You got this.

A man is struggling to learn new technology on his laptop computer.

I’M LEARNING new tech and it’s hard. Maybe you’re in the same boat.

Through the rosy lens of memory, learning HTML and Photoshop back in the day was a breeze.

It wasn’t, really. And CSS, when it came along in 1996, was even tougher to grasp—in part because it was mostly theoretical, due to poor support in some browsers and no support at all in others; in part because the design model in early CSS wasn’t conceived by designers.

But my memory of learning these tools in 1995 and 1996 is pain-free because it’s an old pain, forgotten because of time passing and even more because the pleasure of achievements gained by acquired knowledge masks the pain of acquisition. (See also: learning to read, learning to ride a bicycle.)

Beyond all that, my old learning’s pain-free in hindsight because I view it through the filter of nostalgia for a younger, simpler me in a simpler time. I was faster, sexier, ached less. Maybe you feel that way sometimes.

Most of all, I falsely remember it being easy to learn HTML, CSS, and Photoshop because I wanted to learn those things. I was doing it for me, not for a job, and certainly not to keep up.

I was a pioneer—we all were, back then. I was passionate about the possibilities of the web and eager to contribute.

Do you dream in color?

That first year of learning web design, I often, quite literally, dreamed in four-color GIFs. I got near-physical pleasure from reducing file sizes. I subscribed to every web design mailing list out there, and even started one of my own.

Remember mailing lists? I don’t mean sponsored, monetized newsletters with images and tortuous HTML. I mean stuff you read in Lynx.

When I shared what I was learning, by writing about it—when I learned what I was learning by teaching it—I felt euphoric. We were at the dawn of a new kind of information age: one that came from the people, and to which anyone could contribute merely by learning a few simple HTML elements. It was going to be great. And democratic. And empowering. Our tech would uplift the whole suffering world.

With every new discovery I made and shared, I felt a sense of mastery and control, and a tingling certainty that I was physically contributing to a better world of the near-future. A world forged in the best tech ever: simple, human-readable HTML.

And then the future happened.

Cut to 25 years later. Web design has become overly and often needlessly complex, and social media’s having a profoundly antisocial affect that designers with good intentions seem powerless to change.

Design is supposed to fix the world, not break it. Yet some of us, possibly even most of us, work on products and at companies we feel conflicted about.

Design is supposed to value simplicity. And yet here many of us are, struggling to learn new tech, and not feeling it.

But enough about the universe; let’s talk about me.

I’m learning new tech and it’s hard.

I work at a company that makes it easy to use a popular open-source publishing platform. Making things easy for customers is what design’s about. It’s also, always, hard work. And it’s supposed to be. The harder designers work behind the scenes, the easier the experience is supposed to get for the customer.

I have a confession to make: I love hard, mental, strategic design work. I love going cross-eyed envisioning customer journey options small and large. I love it like I love good typography and icons and layout, and I’m way better at it than I ever was at those things. I love it like I love color schemes, and, again—I’m better at it than I was at those.

And, stop me if you’ve heard this one, the more strategic I gets, the further from the code I feels.

Learning new code and tools

I’m not on a product team—I do client-facing design on a special projects team inside our product company—but every designer at the company should understand our products on a deep level, and every designer at the company, whether officially working on product or not, should be able to help make the products better for the customer.

For team-building and other reasons, every designer at our company who can do so is flying to a desert resort next month for a meet-up. And at that meet-up, each of us will fix at least one thing that’s wrong with one of our products. And when I say fix it, I don’t mean file a bug report as a GitHub issue. I mean fix it.

To be ready for that, I’m learning code and tools I probably should have learned a few years ago, but, as a rich man says of his servants, I always had people for that.

New to my work day, before and after internal and client meetings, I slog away trying to master command line interfaces, GitHub workflow, WordPress Calypso, Gutenberg, and React. I’ll need facility in these areas to do a live product fix at next month’s meetup.

