194. Focus on User Tasks | Boagworld - Web & Digital Advice

Web & Digital Advice

Digital and web advice from Headscape and the addled brain of Paul Boag... tell me more

Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Friday, 4th December, 2009

194. Focus on User Tasks

On this week’s show: Gerry McGovern talks about user tasks, Colin Firth discusses content and we have a review of Powerpoint alternative – Prezi.

Classic shows:
The estimated time to read this article is 41 minutes

Download this show.

Launch our podcast player


iPhone developers are stupid

Over at Quiksmode PPK has managed to get himself into some trouble with a provocative post entitled “Apple is not evil. iPhone developers are stupid.

He had to quickly follow up with a second post in which he wrote:

I was wrong about Web apps being able to replace native apps right now. I was wrong about the iPhone developers’ mindset. They aren’t stupid.

Personally I couldn’t care less whether iPhone developers are stupid. What I am interested in is his comparison between Native iPhone Apps and Web Apps.

As you may have heard, Headscape recently had a fun few days playing with the iPhone developer kit. Like most developers we are interested in the platform. However, after reading PPK’s posts I am not sure whether we should be looking at Native Apps, but instead be focusing on the web.

At the end of the day Headscape are web developers. We know how to build using HTML, CSS and Javascript. Our developers are clever chaps but the learning curve in iPhone development is fairly steep.

Mobile Safari on the other hand, is a great browser that allows us to use some pretty advanced techniques. Combined with the APIs available to web apps, it is possible to do a hell of a lot. What is more the iPhone is going to open up even more APIs soon.

Of course, as PPK admits in his second post, there are limitations. The biggest of which is the lack of exposure in the app store. However, in many cases this is not a massive hurdle especially if the application is designed to support an existing website.

What PPK has done in these posts is challenge the perception that all iPhone apps need to be native. If you are a website owner or web designer, look at web apps before rushing into the time and expense of a native build.

Ways to tell a good story

Story telling is an extremely powerful way of communicating. Stories allow us to remember complex ideas and help us to associate and empathise with situations. A good story will draw us in and engage.

As a result stories have a lot of potential to be used in web copy. A story can encourage a user to buy or help them remember your brand. A story can convince users of the worthiness of your cause or ensure the reader does not forget your site.

However other than case studies, few web designers or website owners use stories to communicate.

Pro Blogger has recently published “14 types of stories you can tell on your blog.” However, I would actually argue most of these can be told in any circumstance from a sales pitch to a corporate website.

It’s an inspiring list that contains all kinds of approaches to story telling, which will help you better communicate with your readers. It is certainly worth checking out.

Frequently asked questions that are not so frequent (or questions)

Does your website have a frequently asked questions section? Most do. In fact the FAQ section has been around 26 years! It first started on newsgroups to avoid newbies constantly going over the same old ground.

However, according to a post entitled “FAQs. Supply questions but no answers” just because something has stood the test of time does not always mean it is still a good idea.

This post is actually a very convincing argument against the use of FAQs. The argument is two fold:

  • Most FAQs are not frequently asked questions at all - They are either a list of questions that the site owner wants users to ask, or it is an area to put content that does not fit well elsewhere.
  • If they are real FAQs then surely those questions need addressing – The author argues that if a user is repeatedly asking the same question then we should make the answer more obvious. He uses the analogy of running a corner shop. If people keep asking where they can find the butter, surely you would move it to be more visible?

Although I do not believe that the arguments presented in this post are always true, I do think the basic principles are. Too many FAQ sections are nothing to do with meeting the needs of users and even when they are, there would be more effectives ways of doing the same thing.

If you use FAQs, it is time to closely examine whether they are actually the answer.

Learning from Video Games

I have spoken before about looking beyond the web for inspiration. In fact just recently I wrote a post on poster design. However, one area I haven’t mentioned before is learning from video games.

I know this is an area where a lot of UX designers are very excited. A recent post entitled “6 Things Video Games Can Teach Us About Web Usability” shows us there is much to be learnt from video games.

The six areas the post discuss include:

  • Users have no patience – Video game designers struggle with users dislike of loading screens while web designer fight to ensure web pages load quickly.
  • It’s all about the experience – Creative interaction and engagement is more important than eye candy. Something that many web designers could do with learning.
  • Progressive enhancement is good – Video game consoles make use of high definition TV and surround sound systems but do not require users to have them. This is the same progressive enhancement we should be seeking in our websites.
  • The need to minimise the learning curve – The instruction booklet for games is becoming increasingly rare. Video game developers know that users do not want to learn, they want to play. So instead they use tutorial levels to easy users into the action.
  • Keep the interface simple – Nobody wants to be confused about where they are or how to get out of the location they are in. This is true whether in a computer game or on the web.
  • Don’t rely on graphics alone – A game with pure eye candy and no functionality will not last long. In the same way on the web, functionality and content needs to take priority over design.

