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Create a Content Compass

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |30 Jun 15 |

Project types

Chapter 2 mentioned that breaking off a small project might make sense, rather than tackling all the content across your organization at once. Make sure you remember where your project falls in your organization or client’s entire content universe.

Your project’s place in the organization’s content universe affects what you’re able to control or influence. It also is affected by the formal and informal strategies guiding content efforts throughout the organization.

Content strategy for an entire organization and across all channels is super complex and very steeped in business management and operations. For the purposes of this book, I focus on the three main project types I’ve encountered most: function, property, and subset.

Function

Function refers to a functional unit within an organization, such as sales, marketing, communications, customer service, or human resources. Of course, every organization is set up a bit differently, so yours could have different names for similar functions.

Very often, my client is a senior leader within one of these functions who wants help with content strategy across all the content types and delivery channels. Marketing is probably the most common.

Diagram showing that customer experience is an example of a functional unit within an organization.

Property

Property refers to a single digital destination, such as a website or an application, or even a social media channel, such as Facebook. Most of my digital property projects are for new website launches or existing website refreshes or redesigns. They could be a client’s primary web presence or a secondary web property for a product, service, event, or other singular purpose.

Other times, I’ll be asked to help specifically with a mobile site or mobile application. (Don’t get me started on mobile websites, but do read Karen McGrane’s book, Content Strategy for Mobile.)

Diagram showing how a website is an example of a single digital property targeted for a project.

Subset

Subset refers to any defined portion of content on a digital property. You can define that subset by where it lives in the site, such as the Help section or the About Us section. Or, you may define it by whom the content is for (current customers, prospective customers, and so on) or what the content is about (products, company information, area of expertise, and so on).

Diagram showing how the help section of a website is an example of a subset of digital content.

Core strategy statement

The core strategy statement is the central component of your content compass. It answers the fundamental questions for providing the right content, to the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons. Table 11.1 summarizes the four questions a core strategy statement must answer.

Content product What content should we produce, procure, curate, and share?
Audience Who, specifically, is that content for?
User needs Why do those audiences need or expect that content from us?
Business goals What outcomes does providing this content help us achieve?

Table 11.1 Core content strategy statement questions

What does a core strategy statement look like?

Core strategy statements come in many formats, and there’s no one right way to document one. A few key characteristics and concepts will help you craft an effective statement.

First, it must resonate with and be memorable for the people who need to know and use it so that they can apply the key concepts to make content decisions.

One way I’ve tested my statements is to present them to my colleagues with details about the four questions they answer and then ask them to recap the strategy. If people who don’t have much context for the project can get the gist and explain it back to me, it’s usually in pretty good shape.

Second, it needs to be prescriptive enough to allow you to say no. One way to check it is to look at your past 10 content projects. If you would have decided not to do some of those projects if you had had the statement at the time, it’s probably strong enough.

Let’s look at an example that my boss and CEO of Brain Traffic, Kristina Halvorson, has used in presentations (I changed it up a little).

To reduce customer service center costs, we will provide user-facing, task-based support content that makes our professional customers feel confident when configuring products for their clients.

Now let’s break that down a bit into the four key components. The business goal for this project is to decrease service center costs (by allowing people to self-serve). To do that, they’ll produce user-facing content that’s focused on tasks users want to complete. The content’s audience is the professional customers, meaning people who are quite experienced and who install the organization’s products for clients. The user need provides help with those installations.

The strategy statement with portions mapped to the business goal, the content product, the audience, and the user needs.

Next up, use the statement to make some content decisions. Use the list of content projects and ideas, such as in Table 11.2, and decide whether your organization should do them.

Yes No Idea
    Repurpose word-for-word content from the customer service call center knowledge base.
    Reorganize help content based on analytics data about frequency of use and search terms.
    Display an interactive timeline showing how product X was developed on the help landing page.
    Conduct user interviews of a survey with professional customers to find out if they are getting what they need from help content.
    Feature professional customer profiles throughout the help section.
    provide a video from our CEO about how important it is for customers to be able to self-serve on our site.

Table 11.2 Ideas for consideration

Here’s what I decided and why:

  • No to repurposing knowledge base content word for word because the internal knowledge-base content probably isn’t written in a user-facing way.
  • Yes to using analytics to reorganize the help section because that data can help ensure the content is organized the way users think about the content.
  • No to the interactive timeline because, while interesting, it would get in the way of tasks the user wants to complete while looking for support content.
  • Yes to doing some user interviews because finding out what’s working and not working from a user perspective could help make the content more useful.
  • No to featuring profiles about professional customers throughout the help section because it’s not the kind of information users would be coming to the help section to read.
  • No to the video message from the CEO because demonstrating the care for self-service is more important than talking about it.

How do you craft a core strategy statement?

The best part about putting together your core strategy statement is that you already have all the information you need from the discovery phase. Even better, your stakeholders have already agreed on the important aspects: who the content is for, why they need it, and what the organization is trying to achieve.

Now you just need to put all that together and add some specificity about the kind of content to produce, through either a collaborative or individual approach.

Collaborative approach

With the collaborative method to crafting a core strategy statement, you hand out a Mad Lib worksheet to the stakeholders. They then work individually to fill in the blanks. This is one I’ve adapted from a version Sara Wachter-Boettcher created:

Organization, Department, Property, Section> helps our company accomplish this goal> and this goal> by providing descriptive phrase> and descriptive phrase> content that makes this audience> feel this emotion or adjective> and this emotion or adjective> so they can complete this task> or complete this task>.

If I’m doing this exercise in-person, I have each person read their statement out loud with no discussion. Then, I’ll ask them to talk about the similarities and differences, the words or phrases that resonated most or didn’t seem quite right, and anything else that stood out to the group.

From there, I take a stab at combining everything into a single statement and getting agreement from stakeholders on the aggregated version. You don’t need to wordsmith it at this point; just get the concepts down. You can make it an editorial masterpiece later (or not).

