Category Archives: Content Experience

Designing Glanceable Content for Partial Attention

Captive audiences are the exception, not the norm.  Audiences only rarely offer their undivided attention. How to design content for audiences who are only half paying attention is a growing challenge.

Despite wide recognition that most folks have too much on their minds, content producers continue to hope they’ll get the full attention of audiences.  According to conventional advice, if content designers make content simple and relevant, the content will earn the attention of audiences.  The messy, everyday reality that audiences face interferes with their attention, no matter how well considered and crafted the content.  The stark truth is that attention cannot always be earned. It must be bargained with.

Mounting evidence indicates audiences have less attention to dedicate to consuming content actively. Even when they want content, they don’t necessarily want the content to dominate what they are doing.  People want content they can multitask with, content that supports them as they do things like chores, exercise, or driving — instead of being the focus of what they are doing.  The rising popularity of audio books and podcasts are indications of the desire for content that supports multitasking or continuous partial attention. Streaming content doesn’t require active interaction.

Another tactic to compensate for our fragmenting attention is to make content smaller.  Many publishers seek to turn content into bite sized chunks that don’t take long to read.  Audiences nibble bite sized content when they are focused on other things, such as a conversation or a physical activity such as walking or waiting, or when they are mentally preoccupied with matters that may not be directly related to the content.

Bite sized content appears as informational cards displayed on smartphones, on the screens of smart watches, or as the snippets of audio available on voiced controlled audio platforms.  Contrary to common belief, making content bite sized does not mean it demands little attention from audiences, even if the item itself requires little time to read, watch or hear.  Attention is not the same as time to read.  Attention is part of a broader concept of content engagement.

Transcending the Four Standard Categories of Content Engagement

Content typically falls into one of four categories of engagement, according to the attention and interaction they require:

  • Content that requires constant user interface (UI) interaction and full attention.  An Xbox game might fall in this category, where the game paces the player, requiring them to interact and give their full attention.
  • Content that doesn’t require much UI interaction, but requires full attention.  An involved murder mystery story, whether  delivered as a video, audio or text, would be an example.
  • Content that requires UI interaction, but only intermittent attention.  An example is a buzzing notification on a watch or smartphone.  You can’t avoid paying attention to the notification, because it’s in your face.
  • Content that requires no UI interaction, and only intermittent attention.  Glancing at a dull sports match on a TV in a sports bar might qualify.

But another category exists, where there is intermittent attention, and only limited UI interaction.  The content is not zombie-like, where no interaction happens, but neither is it reactive, where the machine is demanding interaction.  Instead, the content allows the user to pay attention electively, and interact electively.  This is glanceable content that offers some choice.

Finding the Threshold of Significance

Chunks of content should be significant to audiences. When audiences can give their full attention, a sequence of small content chunks can be woven into a narrative that provides detailed meaning.  But when audience attention is partial, a content chunk must stand alone to convey meaning.

In some cases, content designers know the context of the audience, and can design small items of content that matches that context.  Notifications, at their best, provide an example of small items of content that match the context of the user.  It is easy to get notifications wrong.  Notifications or alerts tend to poke the user.  They are often action focused, requesting or confirming an action.  Notifications either presume attention, or demand attention.  Notifications can be hectoring, where the machine sets the pace for humans, rather than letting humans set their own pace.

In contrast to notifications, glanceable content presumes that the audience will choose for themselves when they want to look, and for how long.  The content needs to tempt the user to look at it occasionally, without being a distraction.

What makes a small chunk of information significant to users, making it worth their while?  The chunk of content needs to be specific enough to satisfy the user’s curiosity, but not require a distracting amount of work to access. The content will fail if it doesn’t get this balance right.

Apple recognizes this conundrum in its guidelines for the Apple Watch. It advocates “glanceable” content with “lightweight interactions”.  Not all interaction guidelines of the Watch meet those goals, however. Because only a small amount of content is presented, designers compensate by asking users to interact with it to get exactly the bit they want.

Compact content can be complex as well (Images from Apple Watch guidelines.)

Google has tried to get around the distraction of interaction by requiring little of it from audiences. Google Now cards provide bite sized content, where information within smartphone apps gets surfaced to a main screen.  Google Now curates information through a combination of machine learning to anticipate likely user preferences (implicit feedback), and getting explicit user feedback on these preferences.   While very clever, this approach can’t easily be extended to other publishers who lack the technical resources and embedded positioning of Google.  Not all Google Now cards are easily glanceable, either.

Bite sized content can get busy.  Many layers of information can get crammed on a display, using hieroglyphic cues.  Such displays can vainly call attention to themselves, requiring both sustained gazing and mental interpretation.  They are compact, but not truly glanceable in the sense that someone can notice, at a glance, a key nugget of interest without effort.  Audio content runs less risk of this, since it is harder to compress content at a rate faster than the brain can process (though advertisers sneakily do such things).