Actually, I think this list could have continued on. The parallels between game design and web design runs deep. However, this is certainly an inspiring list that is worth reading.

Back to top

Interview: Gerry McGovern on User Tasks

Paul: So joining me today is if I’m honest, a little bit of a web design hero to me. A guy I have mentioned many times on the podcast and referred to his work a lot… So joining me today is Gerry McGovern. Good to have you on the show Gerry.

Gerry: Thanks very much for inviting me on Paul, it’s a pleasure.

Paul It’s really exciting to have you on because, as I’ve said, I’ve mentioned your Blog posts and various other bits and pieces of your writing quite regularly on the show. I’m amazed that we haven’t gotten you sooner, but I’m glad we could make up for it now. I’m wondering would you mind starting off by maybe telling our listeners a little bit about who you are and what kind of stuff you do.

Gerry: Ok I’m Irish, I live in Ireland but I kind-off travel the world and I’ve been involved in the web since 1994, very, early on I was a kind of looking for something to you know, uh, I kind of tried all sorts of jobs and I was kind of watching out for this opportunity that uh, I could really get hold of and, uh, the first time I saw the web I thought this is gonna, this is gonna change the world. When I was a young kid I grew up in a small farm in Ireland, and we used to, I used to love to watch the westerns, because there was this enrage of kind of going out west where I lived there were no opportunities and there was very little you could get out of life and I kind of envied this sense of people going out into these new territory, I made a promise, and I said, If you ever see those wagons going out west, you get on them… and the first time I saw the web you know even though it was the very early days, there was this real sense of this is a new world and even today, you know sometimes you get bored or stressed out but I still feel were in the middle or beginning of this whole revolution, you know.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: You know, basically my background had been in writing and journalism and marketing and that area and I came to the web from a content point of view, than I suppose from a technical or a classical design point of view and very much that’s how it evolved and very much from initially the content but I realized at some stage I don’t know very much from initially the content but, I realized at some stage, I don’t know… maybe in early 2000 that it had kind of giving a website to a communicator was like giving a pop to an alcoholic.

Paul: [chucking... laughing...]

Gerry: You know… and these websites were just going massively out of control. You know, I tend to deal with a lot of big organizations like you know, the Microsoft’s of this world.

Paul: Yeah

Garry: And I saw… this pump of stuff and I realized that managing the content wasn’t the solution to really getting a successful website, so essentially what I began to really focus on was this concept of task management, that it’s not about the design, it’s not about the technology, it’s not about the content. That the web really is about the task so that’s a quick synopsis.

Paul: Yeah, I mean that’s, that’s really interesting because when I first came across you I got the impression that you were someone really focused on usability and I remember that we had a very brief conversation a while back and it surprised you that I viewed you like that because you view yourself more as someone from a marketing background so it’s interesting to see how your career has evolved I guess, and how your interests have changed over the time.

Gerry: Yeah, but you’d be right, you know, a lot of what I end up doing I suppose it’s a different form of marketing. Traditional Marketing is often seeing is getting people to do things but I think web marketing is about helping people do things. like if you’re doing good web marketing and that’s very close to usability.

Paul: Yeah, very much so. Now you talked the fact that you tend to work on you know, large websites, you said the Microsoft’s of this world and those kinds of people and that has a lot residence to me in particular because we work on large institutional websites and so I was just interested. I know that a lot of the people that listen to this show actually work for large organizations like that and I’m interested in what your perception is in terms of the biggest challenges that are faced by these larger institutions that have huge amounts of content and big spawling websites. What are the biggest mistakes they’re making?

Gerry: I think Paul, the biggest mistake is lack of management, uh… most websites aren’t really managed when you really dig behind, you know the names and titles, they don’t have clear lines of entirety they don’t have clear lines of responsibility there are people who are told that they are in charge of the website but they aren’t really.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: You Know, because if some powerful force within the organization says I want my own site on a sub-site or I want it done this way, you basically have to because, you know… the web has not a… kind of earned itself up the table of management and that is a particularly dangerous scenario to be in the larger the organization becomes, because you know… I was saying earlier the Web is… a Website is really a series of tasks and there are thousands of tasks within an organization potentially, most of them minor but I count the tiny tasks.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: But there is very few top tasks that are critically important to the functioning of the website and what I find is large things, they are kind of being nibbled to death by the tiny things.

Paul: Yeah, I know completely what you mean that makes a lot of sense, so how do you… I mean how do you deal with that problem. If you’re working within a large organization, maybe you’re the person that’s responsible for the website supposedly, but you don’t have that level of power. I mean what’s the solution.