If you have time, brainstorm a list of recent content projects, and ask participants to say whether they would still do the projects given the statement they just created together. This is a great way to demonstrate how it works and set expectations about how it might affect future work.

If you can’t get the group together, you can send the Mad Lib out via email to stakeholders. The first time I did this, I was skeptical, but it actually worked fairly well.

You don’t get the benefit of the resulting discussion with the email approach. But you can go back to stakeholders to work through disagreements before you.

Individual approach

Some projects don’t have enough days in the timeline or dollars in the budget to craft the statement collaboratively with stakeholders. That’s OK. You can do it yourself.

I’m more of an internal processor of information, so my method is typically to grab my notebook or insights spreadsheet and start reading through my notes. I jot down the things that stick out related to content, audience, business goals, and user needs. I’ll start writing multiple versions of the core strategy statement until I feel I nailed it. That usually involves several renditions and pieces from each getting pulled together, edited, discarded, and massaged.

That approach works for me, but sometimes I get stuck and need to do something a bit more methodological. In those cases, I still grab my notebook or insights spreadsheet.

But I transfer the key insights to sticky notes, note cards, or slips of paper. Then, I categorize those insights into the four categories: business goals, content product, audience, and user needs. Next, I review each category to see what key themes or ideas emerge. And finally, I take those themes and work out the core strategy statement, which typically goes through several revisions.

Diagram of the process of crafting a strategy statement, showing how stakeholder insights are categorized, enabling themes to emerge, which lead to the statement draft.

Messaging framework

A messaging framework clarifies what you want your audiences to know and believe about you, and tries to prove that this message is true.

As a component of your content compass, the messaging framework helps ensure that every piece of content you create supports the framework. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong or needs to be revised.

What does a messaging framework look like?

As with a core strategy statement, you can document your messaging framework multiple ways. I tend to create something somewhat visual to show a hierarchy or progression. Other practitioners I know use bulleted lists.

I write the framework from the user’s perspective. Other practitioners write it in the organization’s voice. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you adhere to the following:

  • Make sure everyone who needs it has it.
  • Actually use it to make decisions about content.
  • Keep in mind that the messages are for you and the people in your organization who work on content.

One of the reasons I like to write the messaging framework from the users’ perspective is because it’s a nice foil to the core strategy statement. The core strategy statement is primarily written for the business. By writing the messaging framework from the users’ mindset, you have a well-rounded compass by which to set the direction for content and stay on track over time.

This example builds upon the core strategy statement and details the first impression you want professional customers to have when they visit the support section, why your support section is valuable to them, and how you’re demonstrating that value with your content. Notice that the proof statements are related to what the content communicates and how it’s organized (substance and structure).

Diagram showing an example of a messaging framework, progressing from first impression to value statement to proof.

How do you develop a messaging framework?

You probably won’t be surprised to read that you can do pretty much the same things you do for the core strategy statement. Like right down to the collaborative and individual approaches.

Mad Libs, again, work well in a collaborative setting. Some ideas for Mad Libs to have stakeholders fill out for each component of the framework include:

First impression
When a user first lands on the site, we want them to feel <blank> and <blank>.

Value statement
After spending a few minutes on our site, users should feel <blank> because they understand we provide <blank> and <blank>.

Proof
Our content demonstrates that we provide just what our users need because <blank>, <blank>, <blank>, and <blank>.

Once you’ve collected the Mad Libs, you can use the data to determine the patterns and themes and form those into the message framework. I go through that process in much the same way I create the core strategy statement—either processing the information in my head or using sticky notes to organize the data.

If you’re not able to get input from your stakeholders in the form of the Mad Libs, don’t worry. Chances are, you have all the information you need from your stakeholder interviews.

Grab your notebook or discovery insights spreadsheet. Better yet, do the Mad Lib and use your discovery insights to develop your messaging framework.

Show the way

Now that you have the two key components of your content strategy in place—core content strategy and messaging framework—you can tell your content people about them. Schedule some time with the key teams who work on content—from creating it to reviewing it to publishing it—to go over your content compass and how to use it.

The next chapter discusses developing a plan for measuring the effectiveness of your content strategy and resulting content efforts. Your content compass will help you decide what to measure.

Copyright © Brain Traffic, Inc. and Meghan Casey. All rights reserved by Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

Create a Content Compass

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |30 Jun 15 |

Project types

Chapter 2 mentioned that breaking off a small project might make sense, rather than tackling all the content across your organization at once. Make sure you remember where your project falls in your organization or client’s entire content universe.

Your project’s place in the organization’s content universe affects what you’re able to control or influence. It also is affected by the formal and informal strategies guiding content efforts throughout the organization.

Content strategy for an entire organization and across all channels is super complex and very steeped in business management and operations. For the purposes of this book, I focus on the three main project types I’ve encountered most: function, property, and subset.

Function

Function refers to a functional unit within an organization, such as sales, marketing, communications, customer service, or human resources. Of course, every organization is set up a bit differently, so yours could have different names for similar functions.

Very often, my client is a senior leader within one of these functions who wants help with content strategy across all the content types and delivery channels. Marketing is probably the most common.

Diagram showing that customer experience is an example of a functional unit within an organization.

Property

Property refers to a single digital destination, such as a website or an application, or even a social media channel, such as Facebook. Most of my digital property projects are for new website launches or existing website refreshes or redesigns. They could be a client’s primary web presence or a secondary web property for a product, service, event, or other singular purpose.

Other times, I’ll be asked to help specifically with a mobile site or mobile application. (Don’t get me started on mobile websites, but do read Karen McGrane’s book, Content Strategy for Mobile.)

Diagram showing how a website is an example of a single digital property targeted for a project.

Subset

Subset refers to any defined portion of content on a digital property. You can define that subset by where it lives in the site, such as the Help section or the About Us section. Or, you may define it by whom the content is for (current customers, prospective customers, and so on) or what the content is about (products, company information, area of expertise, and so on).

Diagram showing how the help section of a website is an example of a subset of digital content.

