- Words: Whether it is text or voice, words are how a digital designer primarily thinks. The best designers spend enough time to choose the right word because the right words drive the right actions.
- Code: Words without code are print. Without good code there can be no Web and the best code is lean.
- Visual: Organizing content in a way that is pleasant, comfortable and supportive gives great help to anyone using the Web. However, too often traditional visual designers ruin the Web with their desire to create visual spectacle, and to impress their peers or bosses. (Senior managers being the group most susceptible to visual spectacle.)
- Information networks: Great digital designers design with networks and for networks. The connections are how the Web is made, link by link. To link to and to be linked to; that is the question the digital designer is constantly exploring.
- Human networks: The greatest digital designs always—always—leverage and support the efforts of other humans on the networks to become better and more useful. The Web connects us and uses us as much as we use the Web.
- Information DNA: The Web is a sandy beach across which we all walk in bare feet. It has a memory of every move, and the more we walk the more we write out our information DNA, our memory. On the Web, your footprints can last for a very long time. Digital designers are always learning to better read and use this DNA, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.
- Information architecture: Metadata is the kid they all ignored, that many bullied, laughed at. The digital designer loves metadata because the digital designer must be—must be—an information architect. Complex, demanding, and wholly ignored by the amateurs, you cannot build anything useful that will be easy to find and easy to use without excelling at information architecture.
- Findability: A great digital designer is always thinking of how each element of the design will be found. They think of people as active, participative, autonomous, intelligent—driven by a need, wanting to complete a task. The poor designers think of people sitting somewhere waiting to be wowed by their amazing design. Good designers design for the searcher.
- Time: Ethical digital designers always want people to take the least possible time with their designs. To get in to get out and get on with their busy lives. Their first thought is “what can I remove?” not “what can I add?”. The dark designers dream of trapping people, of consuming as much of their time as possible, of creating addicts. These designers obsess about engagement—a code word for addiction.
- Social: The best digital designers design with people not for them. They hunger for opportunities to see people use their designs, and they are always learning and refining, reshaping, evolving through the lens of observation and use.
- Maintainers: Great digital designers think holistically, think into the future, are not obsessed with the new. They care, they nurture, they worry about how things will be looked after. They design for maintenance and evolution. They see their designs as living and they know that the greatest thing you learn about living is to love maintenance, to make art and beauty out of maintenance. And to continuously improve the design because if there’s one things about digital, it’s that it’s never done. Digital is never done.
Many organizations have not really adapted to the Web but rather have made the Web adapt to them and their print processes, their print thinking and their print culture.
The characteristics of a print culture are:
- You are creating a fixed, contained, physical thing.
- It is much more efficient to publish one large thing than many small things.
- This thing is a project. It has a fixed publication date. There is no budget to maintain the thing.
- Once you have published the thing, it is finished, over with. You do not return to make changes to it.
- The overwhelming job of those who create the thing is to get it out there, get it up, publish it, communicate it.
- The physical print thing will expire over time. The brochures or reports will end up on dusty shelves, in bins, in landfills. After a couple of years, there will be practically no evidence that the brochure ever existed. Therefore, you do not need to worry that in 18 months someone might find this thing and use the information in it as if it was current.
- There is a huge focus on the surface of the thing, the cover of the thing, its standout visual appeal. Vast time is spent on what the hero shot should look like in order to grab attention for the thing. Because it is assumed that everything that is communicated must grab attention. When orgs create a thing they imagine it in a giant magazine store with people walking by, browsing. How will their cover grab attention?
Many communicators look at websites through the lenses of brochures and magazines, newspapers, pretty pictures, and “getting the message out”. For them, the Web is a vehicle to publish and forget, to launch and leave. The idea that people have agency, that people may come looking for information other than what the organization wants to communicate today, is an alien concept to the traditional organization.
Search, findability, metadata, information architecture, archiving, review and deletion, continuous improvement, databases; these are all alien concepts to a print culture.