Content for Multitasking

Multitasking is a myth: humans don’t really focus on several things simultaneously.  We slice our attention between different targets, switching back and forth between them rapidly.  But multitasking is a powerful metaphor for how people relate to content: they commonly process content from two more sources at the same time.  To be successful, glanceable content needs to respect what the audience wants to focus on.

It’s hard to multitask when everything demands your full attention, and your active interaction.   It’s hard watch a video or listen to audio if one needs to fiddle with screen settings, if one needs to tap and swipe incessantly to hunt down a piece of information, or if one feels rattled by surprise alerts that jump out at you.  All these annoyances are the product of interaction designers who expect and demand attention and interaction from the audience.  Interaction designers often fail to consider the broader content needs of the user.  They fail to think outside the UI in which they are boxed.

Before interaction design became largely associated with Javascript tricks, there was a movement to study how to best design “ambient displays” that provided supplemental, contextual information that was easily glanceable.  A well known example was the “Ambient Orb,” a small light that changed color according to how the stock market was doing (or, if you preferred, the status of the weather).  The product provided a primitive example of how to make content glanceable and non-distracting. But the product treated the user as a passive vessel who could express little choice in what content to follow, and consequently had little substance to keep them interested.  Multitasking wasn’t a challenge, but the secondary task wasn’t very meaningful either.  Ambient displays can come up short because they only focus on ensuring content doesn’t require much attention. They don’t provide any interaction.

A better example of content that is both glanceable and requires only light interaction comes from a digital content display for radio broadcasts known as Journaline.  I’ve only recently learned about this platform, even though it has nearly a decade of history behind it.  I want to spend time discussing concepts  related to Journaline because it provides a good example of how content can be used to support different scenarios of use.  A major use case for Journaline is to provide text-based content on the screens of radios (though the same technology can be applied to video as well).  Its premise is that the text content is secondary to the broadcast audio, and should not interfere with the primary attention of the audience, who may be washing dishes or waiting at a stop light.  Journaline provides guidelines for presenting content in conditions involving low attention.  I am less concerned with whether Journaline itself will become successful commercially than I am in the lessons it can provide content designers more generally.

Designing Elective Supplemental Content

Journaline is a full content schema with its own XML-based markup language. Developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer IIS, “Journaline® is a data application for the DAB and DRM digital radio systems that provides hierarchically structured textual information. The user can easily and immediately access the topics he is currently interested in.”  Alternatively, it has been described as “teletext for digital radio.”

Journaline offers straight text-based content, without distracting elements such as gestures, animations, switches, sliders, or activity ring displays.  The simplicity of its approach makes it a powerful example to learn from.  Because of its XML foundation, the schema can reuse existing content delivered from other sources such as RSS feeds.

Imagine listening to audio content such as a radio broadcast.  You may be doing other activities while listening.  The audio content itself might make reference to other things.  So you may have a need to access supplementary content either relating to the activity you are doing (such as getting traffic information), or supplemental content relating to the audio you are listening to (such as the name of the guest being interviewed).  Journaline provides such information, which can be accessed and seen simply.  Some models of BMWs in Germany have Journaline content displays embedded in their digital radios.

Journaline delivers supplemental baseline information that is changeable, and subject to updating.  It provides a feed of content, but allows some audience control over specific items of interest. The paradigm balances the amount of content offered, and the interaction required.  Sufficient new content is provided to make the display interesting enough to glance at occasionally when convenient to do so, while enough control is offered so that audiences can choose what to get updates on without requiring a distracting amount of interaction.

Journaline identifies five content types associated with informational updates:

  1. News
  2. Sports events and results
  3. Financial information and stock market values
  4. Airport departure and arrival times
  5. Games and lottery

Many of these types involve awareness information that is not so essential that people would actively seek it.  The information is useful when presented, but not worth investing special effort.  The airport info could provide useful pre-arrival information while driving, but won’t provide the depth of details available on a smartphone once one has arrived.

Supplemental information is often related to broadcast programs.  Journaline provides the following scenarios for program related information:

  • Show background information (with optional link to a website)
  • Direct phone link to participate in chat show
  • Song info and purchases, and podcast downloads
  • Captions (radio for the hearing impaired)

I’m not sure all these are necessarily compelling use cases in the context of listening to a broadcast, but they do illustrate the range of uses of supplemental content.  Sometimes the content has a call to action that is thematically tied the primary content, and thus does not compete with it.   But the actions presented in the supplemental content are always elective — the  primary content isn’t promoting the secondary content; rather, the secondary content offers deeper support for the primary content.  Elective actions include ones that cannot be anticipated or expected (such as a desire to call the station), and  options that allow the audience to defer tasks for later, such as the ability to order something to check out later.  When done properly, low-key options let the audience choose the right time to take action, instead of pestering them to act when it may be inconvenient.

Dynamic Information Architecture

Journaline is effective in how it manages information, a kind of dynamic information architecture.  Like traditional information architecture, it provides elements that give audiences choices to navigate and select.  But it is also dynamic, where the elements themselves change as new information is available.  It blurs what’s navigation and what’s content.  Items in a list can update continuously, and can be navigational links to more details about the item.

