We spend our lives immersed in advertising, indirectly or directly applied. From the branded clothes we wear and the badged cars we drive to the commercials we wish we could skip while watching live TV and the blinking banners we try to block in our web browsers, we’re confronted with consumer choices presented by advertisers and brands pretty much constantly.
For businesses, finding the balance between tastefully promoting a product or service and overselling it has been a challenge met with varying degrees of success. You can probably think of examples from either end of the spectrum.
For consumers, the line between tasteful, acceptable promotion and annoying overselling can depend on personal limits, but in general, the preference is to learn about a company’s offerings in the least obtrusive way possible.
The accommodation of that consumer preference is behind what is paradoxically one of the most intrusive and worrying advertising trends on the web: native advertising.
Also called “sponsored content”, native advertising is mostly seen on content-driven websites like The New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic and other sites where journalism is practiced in one form or another. Native ads are pieces of content that mostly appear at a glance to be articles produced by the host site, but in reality are either ads directly produced by an advertiser or ads produced on behalf of an advertiser by writers employed by the host site.
How these pieces are called out as distinct from actual content varies, but the idea behind this mode of advertising is to keep it unobtrusive and maintain the reader’s experience. That’s because declining revenues from traditional online advertising have demonstrated a failure of the more obvious ad display options. Users either ignore or block text and banner ads. Advertisers know this and rates go down as a result, which put the long-term viability of online ad-supported publishing in doubt, especially for sites that don’t have an effective paywall in place.
So some sites have turned to native advertising. These ads offer advertisers a way to get in under consumers’ radars, which have been tuned to ignore previous display ads. This increased reach means higher rates, which in theory means a better long-term outlook for these content-driven websites.
What these sites end up with, however, is a muddied user experience. They are risking the dilution of their own brand by incorporating advertiser content in this way. Think of it like this: would you trust your doctor’s recommendation more or less if you knew for fact she had financial motivation to suggest a given drug?
As consumers become more aware of these types of ads and start to learn to screen them out like they have the prior models, the pressure will be on the host sites to reduce the distinction between their content and their advertisers. It’s possible to follow such a trajectory down to a point where ad content is virtually indistinguishable from host site content (who reads bylines any more, right?). That would put all of the host site’s content in doubt.
Not all websites on the native content track will stick it out to that eventuality, but those that do will have bought themselves a few more years of viability at the cost of the relationship of trust they had with their own readers.
This is a game of whack-a-mole that advertisers and websites will have a hard time winning. Users will eventually recognize the signs and force a pivot to a new method of advertising that may hit the scene after trust has already been broken, making it too late for the host site. Traditional ad support for content-driven sites looks like a race to the bottom.
The revenue problem content-driven sites face is real, especially for journalism sites — as the stats show. Content production is expensive and time-consuming, but the expectation has been set by years of the open internet that content wants to be free. Native advertising is just one of the many models these sites are turning to in an attempt to staunch the wound, but it seems like a contaminated bandage if it comes at the cost of your own brand identity.
When I had more time to write my own content-driven website, a blog about the Detroit Red Wings, I accepted text ads in the sidebar. But I refused offers from advertisers that demanded I post their content or include their ads in the main content area of my site. I did that because I felt I had built a trust with my readers over the years. To inject content I couldn’t stand behind in the same place as content I had labored over felt like betrayal of that trust.
I had the privilege of doing that as a hobby and never had to rely on revenue from that site to make a living or to employ other writers. So I don’t envy the choice faced by executives at places like The New York Times, who are tasked with the long-term survival of their company. But I know there has to be another way — a way that doesn’t spite their nose to save their face.
Jazz great Charles Mingus once said something that really gets to the heart of what we do at Elexicon:
“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
I love that. They’re terrific words to not only keep close at hand on your office wall, but to live by as well. At Elexicon, the sentiment can be applied effectively to many aspects of our process, strategies, designs, code and project management.
In this post, I’d like to explore ways we keep the virtues of this philosophy front and center in our work, and how we strive to help our clients incorporate a simplicity-driven approach into their thinking as well. For us, “Simplicity is Awesome.”
This idea is no joke or merely a nice thought. It’s an idea that has been central to some of history’s greatest minds, which I’ll also show. I find it amazing and comforting how many of these giants spoke, often fervently, about the value of simplicity.
I’m not certain of the exact event or circumstance that inspired Mingus’ words, except that the context was musical composition and improvisation. In the most basic terms, it’s harder to create music than it is to make noise.
Applied more broadly to my world, I see him describing an apparent paradox: that simplicity is hard to achieve, requiring a great deal of creativity; and that complexity is easy to achieve, requiring only the commonplace ability to keep “adding stuff” in an attempt to solve a problem. When you spin this concept forward into the context of architecture, design and engineering you recognize it’s harder to create something that’s easy to use, and easy to create something that’s hard to use.
With that in mind, here are some examples of how simplicity drives our strategic and creative thinking, and our design and development processes.
Establish clarity of purpose for both the project and the product. Focus on what is most important. If you have too many priorities then you don’t have any. Stick to the primary goals and objectives and don’t allow superfluous influences and distractions throw you off course.
“It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”
Henry David Thoreau
Set clear expectations, and keep them concise. Have a clearly communicated plan that is supported by research and has solid buy-in from all stakeholders.
