Full disclosure: I am a scaredy cat. It doesn’t take much to startle me and get my heart racing. In fact, walk into my office when I’m not paying attention and that’ll probably do it.
That being said, I would be surprised if I’m the only one bothered by some of the latest exploits of a growing trend, “prankvertising” (the use of a practical joke or stunt to garner attention for a brand).
I have two bones to pick with this tactic:
1) Sometimes it’s just plain mean. And I don’t want to support mean brands.
2) Other times, it doesn’t create a strong connection with the brand message.
But before I dive into the criticism, I think there are a couple brands who have found the sweet spot of making a splash in the world of viral videos, without scaring and annoying consumers in the process.
As part of their “Make Boring Brilliant” campaign, vitaminwater’s art gallery stunt stopped bystanders in their tracks as they watched a fellow gallery attendee change the “art” before their eyes. Vitamin Water has teamed up with College Humor for a few other harmless tricks as part of the effort.
Another favorite is Adobe’s impromptu bus shelter Photoshopping. They showed off the product capabilities and ease of use with a sense of humor that fit the brand.
Finally, ToysRUs made children’s wishes come true when they let kids play with all the newest toys of the holiday season and take home their favorite. Not only did they offer an opportunity to interact with their brand, but they made their audience happy along the way. Sounds like success to me.
There are also a couple brands that fall into the middle of the road category. While they may not be creating life-long detractors, I think their prankvertising efforts could have been put to better use.
In the case of Carlsberg, the brand asked participants to volunteer a friend for a seemingly life-or-death challenge. While I partially blame these friends for causing the distress, I also feel that the brand payoff had a weak connection: “Standing up for a friend. That calls for a Carlsberg.”
Then there’s LG—perhaps the most talked about prankvertiser of the moment. In their End of the World stunt, job applicants were probably permanently traumatized. But I have to admit, next time I go shopping for a TV, their message will surely come to mind.
Lastly, I’ve seen a couple examples of prankvertising that I simply can’t forgive.
After watching actors repeatedly terrify innocent coffee shop dwellers in an effort to promote the latest Carrie remake, I vowed to avoid the movie at all costs.
And last but certainly not least, there’s Nivea. While I understand their attempt at linking the brand to stressful situations, the act of making airport travelers feel like wanted criminals just seems a bit extreme. Shouldn’t the brand be relieving stress instead of causing it?
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive. After all, most of these stunts have received millions of views, obviously catching the attention of consumers. But I have to wonder, at what cost?
I’ve been seeing a lot of Walmart ads lately. Mostly, it’s Darrell with his Rollback announcements, but more and more, I’ve been catching “The Real Walmart.” That campaign where they try to undo my 30 years of (not so positive) impressions of them in 30 seconds. And I have to say, it’s not working for me.
Still, this has become a common tactic for brands. Perdue launched its “We believe in a better chicken” campaign while Food, Inc. was still topping Netflix documentaries. And we all remember the Comcast “Dream Big” spots, painting a world where Comcast users sing with joy. What’s next, a United commercial about punctuality and ample overhead space?
So it got me thinking. Can brands ever really win by addressing image issues head-on in advertising?
It’s certainly not easy. Taking a brand position that goes against what people believe can feel confusing, inauthentic, and even irritating. The examples above actually reignited my negative associations for each brand instead of changing them. One exception that comes to mind is Domino’s. When they launched their campaign about quality issues, I actually tried their pizza again. They admitted to their shortcomings, made changes, and asked for a second chance, with total transparency. Had they simply skipped to how great-tasting their new pizza was, the response would’ve been much different.
TV is a powerful medium – it helps us make snap judgments about brands before we even experience them. But undoing brand perceptions can be much more difficult. If it’s an image you’re trying to reverse, check the BS meter on your message. You may find your campaign will do more harm than good, and that actions would speak louder than ads.
On August 1, Participant Media launched a new TV channel. If you’re not familiar with Participant, you’ve probably seen their films … Syriana, Casino Jack, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Help, Contagion, Food Inc., An Inconvenient Truth, Good Night and Good Luck … oh, and a little film called Lincoln.
Participant Media is in business for a reason beyond profits: to create “Entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” But make no mistake, this is no charity. This is very much a commercial enterprise.