Journaline works on a feed model, but it doesn’t simply provide a chronological stream.  Instead, content items are pushed out when updates happen, and are stored and available to view when no updates are required.  What’s available to view will be the most up-to-date content about preselected topics.  These topics can be selected (pulled) either through navigation, or by following topics based on simple metadata components such as keywords or geotags (such as content related to things near me).

Journaline uses simple structures for content.  Items are broken into two parts: an initial summary and detail, which could be a headline followed by an explanatory statement. Summaries can be collected by topic.  This simple structuring allows for three basic layers of information: a consolidated view of several items, a general view of a specific item, and a more detailed statement about the item.

The below figure shows how different levels of information relate to each other.

Levels of Glanceable Content
Levels of Glanceable Content

There are three basic levels of content, and three options to reveal content.  Conceptually, they provide different windows for glancing at content.

The highest level provides an overview or digest.  Screens may contain several headlines that relate to a common keyword, or may provide a table of information on a common theme that is updated continually, such as a scoreboard showing teams and scores.

At the mid level, the screen will show a summary of information related to an event or topic. This will typically be a headline, or a caption relating to the audio or to a displayed image.

At the lowest level, items will present details supporting the headline.

Content is revealed in different ways.  Some content is static and fully visible at a glance.  Such content will never require more than a single glance.  But other content is disclosed incrementally over time.

Overview or digest content will refresh frequently. Each headline displayed may serve a predefined role.  A digest on a topic may be composed of different headlines that are presented in a list, where each item is assigned a slot.  A slot— a fixed position on the list —  shows a headline message that changes.  For example, people might track several related items, perhaps headlines relating to an election.  The first slot in the list relates to the keyword “candidate X” and will change throughout the day according to whatever the most important event is relating to candidate X.  A scorecard is a list in table form, where the left column is fixed with the names of teams currently playing, while the right side automatically updates with the most current score.  When the content item refreshes in a predefined spot, it makes it easy for the audience to glance at the content and notice what’s current and new.

Scorecard table, with scores updated continuously
Scorecard table, with scores updated continuously

A different behavior for refreshing content occurs when messages are revealed in stages.  Perhaps several ideas need to be shown that won’t all fit in a single short headline.  Several techniques can be used to reveal such content.  One technique is the news ticker, which displays a running headline.  Text captions for audio may be presented karaoke style.  Another technique is to rotate short headline snippets every few seconds.  These techniques can be useful for background content.  They can be digested with a quick glance, and will change enough to encourage curiosity.  If, however, they contain essential information that must be monitored continually, then they will become distracting.  The staged revelation of content provides a wide frame for audiences to follow, but can demand more attention from them.

Sometimes the audience will want more information than can be presented in a glance.  They want a detail to complete the information hinted at in the headline.  A full message might fit on a single small screen, but if not, then scrolling is required.  Even gesture-based scrolling entails interaction by the user, and requires longer attention spans as well.  This option exists to provide audiences with choice.  They choose this degree of distraction, and will hopefully be in a position to focus away from other activities and content.

Short-burst Content: A Challenge for Content Designers

Audiences routinely experience short bursts of content.  Events are chronicled with live tweets.  Siri and Alexa provide short answers to queries.  All these options offer great benefits to audiences, but they aren’t always the best option in a given situation.  Sometimes short messages require too much attention to follow, or too much work to specify what one wants.

According to the cliché, timing is everything.  When audiences face so many demands on their attention, content timing matters significantly.  Content designers should consider ways content can work in harmony with the activities of audiences, instead of competing with these activities.  Disruption, while cool for startups, is annoying to audiences.  Supplemental content can be a new category of content that supports other activities, instead of being its own activity.  To realize this possibility requires the embracing a radical idea: accepting that the secondary content presented may not be the primary motivation of your audience.  Because audiences in many circumstance are only willing and able to offer partial attention, the secondary content needs to be sufficiently interesting and timely to merit glancing.

The content design challenge is discovering how to get audiences to glance at content that they don’t feel they need to see, but will want to view, if only briefly.  Content that’s useful, without being demanding.  How can we create glanceable moments?

Journaline offers two ideas worth exploring more.  First, it shows the value of creating a hub for content that features topics that change, and that are of interest to audiences.  People will revisit the hub to glance at what changes have happened.

Second, it shows the possibilities of using a secondary channel (in this case text) to augment the primary content channel (audio) to support elective, secondary tasks.  Audiences are primarily interested in the content in the primary channel, and only some will be interested in the secondary channel content at any given time, since they may be preoccupied with other matters.  This technique can easily be used with video, by providing additional real-time or more personalized secondary information relating to the video content that some people will be interested in glancing at, and which is short enough not to distract long from the primary video content.