Getting the hang of this tech will empower me to fix broken designs and create good ones. That excites me. But learning new things is hard—and GitHub, Terminal, Calypso, Gutenberg and React do not come nearly as naturally to me as HTML, CSS, and Photoshop did 25 years ago (or so I remember).

Age. It’s not just a number.

We’ve all heard that the body replaces itself every seven years. Which means I’m not just a different person mentally, emotionally, and spiritually since I first learned web design 25 years ago; I’m also physically an entirely different person, inhabiting a body that’s been rebuilt, cell by cell, more than three times. (The actual science is more granular than the seven-year meme, but go with me, here.)

At my age, change comes harder than it used to. Guess what? That means I need to change, not just to do my job; I need to change to stay young. (No, that’s not science, but yes, it works.) When it’s hard to move, you need to start exercising, even if starting is hard. When you’re trapped in a dead-end relationship, it’s time to say goodbye, even though breaking up is sad and scary and hard as hell. And if you work in tech and find yourself thinking your past learning gets you off the hook from having to learn new things, you need to think again.

Change. Try it, you’ll like it.

I’m lucky. I work in a supportive place. When I get stuck, a dozen people offer to help. (If where you work isn’t like this, consider working with us.)

Learning new things is hard, and it gets harder if you’re rusty at it, but it gets easier if you keep at it. Or so I tell myself, and my friends tell me.

Maybe you’re in the same position. Maybe you’ve even wasted time and energy on mental ju-jitsu like this: “I believe in semantic, accessible HTML. Therefore I don’t need to learn React.” If that’s you, and it was me, review your thinking. There is no therefore. You can have both things.

You can do this, because I can, and I’m more stubborn and more full of myself than you ever were.

So to my old-school sisters and brothers in HTML. If you’re struggling to learn new things today so you can do your job better tomorrow, I’m going to tell you what a friend told me this morning:

“You got this.”

__

 

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

On Teaching (plus Monday links)

Morpheus (from "The Matrix") seated in a leather chair in a dark room.

TEACHING is a great way to find out what you know, and to connect with other human beings around a shared passion. It’s an energy exchange as well as an information one, and the energy and information flow both ways.

I’ve been a faculty member in the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts since my colleague Liz Danzico cofounded the program with Steven Heller in 2009. As with all programs and departments at School of Visual Arts, the MFA IXD  program is run by a faculty of busy, working professionals who teach one three-hour class per week, one semester per year.  It’s the kind of gig that doesn’t interfere with your full-time job, and even makes you better at it.

(Fun facts: In 1988, I moved back to New York, the city of my birth, specifically so my then-girlfriend could study computer graphics at SVA; the highlight of my advertising career, which preceded my ascension into web and UX design, was spent working for top SVA advertising instructor Sal DeVito; and I subsequently enjoyed a long romantic relationship with an artist who’d moved to New York to study painting at SVA. So you could say that my eventually  teaching at the place was overdetermined. When Liz told me of her new program and invited me to teach in it, it was as if half the prior events in my life had been whispers from the future. But I digress.)

Helping students have better careers

Since the program began, I’ve taught a class called “Selling Design,” which helps students completing their Masters thesis  decide what kind of work they’d like to do when they leave with their MFA, a few months after the class begins. There are so many opportunities now for people who design experiences, digital or otherwise. What should they do? Where will they be happiest? Inside a big company or a small one? A product company or an agency/studio? Should they start their own business?

And there are so many kinds of workplaces. In some, it’s your work that matters most. In others, it’s politics. How can you tell the difference before taking a job? We illuminate the right questions to ask and the clues in a student’s own personality that can lead to a great career or a blocked one.

The main teaching method is discursive: I invite designers who’ve had interesting and varied careers to come into the studio and have a conversation in front of the class. Mainly I ask questions and the guest speaker answers; then the class asks questions. Over time the speakers’ experiences and the takeaways I synthesize from them for the class create a picture of everything from how to tell if someone’s lying to you in a job interview to the signs that you’ve come to the right place.

