The other day I decided to set up two relatively common household products: (1) a wireless router and (2) a portable steamer. The instruction manuals and the resulting experiences of each setup couldn’t have been more different. Can you guess which required more energy, brain power and patience?
Ding ding ding ding ding! It was the steamer!
Why did setting up an appliance with mechanical engineering akin to a kitchen kettle feel like preparing a space shuttle launch…while a device manufactured by a cable company took five minutes with zero aggravation or ambiguity? The answer: User Experience design.
Good UX: The Router Setup
Setting up routers used to involve sitting on the phone with the cable company and wishing it was somebody else’s job. Now it’s as simple as flipping open a glossy, single-page pamphlet and following clear, colorful diagrams placed alongside highly legible text.
There was even some witty Easter Egg copy as if a real human being wrote it and not just a systems engineer:
Relax? No problem! In fact, when the blinking lights stopped flashing after just two minutes, I felt like a technical genius.
Bad UX: The Steamer
The steamer was another story. A list of 14 steps with essentially no visual hierarchy made it nearly impossible to skim for the most important information: how to avoid burning yourself. In fact, this nugget is all the way at the bottom of list item 13, below a mountainous, monotonous section of text. “The water in the reservoir can severely burn skin.”
The visual aid stresses the importance of moving the steamer up and down. This doesn’t seem like the most important and/or complicated piece of information for a user to grasp.
Here’s how I would have written this information:
Before You Begin:
- DO NOT fill with water past the max line.
- DO NOT tilt the steamer back and forth or water will drip out.
- Use an up-down motion, not too long in the same spot.
- When you’re done OR need a refill, unplug.
- Wait 5 minutes after unplugging for unit to cool before handling.
STEP 1: Fill steamer with water.
- Twist reservoir cap clockwise to open.
- Add tap water up to the maximum line. Do not overfill.
- Replace reservoir cap and twist counter-clockwise to close.
STEP 2: Turn on device.
- Plug device into power outlet and press ON.
- When on, the switch will light up.
- Wait 2-3 minutes for unit to heat up.
Step 3: Steam clothing.
- Always keep unit in an upright position.
- Point steam holes at wrinkled fabric. Move steamer in an up-down direction.
- For best results, pull fabric firmly in place while steaming.
Step 4: Unplug and allow to cool before handling.
- Even after turned off, any water inside the unit will remain boiling hot.
- Wait 5 minutes before handling.
- Once cool, empty excess water and replace cap.
- Store in a cool, dry place.
People who buy portable steamers value convenience. It should be easier to assemble. My revision lists key safety concerns at the top followed by a logical order of steps, told in fewer words.
If Apple can bring computers to the masses, and Fios makes it painless to set up routers, manufacturers of household appliances have no excuses for dated, poor user experiences.
Get it together! (pun intended)
Advertising for social good.
Each trend contains an undeniable tension almost to the point of oxymoronic. For culture enthusiasts and market researchers these concepts are ubiquitous, provocative and irresistible. To read about online. To dream about. To wait for some form of acknowledge on a grand scale, that would enable modern culture to progress to the next chapter. If only Walter Benjamin could help us navigate this stuff.
At a macro level, these trends may connect to the rate of change we’re experiencing in the Digital Age. Perhaps the tension it all creates with human nature is finally coming to a head. Maybe Steve Jobs underestimated how dramatic the 2007 iPhone launch would become in hindsight. He introduced it as an iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a “breakthrough internet communication device” but back then who knew what that truly meant?
Watching visions of the future from the past is a trip.
Watching the 2007 iPhone launch in 2016 feels like watching a sequel to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. I remember meeting at the library one night in college to watch it for a Literature course — Modernity and Fin de Siècle. The psychological and emotional gymnastics of watching a 1927 dystopian film as a college junior a few years post-9/11 was disorienting. I remember leaving the library in tears I was so disturbed, and called my mom for comfort. It took a few days to shed the strangeness the film cast over me.
