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Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient by Jeffrey Zeldman

I’m at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jeffrey is kicking off the show with a presentation called Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient. I’m going to jot down some notes during this talk…

First, a story. Jeffrey went to college in Bloomington, Indiana. David Frost—the British journalist—came to talk to them. Frost had a busy schedule, and when he showed up, he seemed a little tipsy. He came up to the podium and said, “Good evening, Wilmington.”

Jeffrey remembers this and knows that Seattle and Portland have a bit of a rivalry, and so Jeffrey thought, the first time he spoke in Portland, it would be funny to say “Good morning, Seattle!” …and that was the last time he spoke in Portland.

Anyway …”Good morning, Portland!”

Jeffrey wants to talk about content. He spends a lot of time in meetings with stakeholders. Those stakeholders always want things to be better, and they always talk about “engagement.” It’s the number one stakeholder request. It’s a metric that makes stakeholders feel comfortable. It’s measurable—the more seconds people give us, the better.

But is that really the right metric?

There are some kinds of sites where engagement is definitely the right metric. Instagram, for example. That’s how they make money. You want to distract yourself. Also, if you have a big content site—beautifully art-directed and photographed—then engagement is what you want. You want people to spend a lot of time there. Or if you have a kids site, or a games site, or a reading site for kids, you want them to be engaged and spend time. A List Apart, too. It’s like the opposite of Stack Overflow, where you Google something and grab the piece of code you need and then get out. But for A List Apart or Smashing Magazine, you want people to read and think and spend their time. Engagement is what you want.

But for most sites—insurance, universities—engagement is not what you want. These sites are more like a customer service desk. You want to help the customer as quickly as possible. If a customer spends 30 minutes on our site, was she engaged …or frustrated? Was it the beautiful typography and copy …or because she couldn’t find what they wanted? If someone spends a long time on an ecommerce site, is it because the products are so good …or because search isn’t working well?

What we need is a metric called speed of usefulness. Jeffrey calls this Content Performance Quotient (CPQ) …because business people love three-letter initialisms. It’s a loose measurement: How quickly can you solve the customer’s problem? It’s the shortest distance between the problem and the solution. Put another way, it’s a measurement of your value to the customer. It’s a new way to evaluate success.

From the customer’s point of view, CPQ is the time it takes the customer to get the information she came for. From the organisation’s point of view, it’s the time it takes for a specific customer to find, receive, and absorb your most important content.

We’re all guilty of neglecting the basics on our sites—just what it is it that we do? We need to remember that we’re all making stuff to make people’s live’s easier. Otherwise we end up with what Jeffrey calls “pretty garbage.” It’s aesthetically coherent and visually well-designed …but if the content is wrong and doesn’t help anyone, it’s garbage. Garbage in a delightfully responsive grid is still garbage.

Let’s think of an example of where people really learned to cut back and really pare down their message. Advertising. In the 1950s, when the Leo Burnett agency started the Marlboro campaign, TV spots were 60 seconds long. An off-camera white man in a suit with a soothing voice would tell you all about the product while the visuals showed you what he was talking about. No irony. Marlboro did a commercial where there was no copy at all until the very end. For 60 seconds they showed you cowboys doing their rugged cowboy things. Men in the 1950s wanted to feel rugged, you see. Leo Burnett aimed the Marlboro cigarettes at those men. And at the end of the 60 second montage of rugged cowboys herding steers, they said “Come to where the flavour is. Come to Marlboro Country.” For the billboard, they cut it back even more. Just “Come to Marlboro Country.” In fact, they eventually went to just “Marlboro.” Jeffrey knows that this campaign worked well, because he started smoking Marlboros as a kid.

Leaving aside the ethical implications of selling cigarettes to eight-graders, let’s think about the genius of those advertisers. Slash your architecture and shrink your content. Constantly ask yourself, “Why do we need this?”

As Jared Spool says, design is the rendering of intent. Every design is intentional. There is some intent—like engagement—driving our design. If there’s no intent behind the design, it will fail, even if what you’re doing is very good. If your design isn’t going somewhere, it’s going nowhere. You’ve got to stay ruthlessly focused on what the customer needs and “kill your darlings” as Hemingway said. Luke Wroblewski really brought this to light when he talked about Mobile First.