Core strategy statement

The core strategy statement is the central component of your content compass. It answers the fundamental questions for providing the right content, to the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons. Table 11.1 summarizes the four questions a core strategy statement must answer.

Content product What content should we produce, procure, curate, and share?
Audience Who, specifically, is that content for?
User needs Why do those audiences need or expect that content from us?
Business goals What outcomes does providing this content help us achieve?

Table 11.1 Core content strategy statement questions

What does a core strategy statement look like?

Core strategy statements come in many formats, and there’s no one right way to document one. A few key characteristics and concepts will help you craft an effective statement.

First, it must resonate with and be memorable for the people who need to know and use it so that they can apply the key concepts to make content decisions.

One way I’ve tested my statements is to present them to my colleagues with details about the four questions they answer and then ask them to recap the strategy. If people who don’t have much context for the project can get the gist and explain it back to me, it’s usually in pretty good shape.

Second, it needs to be prescriptive enough to allow you to say no. One way to check it is to look at your past 10 content projects. If you would have decided not to do some of those projects if you had had the statement at the time, it’s probably strong enough.

Let’s look at an example that my boss and CEO of Brain Traffic, Kristina Halvorson, has used in presentations (I changed it up a little).

To reduce customer service center costs, we will provide user-facing, task-based support content that makes our professional customers feel confident when configuring products for their clients.

Now let’s break that down a bit into the four key components. The business goal for this project is to decrease service center costs (by allowing people to self-serve). To do that, they’ll produce user-facing content that’s focused on tasks users want to complete. The content’s audience is the professional customers, meaning people who are quite experienced and who install the organization’s products for clients. The user need provides help with those installations.

The strategy statement with portions mapped to the business goal, the content product, the audience, and the user needs.

Next up, use the statement to make some content decisions. Use the list of content projects and ideas, such as in Table 11.2, and decide whether your organization should do them.

Yes No Idea
    Repurpose word-for-word content from the customer service call center knowledge base.
    Reorganize help content based on analytics data about frequency of use and search terms.
    Display an interactive timeline showing how product X was developed on the help landing page.
    Conduct user interviews of a survey with professional customers to find out if they are getting what they need from help content.
    Feature professional customer profiles throughout the help section.
    provide a video from our CEO about how important it is for customers to be able to self-serve on our site.

Table 11.2 Ideas for consideration

Here’s what I decided and why:

  • No to repurposing knowledge base content word for word because the internal knowledge-base content probably isn’t written in a user-facing way.
  • Yes to using analytics to reorganize the help section because that data can help ensure the content is organized the way users think about the content.
  • No to the interactive timeline because, while interesting, it would get in the way of tasks the user wants to complete while looking for support content.
  • Yes to doing some user interviews because finding out what’s working and not working from a user perspective could help make the content more useful.
  • No to featuring profiles about professional customers throughout the help section because it’s not the kind of information users would be coming to the help section to read.
  • No to the video message from the CEO because demonstrating the care for self-service is more important than talking about it.

How do you craft a core strategy statement?

The best part about putting together your core strategy statement is that you already have all the information you need from the discovery phase. Even better, your stakeholders have already agreed on the important aspects: who the content is for, why they need it, and what the organization is trying to achieve.

Now you just need to put all that together and add some specificity about the kind of content to produce, through either a collaborative or individual approach.

Collaborative approach

With the collaborative method to crafting a core strategy statement, you hand out a Mad Lib worksheet to the stakeholders. They then work individually to fill in the blanks. This is one I’ve adapted from a version Sara Wachter-Boettcher created:

Organization, Department, Property, Section> helps our company accomplish this goal> and this goal> by providing descriptive phrase> and descriptive phrase> content that makes this audience> feel this emotion or adjective> and this emotion or adjective> so they can complete this task> or complete this task>.

If I’m doing this exercise in-person, I have each person read their statement out loud with no discussion. Then, I’ll ask them to talk about the similarities and differences, the words or phrases that resonated most or didn’t seem quite right, and anything else that stood out to the group.

From there, I take a stab at combining everything into a single statement and getting agreement from stakeholders on the aggregated version. You don’t need to wordsmith it at this point; just get the concepts down. You can make it an editorial masterpiece later (or not).

If you have time, brainstorm a list of recent content projects, and ask participants to say whether they would still do the projects given the statement they just created together. This is a great way to demonstrate how it works and set expectations about how it might affect future work.

If you can’t get the group together, you can send the Mad Lib out via email to stakeholders. The first time I did this, I was skeptical, but it actually worked fairly well.

You don’t get the benefit of the resulting discussion with the email approach. But you can go back to stakeholders to work through disagreements before you.

Individual approach

Some projects don’t have enough days in the timeline or dollars in the budget to craft the statement collaboratively with stakeholders. That’s OK. You can do it yourself.

I’m more of an internal processor of information, so my method is typically to grab my notebook or insights spreadsheet and start reading through my notes. I jot down the things that stick out related to content, audience, business goals, and user needs. I’ll start writing multiple versions of the core strategy statement until I feel I nailed it. That usually involves several renditions and pieces from each getting pulled together, edited, discarded, and massaged.

That approach works for me, but sometimes I get stuck and need to do something a bit more methodological. In those cases, I still grab my notebook or insights spreadsheet.

But I transfer the key insights to sticky notes, note cards, or slips of paper. Then, I categorize those insights into the four categories: business goals, content product, audience, and user needs. Next, I review each category to see what key themes or ideas emerge. And finally, I take those themes and work out the core strategy statement, which typically goes through several revisions.

Diagram of the process of crafting a strategy statement, showing how stakeholder insights are categorized, enabling themes to emerge, which lead to the statement draft.

Messaging framework

A messaging framework clarifies what you want your audiences to know and believe about you, and tries to prove that this message is true.

As a component of your content compass, the messaging framework helps ensure that every piece of content you create supports the framework. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t belong or needs to be revised.

What does a messaging framework look like?

