that companies build their own CMS from the ground up?
I specifically don’t advocate for any one technical solution in the book, because I don’t think you can make decisions about how to store and publish content until after you’ve figured out (1) what you’re doing, (2) why you’re doing it, and (3) what sort of content structure and systems you’ll need to support that. Well, that and the fact that I’m not a CMS expert.

WordPress works great for lots of small businesses, and it works fine for my oft-neglected little blog. Many startups operate with no CMS, but they also often have tremendous engineering resources at their disposal and don’t really publish that frequently. It works for them to hard-code copy changes. But for the sorts of organizations and content challenges I’m talking about – in industries like media, higher education, nonprofit, and government – a CMS is pretty critical.

Some organizations do well with completely custom CMSes. NPR, for example. They’ve built lots of structure into their CMS interfaces, so their content can easily make its way into the NPR API. They’ve also invested in their CMS’s interface, so writers and editors can focus on their job rather than getting an overwhelming desire to walk out into traffic every time they log in.

But you can get structured, reusable content out of many, many existing CMSes – from open-source options like Drupal to enterprise-style products like Sitecore and Vignette. Their features and benefits (and drawbacks) vary, but they’re all capable of being configured to support many things for which I advocate: metadata, content modules, and the like.

The problem is that, quite often, CMS purchasing and configuration decisions are made by an IT person with a checklist rather than someone with deep knowledge of the content being managed. The content crowd is oftentimes too daunted by the technical bits to try to poke their nose into the conversation.

What I want is for content people to see that CMS decisions affect the success of their work, and to get comfortable enough with the vocabulary that they can be an advocate for users, and for the content itself, when CMS decisions are made. We could talk all day about the flaws with the CMSes that exist on the market: crummy code, bad text editors, broken user interfaces, baffling configurations. But they’re not going to get better unless people like us understand enough to know what to ask for.

So what advice would you offer designers, writers, architects – or even developers – who want to make content strategy part of their wheelhouse?
Content strategy, at its best, is more than the high-level goals and messages or the copy on a few key pages; it’s being able to design and work with your content as an interdependent system of assets, and about keeping that system of assets functional even as the site grows and changes. This means understanding both the big picture and all the little details that might stand in the way.

For writers or editors interested in doing more strategic work, this often means pulling off the blinders and looking at a broader scope. For example, you might be used to assessing the narrative within a single story, adjusting structure and pacing to make it work. In content strategy it’s the same skill, but you’ve got to apply it a plane or two higher: how does this individual piece affect the narrative of the broader content system, and where does it fit? Is every piece of content serving a purpose, or are some things just filling up space?

For people who come from design, UX, or development, there’s often the opposite gap to fill. While you might be used to thinking about systems, you might not be used to getting really, really close to the content that will go into that system – or considering how that content might change the way you design the system in the first place.

Wherever you come from, getting strategic about content demands that you can do both – even if you’re always going to be stronger in one side than the other.

Final question! With so many noteworthy books coming out recently, it’s almost impossible not to wonder: what’s next? What do you think is the next big thing for content strategy?
The more we tackle content, the more we realize just how many of our problems start not on the website or even in the CMS, but in the very way our organizations are structured.

So many people imagine content as living in “their” sections and belonging to “their” department, rather than thinking of it as a system of information another human (who almost certainly does not give a damn about said department) has to find their way through. And it’s hard to blame them. If your job description has always been tied to checking “content tasks” off a list, then that’s how you’ll see your role. We have to show people at all levels of an organization, C-level on downward, that they need to think of the web as more of an organism than a repository.

The problem of silos isn’t new – it’s been coming since the internet started fundamentally changing both the way people live and what they expect from organizations. But the problem of disconnected companies is now impossible to ignore, because it’s being exposed, often painfully, by mobile and multichannel. If we want our content strategy work to be sustainable – to last once daily operations take over – then we’re going to have to keep unsnarling these messy organizational issues. There’s no other way.