On April 2, 2020, the EU CDC website was one of the first to publish information on loss of smell and taste as new symptoms for COVID-19. However, when I used its search engine in June to search for COVID-19 symptoms, the first result was for a symptoms infographic from February 2020 that contained only the old symptoms.
Out-of-date content is not being updated. The symptoms list should have been updated in the infographic. Generally, the search for EU CDC is terrible because in all likelihood nobody is actively managing it. Also, everything is probably siloed. The people who create the infographics probably never even think about how they will be found in a search engine.
We must create a digital culture when it comes to information, and that starts with a refocusing of energy and resources. We must focus 90% of our energy on what has already been published, and actively manage and improve the findability and usability of that information. No more than 10% of our time should be focused on creating new stuff.
Excellence in digital is inherently and foundationally about maintenance and evolution through processes of continuous improvement.
COVID-19 has exposed many organizations as being unable to react quickly enough. When a pandemic has the potential to grow exponentially, decisions that can mitigate against its growth need to be made very quickly.
Information that loss of smell was a key symptom for COVID-19 began to emerge in March 2020, yet many governmental and international organizations took weeks and sometimes months to add this new symptom to their symptoms list. Understanding why organizations are slow to publish critical new information is essential if we are to deal with rapidly changing environments.
Some organizations are slow by nature and the larger the organization and the more removed it is from its public, the slower it is. It is a constant criticism of government that it is not responsive and adaptive enough. New, critical information comes in and the organization is simply not capable of responding in the most timely manner.
Organizational ego and rigid thinking play a role too. Often, organizations are unwilling to admit that they got it wrong, that their original ideas and thinking were not correct or fully comprehensive. A doctor once told me that a typical doctor diagnoses based on what they learned in medical school, that they are often unwilling and unable to take in new information, particularly new information that challenges their established set of beliefs.
Most organizations are very reluctant to review what they have published, partly because of professional pride and ego. Content often goes through a major, often political, process of sign-off. Once it is published it is “set in stone” in the minds of many in management. Clearly, we need better ways to review new information and make changes to existing information, where appropriate.
Organizations are generally absolutely awful at managing already published content. There is a sense that a subject has been dealt with. ‘Ah, we have a list of symptoms. Job done.’ The idea that content can and should evolve based on new information is a real challenge for many organizations. They don’t have the processes or resources to deal with that sort of idea.
I heard someone from GOV.UK once state that it took 17 steps to change or remove a piece of content. Yes, 17 steps. Nobody wants to change and update content because they are measured and rewarded based on what they create and publish. As a result, the processes and systems in place to change content are usually terrible and cumbersome. We must make updating much simpler, easier and faster.
In many organizations, each senior manager, each unit, has an ego and agenda. Managers want to be seen to be “doing something” about COVID-19, whether what they are doing has any real relevance or not. Units, divisions, departments, they all want to publish something that connects them with COVID-19. Without proper management, you get a flood of what I call tiny task content. This often overloads the Web team, who become so busy publishing all this stuff, they have no time to manage, review and update critical information.
A unique strength of the Web over all other communications channels is its ability to efficiently collect, analyze, organize and publish user-generated content. The combination of digital technology and the wisdom of the crowds is a powerful, revolutionary force.
A perfect example of this is a symptom-tracking app launched by researchers at King’s College London in March 2020. Within weeks it had millions of people entering in symptoms. This scale of insight, collected almost in real time, could never have been possible without the Internet.
Once COVID-19 emerged, information on it was obviously extremely scarce. It seems that in building the initial symptoms list organizations looked at SARS, a similar type of virus. The main SARS symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. The initial COVID-19 symptoms published by the US CDC, for example, were the same.
There has never been a greater need for evidence-based decision making. But what is even more important is the ability to gather and quickly analyze the tremendous quantities of new information that are being created. In the last two years, we have created more data than in all of previous history. Are our organizations fit for purpose in this new world of constant data tsunamis?
The symptom tracker launched by King’s College quickly identified a news set of symptoms for COVID-19. “Loss of taste and smell were particularly striking,” an analysis of the data showed. Evidence began to be published by multiple other research sources indicating that indeed loss of taste and smell were crucial COVID-19 symptoms.