As with a core strategy statement, you can document your messaging framework multiple ways. I tend to create something somewhat visual to show a hierarchy or progression. Other practitioners I know use bulleted lists.

I write the framework from the user’s perspective. Other practitioners write it in the organization’s voice. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you adhere to the following:

  • Make sure everyone who needs it has it.
  • Actually use it to make decisions about content.
  • Keep in mind that the messages are for you and the people in your organization who work on content.

One of the reasons I like to write the messaging framework from the users’ perspective is because it’s a nice foil to the core strategy statement. The core strategy statement is primarily written for the business. By writing the messaging framework from the users’ mindset, you have a well-rounded compass by which to set the direction for content and stay on track over time.

This example builds upon the core strategy statement and details the first impression you want professional customers to have when they visit the support section, why your support section is valuable to them, and how you’re demonstrating that value with your content. Notice that the proof statements are related to what the content communicates and how it’s organized (substance and structure).

Diagram showing an example of a messaging framework, progressing from first impression to value statement to proof.

How do you develop a messaging framework?

You probably won’t be surprised to read that you can do pretty much the same things you do for the core strategy statement. Like right down to the collaborative and individual approaches.

Mad Libs, again, work well in a collaborative setting. Some ideas for Mad Libs to have stakeholders fill out for each component of the framework include:

First impression
When a user first lands on the site, we want them to feel <blank> and <blank>.

Value statement
After spending a few minutes on our site, users should feel <blank> because they understand we provide <blank> and <blank>.

Proof
Our content demonstrates that we provide just what our users need because <blank>, <blank>, <blank>, and <blank>.

Once you’ve collected the Mad Libs, you can use the data to determine the patterns and themes and form those into the message framework. I go through that process in much the same way I create the core strategy statement—either processing the information in my head or using sticky notes to organize the data.

If you’re not able to get input from your stakeholders in the form of the Mad Libs, don’t worry. Chances are, you have all the information you need from your stakeholder interviews.

Grab your notebook or discovery insights spreadsheet. Better yet, do the Mad Lib and use your discovery insights to develop your messaging framework.

Show the way

Now that you have the two key components of your content strategy in place—core content strategy and messaging framework—you can tell your content people about them. Schedule some time with the key teams who work on content—from creating it to reviewing it to publishing it—to go over your content compass and how to use it.

The next chapter discusses developing a plan for measuring the effectiveness of your content strategy and resulting content efforts. Your content compass will help you decide what to measure.

Copyright © Brain Traffic, Inc. and Meghan Casey. All rights reserved by Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

Building Nonlinear Narratives for the Web

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |05 May 15 |

The Tiv people of Nigeria tell a story about the early world, when things were different. It’s about Aondo, the Sky, and how he lost his relationship with humans. When the earth was still new, Aondo was close enough that people could stretch out their hands and touch him. For many years, he and the humans led a quiet existence, and everyone went about their business.

One day, though, everything changed. Aondo sat in his place above the earth, watching people come and go. And then: out walked the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Aondo was fascinated by her, so he crept closer—too close—to watch her cook. As she was cooking, all of a sudden, she accidentally struck him in the nose.

Aondo was hurt and embarrassed, so he retreated. Farther and farther, until he was far above the earth. That is why, the Tiv people say, you cannot touch the sky.

Screenshot of Senongo Akpem’s Pixel Fable site, which is a collection of interactive African children’s stories.
Pixel Fable is a collection of interactive African children’s stories.

I’m Tiv, and I grew up with fables like this. In 2011, I started Pixel Fable as a way to tell these Nigerian stories digitally. That story about Aondo, “Why the Sky Is Far Away,” was the first one I designed and built. I used augmented reality to make the animations feel more interactive (along with some wonderfully spaghetti parallax JavaScript). But the story was still a single HTML page, told from one perspective, along a linear timeline. My translation from oral tale to web page was too direct—I hadn’t captured the multifaceted ways a story could exist online.

For instance, I could’ve built two versions, based on the same HTML, split into the woman’s point of view and Aondo’s. The competing narratives would frame readers as detectives, exploring and contrasting details to figure out the whole tale. Or, I could’ve incorporated data visualizations to reflect Aondo’s mood: by combining weather data like thunderstorms and temperature with a “Sky Mood Indicator,” I could’ve designed Aondo’s emotional state as a separate, visual facet.

Either route offers a way to twist or fragment the story, to add layers to the central narrative—to transform the original Tiv tale into a nonlinear, more nuanced, and linked experience, much closer to how the web itself works.

I want to do that for Pixel Fable, and I want to show you how to do it, too. That means venturing beyond our basic scrolly-telling. But first, let’s take a deeper look at what nonlinear stories do.

The role of nonlinear narratives on the web

The web operates in ways that can conflict with our traditional view of what a “story”—with a set start, middle, and end—is. Content is chunked, spread across various channels, devices, and formats. How do we define story lines, characters, interactions, and the role of the audience, given this information sprawl?

Cue nonlinear narratives. They’re collections of related content, organized around a story. They comprise video, text, links, audio, maps, images, and charts. Their chunked, compartmentalized nature gives them incredible flexibility, and makes them the perfect vehicle for how we explore online, jumping from one piece of information to the next.

Even though they don’t necessarily follow classic story structure, they still have many of the same parts: heroes, villains, locations, plots. It’s how these are developed and connected that may seem unexpected. One of nonlinear narratives’ superpowers is how they let you build on and refine them over time. For example, Vox’s cards and story streams help us aggregate information on complex news stories by posting relevant bits as they develop—whether it’s a Q&A on the human exploration of Mars that provides context in bite-sized form, or a stream of more info on a disease outbreak. These updates over time allow designers and creators to react to audience feedback.

Nonlinear narratives also offer audiences more agency. People want to learn, be surprised or intrigued, or entertained—and nonlinear stories prompt participation. Their fragmented structure needs an audience; without readers or viewers, the narrative cannot be experienced as a meaningful whole. In turn, this forces us to design stories that work with, not against, the fluid nature of the web (or what Frank Chimero calls the “edgelessness”).

