To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’
The artist as UX designer
For Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, his art form is one of compression:
“The work that actually works best deploys information visually to give you the necessary signs and not too much more.”
The photograph below was selected by the art critic and historian Simon Schama as his ‘photograph of the decade’. It depicts the smoldering devastation after thieves in Lagos, attempting to siphon oil from one of the many pipelines that travel through city districts, had ruptured a pipe, triggering an explosion.
Here is Schama on the significance of the image for him:
“But what makes the image profound, almost redemptive, is its foreground figure, our Everyman, standing amid the remains of some burnt-out vehicle, the spokes of wheels and steering wheels enduring in the debris. The only thing not consumed by the incineration is his defiantly beautiful djellaba-like robe, patterned in brilliant scarlet and lapis blue. That startling blue, the blue of a tropic sky, is echoed in the plastic bucket he holds in his left hand, empty of the water he has just thrown over himself, drops of which have been caught by the camera falling from his face. His right hand is raised to his brow to wipe the cooling water, and enough of his face is exposed to reveal the kind of beauty seen on the finest Benin sculpture heads.
Thus: the human condition in the age of planetary calamity; a solitary figure risen above the horror and misery, not in theatrical heroics but in an act of simple, instinctive desperation. Oil, the emperor-element of our modern wasteland, monstrous in its victimisation, yet yielding for a split second to the mercy of water, the element from which we, and what is left of our planet, remain constituted.”
All that in one image.
The novelist Geoff Dyer selected this photograph of insurgents or innocent villagers – we know not which – being led away for interrogation by a marine.
They are blindfolded. But as Dyer comments:
“In the short term that marine knows exactly where he is going and what he is doing but, beyond that, he is following orders, blindly. No one knows what lies in the future, beyond the frame a few yards to his left.”
Again. All that compressed in one image.
Or consider how Banksy utilizes physical context and five words to editorialise (if somewhat glibly) on the state of modern Britain:
The art of distillation and compression is not of course limited to the visuals arts.
The short story writer and director of the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University George Saunders also emphasises the importance of compression:
“I think “compression” is just another way of saying “increased intelligence.” By cutting out the implied or lackadaisical or mundane things, the intelligence of the piece increases—more is being assumed of the reader, which I think the reader appreciates. We are cutting past the surface and going right to the heart of the matter, whatever the matter turns out to be. In short fiction especially, seems to me, what’s important is not the surface—the rooms, accents, natural environment—but the emotional center. So compression just means leaving in the minimum amount of surface that will communicate some basic sense of reality—a kind of stretched skin over what really matters, which is human beings struggling to remain human.”
In 2008 the short story writer Gary Lutz delivered a wonderfully obsessive lecture to the students of Columbia University’s writing program. In ‘The Sentence is a Lonely Place’ - Lutz devotes his entire lecture to dissecting at length the reader’s experience of some of his favourite sentences from works of literature.
As example of this art of distillation, Lutz cites the opening sentence in Sam Lipsyte’s story “I’m Slavering,” in Venus Drive:
“Everybody wanted everything to be gleaming again, or maybe they just wanted their evening back.”
According to Lutz:
“The paraphrasal content of the statement informs us that high hopes for a return to a previous wealth of life or feeling are inevitably going to have to be scaled back and revised immediately and unconsolingly downward… It’s a richly summational sentence, not the sort of sentence you might expect to find at the very outset of a story—but there are writers whose mission is sometimes to deliver us from conclusion to conclusion instead of necessarily bogging us down in the facts, the data, the sorry particulars leading to each conclusion.”
Or consider how the first sentence of Douglas Adams’ The HitchHiker’s Guide To the Galaxy puts the reality of homo sapiens – and of the reader – in its proper, disorientating, insignificant context:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. ”
Nabakov begins Humbert Humbert’s story and captures an entire sexual obsession in just one supremely economical, gorgeously alliterative line:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Perhaps as communicators and marketers we have something to learn from the artist.
For all these are examples of the highly efficient communication of meaning and story. All are examples of delivering meaning in compressed formats. Whether that’s a single cell in a graphic novel, a photographic image, or a single sentence.
And they are experiences that give back to us far more than the effort we put into consuming them. Thereward:effort ratio is tilted heavily towards the audience’s reward.
This sense of creating efficient and intuitive experiences is central to what we now know as UX. Thus one of the guiding principles for UX design as articulated by the independent user experience strategist and management consultant Whitney Hess:
“Make things efficient – A primary goal of experience design is to make things efficient for the human before making things efficient for the computer. Efficiency allows for productivity and reduced effort, and a streamlined design allows more to get done in the same amount of time.”