We know brands like this: TOMS shoes, Method soap, Warby Parker eyewear; you might even say the Toyota Prius is a brand that compels social change (and makes money while doing it).
When we work on any brand, we always counsel them to articulate – DECIDE on, their purpose in the world. It doesn’t have to be cause-related at all; it could be just to delight someone. Non-cause brands that have a higher brand purpose include Nike, Apple, Starbucks, Coke, Walmart – the biggest, most loved brands in the world (no coincidence).
So the announcement of Participant Media’s TV channel is interesting for a few reasons. It demonstrates how a brand with purpose has an easier time extending into new categories. It shows us that the appetite consumers have for a do-gooder message has enough pocketbook spend behind it to attract advertisers (most TV channels’ business model). And it shows us how a brand can become the channel.
Participant is built to create content, yet they credibly can get into the distribution and monetization business, which they may have very little experience in, thanks in part to their clear purpose. Just as Red Bull has become a content-creation (media) company (to give you wings). Just as Netflix (media channel) can CREATE content that earns 14 Emmy nominations (to deliver more entertainment than anywhere else).
The silos are breaking down, which spells possibility for every brand out there. The evolution of technology and consumer savvy has opened up new horizons for your business. People want it, and will reward it. Just imagine how Participant will launch its next film … with a lot of TV spots on its very own TV channel that’s already in 43 million US homes.
I see a future where consumer packaged goods create award winning content (already happening). Where a TV channel launches a respectable fashion line, or beverage. Where a service business creates a partner-funded media channel (say, “Jiffy-Lube TV” shows NASCAR events, sponsored by Pennzoil and Bridgestone). I see a future where the crowd itself may fund and create its own Sundance-ready film (via Kickstarter? Come on, use your imagination. 100% possible, right now.) I think Comcast’s near-monopoly business model is actually incredibly narrow-minded and lacks ambition. Guided by a higher purpose, it could easily expand.
If you’re managing a brand, expansion requires a well-articulated purpose. If you have that in this day and age, it’s high time to look over a few fences. Create some synergies; invest instead of just spend. Your consumers can’t wait.
( * Participant Media’s new TV channel is called Pivot TV. How appropriate.)
Before I was a Planner, I often asked agency professionals what their typical day might consist of (now I know how truly difficult a question that is to answer…). While the answers from the Brand Planners, Account Managers, and Media Planners varied widely, they had one thing in common: none of them ever mentioned capabilities calls.
For those of you who don’t know, “capabilities calls” are pre-arranged meetings where various vendors try to sell their services to agencies. Vendors may offer qualitative or quantitative research capabilities, social listening tools, media connections, etc.
So as months and years spent at agencies passed and I realized that these meetings are quite regular occurrences for a variety of departments, I wondered why no one had ever mentioned them. After sitting through my first few, I learned the answer: most capabilities calls aren’t all that memorable. Or impactful.
After a recent vendor meeting (where I left feeling unsure of how they could help our department), I tried earnestly to put myself in their shoes. If I were trying to win my business, how would I approach a one-hour chunk of time to impress myself? Then it struck me: capabilities calls have a lot in common with job interviews.
In fact, there are five common tips that interviewees follow that I think could greatly benefit vendors when preparing for calls with agency folk:
Send your resume ahead of time: A prepared audience is an interested audience. If I’m able to understand the basics of your background, experience, and current responsibilities, I’m much more apt to come prepared with appropriate questions, and I may be able to help you narrow your presentation to the most relevant areas of expertise.
Keep it short: The old one-page rule applies here too. Provide a brief, relevant history, but focus your energy on explaining your current specialties. By keeping the background short, you’ll increase the chances of your audience members reading it before the meeting, leaving more time for active discussion.
Provide clear, specific answers: While the excellent one-pager that you sent prior to the meeting will be helpful, your audience members will still have questions about what you can do for them. Come prepared with a range of explanations and examples that leave nothing to the imagination. While you may be tempted to speak broadly about your array of services, specifics prove your understanding of your business and answer nagging uncertainties.
Know your audience: Even if you don’t know exactly who will be in the room when you present, you should know the general ins and outs of the department you’re meeting with. Take into consideration their unique needs for your services, their familiarity with any technology you work with, and their time and budgetary restraints, if applicable.