Say you have an idea for one of your own. How do you link those disparate elements in a cohesive way? You can start by choosing two or three parts and combining them into a larger block, which then forms a core part of your digital story. This block can be displayed anywhere, anytime, as the story demands. For example, one Pixel Fable story in the works pairs a Google map with images and text to define key places (like the birthplace of a mad baddie) or give the factual history of a setting.

So those are the bones of a nonlinear narrative, but they come in a range of forms. Let’s take a closer look.

Types of nonlinear narratives

This format isn’t exclusive to the web. From Scheherazade’s ancient tales, which weave together multiple story lines, to the movie Memento, which mimics hypertext structures, we see plenty of effective nonlinear structures outside the internet. The same is true of Pixel Fable’s inspiration—but what started hundreds of years ago as interlocking oral histories takes new shape online.

As we examine these new forms, I encourage you to note the story’s structure, how elements are linked, and how they grab your attention. You might ask yourself:

  • What does the site or app ask the audience to do? Look at the UI and copy: is the experience active (prompting visitors to do specific online/offline actions) or passive (asking only for their attention)?
  • How do elements relate to one another? Do they reinforce the central story, or do they offer a counterpoint? What content types appear to be “natural fits” with one another? How are elements ordered—do the interactions between pieces of content create a sense of rhythm?
  • What’s the smallest collection of content you could see and still understand the narrative?

Extra-narratives

Extra-narratives combine one central story or topic with lots of tangents. National Geographic’s “The Serengeti Lion” features a central theme: life for the Vumbi pride. Videos, images, and commentary are branches that enrich that story, allowing you to see—and hear—life on the plains, offering things like aerial views from a drone or the sounds of the pride crunching on zebra bones.You can quickly hop from branch to branch via contextual links, scrolling, or an index.

Screenshot from National Geographic’s microsite, The Serengeti Lion.
The Serengeti Lion.

Disjointed narratives

While disjointed narratives revolve around a common theme, the connections are much looser. They’re typically a series of chaotic vignettes. Documentaries about large, complex places are a good fit for this kind of narrative, and “Lagos Wide & Close” does this excellently. With a variety of content blocks forming multiple perspectives, interviews, and locations, the site evokes the dusty, jumbled vastness of the Lagos metropolis, both up close and from afar. The city acts as the central character, and the different interviewees and locations become vignettes about a wild megacity.

Screenshot from the ‘Lagos Wide & Close’ documentary site.
Lagos Wide & Close.

Parallel narratives

As the name says, these show two stories happening at the same time, often with competing goals and conclusions—which makes parallel narratives ideal for contrasts.

Screenshot from UNICEF’s ‘Moon’ site.
Moon.

Moon, by UNICEF, follows the parallel lives of two kids. Each wakes in the morning and goes about their life: one ends up working in a factory for a living, while the other goes to school and becomes an astronaut. After you enter a short code to link the desktop site to your smartphone, your phone becomes a controller. When you rotate your phone, you flip the desktop screen 180° to watch that child’s life unfold.

It’s a clever use of tech, and the story itself makes a clear point about poverty, wealth, and educational inequality. (I know, there’s a particular irony in interacting with a story about poverty on two expensive digital devices.)

Database narratives

These are perhaps closest to the types of work designers and developers do every day. Database narratives use metadata, ARIA roles, and tagged content to auto-generate content. They’re most commonly deployed in data visualizations, where a story’s meaning often comes from the explanatory framing (via copy) and juxtapositions of data.

Subway-inequality map from the New Yorker Magazine.
Subway-inequality map from the New Yorker.

For instance, the subway-inequality map from the New Yorker builds an elegant, interactive narrative on wealth disparities, out of seemingly impartial census data. Visitors can click to see how income varies—sometimes dramatically—across subway lines and stations, and their neighborhoods. Database narratives are an effective way to convey a lot of data in a small space.

Micro-narratives

Sometimes we want to tell small, self-contained stories that, at most, may only share an interface with other micro-narratives. The focus is on the individual story—you can view micro-narratives on their own, with no loss of reference or concept. This structure is especially useful for user-generated content (like collections).

Screenshot from the Hi site.
Hi.

The site Hi does this wonderfully. It’s a platform for capturing and writing about different moments in real time. Visitors explore stories of photos and text—bookended with optional private comments from readers—on places all over the world. Each story is also added to a Google map; this extra layer of shared functionality gives the site a more cohesive feel, while still allowing each story to stand on its own.

Okay. We’ve covered the building blocks of your narrative toolkit. Now, let’s consider what really makes any of them truly meaningful: your audience. 

Audience participation and feedback loops

Digital narratives depend heavily on the audience experience. With so many potential entry points to your story, you must define the role you want the audience to play. One constant source of tension is who controls the story: you (as the author), or your audience? Whatever narrative form you’ve chosen, it’s something you’ve designed to achieve a specific goal. Your audience, however, probably won’t be content to sit in front of a screen and follow you around. Your visitors want the ability to choose their own paths—what they see, and the order in which they see it—into your content blocks. It’s up to you to design situations and narratives that take this into account.

Happily, we have a few strategies to help you do so—and balance the tension between author and audience.

Encourage exploration

This approach draws on nonlinear narratives’ strengths—meaningful tangents over time. Create a framework with plenty of content branches, leaving your visitors free to choose what most interests them. Discoverability is key here; your job is to offer enough guidance so visitors know what to do, and then get out of their way. Clearly mark possible routes with instructional labels, animations, and even color-coding. Provide menu structures that prioritize choice over simple information retrieval. For example, group similar narrative blocks in a large slideout menu, or pair questions and thumbnails, instead of relying only on text links. As you develop more content, add it to the framework as a new offshoot to explore.

Screenshot from the Guardian’s ‘Seven Deadly Digital Sins’ microsite.
Seven Deadly Digital Sins.