Similarly, this sense of simplification, distillation and the creation of fluid, intuitive experiences in which the reward outweighs the effort is reflected in Apple’s guidelines for mobile UX design. For example – “Make Usage Easy and Obvious” and “Minimise the Effort Required for User Input.”
Long before the UX designer, there was the artist.
Lightweight content in an age of infinite media
The supply of media was once bounded. A finite number of media owners sold a finite amount of media inventory.
This unavoidable constraint taught us the art and discipline of distilling our efforts down to fit the shape and size of that media. The 30 second spot. The 48-sheet poster. The single-page print ad. And so on.
Now this isn’t a merely a paen to the power of visual language. After all, an entire brand, a human mission, a corporate philosophy, a motivating doctrine for consumers and employees alike is encapsulated by just three small words. Just. Do. It.
No, this isn’t about words or pictures. Or indeed about any other form of experience and interaction. But about efficiency and reward.
Today we also have access to unbounded media. All that now limits it us the attention and interest of consumers. And this is the crucial point. Just because there’s now an infinite void, doesn’t mean we have to fill it with content – people’s time and attention spans have not suddenly become limitless.
So the combination of infinite media and (thanks to technology) interactivity does not demand that everything we make be deep, expansive, immersive, time-consuming, and active participation-dependent. As the global head of brand design at Facebook Paul Adams has cautioned, marketers should beware creating deep, immersive, ‘heavyweight’ experiences:
“Marketers are building web apps. Ads that you can interact with. Ads with animation, motion and multiple layers of interaction. Everyone building these “immersive” experiences are swimming upstream. Almost every app built for a brand on Facebook has practically no usage. Think about it – when is the last time you used an app built for a brand? Heavy, ‘immersive’ experiences are not how people engage and interact with brands. Pitched against strategies built around many, lightweight interactions over time, heavyweight experiences will fail because they don’t map to real life.”
Heavyweight experiences ‘don’t map to real life’ as Adams puts it, because most people don’t regard learning about brands as very important. As Robert Heath notes:
“Because brands are so competitive, and are updated in performance so swiftly, ‘needs’ are almost always satisfied by many brands. Consumers quickly discover there is little to be gained by trying to rationally analyse and compare brands with each other, and brand decisions tend to be taken intuitively.”
One need only look at how much knowledge people have actually acquired about brands to understand that unlike ourselves in marketing- and adland, people in the real world are not avid students of brands.
Analysis conducted by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp of Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science across 145 brand and 13 categories, demonstrates that 20% of a brand’s customers hold about 40% of the image associations. The other half of a brand’s knowledge is spread thinly across 80% of its customer base. And of course when non-users of the brand (but users of the category) are included in the analysis the Pareto pattern becomes even more pronounced.
Similarly, when one delves into Facebook’s ‘People Talking About This’ metric (PTAT) introduced by Facebook in October 2011, we see that most people are not interested in ‘engaging’ with brands. Quite aside from the fact that most people are not interested in becoming ‘fans’ of brands.
‘People Talking About This’ is the number of unique users who have created a ‘story’ about a page in a seven-day period. On Facebook, ‘stories’ are items that display in News Feed. Users create stories when they: like a page, post on the page wall, like a post, comment on a post, share a post, answer a question, RSVP to a page’s event, mention the page in a post, tag the page in a photo, check in at a place, share a check-in deal, like a check-in deal or write a recommendation. Whenever a person takes one of these actions, it counts toward People Talking About This
Analysis undertaken by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s Karen Nelson-Field and Jennifer Taylor shows that in any given week, less than 0.5% of Facebook fans engage with the brand they are fans of.
Of the 200 brands they studied, only one showed a level of engagement over 2%, and only 10% of brands reached the 1% mark.
The authors note that this number may even be conservative: “The ambiguous nature of the PTAT number is such that the metric tracks unique user visits interacting with a page over a seven-day period, however no information regarding the distribution of unique users is revealed. Administrators cannot tell, week to week, whether many unique users interacted once or whether many interactions were from the same unique user.”
Clearly most people aren’t into brands the way we are. And that, surely, must be our starting assumption for all our efforts. As Jim Carroll has written: “Would not an honest acceptance of the diminished role a brand or category plays in consumers’ lives encourage us to think harder about utility, experience and reward?”
Such an “honest acceptance” should surely stimulate us to be designing with the indifferent in mind. Not merely the interested and enthusiastic.
And that in turn should encourage us to create light- not heavyweight experiences.
In this endeavour, the advice of Whitney Hess to UX designers is relevant to everyone in marketing- and adland:
“Leave complexity to family dynamics, relationships, and puzzles. The things you create should be easy to use, easy to learn, easy to find, and easy to adapt.”