A blaze of glory

Photo of Alexis Lloyd. Head shot, dark background.

This Thursday, May 2nd, at 10:00 AM, I teach my last class of the year, and I’m thrilled that my guest speaker will be Alexis Lloyd, Head of Design Innovation at Automattic, and previously Chief Design Officer at Axios, and Creative Director of The New York Times R&D Lab. In my initial months at Automattic, I’ve reached out to Alexis many times for help and insight, and she’s always generous, patient, and illuminating. It will be an honor and a pleasure to end my teaching year in what will surely be a great conversation with this experienced design leader.

For more about the MFA IXD program at School of Visual Arts, follow @svaixd on Twitter and visit https://interactiondesign.sva.edu/ . And for those who don’t yet know Alexis, here are some points of reference:

And now for something completely different

This being Monday, here are some additional links for your pleasure, having nothing to do with the above:

Yeah, but can you dance to it?

Animators, find the musical beats for your animation. A Twitter mini-tutorial, with some usefully illuminating comments. (Hat tip: Val Head’s UI Animation Newsletter. Subscribe here: https://uianimationnewsletter.com/.)

From the same source, this cute Earth Day animation

Accessibility Insights

The “Top 5 Questions Asked in Accessibility Trainings,” by Carie Fisher of Deque, is a wonderful, inclusively written introduction to digital accessibility. From “what’s WCAG, even?” to why the “first rule of ARIA is: do not use ARIA” (use supported HTML elements instead), answers to just about all your questions may be found here. (Hat tip: David A Kennedy.)

And if you like that, Deque has plenty of other great accessibility articles, including a whole series by the great Glenda Sims.

Solve the Right Problem: Derek Featherstone on Designing for Extremes” is a two-minute read that tells the famous “map for the blind” story—one of my favorite UX parables ever (not to mention a great #a11y insight). Thanks to Michelle Langston for reminding me about this 2016 post.

A man cradles his newborn.

Everything means something to me

Every once in a while, life gifts you with a genuine moment. “>Here’s my friend designer/author Justin Dauer and his newborn, exchanging important information during, of all things, a business conference call. (By the way, Justin is now hard at work on the second edition of his book, Cultivating a Creative Culture, which I recommend for anyone leading a team: www.the-culturebook.com/.)

For your viewing pleasure…

Jen Simmons giving a lecture.

We’re standing at the threshold of an entirely new era in digital design—one in which, rather than hacking layouts together, we can actually describe layouts directly. The benefits will touch everything from prototyping to custom art direction to responsive design. In this visionary talk, rooted in years of practical experience, Jen Simmons shows you how to understand what’s different, learn to think through multiple stages of flexibility, and let go of pixel constraints forever.

Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed” by Jen Simmons (60-minute video, captioned).

Browser diversity starts with us.

Developers, designers, and strategists, here’s something you can do for the health of the web: 

Test all your sites in Firefox.

Yes, we should all design to web standards to the best of our ability. Yes, we should all test our work in *every* browser and device we can. Yes, yes, of course yes. 

But the health of Firefox is critical now that Chromium will be the web’s de facto rendering engine. 

Even if you love Chrome, adore Gmail, and live in Google Docs or Analytics, no single company, let alone a user-tracking advertising giant, should control the internet.

The development and adoption of accessible standards happens when a balance of corporate powers supports organizations like the W3C, and cross-browser-and-device testing is part of every project.

When one rendering engine rules them all, well, many of us remember when progress halted for close to ten years because developers only tested in IE6, and more than a few of us recall a similar period when Netscape was the only browser that mattered. 

Don’t think the need to test in phones will save us: Chromium powers most of them, too.

And don’t write off the desktop just because many of us love our phones more.

When one company decides which ideas are worth supporting and which aren’t, which access problems matter and which don’t, it stifles innovation, crushes competition, and opens the door to excluding people from digital experiences.

So how do we fight this? We, who are not powerful? We do it by doubling down on cross-browser testing. By baking it into the requirements on every project, large or small. By making sure our colleagues, bosses, and clients know what we’re doing and why. 

