We need design that is faster and design that is slower.



During a recent conversation with  David Sleight, Design Director at ProPublica, I found myself realizing and saying “we need design that is faster and design that is slower.”

Who are we and what is this thing called design?

When I say  “we,” I mean our whole industry, when I say “our whole industry,” I mean design, and when I say “design,” I mean: web design and development; digital product design; digital user experience design; digital user interface design; digital interaction design; “mobile” design (which is the same thing as web design and development); graphic design as part of UX, UI, interactive, digital, and web design; publishing and editorial design; and other  design practices specifically empowered by the internet and digital technology and built largely around reading and interacting with words on screens.

A mouthful, isn’t it? Some people mean all the above when they say “UX.” I generally mean all the above when I say “design” and call myself a designer.

I exclude from the category, for this specific discussion, tactile, conversational, and passive design powered by the internet of things. Not because those practices are uninteresting or unimportant—on the contrary, they are fascinating, exciting, and fraught with critical ethical questions—but because they are not specifically screen- and reading-driven. And it’s our screen- and reading-driven design that needs a reset.

Our whole industry, as I’ve just defined it, needs design that is faster for people who are trying to get things done, for they are our customers and should not be burdened by our institutional surrenders. We need design that is slower for people who are trying to comprehend, for they are our only chance of saving the world.

This porridge is too fast

Our news and information sites have succeeded so well, they are failing. We’ve designed them to be quickly scannable—at a glance, I take in the headline, the key visual, and the lead paragraph. But today’s news is anything but simple. The truth cannot be reduced to visual sound bytes. That’s how we got in this mess in the first place.

As a society, we’ve replaced thinking with slogans, listening with wall-building. Our best news publications are doing a better and better job of reporting beyond headlines—getting down to the details that really matter. But we designers have so trained readers to scan and move on—Pacmans scarfing dopamine hits—that they no longer have the instinct to sit back and take their time with what they’re reading.

Our news designs must work to slow down the reader, engage her more deeply, encourage her to lean back and absorb. The good news is, we’ve long had the tools to do it: typography and whitespace.

Larger type — type that actually encourages the reader to sit back in her chair — plus radically uncluttered interfaces and (when budget permits and the story merits it) art direction are the way to do it. Derek Powazek’s late lamented {fray} (1996 — remnant here) and Lance Arthur’s Glassdog were the first sites to do real art direction on the web. Jason Santa Maria’s personal site was a later, brilliant exponent of art direction on the web. (See “Previous/Embarrassing Editions.”)

You can see these techniques working in the recent designs of The Washington Post (but not its homepage), The New York Times (but not its homepage), ProPublicaSlateSmashing Magazine, and Vox — with inspiration from predecessors including the Readability application, Medium, and A List Apart.

To a great extent, the ability of news publications to pursue slow design depends on their ability to finance themselves without overly relying on race-to-the-bottom advertising. Not all periodicals can free themselves of this dependency.

On the flip side of the news experience, which must be savored and digested slowly, comes the challenge of our corporate and organizational sites, which must become faster—not just technically, but (even more importantly) in terms of their content’s comprehensibility.

In the beginning, there was shovelware

As the once-vital blogosphere recedes from the equation, and as traditional periodical publications struggle to retain solvency and relevancy (and wrestle with readability), the web becomes the turf of stores like Amazon, powerful networks like Facebook, and traditional corporate brochureware. It’s this brochureware that most needs fixing—most needs to be designed to be faster.

In the 1990s, disgruntled computer buyers coined the word “shovelware” to refer to the second-rate games, fonts, and software that came pre-bundled with many PCs. It wasn’t stuff you had to have, carefully curated by software wizards who cared for you—it was garbage presented as value. Early web designers, including your present author, soon used “shovelware” to refer to the reams of corporate copy that got thoughtlessly dumped into the first corporate sites. The corporate overlords thought of the stuff as content. The readers didn’t think of it at all.

Getting easier to publish and harder to communicate

So we spent years preaching that the web was not print, finding ways to design words on screens so they could be scanned and used. We learned to inventory our old content and develop the will and the sales ability to toss the dross. Only content stringently designed to satisfy both customer and business needs would be permitted onto our excellent corporate websites. At least, that was how we did it when it came time for a major redesign (and only when astute stakeholders permitted it).

But most of the time, and constantly between redesigns, junk still got shoveled into our websites. We even made it easier for the shovelers. We developed CMS systems and gave everyone in the organization the power to use them. It was easier for us to let people publish the stuff their little group cared about than to stop and ask what mattered to the customer. And it was also easier for the organization, as it enabled warring fiefdoms to avoid difficult meetings.

It was easier. But not better.

And the CMS systems multiplied, and the web-savvy middle managers were fruitful, and the corporate site was filled with documents nobody but those who posted them ever read. And the corporate site sucked. It sucked harder than it had even in the earliest shovelware days of the 1990s. It sucked deeper and wider and more frequently and with better algorithms. For all our talk of user journeys and mental models, most corporate sites are mostly pretty garbage.