To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here?

Well, we prioritised meetings over meaning. Those meetings can be full of tension; different stakeholders arguing over what should be on the homepage. And we tried to solve this by giving everyone what they want. Having a good meeting doesn’t necessarily mean having a good meeting. We think of good meetings as conflict-free where everyone emerges happy. But maybe there should be a conflict that gets resolved. Maybe there should be winners and losers.

Behold our mighty CMS! Anyone can add content to the website. Anyone can create the information architecture …because we want to make people happy in meetings. It’s easy to give everyone what they want. It’s harder to do the right thing. Harder for us, but better for the customer and the bottom line.

As Gerry McGovern says:

Great UX professionals are like whistleblowers. They are the voice of the user.

We need to stop designing 2001 sites for a 2018 web.

One example of cutting down content was highlighted in A List Apart where web design was compared to chess: The King vs. Pawn Game of UI Design. Don’t start by going through all the rules. Teach them in context. Teach chess by starting with a checkmate move, reduced down to just three pieces on the board. From there, begin building out. Start with the most important information, and build out from there.

When you strip down the game to its core, everything you learn is a universal principle.

Another example is atomic design: focus relentlessly on the individual interaction. We do it for shopping carts. We can do it for content.

Another example on A List Apart is No More FAQs: Create Purposeful Information for a More Effective User Experience. FAQ problems include:

  • duplicate and contradictory information,
  • lack of discernible content order,
  • repetitive grammatical structure,
  • increased cognitive load, and
  • more content than they need.

Users come to any type of content with a particular purpose in mind, ranging from highly specific (task completion) to general learning (increased knowledge).

The important word there is purpose. We need to eliminate distraction. How do we do that?

One way is the waterfall method. Do a massive content inventory. It’s not recommended (unless maybe you’re doing a massive redesign).

Agile and scrum is another way. Constantly iterate on content. Little by little over time, we make the product better. It’s the best bet if you work in-house.

If you work in an agency, a redesign is an opportunity to start fresh. Take everything off the table and start from scratch. Jeffrey’s friend Fred Gates got an assignment to redesign an online gaming platform for kids to teach them reading and management skills. The organisation didn’t have much money so they said, let’s just do the homepage. Fred challenged himself to put the whole thing on the homepage. The homepage tells the whole story. Jeffrey is using this same method on a site for an insurance company, even though the client has a bigger budget and can afford more than just the homepage. The point is, what Fred did was effective.

So this is what Jeffrey is going to be testing and working on: speed of usefulness.

And for those of you who do need to use engagement as the right metric, Jeffrey covered the two kinds of metrics in an article called We need design that is faster and design that is slower.

For example, “scannability” is good for transactions (CPQ), but bad for thoughtful content (engagement). Our news designs need to slow down the user. Bigger type, typographic hierarchy, and more whitespace. Art direction. Shout out to Derek Powazek who designed Fray.com—each piece was designed based on the content. These days, look at what David Sleight and his crew are doing over at Pro Publica.

Who’s doing it right?

The Washington Post, The New York Times, Pro Publica, Slate, Smashing Magazine, and Vox are all doing this well in different ways. They’re bringing content to the fore.

Readability, Medium, and A List Apart are all using big type to encourage thoughtful reading and engagement.

But for other sites …apply the Content Performance Quotient.

See also:

100 words 070

My friend Jeffrey has been writing on his website for twenty years. There are very few things on the web that last that long. I’m very, very glad that his website is one of them.

I remember finding Zeldman.com—and Ask Dr. Web, and the Ad Graveyard—back when I was first “going online.” I remember being so grateful for his generosity, but I also remember that what really struck me was the warmth and humility in the writing.