One of the most troubling aspects of COVID-19 is that a significant percentage of people who have it have no symptoms, don’t show symptoms in the early, most-infectious days, or else only have mild symptoms. Perhaps a reason people were seen to have no symptoms was because they were not being diagnosed properly. “In some people, anosmia [loss of smell] is the first or an early symptom, and for some the only symptom, of COVID-19,” Leslie Kay wrote for Scientific American on June 13, 2020. This is critical information. This being true, it would be absolutely essential to get loss of smell and taste added to the key symptoms list as quickly as possible.
However, in many situations that is not what happened. I tracked the introduction of smell and taste symptoms in a number of health websites. The earliest I saw mention of them was April 2. Typically, they were not added until mid or late May and on some websites it was mid-June.
“Tens of thousands of cases of Covid-19 may have been missed because of delays in warning the public that loss of taste and smell is a key symptom that should lead to self-isolation or testing, experts say,” Sarah Bodeley reported for The Guardian on May 18, 2020.
Many health organizations were too slow to update their symptoms and other critical information. They left old symptoms lists up on their websites even after updating some of their content. Organizations are extremely poor at managing content they have already published. COVID-19 has shown how little Information Technology, digital and the Web have actually contributed to quality, accurate, up-to-date information.
Has the Web helped or hindered in dealing with COVID-19? That sounds like a crazy question. Surely, unequivocally, the Web has helped. Just like print opened up the world to new ideas, right?
“During the first century after Gutenberg’s invention, print did as much to perpetuate blatant errors as it did to spread enlightened truth,” Renato Rosaldo wrote in, The Cultural Impact of the Printed Word. “There is no evidence that, except in religion, printing hastened the spread of new ideas… In fact, the printing of medieval scientific texts may have delayed the acceptance of Copernicus,” Elizabeth Eisenstein wrote in her book, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.
For every piece of quality information on the Web, there is another piece of misinformation. How much, for example, has the Web contributed to the fact that about 30% of people in the US say they will not get a COVID-19 vaccination? For every page that’s up-to-date, there’s at least one more that’s out-of-date. In the early months of the pandemic, how many people, having lost their sense of smell, went to an approved health site and felt relieved that losing your sense of smell was not seen as a COVID-19 symptom?
If you go to reputable health websites you trust that the information is accurate. It’s not always the case. Many health organizations were simply too slow to adapt to new data about the virus. For example, evidence began to emerge quickly that the virus was airborne, whereas the accepted medical wisdom was that it was not. Knowing that the virus was airborne has huge implications. It would be a reason to mandate the use of face masks. Yet many of the most reputable health organizations were unable to accept this new information quickly enough. Thus the virus spread much faster than it would have had face masks and other physical distancing initiatives been more actively promoted and implemented. Lives were lost because minds and organizations were slow, were rigid, were unable to change when presented with new data.
Content is critical. I published a book with that title in 2001 because in my job as a Web consultant I could not get the vast majority of organizations I worked with to take content seriously. Twenty years later, what has changed? There’s some great progress. Many of the health websites that I’ve worked with have truly professionalized their management of Web content.
What was particularly positive to see in government health websites in Ireland, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, to name just a few, was the publication of clear, simple, useful information. There were no stupid images of people blowing their noses as there had been 10 years earlier during the swine flu outbreak. There was no stupid content from ministers welcoming you to the website and telling you how much the government cared and how much the government was doing. The coronavirus was called the coronavirus because that’s what people were searching for. I remember during the swine flu outbreak having huge problems with certain communications departments who demanded that it should be called H1N1.
So, there is a lot of great progress, but there is so much more progress needed if we are to get the maximum potential out of content and the Web so as to “flatten the curve” and get our societies and economies up and running again.
A specific strength of the Toyota culture is to come up with innovative ways to visualize problems. This is a particularly critical skill when it comes to digital because digital is a reduced sense environment. It’s very hard to get a ‘feel’ for digital problems. Usually, everything is mediated through a small, cold screen.