Designing for partial attention can seem like a loss of control, since there are no guarantees a specific message will reach a specific person.  But it also represents an opportunity to reach audiences who may not be otherwise available.  And it encourages us to think about the fundamentals of how to attract audiences and build their interest in content.

— Michael Andrews

What is Content Design?

The growing interest in content design is a welcome development.  Such interest recognizes that content decisions can’t be separated from the context in which the content will be used.  Consideration of content design corrects two common misperceptions: the notion that content presentation is simply visual styling, and the belief that because content may need to exist in many contexts, the context in which content is displayed becomes irrelevant.  Direct collaboration between writers and UI designers is now encouraged.  Content must fit the design where it appears — and conversely, UI designs must support the content displayed.  Content has no impact independently of a container or interaction platform for which it has been designed, and is being relied upon by users.  Content depends on context.  And context frames the content experience.

Yet content design is more than a collaborative attitude. What content design actually entails is still not well understood. Content design requires all involved to consider how different elements should work together as a system.

“Content and Design Are Inseparable Work Partners”  — Jared Spool

Current Definitions of Content Design

There is no single accepted definition of content design.  Two meanings are in use, both of which are incomplete.

The first emphasizes layout and UI decisions relating to the presentation of content.  It looks at such questions as will the text fit on the screen, or how to show and hide information.  The layout perspective of content design is sometimes referred to as the application of content patterns.

The second, popularized by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in Britain, focuses on whether the words being presented in an article support the tasks that users are trying to accomplish.  The GDS instructs: “know your users’ needs and design your content around them” and talks about “designing by writing great content.”  The GDS’ emphasis on words reflects the fixed character of their content types —a stock of 40 formats.  These structures provide ready templates for inserting content, but don’t give content creators a voice in how or what to present apart from wording.

Content design encompasses much more than wording and layout.

The design of content, including printed media, has always involved layout and wording, and the interaction between the two. Comprehensive content design today goes further by considering behavior: the behavior of the content, and the behavior of users interacting with the content.  It designs content as a dynamic resource.  It evaluates and positions content within a stream of continuous interaction.

Most discussion of content design approaches content from a “one size fits all” perspective.  What’s missing in current discussions is how to design content that can serve multiple needs.  User needs are neither fixed, nor uniform.  Designs must be able to accommodate diverse needs.  Formulaic templates generally fall short of doing this.  Content must be supported by structures that are sophisticated enough to accommodate different scenarios of use.

Breaking Free from the Static Content Paradigm

Content creators typically think about content in terms of topics.  Topics are monolithic.  They are meant to be solid: to provide the answers to questions the audience has. In an ideal scenario, the content presented on the topic perfectly matches the goals of the audience.

The problem with topics is that they too often reflect a publisher-centric view of the world.  Publishers know people are seeking information about certain topics — their web logs tell them this.  They know the key information they need to provide on the topic.  They strive to provide succinct answers relating to the topic.  But they don’t consider the wide variation of user needs relating to the topic.  They can’t imagine that numerous people all reading the same content might want slightly different things.

Consider the many factors that can influence what people want and expect from content:

  • Their path of arrival — where they have come from and what they’ve seen already
  • Their prior knowledge of the topic
  • Their goals or motivations that brought them to the content
  • The potential actions they might want to take after they’ve seen the content

Some people are viewing the content to metaphorically “kick the tires,” while others approach the content motivated to take action.  Some people will choose to take action after seeing the content, but others will defer action.  People may visit the content with one goal, and after viewing the content have a different goal. Regardless of the intended purpose of the content, people are prone to redefine their goals, because their decisions always involve more than what is presented on the screen.

In the future, content might be able to adjust automatically to accommodate differences in user familiarity and intent.  Until that day arrives (if it ever does), creators of content need to produce content that addresses a multitude of users with slightly varying needs.  This marks the essence of content design: to create units of content that can address diverse needs successfully.

A common example of content involving diverse needs relates to product comparison.  Many people share a common task of comparing similar products.  But they may differ in what precisely they are most interested in:

  • What’s available?
  • What’s best?
  • What are the tradeoffs between products?
  • What options are available?
  • How to configure product options and prices?
  • How to save options for use later?
  • How to buy a specific configuration?

A single item of content providing a product comparison may need to support many different purposes, and accommodate people with different knowledge and interests.  That is the challenge of content design.

Aspects of Content Design

How does one create content structures that respond to the diverse needs of users in different scenarios? Content design needs to think beyond words and static informational elements.  When designs include features and dynamic information, content can accomplish more.  The goal is to build choice into the content, so that different people can take away different information from the same item of content.

Design of Content Features

A feature in content is any structural element of the content that is generated by code.  Much template-driven content, in contrast, renders the structure fixed, and makes the representation static.  Content features can make content more “app-like” — exhibiting behaviors such as updating automatically, and offering interactivity.  Designing content features involves asking how functionality can change the representation of content to deliver additional value to audiences and the business.  Features can provide for different views of content, with different levels of detail or different perspectives.