Supply a leave-behind: Like most job interviews, you’ll likely miss out on the chance to share some of your best case studies and successes. By having a (preferably short) “portfolio” of sorts prepared, you can provide your audience members with additional information right as their interest is piqued.
I believe that by following these tips, more vendors could ace their agency interviews. And they wouldn’t even have to wear suits to do it.
Now that the world is becoming increasingly digital in nature, we begin to see the cultivation of different online practices and designs, and we begin to adapt. One major strength that we have as an agency is the ability to notice these changes and self-correct as needed.
As with any era in nature, there comes a time where certain species who were not built to last fall behind, to be replaced with hardier, more robust species. Let’s take a moment to remember the top three common web User Experience practices* that have (thankfully) fallen victim to Darwinism, and take notes from the lessons they teach us:
Okay. So maybe this was alright back in the days where underlined and colored text didn’t automatically mean “hyperlink” to some, but by now it’s pretty common knowledge. Transparency is key when it comes to designing a great user experience, and there is nothing transparent about the words “Click here.” Obviously a hyperlink is a hyperlink, but that hyperlink could take the user to literally anywhere on the Internet. Instead of saying “If you want to follow us on Twitter, click here,” why not “Follow us on Twitter @22squared?”
This of course does not just apply to the words “Click here,” but also to any ambiguous labels or directions that detract from the user’s website experience. Essentially, the concept of “Click here” is now the website equivalent of a beat-up white windowless van – there might be wonderful secrets hidden behind that link, but you can bet some people will think twice before clicking.
Bottom line: Don’t be sketchy.
If you ask Google “What are splash pages?” the first line of the response given is telling – “Often animated, graphics pages without significant textual content.” Back in the day when a website would take more than two seconds to load, visitors had to be entertained. The best way to do it? Shove an animation in their faces, and hope it distracts them long enough for your page to finish loading in the background.
Nowadays, splash pages are becoming more taboo than anything else. The main reason, most simply put – Internet connections got faster. Two other reasons for the forced retirement of the Splash page are:
1. Barriers - Now that users have taken the time to go to your website, they encounter a page that tells them to click a button to enter the site. Not only does this delay users in accessing your site, some have found that splash pages actually turned people away.
2. SEO – SEO, or search engine optimization, is a common practice used to give your website more visibility to any search engines that could be combing through. Splash pages, as aforementioned, usually contain little to no “significant textual content,” making it difficult for search engines to connect your page to any key search terms.
Bottom line: If you want users to come to your site, don’t make them jump through hoops.
Of course, I saved the best for last. This bad mamma jamma still pops up pretty frequently, though it seems that people have been wising up to the many pitfalls of a purely Flash-based page. The original draw toward Flash pages was simple enough to understand – Flash pages are, well, “flashy.” They look nice (sometimes). They feel nice (sometimes). They sound nice (sometimes). When it comes to the cons, however, there are quite a few to consider:
1. Access - Many mobile devices do not support viewing Flash pages. Heck, even many computers out there are not optimized for Flash viewing. Grandma’s wedding present PC probably won’t be able to handle the bandwidth, and even if it did, you would have to walk her through the steps of installing the plug-in while she has trouble hearing you on the phone.
2. Linking – If you look at the URL bar when navigating a purely Flash-based website, you’ll notice it doesn’t change from page to page. What happens if you’re seven pages in and you want to share that particular page with your friends? That’s right, no one will ever see it, because no one loves anyone enough to want to click through your seven steps to get to a website. It’s just a fact of life.
3. SEO – Flash sites yield the same SEO issue as splash pages. If you want your website to pop up in more search results than the website of that specialty taxidermy-and-ice-cream shop in rural Wyoming, hiding all your content in Flash is definitely not the way to do it.
4. Load time – Go ahead, try Disney’s Fantasyland website. Do you see the progress bar telling you how much of the page is being loaded? This might be going pretty quickly if you’re at work, but if you’re at home where your cheapskate significant other only wants to pay for the smallest possible Internet package, your sense of whimsy might have shriveled up and died before the page decided to finish loading.
If you are a better person than I (determined by whether or not you immediately closed the window out of disgust) and are still navigating through the site, try clicking the waving banners at the top. I would provide you with a link to this one… but, you know, Flash.
Bottom line: Flash pages are finicky and Disney can execute them beautifully because Disney can do no wrong. Are you Disney? No? Then don’t do it.