Gerry: Paul it’s evidence, evidence, evidence.

Paul: Right.

Gerry: And one of the core realizations or the big breakthroughs I had… and I don’t know when I had it… you know, like most breakthroughs it was probably as a result discovering something else, somebody else was doing or you know an accidental process but… um… it was that everything affects everything else and people think if I add a piece of content, if I add a web page, if I you know… It’s just another page… its not… it’s going to do something positive and it’s not going to do anything negative and the breakthrough I had was showing cause and effect, that it kind of… yeah a low-level task content connected with it can every time you add a new piece of content you at least added one link to the architecture.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: You at least added one link and you added one more search result that comes true and each one of those links and each one of those search results is like another sign post that can send somebody in the wrong direction.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: if they’re trying to do something important and each piece of old content and link has got to be managed. Because if it’s not managed, it will go out of date or loop is relevance and if it stays on it will create even more damage. So I found that getting people to believe that everything you do has three impacts. It impacts the navigation, it impacts the search, and it impacts the manageability of the website, but also that small task and small content has every bit of chance to impact the efficiency of a
top task and one of the best examples out of that is working… I did… I haven’t worked so to speak directly with Microsoft Office, I’ve done a lot of work with Microsoft Websites over the years but a lot of Microsoft Office people have been at my classes and workshops and and stuff like that and they… they… uh, were kind of coming to this approach, you know they were coming from a number of different backgrounds, but you know… I think I nudged them along the way to this concept of top-task management and they’ve had a lot of success because of it, certainly the last six or twelve months and one of the examples that came from Excel was hundreds of thousands of people were coming every week or every month looking up how to add or to sum numbers uh, in Excel. Basic Task hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of people would want to know how to do the in sum function which is a very complicated mathematical function so people would search in the excel website or either search in excel itself and often times the search Add or Sum Numbers and maybe the third or fourth result or maybe the fifth or sixth would be the in sum function and very significant numbers that people would actually click on that because it looked like sum but it had nothing to do with Summing or Adding Numbers. So excel realized, and this was happening in loads of areas like people wanted to print, Address Labels so they would end up some of them, thousands of them, literally tens of thousands of them clicking on the address function and this was just in one tiny area so what they did ultimately to solve this problem is they got rid of all the function pages and they put them all together under a page called Mats functions so when you searched in Excel anymore for Sum or Add or Print Address Labels you never found any address or in-sum functions but they really made that, you know, sum numbers was the top result. So what happened was people were now finding the top task and were not in anyway getting confused that a search result, a kind of looking a bit like sum numbers, that you know, they might click on and as result of that there, and other such initiatives for the first time in many, many years their customer satisfaction figures significantly started to grow because they made it easier for people to do the most important things and more difficult to do the least important things because often the least important things have a kind of neither words or connections that somehow could confuse someone into thinking that Oh I’m actually a top task when the reality is they’re not.

Paul: Hmmm… I mean it reminds very much of the book, Laws of Simplicity that talk about, you know, the need to remove and to simplify and to hide away those more minor tasks, and I mean that’s the thing that strikes me quite a lot. Organizations don’t have really have really anybody who is responsible for removing content.

Gerry: No, No, and see if you are measuring so, we’ve created a number of processes or methodologies, one connected way, identifying your top task in a defensible manner, but the other is to measure the efficiency of the top task and if you can show as, as, as, excel we’re ultimately able to show that a minor task actually impacts a top task. That this page may have two people that are satisfied with it but it has two-hundred people that are annoyed with it. So your measuring, satisfaction and dissatisfaction but your showing how because people say it’s only another page it’s only another update, why do I have to update but if you can somehow show some sort of impact that this content is having on something that is critically important to the functioning of the organization like a book of life. I think every website has a Book of Life, every website has a Book of Room It just doesn’t know it, you know… but every website has it’s… what I call, it’s super-tasks and we’ve done work with these um… agencies that are supposed to help international, or national agencies that are supposed to help grow and export and we did it in four of five different countries for four… you know… coincidently four or five national agencies, one in Scandinavia, one in the U.K., one in Ireland and one another country and the overwhelming top task was Am I eligible for funding? these companies had wanted to grow and export, and their first and foremost thing was I’m thinking of taking on a new marketing manager for the German market, can you give me any help funding?

Paul: Hmm…

Gerry: Number 1, funding and support. So there was this overwhelming super-task that came up but if you looked at these funding agencies websites the ability to find and discover the answer to the question, Am I eligible? was extraordinarily difficult, just like on many university websites today the ability to find a course to find a subject.

Paul: Yeah. [chuckling...]

