Craggy rocks: content strategy and the art of language design for the web

They paddled a little further, then Salty looked through his telescope again.
“A pirate ship!” he cried. “Let’s have a battle.”
“Oh dear,” said Button. “I don’t want to meet a pirate.”
“Don’t worry,” said Salty. “I’ll be the hero.”
But when they got close they found that the pirate ship was just a craggy rock.

– Angela McAllister, Salty and Button

I picked up Salty and Button for my 2-year old daughter on a whim. I just felt like we both needed a break from Winnie the Pooh. He’s a nice enough bear, but the dude’s got some serious honey issues. Much to my delight the book quickly became my daughter’s favorite, and we’re now reading it several times a day.

Yesterday something interesting happened. My daughter suddenly became fixated with one specific part of the story. The two friends think they see a pirate ship, but it ends up being just a rock. “Wher’s the craggy rock?”, she keeps asking. “Let’s go find it!” And when we find the page she points to it and says the words “craggy rock” over and over, with obvious delight.

I am now convinced that she does this just because she loves saying the words. She loves the way they sound, and the way the phrase rolls off her tongue. Craggy rock is no cellar door, but it’s pretty close. Seeing my daughter delight in language for its own sake fills me with so much joy. It reminds me of a story I just read in Clay Johnson’s excellent The Information Diet. He quotes Helen Keller, the renowned deaf-blind activist, as she describes her first experience with language:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.

I can see this realization in my daughter’s eyes as she continues to learn new words. She’s learning that everything has a name, and that names can be beautiful.

I recently wrote about about some problems I have with language the New York Times used in one of their emails. On the Hacker News thread for the post this comment appeared:

Honestly, this just seems like nitpicking. Your main complaint about their email is that their apology isn’t phrased in the vernacular? Don’t we have better things to do with our time than complain about things like this?

The comment got to me more than it probably should have. Is the commenter right? Is it a waste of time to nitpick language? My daughter’s love for the phrase craggy rock makes me think that it’s a worthy cause to fight, after all. At the risk of stating the absolute obvious, language is the soul of civilization. We have to not just protect it, but help it thrive. We have to find the joy and the power in the names of things. In Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy novel The Name of the Wind he describes the power of language like this:

“What do you mean by blue? Describe it.” I struggled for a moment, failed. “So blue is a name?” “It is a word. Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.”

So, here’s the point I’m trying to make.

Those of us who write for the web need to remember that the words we choose are not just about comprehension, but also about feeling. Phonaesthetics teach us that the sound of certain words and sentences have an inherent pleasantness or beauty (euphony), while others can be quite unpleasant (cacophony). Just as a typeface (the artistic representation or interpretation of characters) adds emotion to letters, word aesthetic can be in total harmony with other design elements.

Beauty in design isn’t just the job of visual design. Content strategy has a specific role to play in creating the desired aesthetic of a web site. And beauty is quite important in a changing landscape where aesthetic longevity is the new product expiration date. So the next time you write a paragraph for the web, ask yourself the following question:

Will the sound of these words make that one guy’s 2-year old daughter’s face light up?

 

Update 1/4/2012: “Nick” emailed and pointed me to the fascinating essay Politics and the English Language, where George Orwell discusses “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”, particularly in politics. He ends with some great writing tips.

If the porridge is too hot or too cold, make a fresh batch

Jeffrey Zeldman in The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment:

I sometimes become impatient when members of our community spend their energy publicly lamenting that a website about cats isn’t about dogs. Their energy would be so much better spent starting bow-wow.com. The feeling that something is missing from a beloved online resource (or conference, or product) can be a wonderful motivator to start your own. I created A List Apart because I felt that webmonkey.com wasn’t enough about design and highfive.com was too much about it. If this porridge is too hot and that porridge is too cold, I better make some fresh, eh?

Sounds to me like a good mantra for 2012. Happy New Year, everyone! In the coming year, may we all make porridge that’s just right.

Don’t rip into a design too early

How designers and engineers can play nice is a really great post by Jenna Bilotta. I nodded along enthusiastically to this point in particular:

Too often I observe my fellow designers rip into the aesthetics or interaction design of an early engineering prototype. When an engineer is met with critical feedback from a designer about issues they haven’t even begun to think about, it doesn’t encourage that engineer to include the designer in future reviews. This is how designers end up begging for massive changes the week before launch, and how we almost never get them.