*I admit, these may or may not have just been pet peeves of mine (and/or practices I wish would go extinct already). Comment below if you have any practices to add to this list!
Written by Markham Butler and David Whitehead
“You can’t improve what you don’t understand.” I don’t remember where I first heard this, but I’ll add something more to it: “You can’t improve what you don’t understand, and you can’t understand unless you measure.” Digital properties are not static but intrinsically pliable. Therefore the launch of any digital product or service is only a step on the path to truly understanding and improving how users are engaging with it, while at the same time helping businesses focus their digital business objectives surrounding it. This means complete involvement in any digital project, continuously guiding its growth from its inception to its eventual retirement, using a specific set of lenses, skill sets and disciplines. At 22squared, this is how we define success and performance for our digital properties.
More often than not, the positions of user experience designer and web analyst conjure up images of the deliverables commonly associated with each: wireframes and analytics reports. The true power in each though, lies just below the surface. Both inherently deal with analyzing and understanding human behavior. Both are forms of user research. And both rely on data to be effective. But let’s put their similarities aside for a moment and focus on their differences before I explain why the two truly complement one another.
Web analytics can be partially explained as finding the “what” of human behavior on any given digital property. In other words, they can answer a question like, “what are people doing on my site?” And with digital, we can see a lot of that “what” very clearly. However, this partial explanation of analytics fails to highlight the true value of the discipline: analysis. Sifting through all the metrics, analysts contextualize the data, find patterns, and attempt to explain not only what the users are doing, but also why. Being well-versed in understanding the data, the real fun then becomes to divine intent and create actionable insights from the “why” of the observable behaviors. In short, data is more or less a story told through numbers, and an analyst not only correctly distills the meaning of that story for us, but also offers up ways in which to tell it better.
In its barest form, User Experience Design is the practice of creating user experiences to sell, solve, or enable. It encompasses the full set of physical, psychological, and emotional interactions that a person engages in while using a product or service. It includes a number of key disciplines, all utilized for the vast majority of digital design and development projects: research, strategy, information architecture, and interaction design. Common deliverables include, respectively, analysis of primary and secondary research, strategic outlines mapping business goals to user goals, wireframes, and more detailed interaction design documents to help craft and finesse the user experience.
Are you starting to see where these two might intersect?
Before I combine them, let’s first show why these two aren’t totally effective without each other. Let’s use an example. An analytics report for a website shows that the big button we want everyone to click on isn’t being clicked as much as we would like. We know this through a standard web analytics report. At this point, a number of explanations are explored and a set of potential solves rendered. In this case we moved the button to a different position on the page. A week later, the reports come back showing a marked increase in button clicks. Problem solved, right? On some level, yes, but we weren’t able to completely answer why the new placement worked. This is because traditionally web analytics can only answer questions based on quantitative data. UX can help by applying qualitative analysis of the same button and more completely answer the why.
Conversely, traditional User Experience design generally happens before the product or service launches. It uses copious amounts of research, user testing, qualitative data, quantitative data, and experience drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, ultimately in an effort to create a positive emotional connection between user and brand, product or service. But UX alone seldom has a chance to observe and intrinsically understand unhindered human interaction with its output. It also cannot play on the same field as analytics in that it cannot deliver quantifiable optimizations based on the defined business objectives and key performance indicators. However, a good web analyst does all of these things on a regular basis.
When we combine the two, we get something that looks like this:
In summary, the mantra of 22squared is simple. Build. Measure. Learn.
UX and analytics are not new, but being combined to form a single discipline is. This new “hybrid” is much more able to solve our clients’ digital challenges and improve performance within their digital ecosystems, all in a user-centric way. By any definition of the word, that’s innovation.
Wednesday, July 10th. 2013. 5:30 am. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The Big Boss had us there early that morning to catch a 7:30 flight. Our destination: Tampa, FL. The agenda included what turned out to be a pretty successful analytics strategy kick-off meeting, but that’s beside the point. It was hot. The combusting jet engines echoed off the sticky summer air. There I was. Not much sleep the night before and I still hadn’t had coffee. I was tired.