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Research users and interview customers. People place a high value in a truly simple experience, both in brand loyalty and real dollars spent. A big part of this is delivering an experience they can trust, one that speaks to them in a familiar visual language, relevant taxonomy and consistent voice that they can clearly understand. Inconsistency and complexity, on the other hand, breed distrust and uncertainty.
“Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
Ask “why?” about everything. This is a straightforward but often overlooked practice in both content strategy and UI design.
Why include this content?
Who is asking for that?
Why is there a submit button at the top and bottom of the form?
Did that design result directly from user feedback?
These are often tough questions for marketers and developers to ask because many fear leaving something out. Taking this hard look at content and functionality priorities will ultimately help reduce clutter and cut through to the most important content and UI elements.
Web content and interfaces are often driven by the loudest voice in the organization — the classic “squeaky wheel getting the oil” — and not necessarily the most important in terms of brand or customer value. We’ll drill into this topic in a future post, but this is an area where asking “why?” pays dividends, especially if you have solid user research and site analytics data to reference.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
Iterate, iterate, iterate. Establish solid research and a well-organized content plan first before you design a single pixel of a website or UI. This guidance will get the experience design off to a great start.
Once underway, however, resist the temptation (or the directive) to quickly crank out a final design on the first attempt. Create a layout, iterate with clients and colleagues, user-test it, create revised and alternate designs based on feedback. Each time, ask the “why” questions and always consider ways to keep simplifying the experience.
Do we really need this?
Should this go here?
How would a user interpret this?
Each iteration will distill your design down to its essence, putting the most important messaging, the most demanded content, and most frequently-used features at the forefront.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Leonardo da Vinci
Keep the virtues of simplicity and clarity top-of-mind in all your planning, projects and designs. Your key message will be further amplified above the noise. Once-hidden opportunities will reveal themselves, with powerful results. Conversations with your customers will become more clear. Superfluous distractions will fall to the wayside, and you and your users will focus on what really matters.
Simplicity will give both you and your customers confidence: confidence that they’re reading the right information, that they’re using the product properly, that they are on the right path.
Simplicity is not generic blandness or “lots of white space.”
Simplicity is your user’s visual language, spoken concisely.
Simplicity is awesome.
Like anyone who has read Steven Covey’s classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I recommend it to everyone. If you’ve already read it, I recommend you read it again. And again.
When I founded and began to build Elexicon, the concept of the second habit, “Begin With the End in Mind,” particularly stood out. I’ve found over the years that “keeping the end in mind” has paid dividends for our success and longevity. More specifically, the success of our projects and the longevity of our client relationships has repeatedly benefitted from making the “end” the “beginning.”
In fact, when we talk about our core agency principles, we made one of them this idea: “The End is The Beginning”.
So what does it mean to make the begin with the end in mind? Covey summarizes the concept this way:
“Habit 2 is based on imagination — the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default. It’s about connecting again with your own uniqueness and then defining the personal, moral, and ethical guidelines within which you can most happily express and fulfill yourself. Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.”
This is indeed a valuable personal habit, but it applies to our context of working with clients to build websites and applications as well.
Whether we’re dealing with a corporate-level rebrand, content strategy or company website, we can apply the following spin to Covey’s concept:
“If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who your company is and what you want in business, then you empower competitors and circumstances to shape your brand and your product by default.”
On a project level, having a mental (first) creation works too: If you haven’t first defined your project mission, its audience, and its strategic plan, you will begin building a structure without a blueprint. You’ll dig a foundation without knowing what you’ll build atop it. Stakeholders, circumstances and competitors can throw construction off course because you’re not following a solid, well thought-out plan. You’re designing and building on the fly, and the results will show: the results will be something you probably never envisioned when you first started. You won’t recognize it, and neither will your executives or your customers.
While every project is different, here are some guidelines that we – alongside our clients, every step of the way – strive to follow, in the spirit of envisioning the end at the very beginning:
Understand your users and customers. Who are they and how will they use the end-product?
Ask the question “why?” as often as possible. Every element of the project plan should have a purpose.
Set firm expectations for not only the end-result physical product, but also for budgets and timelines. Proper planning often unfortunately can get bypassed or derailed by unrealistic deadlines.
Draw up the blueprints. Before a single pixel is designed or line of code is written, we most often spend a third or more of our project effort conducting stakeholder, product expert, and user interviews; producing whiteboards, moodboards, and storyboards; drafting sketches and wireframes; assembling content audits, analyses and site maps; and interating paper prototypes and rapid code prototypes – these are the blueprints.
Establish a highly collaborative process that involves all the right people and provides every opportunity for reviews, iteration, feedback and buy-in.
Plan beyond the launch of the product you’re envisioning to include its “life.” This is where the “end” becomes the “beginning” once again, with a thoughtful plan for management, governance, maintenance, marketing, and measurement.
With solid marketing and measurement results in hand, the process of envisioning the next redesign or software release will become that much more concise and clear. You’ll identify new opportunities as well as areas for improvement.
These “blueprints” are central to the design and build phases of our projects. Our “architects” hand them off to our designers and builders, who are guided by the frameworks established in the planning phase. The “mental first creation” has been fully envisioned, iterated and documented, helping the designers, writers and developers move forward without hesitation toward the “physical creation” end result.