Blog Archive

12 Feb 2014

The Content Maze

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I have been mulling over my Lightning Talk at last week’s London Agile Content Meetup. My five-minute talk tried to cram far too many ideas in (it’s a learning curve!), but I’m glad that one point I made resonated with so many.

The content maze:
how an evening’s browsing is such a fragmented experience; pursuing & retracing our steps along numerous paths before satisfaction is (hopefully) achieved! We all know it – popping back and forth between content and search result pages, jumping from our social media interface into products, reviews, other’s minds and back again.
It’s the resoundingly obvious but much less discussed area of web user experience.

Most professional concern (from the designer/UX team/client) is focused on:

  • how content works across a single website
  • how brand content or a campaign works across several channels

Instead, the issue of the content maze is about how content ‘joins up’ with each other pleasingly and effectively, and asks: who designs this?

I was advocating the role of content strategists in the quest to improve our experience across the web (since they’ll be wrapping up the presents that come to the party).

Doing so would be forward planning for a future – different – browsing scenario. More widespread application of schema for any content you produce will align it / juxtapose it / embed it (or in some damn way position it!) with other similar or complementary content.

To me it’s the necessary development to counter information overload. It’s probably also the one big business/SEO industry wouldn’t like to see right now as it blows apart the notion of the ‘common formula for SEO success’ – instead refocusing on relevance – ‘what works for me at this moment in time’.

It’s the holy grail of personalisation/individual curation – based on my choice rather than what any individual corporation wants me to see.

I’d envisaged this being based on a user’s preferences and could see it working through a personalised, display interface that recognised a number of factors such as:

  • what mood I am in
  • what outcome do I want
  • which hat I have on right now
  • who I follow or respect
  • do I want slow content or an elevator pitch… etc etc

Two main arguments keep coming up in my head. Firstly loss of serendipity. But I expect there’ll still be plenty of room for that. Secondly – defining intent – how often do we actually know what we want and how we want it?

Mind-boggling when you think of the rich and complex data up for grabs, and the unknowns around the devices we’ll use.

But really, let’s design it rather than live with what emerges.

A bit of an aside: it’s the bit ‘between the panels’!

It reminds me of the fascinating discussion in Scott McCloud’s seminal ‘Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art‘. He explains the magical power of the ‘gutter’ – the bit between the panels in a linear cartoon, the invisible transition. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone interested in story-telling of any kind, it has all kinds of relevance to digital design. The gist being that juxtaposed combinations of visual/textual experience can alchemically develop an overriding identity and resonance in the imagination of the user, at the point of the transition between them.

panels from Understanding Comics page 89

On Monday 3 Feb 2014 I gave a ‘lightning talk’ at the London Agile Content Meetup at the Book Club, Shoreditch.

This followed the ‘ignite’ quickfire presentation format. Each speaker gets five minutes and 20 slides. That breaks down to just 15 seconds per slide – and the slides are on automatic rotation. Editing down your ideas is quite a challenge if you unwisely pick such a broad subject as I did!

However, this was somewhat fitting as my talk centred on how the content we create can be aided by having a conventional, standardised formula to follow – but how this also has limitations.

My talk was a personal observation and some ideas on content, design & formulaic experiences. I’d been thinking a lot about ‘modular’ building – whether of chunks of content, or HTML design. Five minutes probably didn’t do it justice. So in the interests of clarity, here’s a run-down of my talk, including a few bits I didn’t have time to put in.

Standard design structures are good for User Experience, as well as for web creators

I’ve spent most of my online career working for large organisations on huge websites. I’ve been a web designer, content editor, a CMS migration project-manager at Camden Council, and was Web and Digital Communications Manager at Bournemouth University for seven years.

So I recognise the needs of those types of large-scale websites. Standardisation is key. Having ‘page type templates’ to deal with particular kinds of content (such as news or events) and agreed design layout elements has two benefits. It helps provide consistency of user experience, and it makes it easier for the people creating the pages.

Having a pro-forma structure for a content entity such as a product simply makes sense for users and for the databases and content-management systems that house them, since it allows the search and filtering we’re familiar with on e-commerce sites.

I’m a keen student of Content Strategy tenets such as planned, structured content “chunks not blobs”, the benefits of metadata, and the challenges of separating content from design to allow for re-purposing. I’m aware of the need for content to ‘know itself’ to display differently across various devices or channels.

A couple of years back I left my university web-manager job & became a consultant ‘for hire’.