One of the most difficult skills for a designer to learn is restraint during the early stages of implementation, when things aren’t perfect yet.

There are some great suggestions in the article – well worth reading.

Twitter’s Creative Director and musician Seal discuss Twitter’s iPhone app design

Last night Seal (@Seal) tweeted about his displeasure with the latest Twitter iPhone app. Doug Bowman (@stop), Creative Director at Twitter, asked him to elaborate:

What followed is one of those exchanges that make me absolutely love the Internet. A world-famous musician has a conversation about an iPhone app with a world-famous designer, and we get to sit in on it. I think my favorite part of the conversation is Seal’s honest apology:

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find this random chat so great. Maybe it’s because it shows the power of Twitter to reduce degrees of separation to zero in a matter of minutes. Maybe it’s the fact that I can sit in Cape Town, South Africa, and listen to two people who I admire a great deal have a respectful disagreement in real time. Or maybe it’s because I keep thinking about the bizarre exhilaration Doug must have felt, defending an app he worked on with a musician he’s a fan of.

Whatever the reason might be, it’s just really cool. Unfortunately Twitter still isn’t great at showing us conversations (apparently that’s being worked on), but luckily Aaron Swartz built a tool to help us with that. I’m posting a screenshot of the conversation below, but you can also view it here. (more…)

The urgency of slowing down

Pico Iyer in The Joy of Quiet:

The urgency of slowing down “” to find the time and space to think “” is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

As I’m making my way through The Information Diet, I’m starting to think that this longing for some peace and quiet will be a recurring theme for many of us in 2012.

Dropbox and the network effect

Rachel Swaby wrote a great piece for Wired on the complex problems that Dropbox had to solve to arrive at the simple solution they have today. This sentence stopped me in my tracks:

Almost immediately, those who didn’t actively search out the solution outnumbered early adopters.

Think about that. About 100,000 early adopters signed up for the Dropbox service in the six months leading up to the official launch. But because these early adopters started sharing folders with coworkers, friends, and family, they immediately hooked an entire network of regular users into the service.

Dropbox solved a problem most people don’t know they have, and made the solution simple enough so that non-tech savvy users immediately get the beauty of it and how it can fit into their lives. That’s innovation.

The New York Times non-apology, and the end of lazy marketing language

Yesterday I received an email from the New York Times in which they told me, “Our records indicate that you recently requested to cancel your home delivery subscription.” They proceeded to use a phrase that bears an uncanny resemblance to something I told a girlfriend who dumped me when I was 15: “We do hope you’ll reconsider.”

Here’s the problem: I canceled my subscription 3 years ago. No big deal though, mistakes like this happen all the time. I hit the Archive button and forgot about it. But this morning I woke up to another email from the Times, this one with the subject line “CORRECTION: Important information regarding your subscription.” One of the paragraphs read as follows:

This e-mail was sent by us in error. Please disregard the message. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

I find passive voice non-apologies like this frustrating and insulting – worse than the original mistake, because it somehow manages to avoid taking responsibility for what happened. And it looks like I can finally move on from the idea that I’m the only one who feels this way. Here’s Clinton Forry:

And John Holdun:

 

In Subscribing to The New York Times, a post about the paper’s subscription pricing, Khoi Vinh alludes to a recurring pattern in their email communications:

In the run up to my subscription expiring, the company had been sending me promotions that were urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness. Each email was unequivocal about the number of days that remained in my subscription, but the renewal rates were only hinted at.

“Urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness.” That’s a great description.

This is a big deal. Content Strategy has become mainstream, and more and more businesses are finding out that it’s more effective to talk to their customers like real people (and get to the point quickly). Yet too many old school companies continue to speak to us in that patriarchal tone, assuming that since they clearly know what’s best for us we’ll just go ahead and click that “Buy now” button (if we can find it, because we’re not that smart you see). That’s why the Times didn’t just say this in their “apology” email:

Yesterday we made a mistake and sent you an incorrect email about your subscription. We’re sorry about that. You can delete the email.

The problem is that we’re starting to notice when we’re being talked down to. This has very real implications for marketing, where traditional slogans like “Your savings start here!” and “Unbeatable service!” lose their power to pull the wool over our eyes if they’re not backed up by something real. I recently lamented the laziness of the slogan “Everything you could ever want. And more. For less.” I wondered what it would cost for some happiness and a toilet made out of solid gold, because if you take that slogan at face value I should be able to get that, right?