The mindfulness movement, the struggle for brands to sound authentic, Michael Porter’s idea of “shared value” to fix capitalism, the interest in B-Corporations … all of these trends align with a rising need for meaning. The kind of meaning that escorts the realization that you’re small and the world is large. It’s hard to grasp this when instead of contemplation we insert social media and apps into any down time.
According to an upcoming trend report by JWT, 78% of respondents “believe that we’re losing some important human qualities by spending so much time immersed in technology”.
I’m inspired by this statistic. It will exist as a benchmark. Which means we can propose solutions to lower it. To start, I will unpack each apparent “paradox” from the top of this rant in a weekly post…as soon as my graduate thesis is done. Stay tuned!
I’m attending AdWeek NYC for the first time. (That’s a career milestone, right? Adding it to my resume.)
Starting my master’s in Communications has already opened doors and my mind; I wouldn’t have known about AdWeek’s student rate had a classmate not mentioned it during a lunch break (thanks Anthony!). Both panels I attended today reinforced key concepts from a course in Organizational Strategy:
Concept 1: Success Isn’t Defined By Competition Alone
In a discussion about entering “the millennial music stream” moderated by a FastCompany Senior Editor, Rob Brunner, the CMO’s of Spotify (Seth Farbman) and Pandora (Simon Fleming-Wood) discussed how each company views the other as a “complementary” rather than competitor brand. Normally I would have felt this was lip service. And maybe it was. But the discussion definitely swam into Blue Ocean territory when Apple Music came up. When asked about their thoughts on Apple Music, each CMO stated if the service is a “category expansion” or an innovation, they view it as a good thing for the entire industry. The prevailing attitude was one of healthy competition and a deep mutual respect. Farbman expressed his appreciation for Apple as a brand that provides “something for others to measure themselves against,” which challenges other brands to remain clear about what makes them unique.
A love of music was tangible throughout, as Pandora’s CMO used a beautiful metaphor, comparing music to an “emotional sherpa”. He explained, “We know where we want to go throughout our day. We rely on our music to take us there.”
Concept 2: Social Responsibility as Strategy, Not Afterthought
The last panel I attended was called “Global Brands, Global Goals, Igniting Social Good“. We watched the newly launched #WeHaveAPlan ad for GlobalGoals.org and listened to a discussion of the campaign strategy by its co-creators, film-writer and director Richard Curtis CBE and BBH founder Sir John Hegarty. Also on stage was the CMO of Getty Images, a partner in the campaign. She introduced the panelists as “men who are not only great in their fields, but are also good men. And when great and good men come knocking on your door, you open it.” Immediately I knew I picked the best panel for that time slot.
Again, concepts taught in class were reinforced by the conversation. Specifically that it’s no longer enough to think of Corporate Social Responsibility as merely an initiative or a campaign, tacked on as an after-thought. Rather, the most successful companies and organizations bake sustainability into their core business strategy.
Perhaps most compelling was the discussion of whether the #GlobalGoals campaign can actually produce deep, meaningful change or if it’s just glorified slacktivism – and if this even matters, so long as the Global Goals are achieved. It was a healthy debate, as another audience member asked how the campaign plans to sustain itself over the next 15 years, after the initial media push from last weekend’s Global Citizen’s concert.
The response was an honest acknowledgement by Curtis that many people in the business world consider sustainable development to be naive, liberal or too left-winged to be taken seriously. Yet…revolutions start when a few like-minded, passionate people band together. That getting a Facebook Like is better than doing nothing. And that “revolutions start on the edges, not the center”. And that “we mustn’t forget the power of broadcasting” – a quote by Sir John Hegarty I will take to heart as I navigate my career in communications.
Oh hey. I’m going to write a blog post about the most recent mind-blowing cultural shit I’ve seen in New York because it makes me feel like I’m getting more value for my rent.My first impression of the New Museum back in 2007 was of dismissal; it felt too conceptual, postmodern and obnoxious. The art was not accessible; it made me feel dumb for not “getting it” – for not having any emotional response to “artwork” made of children’s toys and colored planks of wood with pieces of garbage tied to a string.