For instance, the Guardian’s “Seven Deadly Digital Sins” features an incredibly complex set of stories and dispersed content. The loose layout, which displays the sins in grouped thumbnails, and the slow, measured music encourage people to experience the narrative at their own pace.

Prompt the audience to play a part

Or, give your visitors even more agency. Build them into your story. With this approach, you take your framework and then set parameters for audience contributions.

Screenshot from the Flight Paths site.
Flight Paths.

In 2001, the Guardian reported a sad, gruesome story. The body of a man fell out of the sky and landed in the parking lot of a home-goods store in the UK. It turns out he was a Pakistani stowaway who hid himself in the wheel well of a Boeing 777 out of Bahrain. Long since frozen to death, he had fallen out of the wheel well as the plane landed.

Some years later, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph created Flight Paths, based on this and similar stowaway events. After devising a setup around the life of a fictional stowaway named Yacub, they invited about 70 readers to add images, video, and text to what they called a “networked novel.” They continue to develop the narrative, most recently with an API, which packages and publishes that nightmarish story in a variety of formats.

It is a great example of how an internet community created an extra-narrative in bits and pieces. Your audience may feel more invested in a story they helped construct. However, it’s important to be clear about what your participants can expect. You’ll want to model the types of content you’re most interested in receiving (include specific prompts, give sample copy, etc.) You’ll also want to work out questions of attribution, ownership, and payment beforehand. For Pullinger and Joseph’s experiment, some potential contributors rightly asked if Flight Plans would be “monetized” and, if so, what was their work worth? Make sure you supply those answers in your terms and conditions.

What is vs. what if

In all this, understand the difference between what is and what if. When I first started Pixel Fable, I wanted the audience to see my story, characters, and action through my eyes. I wanted to determine what IS. But the internet asks us to give the audience control over essential aspects of the story so they don’t lose interest and move elsewhere. Remixes are another way to keep visitors entertained. By designing narrative blocks for the audience to repurpose, we enable users to ask themselves “what if”—which results in new fan art and digital tangents we may never have dreamed of. It’s a powerful thing.

Screenshot from the Midsummer Night’s Dreaming site.
Midsummer Night’s Dreaming.

In Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a collaboration between Google and the Royal Shakespeare Company, the audience was invited to participate in a live performance. Using Google+ as the digital “stage,” people could post videos acting out their favorite scenes, costumes, observations, and fan art. They could imagine alternate scenarios and endings for Shakespeare’s famous characters. The project let anyone who loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream answer the question, “What if I were center stage?”

Creating narrative goals (friction points) and narrative threads

So, you’ve designed collections of content for a story, perhaps even split them across sites or platforms. You have specific events you want the audience to interact with, ones that deepen their experience. Although the entrances and exits to your story are largely up to the audience, we can help their journey by defining clear narrative goals, or points of friction: places your audience will be compelled to stop, explore, and interact with key narrative elements.

What does an effective narrative goal look like? Perhaps it’s a climactic event, fascinating images and videos, or even a puzzle to solve. What part of your experience will make people look further and fit some of the disparate pieces together? In the New Yorker’s inequality map, one primary goal is getting the audience to find their home station and discover the median income. Finding their neighborhood, or a place they recognize, is a task that forces the audience to slow down and view the data. The resulting visual contrast, in this case (relative) wealth and poverty, becomes the point of friction.

Narrative threads are the pathways between your goals; they move the audience from one content block to another. A thread can be a simple link between two HTML pages, or perhaps a more complicated geotagged location on a map. In “Lagos Wide & Close” and “The Serengeti Lion,” we see these threads displayed as UI. The forward and back buttons, the location-selector menus, and other interface elements act as connectors. On the Hi site, the categories beneath each captured moment allow visitors to jump from story to story.

A place for nonlinear narratives

The internet continues to grow. As we design larger and more diffuse experiences, we need to make sure they are connected and accessible to our audiences.

My experience with Pixel Fable has forced me to look beyond traditional story formats. I know the stories I want to tell. That’s where these ideas on nonlinear narrative come in. I can identify the content chunks I want, the points of friction and participation for the audience, and the way to use narrative threads to link them—all to create immersive, nuanced digital experiences.

Throughout this article, we’ve looked at specific concepts and structures that you can adapt for your work. Entertain, surprise, and above all, engage your audience—encourage them to ask what if, as they navigate the worlds you’ve spun.

Building Nonlinear Narratives for the Web

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |05 May 15 |

The Tiv people of Nigeria tell a story about the early world, when things were different. It’s about Aondo, the Sky, and how he lost his relationship with humans. When the earth was still new, Aondo was close enough that people could stretch out their hands and touch him. For many years, he and the humans led a quiet existence, and everyone went about their business.

One day, though, everything changed. Aondo sat in his place above the earth, watching people come and go. And then: out walked the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Aondo was fascinated by her, so he crept closer—too close—to watch her cook. As she was cooking, all of a sudden, she accidentally struck him in the nose.

Aondo was hurt and embarrassed, so he retreated. Farther and farther, until he was far above the earth. That is why, the Tiv people say, you cannot touch the sky.

Screenshot of Senongo Akpem’s Pixel Fable site, which is a collection of interactive African children’s stories.
Pixel Fable is a collection of interactive African children’s stories.

I’m Tiv, and I grew up with fables like this. In 2011, I started Pixel Fable as a way to tell these Nigerian stories digitally. That story about Aondo, “Why the Sky Is Far Away,” was the first one I designed and built. I used augmented reality to make the animations feel more interactive (along with some wonderfully spaghetti parallax JavaScript). But the story was still a single HTML page, told from one perspective, along a linear timeline. My translation from oral tale to web page was too direct—I hadn’t captured the multifaceted ways a story could exist online.