Toyota understands that how you ‘see’ the problem can have a major impact on how you feel about and react to the problem. You need to be able to present data, analytics, metrics, in a way that gets people to care, that makes people feel responsible, and most importantly makes people want to act on the data. You can’t make change if you don’t change behavior.
Toyota recognized that digital metrics in particular are very problematic. It’s very difficult to understand what traditional digital metrics are telling you. Visitors, repeat visitors, bounce rates, page views, time on page—they could reflect something good or something bad. A repeat visitor could be back at your website because they couldn’t find what they were looking for on their previous visit. We simply don’t know. These volume-based metrics tend to encourage worst practice—a cult of volume.
To get quality metrics, Toyota realized you had to focus more on outcomes, on the experience the customer is having. Then they knew that they needed a way to visualize this experience so that Toyota employees would feel empathy for the customer’s experience. They came up with a very interesting concept, a physical object, a UFO-type orb that they place in their headquarters office in Brussels, Belgium, and that they call Simon.
Simon is hooked up to the key performance metrics for digital. When everything is well, Simon is lit up with a white light. If, however, a page on a Toyota website loads slower that its target time, then Simon will begin to get red. The more bugs, the more errors, the slower the website becomes, the redder Simon becomes. This is amazing. Simon helps develop empathy for the customer experience. Staff don’t like to see Simon getting red. In digital, there is an empathy gap between those who work in digital and those who use the websites and apps. We must bridge that gap.
“The problem that you often have with digital is that it’s perceived as very complicated, and when you start to explain, you’re losing all of the people,” says Karen Peeters, general manager for Omni-Channel Management at Toyota Europe. “But by having a device like this, we can very easily explain what it stands for, so it makes it much more accessible. We had info sessions—even with our President and CEO—explaining what this thing was doing. Simon, people remember it.”
Toyota people don’t simply remember Simon. They empathize when Simon turns red. What’s wrong with Simon? The problem becomes more real, and as a result the problem gets solved a lot faster. One of the most important things you can do as a digital designer is to help visualize the experience that the people who are using your product are having, and bring that visualization into as many parts and sections of your organization as possible in an empathetic way. We need innovative ideas like Simon to create a sense of what is actually happening in digital-land. Because in most digital teams, we actually don’t know what is actually happening out there in the world of use, and this is a real Achilles heel of digital.
The Top Tasks data helped focus the conversation in Toyota about quality and reliability. In a company that is obsessed by quality, it became natural to ask: What is a quality digital experience? How do you measure digital quality?
To get the answer to these questions, Toyota went back to its roots. “The whole digital quality framework that we designed was very much in line with our thinking on vehicle quality,” Karen explains. “So I started to have meetings with the vehicle quality divisions in our team to understand what is your definition of quality? How do you measure quality?”
If any change in metrics is going to have a chance of success you need to bring the organization with you on the new journey you are heading out on. There’s no point being way out in front with great new ideas if those ideas aren’t understood or bought into by the rest of the organization.
Interestingly, one of the things that really made Toyota pay attention to digital quality was the launch of their app. The app became a type of a bridge between the manufacturing product culture and the digital culture. The app felt more like a ‘product’ than the website. More executives began to think about the term “digital quality product alignment,” Karen explains. “We’re still, of course, building it step by step. I’m not saying we are there yet.” It’s a process that begins with lots of conversations across the entire organization in order to develop a unified understanding of quality: a quality car, quality service, quality app, quality website.
A key measure of quality is how quickly you can repair a problem once it’s identified. Eight out of ten times I identify a problem on a typical website, nothing happens. The search environment may be appalling, for example. The fix often doesn’t require new software, but rather improvements in metadata, tweaks to the search engine, etc. Six months later I’ll test the search again and it will be exactly the same. Still appalling. And nobody inside the organization will care. It’s not even that people don’t care. A poor quality internal search environment just doesn’t seem relevant. People don’t think that it has any impact, that it makes any difference one way or another.