Maybe also we do it by always showing clients and colleagues our work in Firefox, instead of Chrome. Just as a subtle reminder that there are other browsers out there, and some of them kick ass. (As a bonus, you’ll get to use all those amazing Mozilla developer tools that are built into Firefox.)

Diversity is as good for the web as it is for society. And it starts with us.

See also…

The State of Web Browsers, 2018 edition

The state of things

At the end of therapy this morning, I felt like the lone Samurai at the end of a Japanese movie. His warlord has betrayed him, his fellow Samurai have fallen into dishonor, and the rice crop failed. After a last meditation, he emerges from his tent, sword flashing, to die fighting 10,000 men. I told this to my therapist and we both laughed. 

Grateful X 2

Illustration by Justin Dauer. Pixel portrait of JZ in blue beanie.

NONE of us knows what today will bring. And for many of us, these are fearful times. So I wanted to take a breath, pause a moment, and share two small gifts I received this morning at the start of my workday:

You know, for kids

First, Rob Ford wrote to my daughter and me to tell us that Macaw Books will be at Frankfurt Book Fair next week to promote The Little Trailblazers, a children’s book of illustrated stories to which we contributed.

It’s been more than two years since a younger Ava and I co-wrote a rhyming story for this collection of tales written by “Internet pioneers” and illuminated by brilliant illustrators from around the world—50 contributors from over 25 countries, 50/50 female/male ratio.

Book cover: The Little Trailblazers, designed by MENDO books.

When the book’s original publisher withdrew their support due to its lack of mass commercial potential, Rob could easily have given up. Instead, for over two years, he fought to find the right publisher and charity organization to align with the project.

Today word came that The Little Trailblazers will be in aid of Unicef’s work for children. I can’t think of a better fit. Rob’s vision and perseverance have been something to behold, and I am grateful to have had the chance to collaborate with my kid on what will be her first published story.

Art & copy

Next, Dougal MacPherson presented a trio of narratively related illustrations for an important upcoming A List Apart series directed by Aaron Gustafson. I’m thrilled that Aaron conceived the series, found the authors, chose ALA to publish it, and is shepherding the entire project. I can’t wait for you to read it.

And, although I should be used to it by now, I’m still gratefully astonished by Dougal’s ability to take complex, technical topics, find their common truth, and create a unifying visual narrative tying them together for A List Apart’s readers. Oh, and he draws great, too.

Breathe

There is much that can go wrong in our lives, most of it beyond our control. Sometimes how the afternoon sunlight looks as it warms the tops of trees is what you get that day to remind you that life is a gift. Or, hey, don’t knock a good sandwich.

But sometimes—especially if your line of work can at least partly be described as “creative”—sometimes you are reminded just how incredibly lucky you are to know and work with passionate, talented people. And that is fuel, not only for continued effort, but for gratitude.

Also published on Medium.
Illustration: Justin Dauer

The Cult of the Complex

Illustration by Kevin Cornell.
“IN AN INDUSTRY that extols innovation over customer satisfaction, and prefers algorithm to human judgement (forgetting that every algorithm has human bias in its DNA), perhaps it should not surprise us that toolchains have replaced know-how.”

Our addiction to complicated toolchains and overbuilt frameworks is out of control. Web-making has lately become something of a dick-measuring competition. It needn’t stay that way.

If we wish to get back to the business of quietly improving people’s lives one thoughtful interaction at a time, we must rid ourselves of the cult of the complex. For more about why and how, see my new article, “The Cult of the Complex,” in A List Apart, for people who make websites.

 

 

 

Illustration by Kevin Cornell

For your pleasure

For your listening pleasure, I have prepared a 15-minute playlist composed of ten short songs.

Before I share the URL, here are the requirements:

You must have Spotify. (Sorry.)