The lesson to companies is simple: We’re smarter than you think. Be honest about the product or service you provide, and just say “sorry” when you made a mistake. We’ll love you for it.

Disagreeing, comments, and 2012

I know I shouldn’t write meta-posts. I really enjoy reading such posts by the writers I follow, but for some reason it feels presumptuous of me to do the same. But hey, it’s the end of the year and no one is reading anything anyway. So I thought I’d let you know about two things that have been on my mind about my writing here.

Disagreeing

I enjoy arguing. But I mean that not in the way most of the Internet means it. I mean it in the way the Dictionary means it:

Give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share on’s view.

I don’t just enjoy writing such arguments, I also enjoy reading them – particularly if someone is making an argument against one of my opinions. But I really dislike mean-spirited fights online, so much so that I’ve had to close comments on a couple of posts this year because things just got too rowdy.

After particularly contentious fighting in the comments section of a post I usually vow to stick to writing non-controversial stuff, but before I know it I’m back to arguing (again, in the sense of “giving reasons in support of an idea”). I finally realized that I should just run with that instinct and not try to censor myself. But from here on out I’m going to set very specific rules for myself on how I’m allowed to argue. And for that I turn to Paul Graham.

In his brilliant post How to Disagree, Paul goes through what he calls the “Disagreement Hierarchy”, or “DH”. I’m not going to restate what he said – you should definitely click through and read that post. I’ll just say that my commitment to myself (and to you) is that I will always argue/disagree at levels DH5 or DH6 of the Disagreement Hierarchy. As Paul says, it results in better arguments and happier people:

But the greatest benefit of disagreeing well is not just that it will make conversations better, but that it will make the people who have them happier. If you study conversations, you find there is a lot more meanness down in DH1 than up in DH6. You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.

Arguing (yes, in the Dictionary sense of the word) is important because we all learn from it. But we have to rise above name-calling (DH1) and skip all the other levels to a point where we do the hard work and disagree in a way that moves the conversation forward. That’s what I hope to do here.

Comments

Oh, comments. I’ve gone back and forth on this so many times. Sometimes I leave comments open, other times I close them. Sometimes I close comments on a post, get called out on Twitter about it, and then open it up again. It’s confusing and it’s causing me headaches. So I’ve made a decision to close comments on all posts, at least for a month or so, or until someone writes a convincing argument on why sites should have comments (please use DH5 or DH6 in your argument).

To me, the most convincing argument yet to not having comments is Matt Gemmel’s post Comments Off. I can’t say it better than he did, so please go read his thoughts on the issue. For me, the biggest reason is what Matt calls the burden of moderation. It takes a really long time to moderate comments, especially if a post gets popular while I’m sleeping and I wake up to 40 comments that I have to read through to make sure no one called someone else an idiot. As Anil Dash said, if your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault, so moderating comments is not something you can just ignore. It has to be done.

I’ve had to get up at 5am way too many times to spend an hour deleting comments and asking people to be nice to each other. That’s time I could have spent (1) sleeping, or more importantly, (2) writing something new. So I’m going to give the no comments thing a go and see what happens.

As Matt says in his post, this doesn’t mean I don’t want feedback. We’ve already established that I enjoy arguing, so I also enjoy reading peopl’s counter-arguments (or support, of course). So like Matt, I also hope to get the following types of feedback:

  • A tweet to let me know if you agree/disagree and why.
  • A post on your own site using DH5 or DH6 to agree/disagree with something I said.
  • An email if you don’t want to say anything publicly.

I will link to responses that are DH5+ and add to the conversation (even if it makes me look stupid for writing something). I’m not turning off comments to discourage engagement disagreement, I’m turning it off to help me sleep better and give me more time for writing (this is a side project, so I need all the extra time I can get).

2012

So those are some of my thoughts about what you might see here in 2012. For bonus points, go read this excellent post on how to make a better Internet, and what to do about things that annoy you. For me, lesson #9 will probably become my writing goal this year:

Stop reading bad writing. Keep writing good writing.

I’m not there yet, but I do enjoy trying. Thanks for coming with me.

Everything for free, always: how Facebook ads show us the sad state of the Internet

I don’t like anonymous sources, but this post by “a former CTO [who] was briefed on Facebook’s advertising strategy” caught a lot of people’s attention last week. This paragraph, in particular, stands out:

What most users don’t know is that the new features being introduced are all centered around increasing the value of Facebook to advertisers, to the point where Facebook representatives have been selling the idea that Timeline is actually about re-conceptualizing users around their consumer preferences, or as they put it, “brands are now an essential part of people’s identities.”