Partly, it’s down to how digital is perceived as a series of projects. There was a project to install a new search engine. The new search engine has been installed. Job done. On to the next project. Budgets and teams for Web maintenance and continuous improvement are usually minuscule and often nonexistent.
Quality digital is more maintenance than creation. Yet digital has huge engines of creation and often nonexistent maintenance. And where maintenance and support do exist they are generally seen as low-level positions with low-level respect. That must change.
I remember once hearing about how Toyota launched in the US. The US car manufacturers were certain it was going to fail because it had a very thinly dispersed dealer and service network. What these manufacturers missed was that Toyota didn’t need a dealer or service center every 30 miles because its cars didn’t break down nearly as much. They were tremendously reliable. The first car my brother bought was a Toyota. It ran forever. It always started. It was just totally, utterly reliable.
In 2017, we did a Top Tasks project with Toyota across 14 European countries to find out what matters most to people when they buy a car. Reliability was top in every country. In fact, there was a tremendous commonality in relation to how the Germans, French, Italians, British, Swedes, Dutch, etc., bought cars.
This has been one of my key learnings in doing Top Tasks projects over the years. We have much more in common than we think we have, and we often neglect and ignore what we have in common. We often neglect too what is common, what is core. In other words, we neglect the top tasks. We spend much more energy on the tiny tasks.
In the beginning, Toyota had approached digital in a way that most organizations had. It was seen as something new, something separate from its core business. The old rules didn’t apply. But then what rules did apply?
Online, there is overwhelming evidence that speed matters. Just like a car needs to be able to accelerate and quickly reach a certain speed, so too a hallmark of a good Web experience is a fast-downloading webpage. There should be total consensus on that, right? Except there isn’t, far from it. Webpages are in fact getting slower.
“We’ve been fighting with Marketing for years on the importance of speed,” Karen Peeters, who is general manager for Omni-Channel Management at Toyota Europe told me. This is a fight that has happened all over the world. It shouldn’t happen. Yet it does. Because Marketing should be even more concerned with speed when the overwhelming evidence is that slow speed hurts sales and customer satisfaction and fast-downloading pages help sales and improve customer satisfaction.
So, why does Marketing often design the slowest of websites? Partly because Marketing uses the wrong metrics when it comes to Web success. Marketing is indeed concerned with speed, but often the wrong type of speed. Over the years, Toyota was inundated by lots of marketing agencies promising fast this and fast that. Lots of fast turnaround on digital campaigns. Lots of digital activity and creativity.
Unfortunately, this ‘creativity’ was often the root cause of the performance problem. Traditional marketing creativity measures stuff that is created quickly and has an immediate wow factor. In this sort of world, launching the app or website is what is important, not what the app does. To be a success, the app or website must pass the 30-second, wow, gut instinct, that looks cool test. Then Marketing will pump loads of advertising money into maximizing traffic to the new app or website. Then it’s on to the next project, the next campaign. This launch-and-leave culture is embedded in most organizations. It must change.
A company I helped found launched an online community back in the late Nineties. We got substantial funding and at one stage had more than 50 people working on designing and promoting it.
We opened up lots of forums and discussion boards. What we learned very quickly was that without moderation, a great many discussions quickly became toxic. Keyboard bullies, racists, they flock to the online world. Being anonymous can bring out the very worst in people.
At one end, people just love those pretty pictures of funny cats. Lots of people love pictures of dead cats too. Lots come to the Web to fuel up on hate. On the Web you can drive slowly past one car crash after another. On the Web, you can find your perfect echo chamber and reinforce yourself into a fist of anger and indignation.
There’s lots of money to be made in the dirt. Hate sells. The melting pot is all well and good but if you want to get clicks have someone stirring the pot. On the Internet, the scammers are always on the hunt for the weak, the gullible. The scammers just love Facebook and Google because, as one scammer put it: “They find the morons for me.”
Most advertising is a form of scam anyway. The original fake news. The Web put fake news advertising on steroids. Those who live by advertising learn to love the advertiser. In traditional media they at least had a wall between editorial and commercial. With social media there is no wall because there is no editorial.