To enjoy, in Spotify Settings: Advanced, you must turn on Crossfade: 12 seconds. Half the trip is listening to how each track yearns for and blends into the next. Without Crossfade, you won’t experience that. And with Crossfade set to any duration other than 12 seconds, you won’t experience it correctly. The timing matters.

For maximum pleasure, set the playlist to infinite Repeat, so that the very last track of the playlist begins crossfading into the first track. Listen forever, with volume as loud as you can handle it.

Got all that? Good. Now you can enjoy the playlist.

My design constraints in creating this playlist for you were as follows:

  • Each track must come from a different era—from 1969 to today.
  • Each must be of a different style, such that no one would think of putting it on the same playlist with any other track on the list.
  • No track could be longer than 2:30 or shorter than 1:00.
  • The 10 tracks chosen had to clock in at 15 minutes and the whole thing had to work as a narrative.

Enjoy.


Note: Some tracks contain adult language. If that bothers you, you may not enjoy this playlist.

We need design that is faster and design that is slower.

During a recent conversation with  David Sleight, Design Director at ProPublica, I found myself realizing and saying “we need design that is faster and design that is slower.”

Who are we and what is this thing called design?

When I say  “we,” I mean our whole industry, when I say “our whole industry,” I mean design, and when I say “design,” I mean: web design and development; digital product design; digital user experience design; digital user interface design; digital interaction design; “mobile” design (which is the same thing as web design and development); graphic design as part of UX, UI, interactive, digital, and web design; publishing and editorial design; and other  design practices specifically empowered by the internet and digital technology and built largely around reading and interacting with words on screens.


A mouthful, isn’t it? Some people mean all the above when they say “UX.” I generally mean all the above when I say “design” and call myself a designer.

I exclude from the category, for this specific discussion, tactile, conversational, and passive design powered by the internet of things. Not because those practices are uninteresting or unimportant—on the contrary, they are fascinating, exciting, and fraught with critical ethical questions—but because they are not specifically screen- and reading-driven. And it’s our screen- and reading-driven design that needs a reset.

Our whole industry, as I’ve just defined it, needs design that is faster for people who are trying to get things done, for they are our customers and should not be burdened by our institutional surrenders. We need design that is slower for people who are trying to comprehend, for they are our only chance of saving the world.

This porridge is too fast

Our news and information sites have succeeded so well, they are failing. We’ve designed them to be quickly scannable—at a glance, I take in the headline, the key visual, and the lead paragraph. But today’s news is anything but simple. The truth cannot be reduced to visual sound bytes. That’s how we got in this mess in the first place.

As a society, we’ve replaced thinking with slogans, listening with wall-building. Our best news publications are doing a better and better job of reporting beyond headlines—getting down to the details that really matter. But we designers have so trained readers to scan and move on—Pacmans scarfing dopamine hits—that they no longer have the instinct to sit back and take their time with what they’re reading.

Our news designs must work to slow down the reader, engage her more deeply, encourage her to lean back and absorb. The good news is, we’ve long had the tools to do it: typography and whitespace.

Larger type — type that actually encourages the reader to sit back in her chair — plus radically uncluttered interfaces and (when budget permits and the story merits it) art direction are the way to do it. Derek Powazek’s late lamented {fray} (1996 — remnant here) and Lance Arthur’s Glassdog were the first sites to do real art direction on the web. Jason Santa Maria’s personal site was a later, brilliant exponent of art direction on the web. (See “Previous/Embarrassing Editions.”)

You can see these techniques working in the recent designs of The Washington Post (but not its homepage), The New York Times (but not its homepage), ProPublicaSlateSmashing Magazine, and Vox — with inspiration from predecessors including the Readability application, Medium, and A List Apart.

To a great extent, the ability of news publications to pursue slow design depends on their ability to finance themselves without overly relying on race-to-the-bottom advertising. Not all periodicals can free themselves of this dependency.

On the flip side of the news experience, which must be savored and digested slowly, comes the challenge of our corporate and organizational sites, which must become faster—not just technically, but (even more importantly) in terms of their content’s comprehensibility.