Consider a simple content design decision: should certain information be presented as a list, in a table, or as a graph?  Each of these options are structures.  The same content can be presented in all three structures.  Each structure has benefits. Graphs are easy to scan, tables allow more exact information, while lists are better for screen readers.  The “right” choice may depend on the expected context of use — assuming only one exists.  But it is also possible that the same content could be delivered in all three structures, which could be used by different users in different contexts.

Design of Data-driven Information

Many content features depend on data-driven information.  Instead of considering content as static — only reflecting what was known at the time it was published — content can be designed to incorporate information about activities related to the content that have happened after publication of the article.

Algorithmically-generated information is increasingly common.  A major goal is to harvest behavioral data that might be informative to audiences, and use that data to manage and prioritize the display of information.  Doing this successfully requires the designer to think in terms of a system of inter-relationships between activities, needs, and behavioral scenarios.

Features and data can be tools to solve problems that words and layout alone can’t address.  Both these aspects involve loosening the control over what the audience sees and notices.  Features and data can enrich the content experience.  They can provide different points of interest, so that different people can choose to focus on what elements of information interest them the most.   Features and data can make the content more flexible in supporting various goals by offering users more choice.

Content Design in the Wild

Real-world examples provide the best way to see the possibilities of content design, and the challenges involved.

Amazon is famous for both the depth of its product information, and its use of data.  Product reviews on Amazon are sometimes vital to the success of a product.  Many people read Amazon product reviews, even if they’ve no intention of buying the product from Amazon.  And people who have not bought the product are allowed to leave reviews, and often do.

Amazon’s product reviews illustrate different aspects of content design.  The reviews are enriched with various features and data that let people scan and filter the content according to their priorities.  But simply adding features and data does not automatically result in a good design.

Below is a recent screenshot of reviews for a book on Amazon.  It illustrates some of the many layers of information available.  There are ratings of books, comments on the books, identification of the reviewers, and reactions to the ratings.  Seemingly, everything that might be useful has been included.

Design of product review information for a book
Design of product review information for a book

The design is sophisticated on many levels. But instead of providing clear answers for users trying to evaluate the suitability of a book, the design raises various questions.  Consider the information conveyed:

  • The book attracted three reviews
  • All three reviewers rated the book highly, either four or five stars
  • All the reviewers left a short comment
  • Some 19 people provided feedback on the reviews
  • Only one person found the reviews helpful; the other 18 found the reviews unhelpful

Perhaps the most puzzling element is the heading: “Most Helpful Customer Reviews.”  Clearly people did not find the reviews helpful, but the page indicates the opposite.

This example illustrates some important aspects of content design.  First, different elements of content can be inter-dependent.  The heading depends on the feedback on reviews, and the feedback on reviews depend on the reviews themselves. Second, because the content is dynamic, what gets displayed is subject to a wide range of inputs that can change over time.  Whether what’s display makes sense to audiences will depend on the design’s capacity to adapt to different scenarios in a meaningful way. Content design depends on a system of interactions.

Content Design as Problem Solving

Content design is most effective when treated as the exploration of user problems, rather than as the fulfillment of user tasks.  Amazon’s design checks the box in terms of providing information that can be consulted as part of a purchase decision.  A purely functional perspective would break tasks into user stories: “Customer reads reviews”, etc.  But tasks have a tendency to make the content interaction too generic. The design exploration needs to come before writing the stories, rather than the reverse. The design needs to consider various problems the user may encounter.  Clearly the example we are critiquing did not consider all these possibilities.

An examination of the content as presented in the design suggests the source of problems readers of the reviews encountered.  They did not find the comments helpful.  The comments are short, and vague as to what would justify the high rating.  A likely reason the comments are vague is that the purchasers of the product were not the true endusers of the product, so they refrained from evaluating the qualities of the product, and commented on their purchase experience instead.  The algorithms that prioritize the reviews don’t have a meaningful subroutine for dealing with cases where all the reviews are rated as unhelpful.

 Critique as the Exploration of Questions

Critiquing the design of content allows content creators to consider the interaction of content as seen from the audience perspective.  As different scenarios are applied to various content elements, the critique can ask more fundamental questions about audience expectations, and in so doing, reconsider design assumptions.

Suppose we shift the discussion away from the minutiae of screen elements to consider the people involved.  The issue is not necessarily whether a specific book is sold.  The lifetime value of customers shopping on Amazon is far more important.  And here, the content design is failing in a big way.

Customers want to know if a book, which they can’t look at physically or in extensive detail, is really what they want to purchase.  Amazon counts on customers to give other customers confidence that what they purchase is what they want.  Returned merchandise is a lose-lose proposition for everyone.  Most customers who leave reviews do so voluntarily, without direct benefit — that is what makes their reviews credible.   So we have buyers of a book altruistically offering their opinion about the product.  They have taken the trouble to log-in and provide a review, with the expectation the review will be published, and the hope it will be helpful to others.  Instead, potential buyers of the book are dinging the reviews.  The people who have volunteered their time to help others are being criticized, while people who are interested in buying the book are unhappy they can’t get reliable information.  Through poor content design, Amazon is alienating two important customer constituencies at once: loyal customers who provide reviews on which Amazon depends, and potential buyers considering a product.