My own website will turn twenty in another few years. I never would have started it if it weren’t for Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Zeldman: What Every Web Designer Should Know — A Better You At What You Do

I’m at An Event Apart in Boston where Jeffrey Zeldman is about to kick things off. I figured I’d try my hand at a little bit of good ol’ fashioned liveblogging…

Jeffrey’s talk is called What Every Web Designer Should Know—A Better You At What You Do. He asks “what does it mean to be a designer when everyone is calling themselves a designer?” 15 years ago, Jeffrey thought everyone would learn HTML and be a web designer. That didn’t happen but what did happen is social media, which is democratising online publishing. His 6-year old daughter uses an iPad like a natural, figuring out the interfaces of drawing tools.

The rules are changing. You may not be in control of the user’s visual experience. (those are direct quotes from his slides—he’s delivering pre-formatted tweets for the audience’s benefit)

Here’s the website of Roger Ebert. He’s a great guy and his website is full of links but it really isn’t set up well for reading. But that’s okay. Jeffrey uses Readability (and there’s also Instapaper) to format the content.

It used to be that the client or boss was in charge of the brand but that’s changing. There was always a minority of web users—using older devices, say—that wouldn’t see what you intended, but nowadays every user has the power to manipulate the output. Sure, us geeks always used user stylesheet to hide ads, but now it’s mainstream.

Readability is open source and it’s also the underlying code behind Safari’s Reader functionality

Definitions are in flux, discussion is contentious. A List Apart runs a survey every year. They ask “what is your job title?” They get a lot of different job titles that sound like they’re doing the same thing. At a university you might be called a “webmaster” whereas at an agency you might be called a “creative director” and yet you’d be doing the same work.

We geeks love to argue about definitions. See, for example, Whitney’s recent post called You’re Not A UX Designer If… A lot of people loved what she wrote; a lot of people didn’t. Luke wrote on Twitter:

Happy to find I’m not a UX designer.

Jeffrey responded:

Me neither. That’s why I hire them.

There are different kinds of creative people. That’s why Jeffrey likes to have a mix of people at his agency—the intuitive creative types along with the researchers.

Design that does not serve people does not serve business. It used to be that designers would respond to client feedback with their opinions; “here’s what I think…” and we could present data and research. It’s really important to think about the user first and foremost.

For example, apps that auto-spam people on Twitter sounds like a great idea to the client …but of course users hate it. It’s an anti-user pattern. Anti-user patterns are anti-business.

As Jeffrey was getting ready this morning, he want on Facebook and announced he was about to give a talk. He found thousands and thousands of spammy updates from some automated app. It’s embarrassing for the users who have been taken advantage of.

Content precedes design. Design without content is decoration. Jeffrey wrote that on Twitter, which is a great way of planting an idea in people’s minds Inception-style.

Remember Blogger? When Google bought it, they hired a bunch of people—including the viking-like Jeff Veen’s Adaptive Path—to retool the user experience of signing up for Blogger to make it accessible for everyone. They turned to Douglas Bowman. He reached out to a bunch of his designer friends, asking them to design templates. It was a really, really hard design job because there was no content to design with. Jeffrey feels that he himself failed at the task but somehow Doug managed to do it. He created a really nice template that worked for everyone. It has stood the test of time remarkably well. In his fifteen years of designing websites, this is the only example Jeffrey can think of of a good design created in the absence of content.

On a related note, 37 Signals have famously declared war on lorem ipsum placeholder text. All websites are based around content—including web apps. Take this link call-out to their first million-selling book Defensive Design in the sidebar. You need to know how long the blurb is going to be to make sure it works with the design.

You can’t solve the problem until you define it. You probably can’t solve it alone.

If you can’t solve a problem alone and you need to some user testing—not that we’re testing users; it’s design testing with users—one of the ways to do that is with Silverback. But like Jeffrey said, there’s always dissent. Naz Hammid said:

User testing is great but it can also be a crutch when what you really want to be doing is changing behaviour and thought patterns.

Take for example the “pull down to refresh” gesture from Tweetie. That was an innovation that wasn’t based on user testing. It worked though, and apps that didn’t use that pattern started to feel old-fashioned and dated.

Then there’s Tweetbot. Some people feel that the interface is excessive but they’re trying out new stuff like swiping left on a tweet to see a whole conversation and swiping right to see related tweets.

So you can innovate and get the innovation to go viral.