In the beginning, there was shovelware

As the once-vital blogosphere recedes from the equation, and as traditional periodical publications struggle to retain solvency and relevancy (and wrestle with readability), the web becomes the turf of stores like Amazon, powerful networks like Facebook, and traditional corporate brochureware. It’s this brochureware that most needs fixing—most needs to be designed to be faster.

In the 1990s, disgruntled computer buyers coined the word “shovelware” to refer to the second-rate games, fonts, and software that came pre-bundled with many PCs. It wasn’t stuff you had to have, carefully curated by software wizards who cared for you—it was garbage presented as value. Early web designers, including your present author, soon used “shovelware” to refer to the reams of corporate copy that got thoughtlessly dumped into the first corporate sites. The corporate overlords thought of the stuff as content. The readers didn’t think of it at all.

Getting easier to publish and harder to communicate

So we spent years preaching that the web was not print, finding ways to design words on screens so they could be scanned and used. We learned to inventory our old content and develop the will and the sales ability to toss the dross. Only content stringently designed to satisfy both customer and business needs would be permitted onto our excellent corporate websites. At least, that was how we did it when it came time for a major redesign (and only when astute stakeholders permitted it).

But most of the time, and constantly between redesigns, junk still got shoveled into our websites. We even made it easier for the shovelers. We developed CMS systems and gave everyone in the organization the power to use them. It was easier for us to let people publish the stuff their little group cared about than to stop and ask what mattered to the customer. And it was also easier for the organization, as it enabled warring fiefdoms to avoid difficult meetings.

It was easier. But not better.

And the CMS systems multiplied, and the web-savvy middle managers were fruitful, and the corporate site was filled with documents nobody but those who posted them ever read. And the corporate site sucked. It sucked harder than it had even in the earliest shovelware days of the 1990s. It sucked deeper and wider and more frequently and with better algorithms. For all our talk of user journeys and mental models, most corporate sites are mostly pretty garbage.

Shhh! Don’t tell the client. They still owe us a payment.

Beyond pretty garbage

Gerry McGovern’s “Top Tasks” method showed how to prioritize the information the customer seeks over the darlings of Management. Ethan Marcotte’s responsive web design and Luke Wroblewski’s mobile-first strategies pointed the way to restoring the focus on what’s most essential. There’s no room for pretty garbage on the small screen. Now, before it’s too late, we must fulfill the promise those visionaries and others have shared with us. If we want to save our brochure sites, we must make them not just faster, but relevant faster.

Designing with the content performance quotient (CPQ) in mind is how we will take the next step. We’ll ruthlessly prune the inessential, cut our sitemaps down to size, slash our bloated pathways, removing page after unloved page, until there’s nothing left but near-neural pathways from the user to the information she seeks.

In short, we will sculpt the design, presentation, and amount of content in our brochure sites with the same scalpel we take to the shopping carts in our e-commerce sites.

Evaluating speed or relevancy for your site’s content

How can we tell which sites should be faster, and which should be slower? It’s easy. If the content is delivered for the good of the general public, the presentation must facilitate slow, careful reading. If it’s designed to promote our business or help a customer get an answer to her question, it must be designed for speed of relevancy.

I’ll continue to explore both these themes in future articles here. My thanks to ProPublica’s David Sleight for the remarkable conversation that helped give birth to this piece. David is a web designer, creative director, and leader at the intersection of publishing and digital technology. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces “investigative journalism with moral force.” To hear the complete conversation, don your headphones and listen to Episode № 171: Art Directing the News — with ProPublica Design Director David Sleight on The Big Web Show.

Read more

Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient

Large Type: One Web Designer Puts Content First in a Big Way

Authoritative, Readable, Branded: Report From Poynter Design Challenge, Part 2

To Save Real News

Redesigning in Public Again

The Year in Design

 

Also published at medium.

studio.zeldman is open for business. Follow me @zeldman.