How did this happen, and how can it be fixed?  Amazon has talented employees, and unrivaled data analytics.  Despite those enviable resources, the design of the product review information nonetheless has issues.  Issues of this sort don’t lend themselves to A/B testing, or quick fixes, because of the interdependencies involved.  One could deploy a quick fix such as changing the heading if no helpful reviews exist, but the core problems would remain.  Indeed, the tendency in agile IT practices to apply incremental changes to designs is often a source of content design problems, rather than a means of resolving them.  Such patchwork changes mean that elements are considered in isolation, rather than as part of a system involving interdependencies.

Many sophisticated content designs such as the product review pages evolve over time.  No one person is directing the design: different people work on the design at different stages, sometimes over the course of years.  Paradoxically, even though the process is trumpeted as being agile, it can emulate some of the worst aspects of a “design by committee” approach where everyone leaves their fingerprints on the design, but no holistic concept is maintained.

News reports indicate Amazon has been concerned with managing review contributors.  Amazon wants to attract known reviewers, and has instituted a program called Vine that provides incentives to approved reviewers.  At the same time, it wants to discourage reviewers who are paid by outside parties, and has sued people it believes provide fake reviews.  To address the issue of review veracity, reviews use badges indicating the reviewer’s status as being a verified purchaser, a top reviewer, or a Vine reviewer.  The feedback concerning whether a review is helpful is probably also linked to goals of being able to distinguish real reviews from fake ones.  It would appear that the issue of preventing fake reviews has become conflated with the issue of providing helpful reviews, when in reality they are separate issues.  The example clearly shows that real reviews are not necessarily helpful reviews.

The content design should support valid business goals, but it needs to make sure that doing so doesn’t work at cross-purposes with the goals of audiences using the design.  Letting customers criticize other customers may support the management of review content, but in some cases it may do so at the cost of customer satisfaction.

A critique of the design also brings into focus the fact that the review content involves two distinct user segments: the readers of reviews, and the writers of reviews.  The behavior of each affects the other.  The success of the content depends on meeting the needs of both.

The design must look beyond the stated problem of how to present review information.  It must also solve second-order problems.  How to encourage useful reviews?  What to do when there are no useful reviews?  Many critical design issues may be lurking behind the assumptions of the “happy path” scenario.

Re-examining Assumptions

A comprehensive content design process keeps in mind the full range of (sometimes competing) goals the design needs to fulfill, and the range of scenarios in which the design must accommodate.  From these vantage points, it can test assumptions about how a design solution performs in different situations and against different objectives.

When applied to the example of product reviews, different vantage points raise different core questions.   Let’s focus on the issue of encouraging helpful reviews, given its pivotal leverage.  The issue involves many dimensions.

Who is the audience for the reviews: other customers, or the seller or maker of the product?  Who do the reviewers imagine is seeing their content, and what do they imagine is being done with that information?  What are the expectations of reviewers, and how can the content be designed to match their expectations — or to reset them?

What are the reviewers supposed to be rating?  Are they rating the product, or rating Amazon?  When the product is flawed, who does the reviewer hold accountable, and is that communicated clearly?  Do raters or readers of ratings want finer distinctions, or not?  How does the content design influence these expectations?

What do the providers of feedback on reviews expect will be done with their feedback?  Do they expect it to be used by Amazon, by other customers, or be seen and considered by the reviewer evaluated?  How does the content design communicate these dimensions?

What is a helpful review, according to available evidence?  What do customers believe is a helpful review?  Is “most helpful” the best metric?  Suppose long reviews are more likely to be considered helpful reviews. Is “most detailed” a better way to rank reviews?

What kinds of detail are expected in the review comments?  What kinds of statements do people object to?  How does the content design impact the quality of the comments?

What information is not being presented?  Should Amazon include information about number of returns?  Should people returning items provide comments that show up in the product reviews?

There are of course many more questions that could be posed.  The current design reflects a comment moderation structure, complete with a “report abuse” link.  The policing of comments, and voting on reviews hits on extrinsic motivators — people seeking status from positive feedback, or skirting negative feedback. But it doesn’t do much to address intrinsic motivators to participate and contribute.  A fun exercise to shift perspective would be to try imagining how to design the reviews to rank-order them according to their sincerity. Because people can be so different in what they seek in product information, it is always valuable to ask what different people care about most, and never to assume to know the answer to that with certainty.

Designing Experiences, Not Tasks

Tasks are a starting point for thinking about content design, but are not sufficient for developing a successful design.  Tasks tend to simplify activities, without giving sufficient attention to contextual issues or alternative scenarios.  A task-orientation tends to make assumptions about user motivations to do things.