He not busy being born is busy dying. The three books from A Book Apart are quite different, from HTML5 to content strategy. What’s surprising is that the same people are buying all the books. We need to know a bit of everything in this industry. Maybe I’m not going to be a content strategist, but I need to know about content strategy.

It’s remarkable how nice is everyone is in this line of work. We all blog and share our ideas and techniques. That’s not the norm in other disciplines.

RIGHT NOW is the best time in more than a decade to create websites and applications. There are new opportunities: Webkit and Mobile, HTML5 and CSSS3, UX and Content Strategy. The landscape has changed in a good way. It’s bringing up a lot of challenges, for instance…

A Mobile and Small Screen Strategy: what’s the difference? A lot of time we say “mobile” when what we really mean is “small screen.” Is the “mobile” version of A List Apart really mobile? No. It doesn’t do any location-based cleverness. Instead it’s a layout optimised for a small-screen. So ask yourself, do you need a mobile site or do you need a small-screen site?

For some sites, especially content-driven sites, small-screen optimisation is the smartest strategy. For other sites, especially those with a location pivot, a mobile strategy is what you need.

Real web designers write code. Always have, always will. That’s another controversial little soundbite that Jeffrey put out on Twitter to spark discussion, like Whitney’s post. You don’t to code to the level of say, Ethan Marcotte, but you do need to know what’s possible with markup and CSS.

Progressive enhancement is a universal smart default. This is the watchword of the web standards movement. We’re okay with everyone not have the same experience as long as everyone has a good experience. Be sure to check out Adaptive Web Design by Aaron Gustafson. (note: seriously, this book is going to be amazing: I’ve had a sneak peek)

Some more soundbites:

Semantic markup is a fundamental skill.

UX and design are not antonyms.

A quick look at HTML5 Design Principles. We can learn a lot from ideas like “Pave the cowpaths.” Fail predictably. That’s a really, really, really important part of HTML5: consistent error handling. Beyond outline documents. Audio, video, articles, sections …HTML5 has new features that people want. If people are publishing video, shouldn’t HTML5 allow that?

Happy Cog wrote an article about strategies for using HTML5. Jenn Lukas did some research into how many sites are switching to HTML5. There are a lot of big sites switching their doctype: Google, Yahoo, etc. It’s kind of crazy the way that HTML5 has become a mainstream meme. Like, for example, Steve Jobs publishing his letter the day before HTML5 For Web Designers came out (good timing, Steve).

HTML5 DOCTYPE using limited HTML elements and ARIA roles. You can tailor your HTML5 strategy.

HTML5 + CSS3 = vector art in browsers. Experiment with things like RGBa.

There’s more that Jeffrey would like to cover, like Responsive Web Design, but the other speakers—like Ethan—are going to cover this stuff and time is up so that’s it, folks.

Understanding Web Design

I’m at An Event Apart San Francisco where Jeffrey Zeldman is taking to the stage. He’s going to talk about web design and what it means.

First question, “What is the thing that you need most?” “Empathy,” he says. He brings up a screenshot of Real.com. Everything that looks like a link isn’t a link. Everything that doesn’t look a link is a link …except the “Free Download” button. This site isn’t being driven by user needs, it’s being driven by corporate needs. Their mission is to compete with Quicktime and other media players but they also want to push the advanced player and make it hard to find the free player …competing needs.

Here’s another site: Consumer Search. You can find consumer reports there. They have a store of reports on how well products work or don’t work. But the site has no visual hierarchy, no sex appeal, just a long list of links.

Both sites suffer from a lack of empathy; empathy with the site’s users.

It’s hard being a web designer. The unmotivated need not apply. You have to constantly educate yourself. There are plenty of tutorials out there on using web design tools like Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver, and so on. But teaching Excel is not the same as teaching business. Knowing how to use Photoshop and Illustrator doesn’t make you a web designer. Good resources are hard to find. There’s that really good place in Florida (where Jade studied) that has a great curriculum but it’s the exception that proofs the rule. Once you’re out of college and in a job, you still have to keep learning. Jeffrey asks who often feels like they’re faking it and most of the audience puts their hands on.