Now this might irk or enrage some, but traditional advertising (if we really must to call it that) is a great example of delivering a lightweight experience that’s “easy to use, easy to learn [from].” Adams misunderstands the nature of advertising when he claims that “Almost all advertising campaigns today are based on heavyweight experiences.”
As Robert Heath has shown us, advertising works precisely because it is a lightweight experience that makes little demands of us:
“We tend to process anything to do with brands at very low attention levels, using a process called Low Involvement Processing. Low Involvement processing uses very little working memory and does not generate thoughts about the ‘meaning’ of the information, It tends to store everything in long term memory as it is received.”
And thus as Feldwick and Heath remind us, nothing more demanding than some blue bubbles drove O2 to the top of the mobile phone market, the banter of two oversexed French aristocrats revived the share fortunes of Renault, and a labrador puppy running around sustained the category leadership of Andrex for twenty years.
As they put it, “30 seconds of apparent nonsense, watched through half-closed eyes, can affect brand preference and buying behaviour.”
Sitting on the jury of the Cannes Effectiveness Lions this year and speaking to jurors on other categories confronted me with an irony. You’ve create an elaborate expansive, immersive integrated brand experience for your consumers. You then want to communicate that in an exciting and memorable way to a jury who you know are reviewing thousands of cases and will have limited patience for laborious explanations. What do you do? You create a two minute piece of film.
And thus the Google Voice Search poster campaign which won the Media Grand Prix, The Mercedes Invisible Drive Campaign which won one of the outdoor Grand Prix, and the Go Outside Magazine Repellent Radio campaign which won the Radio Grand Prix – all used a compact piece of film to sell the idea to the jury.
Of course advertising doesn’t hold a monopoly on lightweight, meaningful experiences.
As Renny Gleeson shows, nothing more heavyweight and demanding than a well-designed 404 error message can contribute to our feelings about a brand:
And with its “Help I’ve cut myself & I want to save a life” product, Help Remedies packages donor kits with its adhesive bandage products.
All you need is a drop of blood to complete the registration – a drop that will probably be available if you’re needing a bandage. Nothing heavyweight is imposed. No huge change in behaviour is asked for.
In his preface to Sophie Lovell’s examination of the life and work of the product designer Dieter Rams, Jonathan Ives comments on his “ability to bring form to a product so that it clearly, concisely and immediately communicates its meaning.” Perhaps we all have something to learn from this sense of creating effortless, intuitive experiences – full of meaning or function – for people.
The art of generosity
Technology and the rise of the networked consumer has opened up the possibility of the consumer playing in the words of Patricia McDonald, an active role as “collaborators, salesforces, promoters and co-creators”
And of course technology now lets us create interactive experiences, in which the consumer not the advertisers shapes the flow of events and information.
As McDonald notes: “For good or ill, most campaigns today want consumers to participate with them in some way.”
But we should beware lest apparent limitless opportunity leads us to forget that most people don’t want heavyweight interactions when it comes to marketing content.
So perhaps as a counterbalance we should ask some newer questions:
How can we maximise the reward:effort ratio?
How can we reduce the cognitive and behavioural burden we place on consumers?
How can we make the experience of our marketing content frictionless?
How can we create experiences that are intuitive?
How can we compress meaning into the lightweight?
Decades ago, Howard Gossage wisely noted that “The buying of time or space is not the taking out of a hunting license on someone else’s private preserve but is the renting of a stage on which we may perform.”
Good advertising has always recognized this, asking for very little from its audience, and in return giving a lot back.
The forms which marketing and communications content take today are varied like never before. But the basic principle of good marketing being an act of generosity has not gone away.
It’s good UX.
And it’s good manners.
As Dieter Rams himself noted: “Indifference towards people and the reality in which they live is actually the one and only cardinal sin in design.”
Apple, iOS Developers Library
Jim Carroll, ‘Is That All There Is?’, http://bbh-labs.com/is-that-all-there-is
Paul Feldwick & Robert Heath, ‘Fifty years of using the wrong model of advertising’, International Journal of Market Research, vol. 50, No. 1, 2008
‘The 10 Photograps Of The Decade’ at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/series/the-10-photographs-of-the-decade
Robert Heath & Jon Howard-Spink, ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ Current thinking About the Brain Means we Need to Change the Way Brands are Researched’, Market Research Society Conference, 2000
Whitney Hess, ‘Guiding principle for UX designers’ at http://uxmag.com/articles/guiding-principles-for-ux-designers
Sophie Lovell, Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible
Patricia McDonald, ‘Briefing for participation’, http://planninginhighheels.com/2012/07/02/briefing-for-participation-4/
George Saunders at http://www.exmachinapress.com/saunders.htm
Cinemagraph by Jamie Back and Kevin Burg, http://www.unfinishedman.com/incredible-cinemagraphs-by-jamie-beck-and-kevin-burg/