Let me be clear. Things aren’t clear.
I crave clarity. I think most people do to a certain extent, but seriously — I’m in a stretch of going bonkers with all things unclear:
- Parking meters that don’t specify active days and times.
- Quick service restaurant digital signage menus that hide many of the prices and items in favor of slow-mo footage of bubbling soda and extreme food closeups. (I know, just another reason NOT to do fast food.)
- The online user experience I had to endure last week for one of my financial accounts.
- Construction barrels that reside along roadways for weeks on end without any apparent road work to support.
- Medical billing statements. Actually, pretty much anything having to do with the word “medical”.
- A no smoking sign above an ash tray. I don’t smoke, so maybe this is clear? Seems like a mixed message to me.
- This example which is really, really TL;DR … so to speed things up, let’s just say “Automated Parking Lot Machines”.
I can assure you the above is a very partial list, and for most of these, I have no control or remedy. But when it comes to communicating clearly in written, verbal, and visual communications for clients, I’m fortunate to be able to put my angst to work and strive to make things clear.
What is clear?
It’s pretty clear what “clear” means, right? It’s a powerful word attached to everything from what you hope for in the skies as you lift off the runway to the kind of water you prefer to swim in, to what kind of definition you expect to find in a dictionary. Which by the way defines clear as:
“Easy to perceive, understand, or interpret.”
That definition is clear, but it’s also important to note the connection between clear and accurate. It should go without saying that something clear, but wrong … isn’t of much positive value. So getting things right goes hand-in-hand with getting things clear. If we are passionately clear about something, but rest on our laurels when it comes to accuracy, we get ships that are clearly unsinkable and an earth that is clearly flat.
Taking this a bit further with that latter example in mind, the root problem of the (mostly pre-Aristotle) flat-earth presumption isn’t just the idea itself. Wrong ideas and bad information enter our consciousness all the time for a variety of reasons. However, the flat-earth fear that fooled many people for centuries had at its core an inability or refusal to continue to pursue, perceive, and interpret the presumption on increasingly deeper levels — to have a zeal for clarity and certainty regarding how viable the flat understanding was.
But there were some who had the zeal. There were some clarity curmudgeons like Aristotle who kept going … kept questioning … kept revisiting what people thought they knew … and that made all the difference in the world. Because when you crave clarity, you’ll make the extra effort to tack into the headwinds of assumption and wind up with the lovely discovery that you aren’t doomed to fall off the ocean’s edge after all. You just keep sailing on to new truths and new assumptions to challenge.
So it’s worth diving a little further into this idea of making things clear, and maybe teasing out what might be going on when we do and don’t.
Why aren’t things clear, and why should I care?
I think there are many forces working against communicating clearly, but a partial list might be:
1) General apathy toward the effort. The constant barrage of words and images in our lives means even creative communicators have become overworked and over-busied, and therefore complacent in response to things unclear. In short, when things are unclear, a fallback position of “ignore it and move on” might be in play.
2) Our clear isn’t someone else’s clear. Many factors affect clear communication including life experiences, cultural nuances, and the amount of passion someone has to work toward clarity in either receiving or sending communication signals.
3) Stockholm syndrome. This might be a stretch, but it’s possible that vagueness or a lack of clarity has held us captive for so long it starts to become an accepted state of being or even a welcomed source of comic relief. I think in some strange way, we’ve started to expect or even enjoy having things unclear encircle us. With everything everywhere seeming unclear and out-of-whack, we’ve pre-loaded our brains with cathartic rants like “Oy. Another contradictory study about the effects of coffee.” Or “Why do I even bother to check the weather?”. We grumble, vent and chuckle about things unclear all the time — and the endorphin trickle that results keeps us numb enough to carry on. But I think it’s good to keep in mind that at the true center of any unclear touch point— whether we’re laughing at it or not—lies a real struggle; a wall of frustration too primal for cynicism to eradicate. I think we really want to have and make things … clear.
“The world is fuzzy sometimes, I get it,” you say.
“What’s the big deal? Why obsess over making things clear?” you ask?
Well, the world isn’t just fuzzy. It’s being disrupted constantly and with greater speed as time marches on. Political upheaval, shifting financial markets, rapid advances in technology and science, competing agendas among groups and businesses … all continue to trend upward in frequency and magnitude thanks in part to advances in communication infrastructures that speed up the deployment of data and disruptions. So “the big deal” of things unclear is made manifest by the reality that confusion today can compound exponentially tomorrow.
When important communication efforts are unclear (or unclear by their absence), confusion happens and re-happens rapidly. Confusion costs us time; time is money; and money lost to confusion isn’t well spent. It’s not all that complicated a formula really, and it can seem inconsequential at first glance. Yet when you add it all up and really examine the details of the many unclear and/or inaccurate situations that trip us up in our daily routines, I think it’s pretty astounding how costly unclear can be. Just a quick glance at the problem of bad data can give a good sense of this. 3.1 trillion smackaroos is a pretty big consequence for things being wonky.