Beyond Engagement: the content performance quotient

Recently, Josh Clark, Gerry McGovern and I have been questioning our industry’s pursuit of “engagement.” Engagement is what all our clients want all the time. It’s the № 1 goal cited in kickoff meetings, the data point that determines if a project succeeded or sucked wind. When our clients muse over their Analytics, they’re almost always eyeing engagement, charting its tiny variances with the jittery, obsessive focus of overanxious parents taking a sick child’s temperature.

Engagement is our cri de coeur. Our products, websites, and applications live and die by it. But should they?

For many of our products, websites, and applications, duration of page visit, number of our pages clicked through, and similar signs of engagement as it is traditionally understood may actually be marks of failure. If a customer spends 30 minutes on her insurance company’s site, was she engaged … or frustrated by bad information architecture?

For these products, websites, and applications, we need a new metric, a  new and different № 1 goal. Think of it as speed of usefulness; and call it content performance quotient—or CPQ if acronyms make you feel all business-y and tingly inside.

The content performance quotient is an index of how quickly you get the right answer to the individual customer, allowing her to act on it or depart and get on with her day. It is a measurement of your value to the customer. For many apps, sites, and products, the content performance quotient offers a new goal to iterate against, a new way to deliver value, and a new way to evaluate success.

For many sites, engagement is still a valid goal

To be fair as well as explicit, spending extra seconds on a web page, and browsing from one page to another and another, remains a desirable thing on deep content sites like A List Apart and The Washington Post — sites that encourage slow, thoughtful reading.

A List Apart isn’t a place to grab code and get back to your web development project; it’s a place to ponder new and better ways of designing, developing, and strategizing web content. And pondering means slowly digesting what you have read. The Washington Post isn’t a purveyor of ten-second talking points and memorable but shallow headlines—it’s a place for detailed news and news analysis. That kind of reading takes time, so it makes sense if the owners and managers of those publications peruse their Analytics seeking signs of engagement. For everyone else, there’s the CPQ. Or will be, once someone reading this figures out how to measure it.

There’s also a new design paradigm that goes hand-in-hand with this new goal: shrinking your architecture and relentlessly slashing your content. It’s an approach we’ve begun practicing in my design studio.

But first things first. What exactly is the CPQ?

The content performance quotient (CPQ) is the time it takes your customer to get the information she sought, and here, less is more—or better. From the organization’s point of view, CPQ can be the time it takes to for a specific customer to find, receive, and absorb your most important content.

Come to where the messaging is

 

Consider the Marlboro Man (kids, check the Wikipedia entry), a silent visual spokesman for Marlboro cigarettes, created by the Leo Burnett agency for an era when Americans expressed their optimism by driving two-ton be-finned convertibles along the new highways that bypassed the old cities and the old urban way of life.

It was a time when Americans looked back on their historical westward expansion un-ironically and without shame. Cowboys were heroes on TV. Cowboys were freedom, the car and the highway were freedom, smoking the right cigarette was freedom.

On TV back then, when commercials had a full 60 seconds to convey their messaging, and nearly all were heavy on dialog and narration, Marlboro TV commercials were practically wordless. They showed a cowboy riding a horse. You saw him in closeup. You saw him in long shot. There were slow dissolves. There was music. There were no words at all, until the very end, when a suitably gravel-voiced announcer advised you to “Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro Country.”

But it was in billboards along the highway and at urban entrance points where the campaign really lived. There was a beautiful shot of the cowboy doing cowboy stuff in the distance. There were four words: “Come to Marlboro Country.” One of them barely counts as a word, and you didn’t have to read any of them to get the message.

The billboards had one or two seconds to tell you everything, and they worked. At a glance, and from repeated glances over time, you knew that Marlboro was the filtered tobacco cigarette of the independent man who loved liberty. It was not the smoke of the neurotic urban dwelling subway rider (even if, in reality, that was the customer). Marlboro was for the libertarian in chaps. For the macho individualist with no crushing mortgage to pay off, no wife and kids to infringe on his horse-loving freedom. You got it all, without even knowing you got it. That’s performance.