I parked up on the 4th floor of the deck so I didn’t have to remember which level I’d parked on later that evening. I locked the door to my 2001 VW Jetta and headed for the stairwell. I exited the stairwell on the 3rd floor, gauged my position and headed for the terminal. 25-30 yards en route I looked up to check the signs and my progress. That’s when it happened. I stood frozen, confused, drunken with exhaustion as a result of the Big Boss’ timetables. I cleared my eyes and looked up again. I wasn’t mistaken. The terminal sign pointed left but my instincts told me that I should go right. I looked to my right, then my left; squinting I tried to make out my destination. I adjusted my position to find other signs to help me find my way. Finally, after a delay of at least half a minute, I located another sign and was back on my way once again, moving in the correct direction.
At that moment I had a thought. This is bad UX.
The type of UX that wastes time and energy. Imagine if I weren’t the type of person that constantly came prepared. What if I liked the rush of showing up seconds before the gates closed? That 30 seconds coupled with the additional stress of running late could have sent me on a spiral of anxiety and desperation. I would have missed my plane, ruined my day and for what? Two signs pointing in opposite directions leading me to the same destination. This is the type of UX that people remember. Bad UX.
Because the truth is that I wouldn’t have noticed if the signs did their job, successfully leading tired dudes to the terminal without having them think much or question their sense of direction. That’s right. Good user experience isn’t noticed. It does its job, connecting people with systems without making them think much or figure stuff out. Connecting all sorts of people. Tired, impatient, angry, smart, not-so-smart people that all want the same thing. They want to make it to their destination without being led in two different directions.
I reflect on that day often, wondering if it were all some type of cruel joke. “Let’s pull one over on the UX guy!!!” I hear them snickering as they poke each other with skinny elbows. “This’ll really throw’m for a loop.”
Or maybe it was just a mistake. An oversight. A bad user experience.
Children are drawn towards touch screens and are intuitively good at using them. It takes just minutes for a 2-year-old to become an expert at an iPad, creating a cache of adorable videos on YouTube. This natural inclination towards touch screens presents developers with a huge market for educational (and entertaining) apps and games. However, as we’ve seen with educational TV programs, there’s only so much information that can get through. But with so many forms of technology surrounding our children, developmental psychologists are gaining huge insights into child behavior and interaction with media.
The latest leap in child psychology is one that every person working with media should be aware of, especially those concerned with User Experience and education. Starting at age 2, children begin to learn the difference between media and reality. Before this understanding, children tend to think that media is an actual extension of the world; that if they turn the TV sideways the characters on the screen will fall over or that short tempered birds are really destroying piggies’ homes. Once children learn that what’s on the screen is not necessarily real, a huge problem (for people in the industry, like us) develops: the Video Deficit Effect. This phenomenon states that children between the ages of 2 and 4 have learned the difference between media and reality so well that they discredit information given to them through media because it’s “not real.” For example, the most cited study on this phenomenon was done by Georgene Troseth of Vanderbilt University. A group of 2-year-olds were broken up into two groups. One group would receive face to face instructions on where a toy was hidden, the other was told through a video recording. The 2-year-old that were told face to face found the toy 77% of the time. But only 27% of those that were told through a recording found the toy. However, when children video chatted with the researcher in the recording, 35% more of the children found the toy.
What does this mean for people looking to make child geared apps? User Experience for children needs to be less focused on intuition and simplicity, and more on social relevance. Ever notice how educational TV programs tend to have the main character ask the viewer questions? These social cues are what make shows like Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer effective. This call and response deal that we saw grow more popular in the 90s is television’s way of trying to bridge the reality gap. This can easily be applied to making educational apps or games as effective and user friendly as possible. When looking into what the most popular apps for kids are, you might notice almost all of them hold a key of relevance or cause and effect. So basically, if what a child does in our world directly affects something on the screen, you’ve sealed the deal. For example, one of the top apps for kids so far this year is “Helicopter Taxi.” This game uses the iPad’s camera to make it appear as if a helicopter is flying around the room, and by moving the device, children can pilot the helicopter and have it “land” on surfaces or pick more passengers up. By having what is on the screen exist in the same room they’re in, the game has been made relevant. But making the camera involved in your game isn’t necessary to make it relevant. “Temple Run” is surprisingly popular with young kids, due simply to the effects of tilting the device. Further, art apps where you can print off the child’s creation are extremely popular as well. Any sort of real world interaction between a child and the app will make it socially relevant, and thus more likely to succeed.