For instance, I could’ve built two versions, based on the same HTML, split into the woman’s point of view and Aondo’s. The competing narratives would frame readers as detectives, exploring and contrasting details to figure out the whole tale. Or, I could’ve incorporated data visualizations to reflect Aondo’s mood: by combining weather data like thunderstorms and temperature with a “Sky Mood Indicator,” I could’ve designed Aondo’s emotional state as a separate, visual facet.

Either route offers a way to twist or fragment the story, to add layers to the central narrative—to transform the original Tiv tale into a nonlinear, more nuanced, and linked experience, much closer to how the web itself works.

I want to do that for Pixel Fable, and I want to show you how to do it, too. That means venturing beyond our basic scrolly-telling. But first, let’s take a deeper look at what nonlinear stories do.

The role of nonlinear narratives on the web

The web operates in ways that can conflict with our traditional view of what a “story”—with a set start, middle, and end—is. Content is chunked, spread across various channels, devices, and formats. How do we define story lines, characters, interactions, and the role of the audience, given this information sprawl?

Cue nonlinear narratives. They’re collections of related content, organized around a story. They comprise video, text, links, audio, maps, images, and charts. Their chunked, compartmentalized nature gives them incredible flexibility, and makes them the perfect vehicle for how we explore online, jumping from one piece of information to the next.

Even though they don’t necessarily follow classic story structure, they still have many of the same parts: heroes, villains, locations, plots. It’s how these are developed and connected that may seem unexpected. One of nonlinear narratives’ superpowers is how they let you build on and refine them over time. For example, Vox’s cards and story streams help us aggregate information on complex news stories by posting relevant bits as they develop—whether it’s a Q&A on the human exploration of Mars that provides context in bite-sized form, or a stream of more info on a disease outbreak. These updates over time allow designers and creators to react to audience feedback.

Nonlinear narratives also offer audiences more agency. People want to learn, be surprised or intrigued, or entertained—and nonlinear stories prompt participation. Their fragmented structure needs an audience; without readers or viewers, the narrative cannot be experienced as a meaningful whole. In turn, this forces us to design stories that work with, not against, the fluid nature of the web (or what Frank Chimero calls the “edgelessness”).

Say you have an idea for one of your own. How do you link those disparate elements in a cohesive way? You can start by choosing two or three parts and combining them into a larger block, which then forms a core part of your digital story. This block can be displayed anywhere, anytime, as the story demands. For example, one Pixel Fable story in the works pairs a Google map with images and text to define key places (like the birthplace of a mad baddie) or give the factual history of a setting.

So those are the bones of a nonlinear narrative, but they come in a range of forms. Let’s take a closer look.

Types of nonlinear narratives

This format isn’t exclusive to the web. From Scheherazade’s ancient tales, which weave together multiple story lines, to the movie Memento, which mimics hypertext structures, we see plenty of effective nonlinear structures outside the internet. The same is true of Pixel Fable’s inspiration—but what started hundreds of years ago as interlocking oral histories takes new shape online.

As we examine these new forms, I encourage you to note the story’s structure, how elements are linked, and how they grab your attention. You might ask yourself:

  • What does the site or app ask the audience to do? Look at the UI and copy: is the experience active (prompting visitors to do specific online/offline actions) or passive (asking only for their attention)?
  • How do elements relate to one another? Do they reinforce the central story, or do they offer a counterpoint? What content types appear to be “natural fits” with one another? How are elements ordered—do the interactions between pieces of content create a sense of rhythm?
  • What’s the smallest collection of content you could see and still understand the narrative?

Extra-narratives

Extra-narratives combine one central story or topic with lots of tangents. National Geographic’s “The Serengeti Lion” features a central theme: life for the Vumbi pride. Videos, images, and commentary are branches that enrich that story, allowing you to see—and hear—life on the plains, offering things like aerial views from a drone or the sounds of the pride crunching on zebra bones.You can quickly hop from branch to branch via contextual links, scrolling, or an index.

Screenshot from National Geographic’s microsite, The Serengeti Lion.
The Serengeti Lion.

Disjointed narratives

While disjointed narratives revolve around a common theme, the connections are much looser. They’re typically a series of chaotic vignettes. Documentaries about large, complex places are a good fit for this kind of narrative, and “Lagos Wide & Close” does this excellently. With a variety of content blocks forming multiple perspectives, interviews, and locations, the site evokes the dusty, jumbled vastness of the Lagos metropolis, both up close and from afar. The city acts as the central character, and the different interviewees and locations become vignettes about a wild megacity.

Screenshot from the ‘Lagos Wide & Close’ documentary site.
Lagos Wide & Close.

Parallel narratives

As the name says, these show two stories happening at the same time, often with competing goals and conclusions—which makes parallel narratives ideal for contrasts.

Screenshot from UNICEF’s ‘Moon’ site.
Moon.

Moon, by UNICEF, follows the parallel lives of two kids. Each wakes in the morning and goes about their life: one ends up working in a factory for a living, while the other goes to school and becomes an astronaut. After you enter a short code to link the desktop site to your smartphone, your phone becomes a controller. When you rotate your phone, you flip the desktop screen 180° to watch that child’s life unfold.

It’s a clever use of tech, and the story itself makes a clear point about poverty, wealth, and educational inequality. (I know, there’s a particular irony in interacting with a story about poverty on two expensive digital devices.)

Database narratives

These are perhaps closest to the types of work designers and developers do every day. Database narratives use metadata, ARIA roles, and tagged content to auto-generate content. They’re most commonly deployed in data visualizations, where a story’s meaning often comes from the explanatory framing (via copy) and juxtapositions of data.

Subway-inequality map from the New Yorker Magazine.
Subway-inequality map from the New Yorker.

For instance, the subway-inequality map from the New Yorker builds an elegant, interactive narrative on wealth disparities, out of seemingly impartial census data. Visitors can click to see how income varies—sometimes dramatically—across subway lines and stations, and their neighborhoods. Database narratives are an effective way to convey a lot of data in a small space.