Content design is stronger when content is considered experientially.  Trust is a vitally important factor for content, but it is difficult to reduce into a task.  Part of what makes trust so hard is that it is subjective.  Different people value different factors when assessing trustworthiness — rationality or emotiveness, thoroughness or clarity.  For that reason, content designs often need to provide a range of information and detail.

Designing for experiences frees us from thinking about user content needs as being uniform. Instead of focusing only on what people are doing (or what we want them to be doing), the experiential perspective focuses on why people may want to take action, or not.

People expect a richly-layered content experience, able to meet varied and changing needs.  Delivering this vision entails creating a dynamic ecosystem that provides the right kinds of details. The details must be coordinated so that they are meaningful in combination. Content becomes a living entity, powered by many inputs.  Dynamic content, properly designed, can provide people with positive and confidence-inducing experiences. Unless people feel comfortable with the information they view, they are reluctant to take action.  Experience may seem intangible, and thus inconsequential.  But the content experience has real-world consequences: it impacts behavior.

— Michael Andrews

Humanizing Dates and Times

Content often relates to time in some way.  How to present time most effectively involves design decisions. Previously I discussed why content designers should think in terms of slices of time rather than specific dates.  In this post I want to elaborate on how audiences think about time, and how to humanize temporal information and present it in a way that fits everyday thinking.  Never mistake a deadline for the real goal.  Temporal information must support goals, rather than become the center of attention. It should be synchronized with our needs.

The Decline of Schedules

Twenty years ago many households had a VCR.  The only notable aspect of the VCR’s mundane appearance was its digital clock, which was often blinking after the electric power was interrupted, and no one could figure out how to reset the time. The blinking VCR clock, vainly calling for attention, became the butt of many commentaries about poor usability.  But why VCR clocks might go unset for so long went less remarked.  The VCR can tell us the time, but it didn’t tell us what we needed: when programs were being broadcast that we wanted to record.  Eventually interactive program guides provided the information users wanted, and they could choose the program, rather than the time.

Even today we have digital clocks that serve little purpose. Many microwaves have them. People have stopped wearing watches because time-displays are available on so many devices.  We synchronize our lives by pinging each other, rather than scheduling dates. We automate our calendars to pay our bills, and so doing worry less about today’s date.  For many activities,  audiences consider time as a choice to manage, rather than an obligation to fulfill.  People want the convenience of on-demand services, and scheduling is a barrier to that.  The more people fall out of the habit of scheduling, the harder the task of scheduling becomes.

Despite this big behavioral shift, content designers for the most part have not yet developed alternative paradigms to the clock- and calendar-centric expressions of temporal information.  Times and dates tend to be opaque: obstructing answers that audiences may be seeking.

Time as Information

How time can be used as a way to reveal options is an emerging challenge.  This weekend I was considering a visit to a storied landmark in Rome, the Castel Sant’Angelo. When I Googled to get details about an exhibit there, Google presented the following visual of times when the landmark was most busy.

Google search results displays popular times for visits to a tourist attraction.
Google search results displays popular times for visits to a tourist attraction.

The visual provided me with a rare moment of online delight.  I received useful information that I did not expect.  Tourist attractions in Rome can be busy on weekends, when budget airlines bring weekend visitors from across Europe.  Knowing when the landmark would be less busy is helpful.

The genius of the popular times display is that is answers a question that, while related to time, prioritizes the more important consideration: the experience associated with different times. It’s an example of the kind of temporal contextual information that will be increasingly common with the deployment of IoT sensors capturing time-stamped ambient information.

Dates as Proxies for Goals and Motivations

When people notice a date, they associate a meaning with that date.  If they fail to associate a meaning with the date, they will ignore the date entirely — it is just another abstract number.  An important question arises: Why does this date matter?  What’s significant about it?

Dates are often proxies for goals and motivations.  Does the date, or more specifically, the duration associated with the date, signify our ability to achieve a goal, or does it indicate a lack of progress?  It’s not the date per se that matters. It’s what it symbolizes to us. The date is just an ID number that we translate mentally into a signal of hope or despair.

range of goals and motivations according to time granularity
Range of goals and motivations according to time granularity

Some dates become symbols of us as individuals: they indicate where we are in the passage of time.  Other dates and times express the behavior of something we are interested in.  Dates embody events, which we evaluate with respect to a specific point in time. What that symbolizes to us will vary.

Events are bookmarked by a start and finish.  Those attributes shape four generic questions about events:

  • How long from beginning to end? (Duration)
  • How long since? (Relative time past)
  • How long until? (Relative time forward)
  • Is the event within a defined period? (Defined time period)
Goals associated with generic time-based events
Goals associated with generic time-based events

Embedded within a start date or an end date is a user goal. Users scan for information that would indicate how well they are meeting their goals.  The progress or deterioration of a situation is frequently a function of an event’s duration.  The urgency of the situation can be a function of how long it has been since something happened in the past.  The effort involved with a situation can be shaped by how far the end goal is in the future.  The length of time is a characteristic that can imply significant consequences to users.