So maybe you have an important positive disruption to put in place, somewhere in the already disrupted world. Great. Breaking ground with a valuable new idea, product, or service is still what moving forward as a global community is all about. But know this, if your disruption isn’t surrounded with clear (and yes, accurate) communication the truth is that your disruption will probably be disrupted pretty quickly by confusion, apathy, or both on the part of your intended audience or customers. Your ship will be dragging anchors as soon as it sets sail.
How to make things clear (in a seriously compressed nutshell).
Despite the word “easy” being found in the definition of “clear,” making things clear when communicating can be anything but. For starters, there are the forces aligned against the efforts of clear communication (as touched on above). These forces show up throughout a project and threaten its success, so staying vigilant and alert against them is the starting stance for any effort to clearly communicate.
Additionally, in my experience, when we sit down with clients to begin to craft strategies there are often several points of tension between the known and the unknown, the clear and the unclear in what the desired goals and outcomes are for the effort at hand. Typically progress in communicating clearly is hindered right at the outset when clients have certain points they want to make but aren’t sure how to make those clear, or they haven’t answered the “Why?” question clearly as to what needs to be accomplished. You usually hear some of these words — antonyms of clear—in conversations as these points of tension arise:
uncertain, unsure, unsettled, up in the air, debatable, open to question, in doubt; doubtful, ambiguous, equivocal, indefinite, vague, mysterious, obscure, hazy, foggy, nebulous, informal, iffy
Those words usually involve variables and challenges the client is facing and tag the conceptual drag forces on the progress of communicating well. So how do we combat those forces? Specific tactics for that are nuanced and varied, but much of the battle to make things clear is found right there at the outset — in pure and simple observation and inquisitiveness.
Battling the drag forces of clear communication — whether it’s affecting a press release, web site, ad, info-graphic, SEO effort, UI design or a UX study — all begins with a commitment to see an unclear or potentially unclear thing for what it is, name it, and decide not to accept it without a fight. It’s not always possible to do this as a consumer, but when you’re in a maker role, you get to put your big person pants on and just say “No.” to unclear. You get to stare unclear beasts in the eyes, probe, ask hard questions of subject matter experts, isolate, immobilize and target the gremlins of unclear and thereby help bring order to chaos.
It’s also worth noting that things are not always clarified quickly. Sometimes months of effort and customized approaches are needed. But regardless of the time it takes, it’s incredibly fulfilling and extraordinarily important to make things clear — and you’ll likely find other clarity curmudgeons (I know of a few) who are ready to join in the fight.
“Take your time. Accuracy is a virtue.” — Boba Fett, The Mandalorian Armor
So after seeing and targeting the unclear beasts … then what happens? Well, lots of things. But where to begin? As the composer John Cage has famously said, “Not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis.” His advice: “Begin anywhere.”
But if you’re really stuck, a few potential make things clear kickoff action items might be:
- Contain the complicated. Complexity and an abundance of detail will always be with us, but look for ways to put the simple communication up front, with drill-down information suppressed, but still available to your audience if they choose to seek those details out.
- Ask yourself (in reference to a thing’s aesthetic) “What does this ‘say’ to the audience at first glance?” Record all the descriptive words that first come to mind as answers (good or bad). Ask others the same question and record those answers. Is what you’re trying to visually communicate quickly coming through? This is a simple technique to arm yourself with anecdotal, but valuable data in your quest to be clear in what you’re making.
- Simplify simplify simplify. Do this with an image, type choice or messaging and content. This might kick off with accepting migrating visual trends, moving from the skeuomorphic to the flat. It might progress to paring down word count, or investing heavily in the content editing phase of a project before anything else takes place. You rarely want to go too far with simplification efforts that you land at under-informing (unless mystery is part of the desired result), but you do want to always make sure what you have in place is clear.
So without further ado, look around you. What you see is the unclear world as it sits right now. Go make it clear.
NPR’s Alix Spiegel recently reviewed the research of Elizabeth Margulis, Director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. Margulis took the rather free-form and non-repetitive music of Luciano Berio, a 20th century composer, and chopped it up. Her cuts were intentional, copying a component, and adding it in another location to create repetition where before there wasn’t any.
The whole point of this effort was to simply see if people liked the music more or less with repetition baked in. An extensive, random sampling of people evaluated the before and after pieces.
The results were clear:
“(The Subjects) reported enjoying the excerpts that had repetition more,” Margulis says. “They reported finding them more interesting, and — most surprising to me — they reported them as more likely to have been crafted by a human artist, rather than randomly generated by a computer.”
Spiegel’s interview with Margulis further highlights the role of repetition in music as a whole, and why this became such a passionate topic of study:
“A full 90 percent of the music we listen to is music we’ve heard before. We return again and again to our favorite songs, listening over and over to the same musical riffs, which themselves repeat over and over inside the music, and she (Margulis) became obsessed with understanding why repetition is so compelling.”