Our online community did not survive long. I sometimes wonder what sort of person I would have become had it been successful. Because it became clear pretty quickly that if you wanted to make lots of money in social media you did so by automating as much as possible and keeping the moderation and editing to a minimum.
Facebook and Google are free. You just pay with your freedom. The more they know about you, the more they know about your weaknesses, the more effective the advertising can be. And the more money the advertisers make, the more money Facebook and Google make. We’ve sold ourselves so cheap, thinking it was we who had got the great deal. I mean, what idiot can refuse free?
Content matters. Content is critical. Content can make lives and content can break lives. Content can make or break a society. What content most definitely is not is free. There’s always a cost and someone is always paying.
The social media tech bros knew they had struck a goldmine when they realized they could monetize content that others had created. Under the flag of freedom of speech, they withdrew the checks and balances brought by editors and grew super rich on the poison that flooded through. Now, they’re telling us AI will solve the problem. Will we realize before it’s too late that, increasingly, tech is more part of the problem than the solution?
The solution? Good people. Lots of them. Quality, professional content people using tech, not being used by tech. People making messy decisions, judging, listening, responding, learning from mistakes, iterating, refining, evolving, accountable. Life is imperfect. It’s a messy world. I’d prefer to be judged by another human than an AI, or that there be no judgment at all.
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One of the core reasons why we don’t have a lot more quality Web design is the organizational excuse that we’re different, our audiences are different, we’re exceptional.
The argument of exceptionalism is lazy. It is a primitive urge. The exceptionalists hate evidence and love gut feeling, ego and instinct. They invest a lot in their illusory specialness and uniqueness.
A key outcome of the research we did on COVID-19 was that the same top tasks were shared across the world by the vast majority of people. On every continent, healthcare providers, academics and the general public shared the same tasks. Not just that, when we asked these groups to come up with a classification for these tasks, they came up with the same basic classification. Sure, the level of detail each group might have wanted was going to be different, but what the research overwhelmingly showed was that we could create a common classification for everyone.
That won’t stop a great many health organizations setting up sections called “Information for the public”. Why? Because their gut instinct tells them. And our audiences are special. They have different needs. (Sometimes, of course, audience-based navigation is necessary, but it is an exception.)
“Vaccine” was a top task. Instead of putting “Vaccine” at the top level of the classification, this audience-based logic will put vaccine information under “Information for the pubic” as well as under multiple other audience sections. Roll on all the duplication, waste, confusing search and menus and links.
Someone will have to decide what vaccine information is for the public and what vaccine information is for academics and what vaccine information is for healthcare providers. Instead of allowing people to decide for themselves, someone will try and decide what vaccine information is “right” for a mother or father, and what information is “too technical” for them.
In 25 years of doing Web classification I can’t remember a single time that audience-based navigation worked well. I can think of multiple failures. I was involved somewhat in the UK government website for citizens called Directgov. I was also involved in the BusinessLink website. Neither of them exists now. There’s a single site called GOV.UK.
Both the US and Canadian revenue agencies used to have audience-based navigation. Now, they take a top tasks approach. Why? Because in the vast majority of cases, task-based navigation works infinitely better than audience-based navigation. People don’t come to a website thinking “I’m a small business”. They do come to a website thinking “I want to pay my VAT”.
So, why do so many organizations in 2020 create horrible navigation? Because they’re still designing websites based on their organization charts. Because they’re lazy and incompetent. Because in 2020 a great many organizations still have a wholly amateur approach to Web design. Because the stupidity and arrogance of senior management is still breath-taking when it comes to the Web. You can almost always be guaranteed that the most stupid, inane idea in the room will come from a senior manager.
“Let’s make it more jazzy, innovative. What about a chatbot, an app? We need an app! And where’s my big ego banner? I want my hero shot! I want my hero shot!! I want my hero shot!!! More images, please! Video! We must have video of senior managers telling the world how much they care.”