Brent Simmons had a very succinct response to that last quote:

Pukin’

I agree.

John Gruber then linked to a page that Facebook set up to explain how they make money. Facebook says that it now costs over a billion dollars a year to keep the site running. That’s a lot of money, for sure. But it’s a damn shame that advertising appears to be the only viable way for Facebook to foot that bill.

Facebook says that they have over 800 million active users, and that “more than 50% of our active users log on to Facebook in any given day.” So let’s, for argument’s sake, say that about 500 million users visit Facebook every day. If each of those users paid Facebook $2 per year, the revenue would cover the cost of running the site. Just increase that to $3 per year, or 25c per month, and you suddenly have $1.5B revenue per year (or roughly $500M profit, based on Facebook’s rough estimate of their operating costs). Let’s be clear about this: it’s the cost of one coffee per year.

Yes, of course this is naive – it would never happen. Most people aren’t willing to pay for services or content on the Internet. There is an expectation that everything should be free, and that at the same time, companies should respect our privacy and keep The Brands™ away from our personal information. It’s not a realistic expectation – something’s gotta give if no one is willing to pay for anything. But most people don’t think about it long enough to realize that.

A recent article on the Pinboard blog really resonated with me, and by the way it spread on Twitter I know it struck a chord with a lot of others too. From Don’t be a free user:

What if a little site you love doesn’t have a business model? Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t take prohibitive per-user revenue to put a project in the black. It just requires a number greater than zero.

In Facebook’s case that “number greater than zero” is $3 per year (have I mentioned that it’s per year!?). But the non-geek world just don’t think about these things. They don’t think about designers and developers who create apps and need to be compensated for it to keep a service alive. They feel that 99c is too much to pay for an iOS game. They freak out every time Facebook moves some things around, still blissfully unaware that they are not Facebook’s customers, they’re just the product being sold to advertisers. All they want is their free Facebook so they can “inbox” their friends about tomorrow’s party. “Pay for this thing?”, they say. “Screw that – it’s not my problem how you keep the site up. Oh, by the way, just remember that you have to respect my privacy and you can’t show me any advertising.”

It’s terribly frustrating.

I fear we’ve painted ourselves into this free corner, and the only way out is to sell our identities to The Brands™. Steve Jobs alluded to this in his negotiations with the New York Times when he refused to give them access to user information Apple collects in the App store. From his biography:

If you don’t like it, don’t use us. I’m not the one who got you in this jam. You’re the ones who’ve spent the past five years giving away your paper online and not collecting anyone’s credit card information.

We created this culture. We’re the ones who have been giving stuff away for free for the past decade, not collecting anyone’s credit card information. We’ve conditioned users that everything should be free, always. This gives advertisers the upper hand in any negotiation, because they know that their way is the only way that most sites can make money.

Why is this such a big deal? Relevant, contextual advertising isn’t bad, right? Not in moderation, no (see The Deck). But when ads become the only way out and advertisers are the ones calling the shots, users suffer. Also, as a matter of principle I firmly believe that it’s better to pay the makers of things directly than through some convoluted ad system.

We can’t really blame Facebook for choosing this path of least resistance. It’s the hand they were dealt by the culture we’ve created. But I remain hopeful that new services will charge for what they do so that we can slowly begin to define our own identities without The Brands™ trying to tell us who we are.

Who will hold a brief for the real?

the-real-you.jpg

When I saw this image on Comical Concept I first found it funny. And then I realized how scarily true it is. It reminded me of a couple of paragraphs from Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together:

But online, you’re slim, rich, and buffed up, and you feel you have more opportunities than in the real world. So, here, too, better than nothing can become better than something – or better than anything. Not surprisingly, people report feeling let down when they move from the virtual to the real world. It is not uncommon to see people fidget with their smartphones, looking for virtual places where they might once again be more. It is not unusual for people to feel more comfortable in an unreal place than a real one because they feel that in simulation they show their better and perhaps truer self. With all of this going on, who will hold a brief for the real?

As a constant user myself, it would be hypocritical of me to go on a rant against social media. But I do worry about how this story plays out. What happens when we get so attached to the online places where we “might once again be more” that we get tired of being with the people around us?

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