One key ingredient that draws people to repetition is labeled the mere exposure effect which basically describes how people feel better about something the more they encounter it. Margulis sums it up this way:
“Let’s say you’ve heard a little tune before, but you don’t even know that you’ve heard it, and then you hear it again. The second time you hear it you know what to expect to a certain extent, even if you don’t know you know,” Margulis says. “You are just better able to handle that sequence of sounds. And what it seems like [your mind is saying] is just, ‘Oh I like this! This is a good tune!’ But that’s a misattribution.”
Margulis also explains that the innate desire for repetition crosses boundaries of time and culture:
“Musical repetitiveness isn’t really an idiosyncratic feature of music that’s arisen over the past few hundred years in the West,” she says. “It seems to be a cultural universal. Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element.”
Margulis’ study is helping fill in the picture with some clarifying implications about why we crave repetition in sound. Some commentators on her work go so far as to suggest that our craving for auditory repetition might stem from life in the womb with the constant sound and rhythm of a heartbeat surrounding us.
So what (if anything) do these findings on musical repetition mean for the world of visual communications — more specifically for those of us concerned with designing digital experiences?
I would argue it means a lot.
After all, the phenomena of repetition exists in the visual world as well as the audible. In addition to her insights on audible repetition, I think Margulis’ work might also be uncovering some underlying forces that assist visual designers and information architects with the choices they make in communicating.
The point is, just as a heart beats to a rhythm, just as the hook of a great song sways our emotions — repetition in a digital experience makes us feel we’re right where we want to be.
If we think about what we do as communicators in the digital / interactive space, we’re usually set about the task of organizing information. There’s a goal out there, an idea, a concept — we try to make it clear by emphasizing the essential and removing the extraneous through the manipulation of word and image. We strive to make the complicated simple. That’s what we do in a nutshell. But of course, doing this with success is easier said than done. As Brion points out in a recent post, “… simplicity is hard to achieve, requiring a great deal of creativity; and that complexity is easy to achieve …”
One strategy for organizing the visual arrangement of information (as far as interactive experiences go) is utilizing principles of repetition, especially in key visuals and navigation elements. We often call this consistency instead of repetition but the classifications are similar. When designing navigation, we even choose terminology to describe those elements using words that are synchronous with other similar interactive experiences (i.e. Home, About Us, Contact Us, etc.).
Think about sites you’ve visited recently. Can you recall instances where you’ve had to look all around the screen to try and track down a specific link, button, or function? How did that make you feel? Why did you look for it in the places you searched?
Arguably, you expected it to be a certain way because repetition of that way had occurred for you in the past. As Jakob Nielsen points out, an axiom to remember when developing an online experience is that “users spend most of their time on other websites”. It’s critical when designing a digital experience to be aware of the audience, and have a solid understanding of what elements they’ll expect to be repeated or consistent.
Intuitively, this all makes perfect sense. Many of our life experiences are based on repeating audible or visual patterns in time and space. The sun “rising.” Seasons. Birthdays. The wheels of your car turning. Your yearly physical (get one). The traffic light. Alarm clocks. Tides. Rows of crops. City blocks. There are things you just simply believe will be there because they’ve been there before. Repetition somehow has the power to arrest our attention, and sooth it at the same time.
Of course when it comes to preferring things repeated, there’s a limit.
Most would agree that there’s a break-point (seemingly unaddressed by Margulis’ research) where you start hearing things like, “I’m so sick of this song!” and “This ad is so overplayed!”
To be sure, there is a progression of user interface design conventions (and design conventions in general) over time. Just take a look at how things looked a short 20 years ago to realize that patterns and paradigms in UI do in fact shift, just like they do with styles and preferences in any cultural context. Additionally, experienced designers often know when it’s right to break a rule here or there in order to intentionally fragment repetition for the sake of accentuation or variety.
Still, I think the power of consistency is so strong, that comfort in knowing what to expect often trumps any need to change for change’s sake.
Take Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway corporate site for example. One could argue that it’s passed a stylistic expiration date about 18 years ago. Yet many (dare I say older investor-types) see it as navigable, simple and largely device-agnostic when it comes to usability. I’d venture to guess it would cause quite a stir (for better or worse) if we one day fire up the url (does anyone actually visit their site besides me?) and we find parallax scrolling and promotional videos duking it out for our attention.
To be sure, BH’s subsidiary groups run the gamut of site design conventions, and I’m not advocating for or against their corporate site’s cemented-in approach. I’m instead pointing out where repetitive, year-after-year consistency in an online presence seems to build more forceful inertia than change — even in a Fortune 5 company.
I think the big idea that can be taken away from Margulis’ research — as it relates to things visual — is that balancing the unifying/comforting nature of repetition with the eventual desire for variety, should first begin with an understanding of the strong need people have for wanting to know what’s coming next. If you violate that need, you’ll be asking your audience to weather the storm of uncertainty until they are able to continue navigating through your information — that is, if they choose to stay with you at all versus bailing out and going somewhere else.
So weigh those risks before breaking consistency, and proceed as appropriate.
You’ve probably heard of the long-standing design acronym, “KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid!” Maybe as a starting point to achieve simplicity, it makes sense to “KICK — Keep It Consistent, Kid!”