Building websites myself, and an appreciation of WordPress themes…

As well as consulting on Content Strategy and large-scale content projects, I was also aiming to be a one-stop-shop for smaller businesses. I went back to building websites myself, learning HTML5 and CSS3 (brushing up on where I left my coding skills back in 2002) and quickly coming to appreciate the benefits of using WordPress as a Content-Management System.

Front-end web book jackets

In this shift, I became much more exposed to the visual design aspect of websites.

I discovered the wonderful world of WordPress themes – off-the-shelf designs that you can purchase for minimal amounts, customise in various ways, leaving time to concentrate on the content more than the ‘build’.There are at time of writing, nearly 4k website themes for the WordPress platform available on Themeforest – and many more elsewhere – a whole shiny showcase of professional, affordable web designs.

Any decent WordPress theme offers the usual content-type suspects (news, events, reviews, portfolio, gallery, about us, our team etc) – recognised pages which have become the norm.

screenshot of random theme demo

Some themes also offer all the layout elements you’ll ever need – tabs, toggles, alert boxes, call outs, blockquotes etc etc. But at the end of the day they are just receptacles for the content we produce, providing a standard layout hierarchy & navigation.

screenshot of WP theme demo

A lot of the themes are built on popular HTML frameworks such as Bootstrap or Zurb, themselves created in a modular fashion, for ease and consistency. So underneath the colours and shapes are modular construction methods for styling. Front end web development is recognising the sense in applying ‘atomic’ design principles (nod to Brad Frost’s post & comments which I found mentioned in Net mag whilst thinking about my talk).

Formulaic design experiences

There’s a whole cottage industry of developers providing this formulaic front-end structure and user experience. Bearing in mind WordPress powers approximately 20% of websites (allegedly) that’s quite a bit of influence in terms of what’s being served up.

The web industry has always been reliant on trends & imitating the designs that work for people.

The WordPress themes are propagating conventions of display structures – intelligent evolution hopefully – in that the design elements that work for people take hold and stick around, whist fads pass by.

So this obsession with structure is a sensible response to the challenges of online content. Two things struck me as I looked at theme after theme.

An earlier speaker Rahel Bailie told us about ‘COPE’ (Create Once Publish Everywhere) and Rupert Bowater explained content modelling dilemmas of using various schema/web standards such as RDFa / microdata etc.

Blocks of content/data. Blocks for styling. Ease of use for creators. What about pushing this forward by having a ‘ready-to-use’ content modelled WordPress theme?

Just throwing that one out for discussion!

The second thing is that design-wise, chunking the content up to populate standard design elements can create ‘samey’ websites. Predictable. Alluring yet somehow disappointing. How effective they are obviously depends on the content we fill them with!

Changing Trends in Content/Design Consumption…Changing Web Experiences

words describing web design conventions

Are the structures we’ve got at at the moment going to be all we’ve got? Articles / sliders / carousels / menus / fat footers / search / tags / teasers / related links and more?

All the usual suspects. And it made me think…how often is the content we create influenced by the available display forms? For example, think about writing a heading or text just long enough to fit onto a slider, or a teaser box, how overlaid drop-down navigation menus allow much more space and choice, whereas a fixed floating top navigation needs to be more limited.

I’ve done some looking around recently trying to find ‘the new kids on the block’ – and generally speaking apart from some lovely javascript behaviours and blocks that flip over or open up to hold more content…

…I couldn’t really find anything that changed my web experience…

Inventing the Ways the Content Joins Up

And so for all the tagged, re-purposed content we plan on creating for all those smaller screens, mobile devices, and future ‘wearables’….I realised…

I don’t like the actual experience of using the web – not one or any particular sites – but the fact that it is always a fragmented experience, never a coherent journey.

A typical evening’s browsing looks like this:

child's maze puzzle

I hope some of you out there will know what I mean! Whether you’re jumping back & forward from your search results, getting sucked in by social media, then thrust out again onto various websites, getting Facebook fatigue, it can be a really frustrating experience.

I think it’s our job as Content Strategists to think about designing the experience (not just our individual sites).
More about The Content Maze

This might be in helping design the kind of curation or aggregation tools we use. The Google Knowledge Graph is the nearest we get at the moment to a mainstream example of content ‘aggregation’ of data. And I’m aware of Storify and Scoop.It for curation – but what will the more mainstream tools of the future look like?

I talked about content knowing itself – what about using more imaginative, meaningful schemas using new parameters…?