Gerry: And wouldn’t you think Paul that’s an absolute no brainer.

Paul: Yeah, I know it just amazes me, you know I did a talk quite recently called, The 10 Harsh Truths about institutional websites. and talking to HE Sector and I just went on and on about the course finder and the fact that you cant find this thing and the fact as well, the other thing that really interests me as they’ve taken to calling their courses programs now, which is a term that nobody knows except internally within their organizations… it’s very bizarre.

Gerry: And Actually you just reminded me, I downloaded your… you did a bit of a report on that didn’t ya.

Paul: Yes, Yes.

Gerry: I have that in my folder to read so if you see a new thinking coming up over the next, I’d definitely cork it because it some I mean it’s extraordinary but I think in ten or fifteen years we laugh and say, it didn’t even… I mean it was so obvious how come for ten years they didn’t do it and I think it’s always internal pressures.

Paul: Yeah…

Gerry: You look on all these e-grads and schools and they don’t want too actually. I’ve heard people say… senior managers in universities say it shouldn’t be easy let them… you know… let them be hassled…

Paul: [laughing]

Gerry: Literally… It’s extraordinarily and they’ll pay the price.

Paul: Yeah

Gerry: For That, because I think at core a lot of this Paul has to do with… the web reflects a new society where customers are in control, much more in charge and as I say on the web the customer isn’t king the customer is dictator.

Paul: Hmm… Yeah

Gerry: and if you don’t meet, if you make it difficult for the customer, they’ll leave… they’ll just go somewhere else…

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: and it really doesn’t matter how many many hundreds of years your around or if they’re really really that if your Oxford if your a few of these absoulutly super brands you know that have extrodinarly pulling power but most organizations are not they’re not in the super league of brands, they’re down in the preparatory league or in the championship and if they piss off the customer they lose the customer.

Paul: Yeah, yeah completely. What I like about this whole thing you’re talking about with top tasks is that it can apply to any size site. You know it doesn’t matter what site your working on, there are top you know kind of user tasks that people are wanting to complete. What I’m quite interested in is how you go about working out and defining what those top tasks are. What’s important and what’s not? What kind of methodology do you use?

Gerry: Ok, good question. Basically something I’ve evolved over the last 7 or 8, 9 nears. It begins where you say, let’s look at everything that exists connected with this website from the point of view of words right. A nice starting point is often the H was that index, if it doesn’t you take level 1 and level 2 of the architecture so you begin to dump all this stuff into a spreadsheet right, you know we’ve got a number of columns but at a basic level it’s a single spreadsheet, right? You’d also look at search terms, you’d look at most visited pages, you’d look at help desk inquires, you’d look at competitor websites. You know we did a big project for NHS Choices and where we went there was we also went out to the Google AdWords tool because you know, where there’s a lot of public search according for these tasks you can often discover how people are searching, not just for your website but searching the web in general for this sort of stuff. So there’s a broad sweeping course, now usually this takes 6 weeks to do.

Paul: mhm

Gerry: Initially you’d start off, you’d have this massive list of stuff and there’d be loads of duplicates and you know when we did it for NHS there was, we’d have come up with phrases like you know, women, women’s health, health of women, and stuff like that and book an appointment, and woman’s health and health of woman and just appointment reminders, and all sorts of almost identical, semi-identical ETC.

Paul: Right. Yeah.

Gerry: Gradually, we’ve developed this intricate process where we iterate it down and things that you want to get rid of are organizational unit’s needs, the tool needs. So we’ve done a lot of work recently for large IT companies, big, big American IT companies and they love their tool needs. So it might be the sunshine finder, crazy needs you know?

Paul: haha

Gerry: You know what I mean, if you absolutely didn’t know, you wouldn’t have a clue what it did.

Paul: yeah.

Gerry: So what we’d say is What does the tool do? and that’s an extremely difficult process for a lot of people to actually deal with because they’re so used to saying well it’s The Bla, Bla Tube or it’s The Bla, Bla unit of the organization. So we force them to say, no, no, no what does it do? What can the customer do here? and sometimes there’s two or three discrete tasks.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: So we get rid of all sorts of organizational names, tool names, and we bring it down to actually task needs. So with the NHS Choice it was Book an Appointment Online, Basic Facts about a Disease and Condition but there was one super task that emerged and we got this about 2 ½ thousand people voted. We’ve got this technique which shouldn’t work right.

Paul: [chuckling]

Gerry: But was discovered by accident and literally what we do is we bring the list down to one-hundred or less.

Paul: mhm

Gerry: Well, found over the years and tested at all sorts of levels but found at a hundred or less, somewhere in between 70-100 and we literally give that list to people in an online environment.