Closing thoughts

Many thanks, again, to Sara for sharing her strategies with us. If you have a question that wasn’t answered above, please ask it in the comments below – we’ll do our best to make sure Sara sees it!

Want to get bust some silos and create great content for your company? Head on over to and purchase Sara’s book with discount code UXBOOTH.

But if “free” sounds better to you, you’re in luck. We’ve got five books to give away courtesy of the fine folks over at Rosenfeld Media. To enter for a chance to win, simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment below. Be sure to include your twitter handle and tell us a brief story about the content strategy (or lack thereof) at your current organization. What problems have you solved? What problems might Sara’s book help you solve? We’ll randomly draw five members in the next week, and contact you over Twitter. Good luck!

About the Author

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is an independent content strategist, writer, editor, and the author of Content Everywhere from Rosenfeld Media. When she’s not helping clients embrace flexible, mobile-ready content, she’s serving as the editor in chief of A List Apart; contributing to the Pastry Box Project; and speaking at conferences worldwide. You can reach her at

The post Everywhere All at Once: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher appeared first on UX Booth.

February 12 2013


The Grammar of Interactivity

User Experience Design calls for us to write words on buttons all the time – but how do we know whether we’re choosing the right ones? Linguistics may provide a clue. What follows is a simple test to check whether your calls to action “work” linguistically as well as a guide to consider the grammar of your experience elements.

We all shudder a little when we look back on the days of “Click here to…” calls to action. But if someone challenged you, could you suggest a general formulation to explain what is – and isn’t – the correct form of words to use on a button?

We had a situation recently at the Guardian where we were debating the form of words on a call-to-action button. I quickly realised we were all talking around the issue – “No, it should say this!” – rather than grappling with the mechanic itself. Could we apply a generalized principle to chose a grammatically correct form of words?

It turns out there’s a real value to exploring the grammar of “button wording.” Not only does it allow us to feel more confident about choosing our words, it helps to explain why some sites seem to able to align their wishes so elegantly with those of their users.

They’re not doing anything magical; they’re just choosing the right words.

It starts with a verb

Lots of articles advise on button language. One of the best-worded actually appeared on these pages back in 2009:

Buttons are for actions, like “Get a quote,” “Download,” “Open an account,” “Go to checkout.” The text on the button should begin with a verb. Otherwise it’s not a call-to-action, just a button with some text on it. “More information” for example, is not a call-to-action.

David Hamill

Think about what your user would say if you asked him what he was trying to do. If he would say, “I want to compare the price,” then “Compare the price” is what you write on the button. These are what Jared Spool calls “trigger words.”

The author begins with some firm, grammatical advice: “text should begin with a verb.” But it’s this formulation that’s really worth unpacking: “Think about what your user would say if you asked him what he was trying to do.”

Here the author hits on a linguistic condrundum: how can we contrive a form of words that can be both what a user would say, but also what we’re asking him or her to do? The answer matters because buttons have a dual function: they are both calls to action – the publisher expressing an opportunity to a user – as well as the mediums by user express their decision.

So… what form of English grammar is up to that challenge?

Setting the mood

Many languages have a grammatical concept called “mood.” The easiest way to think of grammatical mood is as an “attitude” that the speaker takes in relation to what they wish to say: “I am stating a fact” vs. “I am suggesting this might be true” vs. “I am commanding you to do something” etc. Specifically:

  • The conditional mood expresses conditional logic: “He would return to his basket if…”
  • The subjunctive expresses possibility: “If it were a basket, he might return to it…”
  • The imperative is used for commands: “Return to your basket!,” and
  • The interrogative, for questions: “Is he returning to his basket?“

What all moods have in common is that it is clear who the speaker is; “who” is doing the talking.

The web is different. The publisher, the creator of the website, writes the words – they create the invitation to act – but it’s the user who actually clicks. The user triggers the next part of their journey.