We are used to working in an insular way to get the best, get the edge for our business, our employer, our client.

I think we need to disconnect from our brands and invent an ‘organisation-neutral’ vision.

What will this experience involve? It’s definitely something about aggregation. It might involve designing for open data. It might mean having a more personalised ‘information architecture’ across sites. It could be more immersive satisfactory social tools. And it will probably be about associative, contextual search results.

So in summary, triggered by a sudden exposure to all these formulaic design elements (which I fully respect, and know they do help us with content logic), I found myself asking shouldn’t there be something more on the menu?

And what is the role of the Content Strategy community in all of this?

So that was the talk. Certainly asking more questions than giving answers, but hopefully stimulating some discussion for the Meetup attendees.

Thanks to London Agile Content organisers Jonathan Kahn and Richard Ingrams for giving me the chance to spout off!

How many Twitter users are there?

Twitter has been around since 2006. Tweets, @ and hashtags have become part of many people’s daily routine. There are 30million + active Twitter accounts in the UK alone.

Why use Twitter?

It’s almost an assumption that everyone is familiar with what Twitter offers, but there are still plenty of people who are mystified, curious or don’t see the point. Every month there are people who get online for the first time, maybe with a tablet such as an iPad or a smartphone.

Twitter is one of those things you can easily enjoy on a smartphone if you have one, in an idle moment, to keep you entertained and informed. If you don’t have a laptop or spend time on the internet generally, you could see this as ‘dabbling’ in the social media phenomenon. Maybe you could ask someone to help you set up an account, then try a few things out?

Alternatively, you could just go for a more traditional correspondence method with these gorgeous hand stamped bird design greetings cards pictured above! (Declaration of interest – available now from Bloomfield & Rolfe – my sister and friend’s company!)

Learn Twitter basics by using it!

Understanding it is largely a matter of using it, to find out for yourself how it works, although there are plenty of good articles and video tutorials online to help you (see below). Imagine you are sitting in a tree listening to all the others ‘tweeting’ – with over 200million active tweeters that is a lot of noise! Luckily the idea of Twitter is that you only subscribe to the tweets of the people or organisations you choose.

Twitter users share short snappy sentences around subjects or people they are interested in. You ‘subscribe’ to someone else’s Tweets by ‘following them’.

Then you get updates from all those you follow, in one long list. It’s fantastic if you have a specific interest or community. You can be kept up-to-date on news, events, new releases, new products. And of course businesses love it, they use it as a promotional tool.

Keeping Twitter under control

It’s a very immediate tool (it’s all about news and updates), and beware – you may well find it addictive. Every time you sign in, there’s a lot of chatter to catch up on. With a smartphone you have access to it on the move as well.

If you want to keep different areas of interest in different ‘feeds’ you can create lists to segregate them – you can make your lists either public or private. If you end up following hundreds of people, just the one feed can become too unwieldy, meaning you may miss something interesting unless you check in regularly.

Some Twitter Basic Pointers

  • A Tweet is a message, comment, announcement, opinion, a link to a webpage or photo or video in 140 characters or less. It is generally topical – ie. What’s happening right now or what have you just heard about? If you have an account, you can Tweet.

  • Everyone with an account has a profile where you briefly describe yourself, and where others can see everything you Tweet in one place. Choose a short ‘handle’ if possible, add a short biography, and add a photo which allows people to recognise you. The more info you give just adds interest for people thinking about following you.

  • The challenge is getting your message short enough to fit! For some people, this takes some getting used to. There are ‘url shortening’ services such as you can use when you include a web address which are usually too long to fit.

  • You ‘follow’ other people by clicking their ‘Follow’ link, once you’ve built up a few people to follow you will see anything they Tweet, aggregated together in your Twitter Feed.

  • Your Twitter ‘handle’ is your username, eg. @seajardigital and can also be used to find your Twitter webpage –

  • Hashtags are used as a way of ‘categorising’ content by topic. Anyone can invent a hashtag, then publicise it and it may take off with others using it. When a hashtag is really popular it is known as ‘trending’.

  • You can search for people’s tweets or things about particular topics by hashtag – guess one eg. #cherries or #nakedgardening and see what you find!

  • You can have fun ‘retweeting’ things you like or want to share. Some people never actually tweet themselves, but pass on others’ tweets to their own followers. 