Basically, the Video Deficit Effect makes it important that we try to utilize every interactive feature of a platform when designing something with children in mind. How we can get better results for our clients with this information is endless. For example, let’s say Dunkin’ Donuts has asked us to create a fun game for kids. The game could have the player tilt the device to try to balance a donut that’s surfing on a Coolatta tidal wave. By riding the wave for so long, the player win a coin. After collecting a certain number of coins, they can earn a free donut hole. By making the controls of the game something physical and by making performance in the game result in real world rewards, the app would be socially relevant and more likely to serve our client well.
We have a client with a pretty amazing philosophy when it comes to marketing. They never refer to people as consumers – and the term “user” is a no-no, even among their IT folk. Every person with whom they interact, regardless of the channel, is a customer. It took me a while to adjust to their preference in terminology. I’d present the latest market research to their team on “mobile consumers” and instantly catch a veteran in their marketing group cringing at the word. Eventually, it stuck: I’ve been mostly successful in eliminating the word from my vocabulary – at least in their presence.
It’s an interesting way of looking at things, and one that I’m starting to adopt myself. After all, we’re not pushers selling illicit drugs, so why do we refer to people who interact with us through the sites and applications we create as “users”? We’re trying to support relationships between real people and brands. Referring to them as “consumers” and “users” seems to cheapen what we’re doing. I get the same reaction when someone says “love you” instead of “I love you.” It just feels somewhat less.
I’ve read countless articles on User Experience over the past 20 years as I’ve moved through the ranks. There are stacks of books on my desk that detail the nuances of affordances, cognitive dissonance, spatial relationships, etc., in design and user interaction. Very few of these books spend any amount of time reminding us that, at the end of the day, we’re creating experiences for a very odd species of animals on this planet, called homo sapiens.
We’re an odd species, indeed. We have the most evolved capacity for reason and logic of any animal on Earth, yet we frequently abandon that ability, favoring the primal, emotional side of ourselves in many decision making processes. We prefer simplicity over complexity in interfaces – even if complexity is just as understandable and even more powerful.
It’s for these reasons that I’m starting a campaign to kill the term “User Experience” and opt for “Customer Experience.” It reminds us that we’re creating experiences for people who are, at their core, emotional beings – regardless of the millions of years of evolution separating them from their ancestors. The term reminds me, too, that the individual for whom I design an experience isn’t a nameless, faceless creature, but a person who has real-world problems and needs real-world solutions. That mobile app I’m designing isn’t for User #431625, it’s for my customer, John Doe, who stumbled down the stairs this morning and realized that he was out of milk, just as his four-year old sat down for breakfast.
It’s time to remind ourselves that if we’re to be successful in creating great “user experiences” for our customers, we have to stop thinking of them as users and start thinking of them as people.
Written by John Stapleton and Ryan Simmons
Since I was a little boy, I was always interested in design. Not just graphic design but true user experience design. Some of my earliest memories are of when we used to get together in grade school and play the “illegal” game of Dungeons and Dragons. I say illegal because I went to a Catholic school and they felt it was a bit on the unsavory side of things. That of course made us play it even more. Secretly…in the back of the library. There was a room with a big glass window, and we would prop up books that we were supposed to read and play behind them. No one had any idea we were playing the game.
The game was quite simple. You would choose a character (dwarf, human, elf, etc.). This character then chooses a class (fighter, wizard, etc.) and alignment that defines your moral judgment (this is where I am sure things get “illegal” in elementary schools). You then go into a dungeon led by a designated Dungeon Master, using dice to make decisions. OK, it’s not that simple, but you get the idea. The dungeon was a map. You could play an existing game map or create your own. This is where I came in. I enjoyed plowing through stacks of graph paper designing custom and elaborate maps for the group to play in. The maps were quite complex and had multiple levels. Some were great and some were downright terrible. Those that were terrible had bad user experience (UX). The experience was either flawed, boring or confusing. The maps that were successful had the right balance of interest and effortless direction and flow.
This map-making experience has helped me throughout my career. In basic print advertising, where layout and composition were critical, the idea had to be communicated with enough interest but also be completely understandable. In successful ads, the reader’s eyes went from headline to visual to logo and call to action exactly the way the Art Director intended them to do.