Shhh! Don’t tell the client. They still owe us a payment.

Beyond pretty garbage

Gerry McGovern’s “Top Tasks” method showed how to prioritize the information the customer seeks over the darlings of Management. Ethan Marcotte’s responsive web design and Luke Wroblewski’s mobile-first strategies pointed the way to restoring the focus on what’s most essential. There’s no room for pretty garbage on the small screen. Now, before it’s too late, we must fulfill the promise those visionaries and others have shared with us. If we want to save our brochure sites, we must make them not just faster, but relevant faster.

Designing with the content performance quotient (CPQ) in mind is how we will take the next step. We’ll ruthlessly prune the inessential, cut our sitemaps down to size, slash our bloated pathways, removing page after unloved page, until there’s nothing left but near-neural pathways from the user to the information she seeks.

In short, we will sculpt the design, presentation, and amount of content in our brochure sites with the same scalpel we take to the shopping carts in our e-commerce sites.

Evaluating speed or relevancy for your site’s content

How can we tell which sites should be faster, and which should be slower? It’s easy. If the content is delivered for the good of the general public, the presentation must facilitate slow, careful reading. If it’s designed to promote our business or help a customer get an answer to her question, it must be designed for speed of relevancy.

I’ll continue to explore both these themes in future articles here. My thanks to ProPublica’s David Sleight for the remarkable conversation that helped give birth to this piece. David is a web designer, creative director, and leader at the intersection of publishing and digital technology. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces “investigative journalism with moral force.” To hear the complete conversation, don your headphones and listen to Episode № 171: Art Directing the News — with ProPublica Design Director David Sleight on The Big Web Show.

Read more

Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient

Large Type: One Web Designer Puts Content First in a Big Way

Authoritative, Readable, Branded: Report From Poynter Design Challenge, Part 2

To Save Real News

Redesigning in Public Again

The Year in Design


Also published at medium.

studio.zeldman is open for business. Follow me @zeldman.

The post We need design that is faster and design that is slower. appeared first on Zeldman on Web & Interaction Design.

Beyond Engagement: the content performance quotient



Recently, Josh Clark, Gerry McGovern and I have been questioning our industry’s pursuit of “engagement.” Engagement is what all our clients want all the time. It’s the № 1 goal cited in kickoff meetings, the data point that determines if a project succeeded or sucked wind. When our clients muse over their Analytics, they’re almost always eyeing engagement, charting its tiny variances with the jittery, obsessive focus of overanxious parents taking a sick child’s temperature.

Engagement is our cri de coeur. Our products, websites, and applications live and die by it. But should they?

For many of our products, websites, and applications, duration of page visit, number of our pages clicked through, and similar signs of engagement as it is traditionally understood may actually be marks of failure. If a customer spends 30 minutes on her insurance company’s site, was she engaged … or frustrated by bad information architecture?

For these products, websites, and applications, we need a new metric, a  new and different № 1 goal. Think of it as speed of usefulness; and call it content performance quotient—or CPQ if acronyms make you feel all business-y and tingly inside.

The content performance quotient is an index of how quickly you get the right answer to the individual customer, allowing her to act on it or depart and get on with her day. It is a measurement of your value to the customer. For many apps, sites, and products, the content performance quotient offers a new goal to iterate against, a new way to deliver value, and a new way to evaluate success.

For many sites, engagement is still a valid goal

To be fair as well as explicit, spending extra seconds on a web page, and browsing from one page to another and another, remains a desirable thing on deep content sites like A List Apart and The Washington Post — sites that encourage slow, thoughtful reading.

A List Apart isn’t a place to grab code and get back to your web development project; it’s a place to ponder new and better ways of designing, developing, and strategizing web content. And pondering means slowly digesting what you have read. The Washington Post isn’t a purveyor of ten-second talking points and memorable but shallow headlines—it’s a place for detailed news and news analysis. That kind of reading takes time, so it makes sense if the owners and managers of those publications peruse their Analytics seeking signs of engagement. For everyone else, there’s the CPQ. Or will be, once someone reading this figures out how to measure it.

There’s also a new design paradigm that goes hand-in-hand with this new goal: shrinking your architecture and relentlessly slashing your content. It’s an approach we’ve begun practicing in my design studio.

But first things first. What exactly is the CPQ?

The content performance quotient (CPQ) is the time it takes your customer to get the information she sought, and here, less is more—or better. From the organization’s point of view, CPQ can be the time it takes to for a specific customer to find, receive, and absorb your most important content.

Come to where the messaging is


Consider the Marlboro Man (kids, check the Wikipedia entry), a silent visual spokesman for Marlboro cigarettes, created by the Leo Burnett agency for an era when Americans expressed their optimism by driving two-ton be-finned convertibles along the new highways that bypassed the old cities and the old urban way of life.

It was a time when Americans looked back on their historical westward expansion un-ironically and without shame. Cowboys were heroes on TV. Cowboys were freedom, the car and the highway were freedom, smoking the right cigarette was freedom.