  • Twitter ‘mentions’ are when you include someone else’s handle in your tweet eg.
    Great lunch @bistroonthebeach – prawn avocado salad special – with @jalosp
. Confusingly, if you put the handle at the beginning of the tweet, it’s only seen by them, and those who follow both of you.

  • You can include a picture or photo in a tweet quite easily, see how to in the Twitter Help Centre.

Here are some more online Twitter Beginner’s Guides you may find useful:

Seajar Digital now offers social media services for companies or individuals, helping them set up accounts and giving them ideas to get them going. I’m also happy looking after your feed for you if required.

Do get in touch for more information about how I can help you or your organisation.

Contact me

04 Mar 2013

Alone in Berlin – Echoes of Twitter

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Hans Fallader wrote Alone in Berlin in several months of ill-health before his death in 1947.  Living through the Second World War and being imprisoned, the novelist was heavily influenced by the climate of fear he experienced during Nazi rule.

A brilliantly uncomfortable book, it shows the effect of the Gestapo on everyday folk in Berlin, where paranoia and distrust become the norm. Hailed by critics as ‘a vivid portrait of life in wartime Berlin’ and ‘a great novel of German resistance’, it reminds me of the Edmund Burke quote ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

It describes the efforts of one elderly couple who realise they do have an anonymous way of speaking out against the regime.  They leave handwritten postcards with short anti-Nazi slogans discreetly in public places – urging others to see the truth.  The domesticity of their rebellion, akin to graffiti yet not quite energetic enough for that, echoes today’s Twitter urge.

At considerable and finally fatal risk to themselves, they linger in public corridors and stairwells to deposit the small but passionate postcard-stye ‘tweets’ for others to come across.

The extremity of the political climate during the second world war gives a clear case for justifying their ‘anonymity’ in public broadcast.

Media Studies courses should take note and study the book for a comparison to the ease and ubiquity of opinion provided by today’s social media. And consider the threat to privacy and democracy should these tools be accessed by governments.

Alone in Berlin, first published 1947, available as a Penguin Classic in paperback

17 Jan 2013

Hold onto your assets!

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Now here’s a serious consideration for all the scavengers amongst us.

I was brought up respecting the mystery and romance of second-hand shops, the unwanted-treasure potential of jumble sales. And more recently I discovered the enduring hope associated with the thought of a good car boot sale.

What’s going to happen in the future with a dearth of second-hand books and music?

They’ll be humbly and invisibly residing on the dead hard-drives of the future or worse still floating in planet-killing cloud megaservers of corporate technology giants. A corner of the cloud which will be forever our imagination, but out of sight and out of mind.

I’m not sure who has the stats, but if you look at ownership of books and music in digital format (versus the actual items sitting on people’s bookshelves), now and compared to ten years ago, we can all guess the trend. Which is only going to speed up with tablets and e-readers ubiquitous…

More people, smaller spaces to live in. All the storage runs out quicker. We’re in the peak charity shop age now, and once we’ve given them away, they’re gone forever.

(Unless like me you are buying up everyone else’s junk – perhaps I’ll have that secondhand bookshop one day?)

Or… maybe the user-experience gods will bestow upon us fabulous serendipitous interfaces replicating not just the limitless choice which we have now but the joy and fear experienced in the junk shops and jumble sales of the past?

But just to keep in the negative vein, I think the inherent formula is shot. In the past the excitement was that you found a ‘physical’ bargain no-one else had. With digital replication, that’s gone as well.

I hope we keep sharing around the wonderfully packaged vinyl and dog-eared manuscripts for as long as we can. And if anyone has a dvd version of the movie Coup de Foudre (dir. Diane Kurys, 1983) please get in touch (not yet available on UK Netflix!).

Photo credit: 5th Dunstable Scouts Jumble Sale – 2 March 2013!

17 Jan 2013

Online Content versus Sarah Beeny

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Every article about the construction of online content recommends simplicity, clarity and brevity. Short sentences, pyramid structure, bullet points, lack of repetition. This is widely accepted and backed up by research. But why are we trained to believe in the short, impatient attention span of the average web browser, when we look at how the same audiences tolerate other media?

What would happen if all highly-trained web professionals started working in lifestyle TV production? You know the kind of programme, the one where they tell you what they are going to cover, say it or show it, then recap before saying it again, often with the same visual footage? They go on to say something else, repeat at length the same thing already summarized, then summarise right at the end, yet again. This has become such a mainstream (blatantly irritating) formula of lifestyle TV that it now happens across the board. Are we all turning over – or off? Perhaps this why we’re all desperate to multi-task with laptops and iPads where the content might get to the point more quickly.