Paul: Can I ask who you’re giving it to? Are you giving it to internal stakeholders or users?

Gerry: Good Question. We give it to both but we give it separately.

Paul: Ok.

Gerry: So we give it to both groups but separately right. We made sure with NHS Choices that we got the general public, you know we got an appropriate proportion of the target audience. So Nurses, Carers, People from North of England, South of England, this is NHS Choices who actually only deals with England, it doesn’t really deal with Whales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland so it was the English Population. So you need to be very, very careful that you get a representative sample of your population because otherwise this is a journey of facts not opinion right? So you need to get a minimum of about 400 people to vote but NHS Choices we got thousands, right?

So basically to get this long list, right. If you talk to any professional survey company and we’ve had some of the biggest survey corporations in the world literally try to go to senior management in big organizations to stop us. Because, they might have been scared in some degree of us getting in on their account.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: But, then what they said was this won’t work. There’s forty years of research that says this won’t work but we’ve got 70,000 people in fifteen countries and loads and loads of good, solid revenue deliverable results that shows that it does work. This big long list and I can only chose the five most important to them.

Paul: Ok.

Gerry: and then they have to vote.

Paul: Right

Gerry: They’ll choose randomly, but we don’t. We don’t even give them the list alphabetically we give the list randomly which makes it even harder.

Paul: Ok.

Gerry: But the model of how this works. Someone once said to me it’s a bit like the cocktail party model in psychology. The story of the cocktail party is you’re at a cocktail party there’s loads of loud noise and you hear your name being spoken from the other side of the room. Now, you didn’t hear anything from the other side of the room until you heard your name.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: And I think what happens is why this works, you come to a website already with your tasks.

Paul: hmm

Gerry: So, you’re scanning this list and even though you don’t know it you already have your top tasks so what happens is, what really, really matters to you jumps out from that list.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: and what doesn’t matter doesn’t jump out. Now, when we got people to vote here is the classic model of what happens. If we’ve got 100 things on the list and we’ve done this universities, business, financial. Typically what will happen is 5 tasks will get 25% of the vote.

Paul: and why is that?

Gerry: They’ll get And this happens again, and again, and again whether it’s students, old people, young people, Americans, Doctors, Engineers, people going on holiday, right? These same patterns keep coming up again, and again, and again. So five tasks will get 25% of the vote and the bottom 50 tasks will get 25% of the vote so the top 5 tasks will get as much of the vote as the bottom 50.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: In most situations.

Paul: Right.

Gerry: so that gives tremendous clarity. Now the top task might have a vote of 2 ½ thousand, right. So the number one task. So people have voted 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Paul: Right.

Gerry: The bottom task might have a vote of seven.

Paul: Right [chucking] yeah

Gerry: There’s a big so that gives you and the list then becomes a league table. The list is very powerful because now you’ve got a kind of the tasks within your organization, right. That everyone has contributed too, so you’ve made sure that everyone got their say and then they all signed off on the task list and then they got this priority list and from that you can start building the narchitecture. So what we do then is we’d start building the narchitecture and all the classification downwards from the top tasks.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: So, you’d be arc and we’d put in some rules and say you can only create new classes within the first 20 tasks.

Paul: Right.

Gerry: So that you cannot introduce a new architecture a new classification below the twentieth.

Paul: Right.

Gerry: So what it does is it creates an architecture based on the top level tasks.

Paul: Right Yeah.

Gerry: And forces the lower level tasks into that architecture. Some of them won’t fit but as I say it’s tough in the tail.

Paul: Yeah. So you’d almost remove those lower tasks.

Gerry: Sometimes you would. Now if they have to stay they would end up being at level three or level four or level five of the classification.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: They’re forced down. They are either forced out of the environment or they are definitely forced way down the architecture and the architecture becomes architected from the top-tasks point of view.

Paul: All right. That’s so interesting and I think that you know that kind of approach could even be applied on a smaller scale to you know, cheaper budget websites that maybe don’t have the kind of budget that you’ve been talking about but I think that principal of identifying those top-tasks and prioritizing them is just so important and so often doesn’t happen. I mean my impression is that so many organizations go What do we want to say? you know, What material have we already got produced let’s shove that online and they’re not approaching it at all from the kind of user prospective, the user tasks or what tasks the user is wanting to complete. So yeah, absolutely brilliant. Before we wrap this up I just want to change direction entirely on you just for a second because normally every time you post something I sit there and I find myself nodding in agreement and agreeing with everything you write. And then recently, you wrote a post that hurt me to the core Gerry. [Chuckling] Well it didn’t really. I didn’t disagree with it actually but I wanted to bring it up. You wrote a post, The best websites are ugly and it felt like I was listening to Jacob Neilson being channeled through you. Um So I thought tell us about that and what spurred that particular post.