Targeting convertibles on the information superhighway

In hindsight, it sounds ridiculous, but the super-fast storytelling worked: when I was growing up, Marlboro was what every child in my middle school smoked.

Remove the cancer and the other ethical problems from this story and hold fast to the idea of conveying information as close to instantaneously as possible. The geniuses behind the Marlboro Man achieved it by reducing their messaging to only what was needed—only what could be conveyed to a person passing a billboard at 60 MPH.

Your customer is not speeding past your messaging in a 1954 convertible, but she is speeding past it, and if you don’t optimize, she will miss it. For her to get your message, you have to work as hard as those evil ad wizards did. You must focus relentlessly on messaging (as well as design and site performance—but we’ll get into all that soon enough). Just as Leo Burnett cut their TV messaging to ten words, and their billboard to four, you must be willing to think twice about every word, every page. Mobile First taught us to focus above all else on the content the customer actually seeks. A better CPQ is what you get when you do that—particularly when you combine it with good design and optimal technical performance. 

Most business websites contain dozens of pages that were made to satisfy some long-ago stakeholder. They are pages that nobody visits. Pages that do nothing to help the customer or advance the business’s agenda. Putting all that junk online may have made for smooth meetings ten years ago, but it isn’t helping your business or your customer. Our sites, apps, and products must do both.

Content performance quotient: the secret sauce

Lately in my design practice I’ve been persuading clients to create sites that might superficially appear less effective if you’re going by engagement metrics alone, but which are actually far more successful because they are more instantly persuasive. At my urging, our clients have allowed us to relentlessly cut copy and chop sections nobody looks at, replacing them with a few pages that are there to do a job. We are lucky to have smart clients who are willing to jettison hundreds of hours worth of old work in favor of a streamlined experience that delivers value. Not every client has the courage to do so. But more will as this idea catches on. 

(By the way, don’t look for these projects on our studio’s website just yet; they are still in development.)

Serving only the content the customers actually need; streamlining and testing and fine-tuning the interaction to get the right customer to the right content precisely when they want it; wrapping the experience in an engagingly readable but also quickly scannable user interface; and doing everything in our power to ensure that the underlying web experience is as performant as possible—this, I believe, is the secret to increasing CPQ.

CPQ: the story so far

Designer Fred Gates, kicking it in Central Park, NYC.

 

The idea of delivering much less (but much better) first occurred to me while I was looking over a fellow designer’s shoulder. My friend Fred Gates of Fred Gates Design is working on a project for a client in the nonprofit education space. The client’s initial budget was not large, so, to be fair, they suggested Fred only update their homepage. But Fred being Fred, if he was only going to design a single page, he was determined to deliver tremendous value on it.

By focusing relentlessly on the objectives of the entire site, he was able to bring all the principal interactions and messages into a single performant homepage, essentially reducing a big site to a lean, fast, and more effective one.

Far from getting less, his client (and their customers) got much more than they expected.

Inspired by what my friend had achieved, I then proposed exactly the same approach to a client of ours. Not because their budget was a problem, but because streamlining was clearly the right approach … and a redesign is the perfect opportunity to rethink. When you repaint your living room, it gives you a chance to rethink your couch and divan. You’re most likely to consider changing your diet when you’ve begun a new exercise program. Clients are people, and people are most receptive to one form of change when they are already engaged in another.

Positioning CPQ as an aspect of technical performance is another way to overcome stakeholder skepticism. Lara Hogan has more on persuading peers and stakeholders to care about technical performance optimization.

We are a few weeks away from launching what we and the client are calling Phase I, a lean, performant, relentlessly message-focused web experience. But if we’ve done this right, we won’t have much to do in Phase II—because the “mini-site” we’re delivering in Phase I will do more for the company and its customers than a big site ever did.

I’ll be back with updates when we launch, and (more importantly) when we have data to share. Follow @DesignCPQ to stay on top of CPQ thinking.

 

Also published at Medium.

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