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.

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

The Year in Design

  • Mobile is today’s first screen. So design responsively, focusing on content and structure first.
  • Websites and apps alike should remove distractions and let people interact as directly as possible with content.
  • 90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.
  • Boost usability and pleasure with progressive disclosure: menus and functions that appear only when needed.
  • One illustration or original photo beats 100 stock images.
  • Design your system to serve your content, not the other way around.
  • Remove each detail from your design until it breaks.
  • Style is the servant of brand and content. Style without purpose is noise.
  • Nobody waits. Speed is to today’s design what ornament was to yesterday’s.
  • Don’t design to prove you’re clever. Design to make the user think she is.

Also published in Medium

Translated into German (also here) by Mark Sargent

Translated into French by Jean-Baptiste Sachsé

Translated into Turkish by omerbalyali.

Translated into Spanish by Tam Lopez Breit.

Responsive times two: essential new books from Ethan Marcotte & Karen McGrane

Responsive Design times two! New books from the geniuses, Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane.

IT WAS the early 2000s. The smoke from 9/11 was still poisoning my New York.

Karen McGrane was a brilliant young consultant who had built the IA practice at Razorfish while still in her early 20s, and was collaborating with my (now ex-)wife on some large, exciting projects for The New York Public Library. Ethan Marcotte was a Dreadlocks-hat-sporting kid I’d met in Cambridge through Dan Cederholm, with whom he sometimes collaborated on tricky, standards-based site designs. The first edition of my Designing With Web Standards was in the can. I figured that, like my previous book, it would sell about 10,000 copies and then vanish along with all the other forgotten web design books.

Nothing happened as I expected it to. The only thing I got right besides web standards was the desire to some day work with Karen, Ethan, and Dan—three dreams that, in different ways, eventually all came true. But nothing, not even the incredible experience of working with these luminaries, could have prepared me for the effect Ethan and Karen and Dan would have on our industry. Even less could I have guessed back then the announcement it’s my pleasure to make today:

Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Design: Patterns and Principles and Karen McGrane’s Going Responsive are now available in our A Book Apart store.

It was thrilling to bring you Ethan and Karen’s first industry-changing A Book Apart books. Being allowed to bring you a second set of absolutely essential works on responsive design from these two great minds is a gift no publisher deserves, and for which I am truly grateful.

Building on the concepts in his groundbreaking Responsive Web Design, Ethan now guides you through developing and using design patterns so you can let your responsive layout reach more devices (and people) than ever before.

Karen McGrane effortlessly defined the principles of Content Strategy for Mobile. She’s helped dozens of teams effectively navigate responsive projects, from making the case to successful launch. Now, she pulls it all together to help you go responsive—wherever you are in the process.

Ebooks are available immediately and paperbacks ship next week. Buy Responsive Design: Patterns and Principles and Going Responsive together and save 15%! (Learn more.)

A List Apart № 423: container queries, responsive content

A List Apart 423

WHETHER the topic is responsive CSS or content that responds to the right user at the right time, Issue № 423 of A List Apart is all about finding the path forward:

Container Queries: Once More Unto the Breach

by Mat Marquis

Mat MarquisMedia queries have been the go-to tool in building responsive sites, allowing us to resize and recombine modules to suit multiple contexts, layouts, and viewports. But relying on fixed viewport sizes can quickly twist stylesheets into Gordian knots. We still need a future-friendly way to manage responsive CSS. Mat Marquis explores the problem and the progress toward the solution—and issues a rallying call.


Create a Content Compass

by Meghan Casey

Meghan CaseyContent projects need a sense of direction: something to help you and your team provide the right content to the right people at the right time. Enter the content compass—centered on your strategy and supported by your messaging—to keep your content efforts on track. In this excerpt from Chapter 11 of The Content Strategy Toolkit, Meghan Casey explains her methodology for developing a core strategy statement and messaging framework.

A List Apart № 421 Gets Personal

A List Apart Issue No. 421

THERE’S GREAT reading for people who make websites in Issue No. 421 of A List Apart:

Resetting Agency Culture

by Justin Dauer

Forget Air Hockey, Zen Gardens, and sleep pods: a true “dream” company invests in its people—fostering a workplace that supports dialogue, collaboration, and professional development. From onboarding new hires to ongoing engagement, Justin Dauer shares starting points for a healthy office dynamic and confident, happy employees.


Crafting a Design Persona

by Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek

Every product has a personality—is yours by design? Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek shows you how Weather Underground solved its personality problems by creating a design persona, and teaches you collaborative methods for starting a personality adjustment in your company.


McGrane: Kill Your CMS

THE ERA of “desktop publishing” is over. Same goes for the era where we privilege the desktop web interface above all others. The tools we create to manage our content are vestiges of the desktop publishing revolution, where we tried to enable as much direct manipulation of content as possible. In a world where we have infinite possible outputs for our content, it’s time to move beyond tools that rely on visual styling to convey semantic meaning. If we want true separation of content from form, it has to start in the CMS.–Karen McGrane, WYSIWTF ∙ An A List Apart Column.

Design is Copy is Design

ART AND COPY have been joined at the hip since Bill Bernbach launched the creative revolution in the 1960s. But on the web, not so much.

It’s great that some of the brightest minds in our industry continue making the point that copy matters, and that “one of the most overlooked designers in any field is the copywriter.” But it’s sad that, whenever we make that point, the only examples we seem to come up with are 37signals and Apple. (Flickr used to be in there, too, but these days, sadly, nobody wants to talk about Flickr—even when they’re a canonical example of doing x right.)

Anyhoo: Great Design is Jargon-Free is another fine instance of a smart web person (in this case, the handsome and erudite Scott Berkun) making those points.

Big Web Show 78: Bloomstein on content strategy

IN EPISODE No. 78 of The Big Web Show (“everything web that matters”), I interview Margot Bloomstein, author of Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Engagement (Morgan Kaufmann, 2012), about her professional transition from design to content strategy; the vagaries of the consulting life; how mentoring and non-traditional academic backgrounds can fit into a web career; how to write a content strategy book for people who are not content strategists; and the beauties of Pittsburgh.

Content Strategy for Mobile three ways from Sunday

IT’S A Karen McGrane world! Today, as A Book Apart unveils Karen McGrane’s amazing new Content Strategy for Mobile, the entirety of A List Apart Issue No. 364 is dedicated to Karen and her vision for future-friendly web content:

Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)

Thirty-one percent of Americans who access the internet from a mobile device say that’s the way they always or mostly go online. For this group, if your content doesn’t exist on mobile, it doesn’t exist at all. The U.S. government has responded with a broad initiative to make federal website content mobile-friendly. Karen McGrane explains why this matters—and what you can learn from it.

Your Content, Now Mobile

Making your content mobile-ready isn’t easy, but if you take the time now to examine your content and structure it for maximum flexibility and reuse, you’ll have stripped away all the bad, irrelevant bits, and be better prepared the next time a new gadget rolls around. This excerpt from Karen McGrane’s new book, Content Strategy for Mobile, will help you get started.

Help Hurricane Sandy relief efforts

Fifteen percent of sales of Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile and other A Book Apart books sold today will go to the Red Cross in its effort to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.