Gerry: Yeah and isn’t it interesting that we talk about this just as IKEA has announced their change of font.

Paul: Yes!

Gerry: And I think what it is, is it’s almost to shake up the world of design and say we are much too concerned with how the website looks, right? Of course it’s important but every time when I do talk to communicator’s or designers or whatever they’re in love with their website. It’s like it’s something very sensitive and the customer doesn’t care nearly as much about it as we think they do. I was reading today, this designer was almost crying about Ikea saying, They are going to ruin everything they’ve done since the 1940s it’s going to be ruined. They’ve destroyed their brand and you got to say Get Real. Ikea’s are successful not because of a font. They’re successful because they make affordable stylish furniture, you know.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: And it kind of I use that word ugly not really meaning but kind of saying, Get Real. What makes the website successful is the craigslist’s or the YouTube’s. Have you noticed that most of them started off extremely ugly. Extremely basic but now as they mature and as they go into maturity it’s a bit like the Ford T as we get all these usability things sorted ETC. We will move into a world where we’re still probably 5-10 years away from it. The sense of the small things have become very-very important.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: But Right Now, Right Now we need to make the website work. We need to the get the customer in and out as quickly as possible. We need to make it as simple as possible and we need to be useful. And too many in the design world, they are not focused on use. They’re focused on You know you can almost see they’re not really being designed for the customers. They’re being designed for peers within the design community.

Paul: Mhm.

Gerry: You Know, to win a awards which is almost the worst thing you could do for a good website. How many great websites have ever won an award?

Paul: Yeah, no it’s a very fair comment. And you know I come from a design background and design is extremely important to me but, I fully except what you’re saying in you can’t put the cart before the horse. You need to get the usability the user experience right, and then you can add on you know the design comes afterwards. Sometimes you spend so much time tinkering with the ascetics of the site while there are major usability problems that need addressing first. You know design I believe very passionately that design has this very powerful emotional connection with people but, you know, you can connect with people on an emotional level but if they cannot use your site then that’s a waste of time. That sounds like the kind of thing you’re getting at.

Gerry: It sounds and Paul I think you know you are. We’ve got to bridge the gap or break down the barriers that say design is visual.

Paul: Yeah. Oh Yeah.

Gerry: You know design is you know, Whatcha call the guy who does the wonderful vacuumed cleaner Dyson.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: You Know, he makes beautiful products doesn’t he?

Paul: Mhm!

Gerry: And he came out there about six months ago, he says we gotta, I was really complaining about how in England manufacturing and design. You know was really championing design and how so much of it you know manufacturing shops and the great engineers and designers were disappearing in England. But he saying that this visual design is a 20th century or a mid 20th century conceit. Great designers have been hijacked almost by surface design and that you Paul, everything you do why should design be separated from usability? Why should it be?

Paul: No Completely.

Gerry: Everything you do and everything I’ve read and seen about you, you’re as concerned about usability.

Paul: Mhm.

Gerry: As the designer should be just as concerned about the use of the product as with the look of the product. Why the separation. So we’re in this phase now of the web, it’s like the early days of car manufacturing or whatever. It gotta bloody work.

Paul: [chuckling]

Gerry: Because, the early cars you almost had to have an engineer with you.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: You Know In driving, because they broke down so much. There was so many things that went wrong and we’re kind of in this early phase of explosion. The bloody thing gotta work.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: and we love Craigslist, and we love YouTube’s and Twitters because they were actually useful and they worked but I think in a way it’s bringing design. I think design was hijacked by clever physiologists.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: That said it looks beautiful pay us more.

Paul: [chucking] You Scenic, you. [chuckling]

Gerry: Well, I had a very interesting conversation with, this may be rambling on a bit. I was getting me haircut this morning. Kind of a traditional barbershop I was walking by and said, God I need to get my haircut. I was sitting out, we just sat there chatting and the barber says to me, I always talk about the weather in Ireland first, and then we were just talking about the recession because Ireland got really hit hard.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: and he says I think that the recession will probably be the best thing that ever happened to Ireland because he says You can see now that prices are really beginning to come down and people are beginning to become much more focused on value. And he says, You Know, The Irish consumer is very brand loyal. If it’s kind of not advertised on TV, they don’t want to buy it right. Aldi and Lidel have had a very hard time getting hold in Ireland but now they’re beginning to really catch, a lot more people visit them and he says IKEA have just started ETC. I think what he said was extremely important and you know what, in that world you almost say the lack of sophistication = brand loyalty. Because the Irish customer was not that sophisticated. I mean as much as I love Ireland and everything like that Ireland has a kind of modernized in the last 20-30 years in some ways we were extraordinarily modern in literature ETC.