So the words on our buttons must make sense in the context of not one “speaker,” but two: the publisher and the user. A classic expression of this conundrum is in whether to use the possessive adjective “my” or the possessive adjective “your” on a button. Microsoft’s Style Guide suggests that both have their place, catering to different speakers at different times:

Use the second person (you, your) to tell users what to do.
Example: Choose the pictures you want to print.

Use the first person (I, me, my) to let users tell the program what to do.
Example: Print the photos on my camera.

This distinction seems arbitrary, though. Is there any meaningful difference between “telling users what to do” and “letting them tell ‘the program’ what to do?” A form of words that works no matter who is speaking?

Wilty Wilt

Taking linguistics as its guide, one practical solution is to say that the words on a button must make sense after both the interrogative “Would you like to…?” (where the publisher speaks) as well as the conditional “I would like to…” (where the user speaks). I call this the “Would you like to? / I would like to” test, or WYLTIWLT (pronounced “wilty-wilt” – a bit like WYSIWYG) for short.

In theory the WYLTIWLT test provides a way of evaluating every button you see, or might create.

Buttons that pass the WILTYWILT test.

How do the buttons on the world’s popular sites fare when put to this test? Pretty well, in fact. (Facebook is worth a special mention: I couldn’t find a single button on Facebook that didn’t pass. Twitter and Google slip up occasionally.) Above are some examples of “buttons that pass the WYLTIWLT test” – from all over the web.

There are plenty of failures, too. Here’re just a few.

Buttons that do not pass the WILTYWILT test.

It’s interesting to note that by far the most frequent mistake (at least, according to this logic) is the use of possessive adjectives (“my” / “your”) in buttons:

What’s more

Using WYLTIWLT as a guide, here are a couple of principles to help you create a ‘grammatically correct’ site. Consider:

Functionality first

When it comes to expressing personality, it’s tempting to be verbose. Don’t. Instad, consider using more direct messaging: “Keep out!”, “Stop”, “Give way.” This verbage is highly effective, so don’t shy away from being terse. Pinterest manages to be perfectly friendly despite using direct (and concise, helpful) forms of words like ‘Invite friends” and “Find friends” on its buttons.

Retain the human touch

At the same time, don’t have to give up on personality. Just remember to obey the rules of grammar when you do go out on a limb. Smug Mug, the photo-sharing site, is a case in point. Their “Camera Awesome” app for iPhone has an Instagram-like function where you can add effects to photos. The call to action is “Awesomize”. It’s a cute, made-up word, of course, but it’s clear what it means, and it’s a verb, meaning that it fits the WYLTIWLT test. (“Would you like to Awesomize?” “I would like to Awesomize!”) Even though it’s contrived, it works elegantly as the publisher’s invitation and the expression of the user’s will.

Use design in conjunction with language

If you’re struggling with how to avoid using the second person on a button – “Your messages” etc. – see if design can help. Instead of writing “your” or “my” on the button, make it clear – perhaps in the header of a drop-down menu – to which person a particular set of actions or destinations relates. Pinterest exemplifies this in the way it directs the signed-in user to “messages’, “pins’, “likes’. They don’t use the possessive “Your’ and yet it’s perfectly clear where a click will take you to your pins because of the way the menu is designed.

Exceptions prove the rule

Just because there are rules doesn’t mean you can’t break them. Some of the best web companies don’t adhere to grammatical rules when designing their buttons. “I’m feeling lucky,” for instance, is possibly one of the worst-worded buttons ever, and yet the Google home page would look strange without it. The important thing is to use simple, effectively-worded buttons most of the time – and then you can afford to go off-piste every once in a while.

Getting moody

Buttons aren’t the only form of language you have to worry about on your site, but they do create some of the most important messaging on your site, and the language you choose will determine how successful that messaging is. The WYLTIWLT test can help you choose a form of words that is both concise and which, by virtue of grammar, helps to align your wishes with those of your user, creating an altogether more harmonious experience on your site.

The post The Grammar of Interactivity appeared first on UX Booth.

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