The defined time period is a complex situation that arises surprisingly often.  Businesses, universities, and government departments all seem to love time-base eligibility requirements.  People want to know if they are eligible for a rebate, a scholarship, a tax credit or if their product warranty is still valid.  Instead of finding a simple answer, they are forced to compare how their activities comply with some arbitrary qualifying start and end dates.

Translating and Transforming Temporal Information

Focus on how audiences attach significance to time-related information. Provide it in a format that audiences will notice and use.

The presentation of temporal information needs to take advantage of intrinsic capabilities of digital formats — without making audiences focus on the arcane presentation native to those formats.  Content designers should translate temporal information into the language of the audience, and transform temporal data into answers that audiences care about.

Computer time and date formats are precise and granular — forcing audiences to think what the information means in everyday terms. Fortunately, software libraries are available to translate computer dates into more intelligible language.  Among the most useful is Moment.js, a JavaScript library.  Moment can translate time and date information between different locales (non-English as well as different English language variants).  It contains a function called “humanize” which translates numeric values into verbal phrases.  In instead of seeing “1 day” or “24 hours,” audiences can see “a day.”

Moment.js humanize function (via Moment.js)
Moment.js humanize function (via Moment.js)

Moment also reduces complexity by rounding times to whole units that audiences will be able to notice and grasp more readily.  Few people want to see that something happened 27 hours ago; they’d rather see it displayed as happening yesterday.

Moment.js value ranges (via Moment.js)
Moment.js value ranges (via Moment.js)

These capabilities come together to allow Moment to perform near-natural language calculations on dates.  Users can add two months to a date, without worrying about how many days the intervening months have.  They can subtract days from a date, and get an answer expressed as “Last Wednesday.”  The granularity of units can be adjusted, so that information can be rounded to whatever level of detail is most appropriate.  This capability is helpful when users need to know if two dates might fall in the same time period.  For example, if I delay doing something by 45 days, will the activity still be in the same year, or be pushed into the following year?

Moment recognizes concepts such as the beginning and end of the day.  It also has capabilities to parse natural language date inputs to convert them into computer-friendly date formats.  These capabilities will be increasingly important as people interact with computers through voice interfaces.  Calendars don’t work well with voice input and output. People need common language ways to transform temporal information.

Moment.js calendar and relative time options (via Moment.js)
Moment.js calendar and relative time options (via Moment.js)

Framing Time to Support Goals

Humans frame events according to periods that are significant to them.  Organizations sometimes insist on making their customers adapt to the organization’s schedule, resulting in maddening situations involving proration.  Instead of basing schedules linked to one’s own life events, people are expected to follow the schedule and calendar of the service provider.  A better approach comes (ironically) from the DMV [division of motor vehicles], who link driver’s license renewals to birthdays.

We can support audience goals and motivations when we synchronize time-related information around their perspective. People often define cultural artifacts in terms of their decade (e.g., music or TV shows from the 1980s).  Let’s imagine you and a friend both went to university together in the 1990s.  You are both film buffs, and enjoyed watching movies together.  You get in a debate about who was the best actor in the 1990s.  Many questions about superlatives involve time frames. We don’t care who won the most awards ever; we care about who won or was nominated for awards in the time period that’s most significant to us.

You and your friend remember Michael Caine and Tom Hanks were nominated for Bafta awards in 1998.  So which got more recognition during the entire decade?  A seemingly straightforward question, trying to identify the actor who got the most nominations, becomes an involved research project.  Googling the question doesn’t generate an answer: it only generates links that must be read and assessed.

Questions involving superlatives often involve needing to transform date-related values.
Questions involving superlatives often involve needing to transform date-related values.

Film trivia might seem like a pale example to illustrate how poorly content is structured to help people frame their time-related questions. While low in importance, it can be high in the motivation it elicits.  Some people want to know such details, and have trouble getting the answers.  But consider the opposite situation: something serious, but where motivation is low.  When does one need a twice-a-decade medical screening, that promises no fun?  This is the kind of issue that doesn’t align with a specific calendar date.  People need to see a realistic window in which they can schedule the event.  When they go beyond that window they need to receive an appropriately worded communication about how overdue the person is, and the significance of that delay.

Linking Events, Temporal Information, and Actions

When we need to do something is closely linked to what we will be doing and why we are doing it.  Event-related content is intimately linked to temporal information.   Temporal information can trigger user actions.  Temporal information is the glue tying together what’s significant to the audience, and what they may need to do.

When something happens should be secondary to what happens and why it happens.  Temporal information needs to be presented in the most motivating format possible.  It needs to reflect the context of the user, not the context of the clock or calendar.  It needs to be humanized, so people can understand the importance of the time mentioned.  That requires us to think like the audience: to know if they think about the topic in terms of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years.  And it requires us to help them see what’s typical or should be expected.

—Michael Andrews