But in our buying habits I think we were exploited by the big brands because if you advertised in Ireland you could, 20% more than what you were getting in the UK for the exact same product. That has been known for many years but yet, Irish customers continue to buy the brand because the brand was advertised and I think what has happened in Ireland with the recession and with the web is that the Irish customer and other customers have a kind of woken up and says, No you cannot charge me an extra 20% more because it’s just a brand. In the since that the brand became the advertising.

Paul: Yeah.

Gerry: The Brand needs to return to, it’s a beautiful product, it’s got great materials, it’s well engineered. The brand is more. So me and you, our job is not the surface of the website it’s the whole website.

Paul: Yeah, Yeah. I completely agree with that. And I think that’s probably a really good place for us to stop even though I could continue this interview forever. Thank you much Gerry for coming on the show that was really interesting stuff and I think it kind of gives a different perspective on things because the size of projects you work and because the type of projects you work on. I think it’s been very valuable. Thank you very much for your time.

Gerry: You’re very welcome Paul, Thank You.

Thanks goes to Nick Frandsen for transcribing this interview.

Back to top

Listeners feedback:

Content is King

Colin James Firth, Head of Design and Digital at Citypress PR agency shares his thoughts on the role of content.

If ‘content is king’ then the designer is like the King’s tailor – there to make the King look fabulous without taking any of the limelight for themself.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the designer’s job is any less important. How seriously would people take the King if his suit was poorly made? It has to look good.

I’ve been a designer for 15 years and I started out with a very unhealthy obsession for aesthetics. It was always about how good, or trendy, or innovative a design was. Making it readable was just an irritating request from the copywriters.

Thankfully, I soon realised just how important content is and began to change the way I worked to suit. And quickly went from being obsessed with immitating every fashionable design going to really thinking about how messages should be presented. Which is pretty important, really, because the message is usually conveniently encapsulated in the copy – which should make it a lot easier to choose the right design style.

It sounds obvious now.

But I still see bucket loads of designs that don’t do the content any justice because they ignore it and go off and do their own thing.

They end up giving conflicting messages – weakening the overall effectiveness of the piece. I’ve seen many ill-conceived designs that probably damaged the brand that the designer should have been going out of their way to enhance.

The problem is, a lot of designers have a gaping hole in their CV that leads to this misunderstanding about the importance of content. They’re missing experience of working with copywriters.

I’ve been really lucky to have worked with loads of copywriters over the years. There’s one who I’m still in touch today – who incidentally gave me a lift to my first interview for a design job.

He’s very talented and I learned a great deal from him. He’s very passionate about words – and grammar and punctuation – and it he had a positive influence on me very early on in my career.

These days I’m part of a small – and very active – design team supporting a very large and knowledgeable group of content people. We are a PR agency, so you’d expect a lot of writers! But the crucial thing for us is as an agency we seriously care about the quality of the content we produce for and on behalf of our clients. It can’t help but make a positive influence on our designs.

So what can a copywriter teach a designer? Actually, a lot. A good writer will have done their research for a start. So the copy they’ve written should be looked at as an integral part of the design brief.

It should tell you in black and white how you should approach the design – regardless of whether it’s online or for print.

Copywriters also tend to know how to spell and, vitally, how to use grammer properly. If you’re a designer and you doodled through English lessons at school, you should do all you can to catch up on your grammar and spelling. A miss-placed apostrope or hyphen could change the entire meaning of your piece. At which point you’ve failed as a designer.

It also makes proof reading much easier because you’ll actually know what to look for. Trust me when I say copywriters think dimly of designers who drop errors into headlines and don’t clean them up before passing the design back for checking. Learn from copywriters and you will end up with fewer mistakes in your designs as a result.

Even so, after all these years, I still find it a challenge to get the best out of the copy – maybe it’s the pressure of not mucking up the message. But I’m comfortable with that: setting high standards for the design with content taking the lead just adds to the challenge. Which adds to the fun. And design should be fun and challenging.

I really hope that gives some comfort to any designers who are afraid they’ll relinquish some kind of power by embracing content.

Copywriters aren’t totally perfect though. The big thing is that they tend not to be able to visualise their copy in situ while they are writing it. Certainly not in the same way a designer can.

I’ve often been frustrated that copy isn’t fit for the purpose of the design (the writers here do a great job by the way).

The classic one we’ve all had is when there’s too much copy. But there are new challenges – the online world is creating new rules for writers all the time; keyword optimisation and meta tagging are relatively new concepts for copywriters, as is the importance of micro-copy to usability.