Last year I gave it another shot for Chris Ofili’s “Night and Day” exhibit. Massive, colorful, collage-like paintings and intricate, obsessive pencil drawings showcased an impressive range of materials. Infamous for his elephant dung paintings, Ofili is more than shock value and envelope-pushing. He is inspired by the human experience and his contemplation of socio-economic inequality. The New Museum redeemed itself for me with that exhibit. It was edgy, modern and relevant – but was also authentic, relatable and accessible. I appreciated it.
Then I heard about this year’s Triennial. I assumed it would include more of the earlier kind of art: conceptual, postmodern…and obnoxious. I then discovered this video online by artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison. I highly recommend watching it and her entire series, “Touching The Art”.
I had to see for myself what was going on here. I ultimately visited the exhibit twice because I couldn’t absorb it all in just one visit. I felt more inspired and connected to not only the artwork but the concepts and motivation behind the artwork, that I only made it to two out of the four floors of artwork on my first visit. The work, collected from 51 artists from 25 countries around the world, explored how digital technology is connecting and separating us as a society more than ever.
My Favorite Pieces
Each floor of the exhibit was introduced with a warped, enigmatic poem. A choppy yet effortless stream-of-meta-consciousness meditation. It expresses the way we communicate today, with common anxieties, typos, symbols and misspellings marked by our text-based culture.These poems saved me. They made me think “OMG someone else gets how ridiculous everything is.” I smiled while reading each one.
Indian artist Shreyas Kahle’s work left the biggest impression on me after my first visit. He explores “the distorting effect of the male gaze” as seen in the marble sculpture below: are they mountains or boobs? I love his cerebral sketches and “pseudoscientific” symbolic drawings; they evoked a Magritte-esque surrealism in a more raw expression. (“Surround Audience”, New Museum Triennial, Feb-May 2015, p. 188)
The shameless honesty and self expression of artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison made me laugh out loud while watching a video installation of her avatar performing a standup routine. (Her YouTube interview series, which got me to see this exhibit, was playing on a flat screen TV in the museum lobby.)
These dreamy, haunting paintings by Chinese artist Firenze Lai left me breathless. These figures with warped proportions, to express the way our relationships with others (and ourselves) are often similarly warped with modern technology. We’re always available, we’re always able to connect with everyone everywhere…yet we don’t fully feel “connected” at the same time. I think this is a universal symptom of modern life and I loved every minute I felt like there are others who feel this way – and can creatively express the ennui of the digital age.
The perfect mix of truth, beauty and intellect.
Art that explores how disconnected we are as society has the effect of subverting that very feeling; it makes you feel connected to the brave artists who felt compelled to visually express their own dissatisfaction with the state of things. It’s all very cerebral and conceptual, but not overly so, with just the right balance of meta-consciousness and visual aesthetic.
“Surround Audience” ends today…but good news! I bought the coffee table book of the exhibition so if we’re friends IRL I’ll let you look through it if you wash your hands and tell me how cool my apartment is both before and after looking through my cultural coffee table book of cool-ass, mind-blowing artwork.
It’s a humbling experience to realize that while you enjoy writing, did well in school and aren’t afraid of expository essays – it’s a whole other world when writing for the web. Social media, email newsletters, company blog posts…these should be considered channels to produce “copy” – not tomes.
Compelling copy is written economically.
Less is more, no matter how long the supporting body copy should be. Twitter imposes a 140 character limit….but Facebook doesn’t. Neither does email. Long-winded social media posts and emails bore readers; too much copy that takes too long to get to the point sacrifices attention – and ultimately sales.
Consider theSkimm, an email newsletter that raised $6.3M in Series A funding this past December. It recaps top news stories, pared-down into informal, easy-to-digest snippets. Created by two former NBC News producers, theSkimm excels at explaining why those top stories are considered important. This layer of meta-value is created thanks to an appreciation by the editors for their audience’s time and intelligence: busy professionals who want to know not just what’s happening in the world, but why it matters.