Of course TV is a different, more linear medium, and we are clearly hypnotized by the same shots of bi-folding doors and minimalist kitchens, and of cosmopolitan street markets and aspirational products. But apparently we all have busy lives, so where has our short attention span gone? Maybe the TV creatives know we are all clicking and swiping away at the same time on our other devices, and need constant reminders to concentrate on the present viewing, like being prompted by some kind of angelically patient school teacher or lecturer?

Websites can entertain us much more efficiently and yet online content gets a fraction of the tolerance we give these shows. This could be understandable when we factor in the levels of discontent generated by the computer experience in the main – malfunctioning printers, broadband problems, general technical incompetence. It means that at least once you get to the page you expect the content to work – and quickly.

I would argue that TV is catching up with computer use in the frustration stakes. In the old days the TV experience was very simple – just press a couple of buttons on the remote then sit back. Now though, TV viewing (via Virgin Media packages at least) has all the levels of frustration previously assigned to using computers. Frozen menu pages, squeaking pixilated screens, and incomprehensible, incredibly poorly designed user interfaces. You have to select from hundreds of channels of ‘nothing TV’, ingratiatingly repetitive formulaic documentaries where the format itself screams unintelligent, even when covering seemingly interesting subject matter.

But where would we be if they changed the formula? I for one would miss playing ‘Sarah Beeny Jacket Bingo’, as she would only get to wear one stylishly short leather jacket per programme instead of ten different ones, presumably in a bid to trick us into thinking we haven’t heard the same thing just five minutes before.

Photo credit: Attractive bi-folding doors courtesy of The Green Window Company, Devon.

17 Jan 2013

Subverting the Social Graph

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I am not the only digital or technical professional out of the radar of ‘the social graph’ – meaning the level of influence I have online is pretty minimal. If you look for information about me, or published by me online there is currently very little. This after fifteen years working in digital media. Does this mean that I’m not dedicated, up-to-date, knowledgeable or opinionated about most aspects of digital communications? No.

I was simply too busy as a working mum and partner, to prioritise expanding my online profile. I did not value how often my name and thoughts might have been bandied around or recommended by others on the web. I believed more in improving myself, than in courting strangers’ opinions of me. And I still do!

Although I know my stuff and lead teams and projects confidently, I’m inherently more of a natural introvert and pretty shy ‘broadcasting’ to an anonymous audience. Coupled with being part of the Trumpet Winsock generation* and its natural reticence for blatant self-promotion, this has held me back from much social interaction online.

Now, establishing my own digital communications consultancy I’m aware of the irony that all this really has to change!

I had toyed with deliberately subverting the social graph and remaining a mysterious hidden figure – but clearly this would be a wee bit counterproductive. After all, why should people and prospective clients believe in me, unless I give them reason to – time to join in (even at this late date) the melee.

Cress Rolfe Profile on LinkedIn

(* Trumpet Winsock was what people connecting to the internet in 1997 used, when you fired this up and could hear the sweetly chuntering dial-up connection putting you in touch with the early web. Could be anyone born before 1985 really.)

12 Sep 2012

The Digital Cusp

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Generation Xers – those born between 1965 and 1980. How do we feel about technological progress? We grew up with the heady promise of those blocky beige computers, and started our working lives before the birth of the modern Messiah, the internet. We can compare how it felt before and how it feels now. Using digital communication technologies is changing the way human brains evolve – we are developing different skills and losing others entirely.

Buying Wired magazines (the USA edition full of exotic car adverts and hip labels) in the late 1990s fed my dreams of shiny technologically brilliant futures driven by creativity and experimentation. Buying .net Magazine in those early days supplied me with a free paperback on how to write HTML, from which I produced my very first web pages.

I was driven by the ease and personal freedom of niche publishing – getting the England Womens Lacrosse Association online, and winning a small Millennium Fund grant to launch a non-profit community website to publicise women’s sports. These initiatives led to my first online job as web content editor with the London Borough of Camden, where I was introduced to the wonders of user-led content, information architecture and metadata of content-rich websites.

The first internet book I bought – ‘Designing Large Scale Websites’ (Darrell Sand, Netscape Communication Corporation, 1996) fuelled my interest in the structure and navigation of big websites, something I’m still passionate about today – alongside many other digital fascinations.

I feel privileged to have experienced the advent of the web, it gives me a sense of perspective and lots of good memories.

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