Now, with digital experiences, it’s pretty much the same principle, but with added layers of complexity. Some of my favorite digital experiences require very little – if any – direction. You just open them up and jump in, enjoying what the creative team designed and developed.
The main reason we can now enjoy these digital experiences so easily can be traced back to the most basic of UX design principles: Affordances. In a nutshell, an affordance is a visual cue that suggests how to use an object. The easiest example of a common, everyday affordance is a door handle: when it’s placed correctly, the user knows that the door should be pulled to open. Smartly designed products have ingrained affordances that communicate exactly what users should do with the products, without the need to stop and think about what they are doing. This principle applies to everything, including digital interfaces.
The earliest, and most well-known, form of affordances for digital design is a technique called skeuomorphism. This means taking the look and feel of a real-world object and pasting it onto a digital experience so that users know how it should operate. skeuomorphism was an invaluable trick used in the early years of personal computing that allowed the seemingly complex abilities of computers to be boiled down to easily recognizable actions.
Famous early examples of this are Apple’s addition of a “trashcan” to their OS and the concept of “folders” within a computer. These kinds of explicit interpretations of physical objects allowed new users that had never experienced a computer to understand the “simple” concepts of deleting files (throwing them away) and storing files together (organizing documents into a single container). With no previous knowledge of what a computer was or how it worked, this kind of design language was invaluable.
The biggest problem with skeuomorphic apps is that if the illusion is broken, the whole idea falls apart. A great example of this was the first renditions of the calendar app for the iPad. It was gorgeously designed to look the part of a desktop calendar: beautiful leather with luxurious stitching and pages that looked like paper. The magic fell short due to its functionality. In early versions, users could not swipe to flip through pages, as they could on a physical calendar, and it was not intuitively crafted to show users that they could actually change views from the monthly layout to the weekly layout. The emulation actually made the whole thing less intuitive because users expected features that were not there.
Due to these UX problems, and the fact that skeuomorphic design has become overly complex to the point of becoming gaudy, an anti-skeuomorphism philosophy has begun to take hold. In the past few years, we have started to see a movement towards the more authentically digital experience. Because users have become so familiar with the many basic digital affordances, especially in the area of mobile devices, it is entirely possible to build digital products that are not bogged down in garish gradients, textures, and 3D objects. It gives us the freedom to go flat!
Purely Flat Design is all about minimalism, typography, and the use of strong, bold colors. It is a modern look that avoids the use of any direct skeuomorphism and tries to create timeless designs that look good across all resolutions and devices. The main ideas in play are all about simplicity: Large imagery, separation through whitespace, and easy iconography. Any examples you can find for flat design are simply beautiful. Flat design is being used heavily right now, and there are so many good examples that get it right.
There are thousands of to-do list apps out there, but not one of them comes close to the simplicity of Clear. Its use of swiping and color is hard to beat. Another amazing – yet simple – example is Dots. This game is like Connect Four and Tetris combined. The UX is so elegantly simple, you almost feel like it’s less a game and more a relaxation exercise. I also like this digital art director’s portfolio site: http://www.alessandrogiua.it. He uses a mix of simple visual elements with some complex interface tricks that give you a sense of his capabilities. It’s also super simple.
The most recent trend, though, is towards Almost-Flat Design. This takes the basic concepts of flat design and breaks them in certain ways to create a unique style that is both modern and usable. It fixes the biggest issue of purely flat design, where everything looks similar and navigation elements are hard to distinguish from the information presented. Without the use of any fancy buttons or gaudy embellishments, it’s possible to craft sleek, modern experiences that are easy to look at and easier to use. There are many examples of this out there, so I’ll just touch on a few.
The new hit mobile game Badland is a true delight. The imagery is a wonderful combination of flat black characters and levels animated on top of lush, painted backgrounds. The UX is almost effortless, just hard enough to carry you through to the next level. This builds over time as you gain a better handle on the interface. I also love the new Yahoo! Weather app. The design is elegant and visually personal, as it pulls in Flickr images of the city you are interested in. For news readers, I love Pulse. The headline browsing and visual interest (a combination of subtle gradients with flat elements), along with sharing features, require very little effort.
So, the next time you are unhappily lost within an app or website, or actually happily lost within a game, curse or praise that UX designer. It was his design that put you there.