22 Jun 2011 9 am eastern

Dueling messages (or, content strategy matters)

“UPDATED SERVICE ADVISORY – EAST RIVER FERRY CAPACITY LIMITS – PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ,” the top banner on the East River Ferry’s website nervously advises. Immediately below this warning comes the gentle and slightly vacuous headline, “Relax. We’ll Get You There.” The two headlines tell contrasting stories that completely contradict each other. No print art director would place these two messages on the same page, let alone in such close proximity or with treatments that compete for the reader’s attention. Yet this is how we treat content on the web.

Elsewhere on the page, care has been taken. An interactive map! With rollovers! Be still, my heart.

But when it came time to determine a content strategy, no one was in charge (or the wrong people were). Instead of the kind of headline that actually works on the web, a committee approved a soft print advertising headline—the kind that might appear in a quarter-page ad in the back of the playbill for a regional theater company’s production of Guys and Dolls. No thought was given to how that headline would play if the ferry developed service problems. Apparently no substitute, contingency headline was created. And not much thought (if any) was given to how the design might change if a problem arose.

Thus at the last minute a slightly hysterical “over capacity” headline that makes the “Relax” headline look ridiculous was jammed on top of the primary headline, using design techniques that give the warning primacy of place, and add shrillness by using all caps, only to defeat their own urgency with a low-contrast teal-on-blue color scheme that is difficult for people with normal vision to read and may be invisible to people with certain kinds of color-blindness.

This is what we do. We have meetings, we reach consensus, we make templates, we approve inoffensive headlines and copy, and we fumble contingencies. Avoiding these problems is what content strategy and user experience design are all about.

Dueling messages | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

Filed under: content, content strategy, Design, Usability, User Experience, UX

7 Responses to “Dueling messages (or, content strategy matters)”

  1. Tim said on

    The “DANGER! WARNING! CAPACITY REACH!” with yellow triangle is a bit much. Wouldn’t they be better served by removing the yellow warning triangle and rewording it to be more gentle (like removing the all caps)?

    “Service Advisory: East River Ferry at Capacity. Read more ferry capacity.”

  2. Kevin M. Hoffman said on

    They’ve almost created the unholy union of “click here” and “read more.”

  3. S*ckerfor... said on

    i (sometimes) wish i could dive into that orange background of yours.

  4. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Had they done so, a black hole would have engulfed the universe.

  5. Keith Bloom said on

    The top headline looks like it came from a back end system. Maybe from some third party ticketing system which used to send that message as an SMS.

    Now companies can push content from any system, to any device they want, they do. The trouble is that it becomes impossible for that message to fit in all contexts.

  6. Dain said on

    Yea, it feels like they started with with an old-school “welcome” page (as if folks are going to this web site to read a direct-marketing print brochure) and then bolted-in the things that were actually important to people as an afterthought.

  7. The 4th dimension strikes back said on

    This seems like the sort of instance where a modal overlay might actually not just be an annoying distraction for a change – if a ‘bubble message’ pops up after a tiny delay on page load – emenating from the “sign up for updates” box on the left and covering the regular, ‘threat level: low’ copy beneath, this:

    - hides the soothing “we’ll get you there” until after the user has dismissed the message
    - draws attention to the ‘how to stay in the loop’ feature
    - actually creates a meaningful sequence “Don’t Panic!… in fact, relax”

    Time is a great healer.

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