Designers have a responsibility to appropriately present the message, but copywriters should be learning too. And to that end, if you’re going to learn from a copywriter, the learning process should be as mutually beneficial as possible.

Don’t expect too much, though. Copywriters are just wired differently and their primary focus should still be on what they’re absolutely best at – figuring out the right message and skillfully organising the words.

So, as a designer you should take the lead. The ultimate responsibility for the message carrier – which is your design – lies with you.

So, as well as befriending a good copywriter, what else can you do?

Read. Read everything. Read the free newspaper in the morning, the signs and ads on the bus. Or the back of your coffee cup. Read stuff you wouldn’t otherwise read – magazines and ads that aren’t aimed at you are brilliant at widening your design and copy horizons. And if you haven’t go it, get the internet on your phone. The hour I spend travelling to work and back each day is usually spent reading blogs and news stories, and following random links on Twitter – just out of curiosity. If you don’t travel far to work, get up half an hour earlier each day and grab a coffee. Reading lots will hard-wire correct spelling and grammar into your brain and get you used to seeing words in context. You’ll develop an instinct for what works – in terms of copy and designs. And you’ll learn mega amounts of other stuff as an added bonus.

Content really is the King – and it’s what your audience are REALLY interested in. Embrace it, tailor your designs to fit, and enjoy seeing the quality of your work improve immeasurably.

Review of Prezi

Aaron Rester reviews Prezi:

Hello Paul and Marcus and the rest of Boagworld. My name is Aaron Rester and I’m a Manager of Electronic Communications
at the University of Chicago [?] School and a freelance designer and web professional. You can find me online at
aaronrester.net and today I’d like to share with you a review of a web app called
Prezi.com bills itself as a tool to “create astonishing presentations live and on the web.”
I had a chance to use Prezi recently for a presentation and I have to say I could not be more impressed with the product.

Like PowerPoint, Prezi is intended to help you communicate the key points of your presentation through visual reinforcement.
Unlike PowerPoint though, Prezi has jettisoned the boring, linear, bullet-point structure we’ve come to expect from such programs
and replaces it with a user experience in which the viewer feels as though they’re flying up above a giant map of your presentation
and then zooming down into the points that you’re trying to make. You can even change the structure of the presentation on the fly
in order to react to your audience’s questions. It really has to be seen to be believed.

Prezi’s user interface for creating presentations is equally as innovative as the interface for displaying them. Instead of a
standard toolbar, the tool menu items are presented as bubbles attached to a larger bubble that rotates when clicked upon. When
you place an object onto your map, a set of concentric circles is overlayed and each circle does something different: One allows
you to drag the object through 2-D space, one allows to resize and one allows you to rotate. It is, for me at least, a brand new
way of thinking about how to interact with content in a web app.

I do have a few quibbles with the product of course. While you can change the basic look of your presentation, you can’t choose
custom colors or fonts, or change the shape of your frames. A great deal of precision is also needed to select multiple objects in
editing mode, which sometimes means performing the same action 3 or 4 times before you get it right. Also, while you can embed many
different types of media from still images to video, there’s no way to embed links to a live website – which would make for a much more
dynamic presentation than simple screenshots of a website.

Prezi should prove useful to designers in several ways. Of course if you give presentations or make client pitches, the benefits of
Prezi’s ease of production and its added ‘Wow’ factor will hook you right away. But the unique interface should also prove inspirational
to designers as it illustrates the power of rethinking design elements that we tend to take for granted, such as navigational bars.

Finally, it should be useful to information architects as a mind-mapping application. I’ve tried several such applications over the years
and Prezi beats them all for ease of use and actually getting your ideas down on screen and illustrating the relationship between them.

Like most web apps there’s a three-tier pricing scheme and the Free version includes the Prezi logo on all of your presentations, while
the next level removes that and provides more storage. And the most expensive level allows you to edit your presentations offline. All
versions inlude the ability to play presentations offline. The Free version is definitely worth a trial run to see if it meets your needs.

So that’s it. The website is Prezi.com and I hope this review proved useful. Keep up the great work Paul
and Marcus and I’ll see you all on Boagworld.

Thanks to Simon Hamp for this transcription

Back to top

Become a web expert with our newsletter

Receive invaluable advice every three weeks and get two free video presentations for subscribing. You can unsubscribe in one click.

Blog Updates

You can follow all my posts by subscribing to my RSS feed or signing up to my email newsletter above.

Podcast Updates

Subscribe to the podcast via itunes or RSS. You can also subscribe to my quick tips via itunes and RSS too.

Social Updates

I am completely addicted to Twitter so try following me there. I also have a Facebook page which contains considerably less waffle.


Boagworld is a community, not just the voice of one blogger. You've read the post, now its time to get involved.