On TV back then, when commercials had a full 60 seconds to convey their messaging, and nearly all were heavy on dialog and narration, Marlboro TV commercials were practically wordless. They showed a cowboy riding a horse. You saw him in closeup. You saw him in long shot. There were slow dissolves. There was music. There were no words at all, until the very end, when a suitably gravel-voiced announcer advised you to “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.”

But it was in billboards along the highway and at urban entrance points where the campaign really lived. There was a beautiful shot of the cowboy doing cowboy stuff in the distance. There were four words: “Come to Marlboro Country.” One of them barely counts as a word, and you didn’t have to read any of them to get the message.

The billboards had one or two seconds to tell you everything, and they worked. At a glance, and from repeated glances over time, you knew that Marlboro was the filtered tobacco cigarette of the independent man who loved liberty. It was not the smoke of the neurotic urban dwelling subway rider (even if, in reality, that was the customer). Marlboro was for the libertarian in chaps. For the macho individualist with no crushing mortgage to pay off, no wife and kids to infringe on his horse-loving freedom. You got it all, without even knowing you got it. That’s performance.

Targeting convertibles on the information superhighway

In hindsight, it sounds ridiculous, but the super-fast storytelling worked: when I was growing up, Marlboro was what every child in my middle school smoked.

Remove the cancer and the other ethical problems from this story and hold fast to the idea of conveying information as close to instantaneously as possible. The geniuses behind the Marlboro Man achieved it by reducing their messaging to only what was needed—only what could be conveyed to a person passing a billboard at 60 MPH.

Your customer is not speeding past your messaging in a 1954 convertible, but she is speeding past it, and if you don’t optimize, she will miss it. For her to get your message, you have to work as hard as those evil ad wizards did. You must focus relentlessly on messaging (as well as design and site performance—but we’ll get into all that soon enough). Just as Leo Burnett cut their TV messaging to ten words, and their billboard to four, you must be willing to think twice about every word, every page. Mobile First taught us to focus above all else on the content the customer actually seeks. A better CPQ is what you get when you do that—particularly when you combine it with good design and optimal technical performance. 

Most business websites contain dozens of pages that were made to satisfy some long-ago stakeholder. They are pages that nobody visits. Pages that do nothing to help the customer or advance the business’s agenda. Putting all that junk online may have made for smooth meetings ten years ago, but it isn’t helping your business or your customer. Our sites, apps, and products must do both.

Content performance quotient: the secret sauce

Lately in my design practice I’ve been persuading clients to create sites that might superficially appear less effective if you’re going by engagement metrics alone, but which are actually far more successful because they are more instantly persuasive. At my urging, our clients have allowed us to relentlessly cut copy and chop sections nobody looks at, replacing them with a few pages that are there to do a job. We are lucky to have smart clients who are willing to jettison hundreds of hours worth of old work in favor of a streamlined experience that delivers value. Not every client has the courage to do so. But more will as this idea catches on. 

(By the way, don’t look for these projects on our studio’s website just yet; they are still in development.)

Serving only the content the customers actually need; streamlining and testing and fine-tuning the interaction to get the right customer to the right content precisely when they want it; wrapping the experience in an engagingly readable but also quickly scannable user interface; and doing everything in our power to ensure that the underlying web experience is as performant as possible—this, I believe, is the secret to increasing CPQ.

CPQ: the story so far

Designer Fred Gates, kicking it in Central Park, NYC.


The idea of delivering much less (but much better) first occurred to me while I was looking over a fellow designer’s shoulder. My friend Fred Gates of Fred Gates Design is working on a project for a client in the nonprofit education space. The client’s initial budget was not large, so, to be fair, they suggested Fred only update their homepage. But Fred being Fred, if he was only going to design a single page, he was determined to deliver tremendous value on it.

By focusing relentlessly on the objectives of the entire site, he was able to bring all the principal interactions and messages into a single performant homepage, essentially reducing a big site to a lean, fast, and more effective one.

Far from getting less, his client (and their customers) got much more than they expected.

Inspired by what my friend had achieved, I then proposed exactly the same approach to a client of ours. Not because their budget was a problem, but because streamlining was clearly the right approach … and a redesign is the perfect opportunity to rethink. When you repaint your living room, it gives you a chance to rethink your couch and divan. You’re most likely to consider changing your diet when you’ve begun a new exercise program. Clients are people, and people are most receptive to one form of change when they are already engaged in another.

Positioning CPQ as an aspect of technical performance is another way to overcome stakeholder skepticism. Lara Hogan has more on persuading peers and stakeholders to care about technical performance optimization.

We are a few weeks away from launching what we and the client are calling Phase I, a lean, performant, relentlessly message-focused web experience. But if we’ve done this right, we won’t have much to do in Phase II—because the “mini-site” we’re delivering in Phase I will do more for the company and its customers than a big site ever did.

I’ll be back with updates when we launch, and (more importantly) when we have data to share. Follow @DesignCPQ to stay on top of CPQ thinking.


Also published at Medium.

studio.zeldman is open for business. Follow me @zeldman.

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