Another example of the value of sharp content is Blinkist, an app that summarizes nonfiction books into 250 words or less chapters, including a Final Summary chapter. Their tagline is “A smarter you in 15 minutes”. Brilliant. For free, you get access to one pre-selected book a day. I recently upgraded to receive unlimited “Blinks” for less than $40 per year. Classics like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Emotional Intelligence and Getting Things Done are broken down and digested in a way that feels intravenous.
This trend is also part of what makes Medium so compelling as a blog publishing platform; each post has a “read time” next to the title, allowing the reader to mentally prepare before making any investment of attention or time.
theSkimm, Blinkist and Medium are examples of how to make online content compelling. They’re both modeled on providing “hooks” – a reader gets a taste of something he or she can then decide to further investigate. theSkimm links to original sources; I’m waiting for Blinkist to offer integration with Amazon’s “Wish List” if not a direct link to the book’s product page.
Brands interested in grabbing and retaining attention need to say less.
Which requires smarter writing. Which involves more thought. To understand the target audience. What’s the value of the content. How to communicate smartly and effectively.
For more on writing crisp, concise copy for the web, Copyblogger is a great resource on the topic. Pair with “Hey Whipple Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan, a guidebook on creating effective ad copy. You could even read it in 13min on Blinkist. 😉
3 min read
One of the hardest parts of working for yourself is managing your time. Especially if you’re in the business of helping to manage web content that is goal-oriented and likely to produce positive results.
Pitching work as packaged deliverables with deadlines is a skill. It requires organization, foresight, planning, experience and discipline. You’ve got to communicate the deliverables and the deadlines clearly, and ensure you meet them. If the project involves other team members, this also includes follow ups and budgeting for the kind of “stuff” that “happens” and slows projects down. Toss on top of that things like staying on top of industry news, learning new tools to improve your work, networking, sales calls. Prioritizing and reprioritizing. Maintaining your online presence. Updating your portfolio with new work.
Creating work to pay the bills
To produce impactful digital content takes time. It takes thought and planning. Research and analysis. Creativity is the key ingredient and good creative requires direction, purpose or constraints. Creative briefs are great for this, but you may be the one responsible for creating those as well, depending on project resources.
Self-imposed structure is hard to enforce. You’ve got to stick to the schedule you created. Be realistic about commitments. Communicate with clients and friends in a purposeful yet positive manner.
Creating work for personal expression
When getting paid to produce creative work, it’s often necessary to separate your ego from the work to move projects along. But it leaves you feeling in need of a creative outlet elsewhere – and who has time for that? If you’re going to invest on creating something it better be worth it, because time is money…right? As a self-employed creative, making time for personal creative expression can feel like an irresponsible squandering of your most valuable resource.
Solution: Process v. Product
“Show Your Work” is a practical approach by Austin Kleon for putting creative work out there – which in today’s world means putting it online. Sharing influences, inspiration, rough sketches, etc. It’s about embracing the “process” as part of the work.
“The only way to find your voice is to use it,” says Kleon.
The same advice is found in “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron – the Bible of unleashing creativity and transforming potential into practice. Cameron says to enhance the quality of the work once must first increase the quantity. To create better work – you’ve got to create more of it. Kleon’s book focuses on placing one’s work into the public domain. This sets a process in motion, as you’re more likely to get discovered by those who share your interests, which can inspire more work.
So, starting today I’m taking this advice to heart by implementing a routine in which I sit down and write for 25 minutes, first thing in the morning, every day of the week. Even before I take my dog out. (She values creative expression, and is a creature of habit so I’m confident if I stick to this routine she’ll get used to Mommy sitting at the desk for a bit before we go downstairs. I think she’d agree that Mommy needs to find her voice on this damn blog once and for all.)
Day 1: Check!