The A List Apart Web Design Survey aims to answer some questions about working in web design. Last year’s survey showed that many people found that their education was not relevant to their job. In fact there seemed to be a correlation between how rich you are and how irrelevant your education is. When you break it down by job title, it turns out that graphic designers did find their education relevant but most developers are self-taught.

Web designers get no respect. Imagine you’re on a plane and you start chatting with the person in the seat next to you. If you ask someone what they do and they say they’re an architect then you make some assumptions about them; that they’re educated and respected. You don’t get that when you tell someone you’re a web designer. Part of the problem is that there is no standardisation of job titles. We call ourselves lots of different things. If you’re working with Fortune 500 companies that use lots of baloney titles, you feel you need to make up baloney titles for your company too. If you’re at a university, someone might be called a Webmaster. If you’re at a startup, someone might be called a User Experience Director. But they’re probably doing the same thing.

Another problem for people working in-house is answering the question “Who owns the website?” Usually it’s either Marketing or IT. There should be a separate Web division.

Another thing that the survey showed is that web designers don’t get rich. They make less money than people in comparable fields. This field also suffers from many of the same prejudices as other fields.

So who speaks for web design? Communication Arts is a magazine about graphic design. Every year they have an end-of-the-year round-up of the best in design. The problem with any kind of competition is that it fosters the same kind of design all the time. For example, when Jeffrey was a judge for Communication Arts, there was a beautiful site but it was half a gig in size. Jeffrey didn’t think that was worthy of a prize (although it really was gorgeous). In the 90s in advertising, it was much the same. There was a trend for edgy, sarcastic advertising that won awards and therefore prompted more sarcastic advertising.

Then there’s the Webby Awards, a very glitzy affair. David Bowie was the host this year. Jeffrey loves Bowie (he has bought his music multiple times) but is he necessarily the best judge of web design?

If you can’t rely on competitions and awards, you could turn to traditional news media. A few years ago Wolf Blitzer discovered blogs. They didn’t quite get it.

Jeffrey asks who reads TechC*nt. People put up their hands …they should be ashamed of themselves. Jeffrey, like me, doesn’t read TechC*nt because it just makes him angry. Who gives a shit about how much money people are making? Aren’t the ideas more interesting?

There’s the old chestnut about iconic web design, sparked by Armin Vit’s Under Consideration article. Jeffrey and Jason disagree on this one. Jeffrey thinks that lamenting the lack of a web design equivalent of a Milton Glaser poster is missing the point of web design.

Time for some practical lessons. Most importantly, we need to get away from the guitar solo approach to design. You should not be designing just to make other designers jealous. It happens a lot in design but it happens in development too (I’m looking at you, Ajax). Good design is invisible. It’s about the character of the content, not the character of the designer. Let’s get away from showing off get to empathetic web design. It means user-centred design but by abandoning that label we can side-step the religious wars between UCD and agile.

Here are twelve tips to empathetic web design.

  1. Start with the user. If you’re making a personal site, great, do whatever you want. But if it’s a site for other people, start with the user and stay there.
  2. Know yourself. Know your weaknesses. Know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. Jeffrey knows that he’s good at painting the big picture on a project but he’s not good at dealing with the details.
  3. Find the right client (or job). Find an environment or project where you can thrive. This ties in with tip number two: when you know what you like doing, you can seek out that environment.
  4. Sell ideas not pixels. Andy paraphrases this as sell the sizzle, not the sausage.
  5. I don’t know is okay. It should be acceptable to tell a client you don’t know something. If you’re afraid of saying that, that might not be the right client.
  6. Build trust. They need to know that you know what you’re doing.
  7. Bring out the big guns. Don’t be afraid to quote research at your clients. They won’t read it but they’ll be persuaded to trust you.
  8. Create a paper trial. Remind people what they already agreed to.
  9. Never underprice your works.
  10. Say no to spec. Don’t work on spec. Don’t work for free.
  11. Say no to rush jobs. They never work. The clients are always in a rush but they’re always late getting back to you. The reason it’s a rush job is because they spent months disagreeing about stuff.
  12. End with the user. When in doubt, go back to the user.