Micro-narratives

Sometimes we want to tell small, self-contained stories that, at most, may only share an interface with other micro-narratives. The focus is on the individual story—you can view micro-narratives on their own, with no loss of reference or concept. This structure is especially useful for user-generated content (like collections).

Screenshot from the Hi site.
Hi.

The site Hi does this wonderfully. It’s a platform for capturing and writing about different moments in real time. Visitors explore stories of photos and text—bookended with optional private comments from readers—on places all over the world. Each story is also added to a Google map; this extra layer of shared functionality gives the site a more cohesive feel, while still allowing each story to stand on its own.

Okay. We’ve covered the building blocks of your narrative toolkit. Now, let’s consider what really makes any of them truly meaningful: your audience. 

Audience participation and feedback loops

Digital narratives depend heavily on the audience experience. With so many potential entry points to your story, you must define the role you want the audience to play. One constant source of tension is who controls the story: you (as the author), or your audience? Whatever narrative form you’ve chosen, it’s something you’ve designed to achieve a specific goal. Your audience, however, probably won’t be content to sit in front of a screen and follow you around. Your visitors want the ability to choose their own paths—what they see, and the order in which they see it—into your content blocks. It’s up to you to design situations and narratives that take this into account.

Happily, we have a few strategies to help you do so—and balance the tension between author and audience.

Encourage exploration

This approach draws on nonlinear narratives’ strengths—meaningful tangents over time. Create a framework with plenty of content branches, leaving your visitors free to choose what most interests them. Discoverability is key here; your job is to offer enough guidance so visitors know what to do, and then get out of their way. Clearly mark possible routes with instructional labels, animations, and even color-coding. Provide menu structures that prioritize choice over simple information retrieval. For example, group similar narrative blocks in a large slideout menu, or pair questions and thumbnails, instead of relying only on text links. As you develop more content, add it to the framework as a new offshoot to explore.

Screenshot from the Guardian’s ‘Seven Deadly Digital Sins’ microsite.
Seven Deadly Digital Sins.

For instance, the Guardian’s “Seven Deadly Digital Sins” features an incredibly complex set of stories and dispersed content. The loose layout, which displays the sins in grouped thumbnails, and the slow, measured music encourage people to experience the narrative at their own pace.

Prompt the audience to play a part

Or, give your visitors even more agency. Build them into your story. With this approach, you take your framework and then set parameters for audience contributions.

Screenshot from the Flight Paths site.
Flight Paths.

In 2001, the Guardian reported a sad, gruesome story. The body of a man fell out of the sky and landed in the parking lot of a home-goods store in the UK. It turns out he was a Pakistani stowaway who hid himself in the wheel well of a Boeing 777 out of Bahrain. Long since frozen to death, he had fallen out of the wheel well as the plane landed.

Some years later, Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph created Flight Paths, based on this and similar stowaway events. After devising a setup around the life of a fictional stowaway named Yacub, they invited about 70 readers to add images, video, and text to what they called a “networked novel.” They continue to develop the narrative, most recently with an API, which packages and publishes that nightmarish story in a variety of formats.

It is a great example of how an internet community created an extra-narrative in bits and pieces. Your audience may feel more invested in a story they helped construct. However, it’s important to be clear about what your participants can expect. You’ll want to model the types of content you’re most interested in receiving (include specific prompts, give sample copy, etc.) You’ll also want to work out questions of attribution, ownership, and payment beforehand. For Pullinger and Joseph’s experiment, some potential contributors rightly asked if Flight Plans would be “monetized” and, if so, what was their work worth? Make sure you supply those answers in your terms and conditions.

What is vs. what if

In all this, understand the difference between what is and what if. When I first started Pixel Fable, I wanted the audience to see my story, characters, and action through my eyes. I wanted to determine what IS. But the internet asks us to give the audience control over essential aspects of the story so they don’t lose interest and move elsewhere. Remixes are another way to keep visitors entertained. By designing narrative blocks for the audience to repurpose, we enable users to ask themselves “what if”—which results in new fan art and digital tangents we may never have dreamed of. It’s a powerful thing.

Screenshot from the Midsummer Night’s Dreaming site.
Midsummer Night’s Dreaming.

In Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, a collaboration between Google and the Royal Shakespeare Company, the audience was invited to participate in a live performance. Using Google+ as the digital “stage,” people could post videos acting out their favorite scenes, costumes, observations, and fan art. They could imagine alternate scenarios and endings for Shakespeare’s famous characters. The project let anyone who loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream answer the question, “What if I were center stage?”

Creating narrative goals (friction points) and narrative threads

So, you’ve designed collections of content for a story, perhaps even split them across sites or platforms. You have specific events you want the audience to interact with, ones that deepen their experience. Although the entrances and exits to your story are largely up to the audience, we can help their journey by defining clear narrative goals, or points of friction: places your audience will be compelled to stop, explore, and interact with key narrative elements.

What does an effective narrative goal look like? Perhaps it’s a climactic event, fascinating images and videos, or even a puzzle to solve. What part of your experience will make people look further and fit some of the disparate pieces together? In the New Yorker’s inequality map, one primary goal is getting the audience to find their home station and discover the median income. Finding their neighborhood, or a place they recognize, is a task that forces the audience to slow down and view the data. The resulting visual contrast, in this case (relative) wealth and poverty, becomes the point of friction.

Narrative threads are the pathways between your goals; they move the audience from one content block to another. A thread can be a simple link between two HTML pages, or perhaps a more complicated geotagged location on a map. In “Lagos Wide & Close” and “The Serengeti Lion,” we see these threads displayed as UI. The forward and back buttons, the location-selector menus, and other interface elements act as connectors. On the Hi site, the categories beneath each captured moment allow visitors to jump from story to story.

A place for nonlinear narratives

The internet continues to grow. As we design larger and more diffuse experiences, we need to make sure they are connected and accessible to our audiences.

My experience with Pixel Fable has forced me to look beyond traditional story formats. I know the stories I want to tell. That’s where these ideas on nonlinear narrative come in. I can identify the content chunks I want, the points of friction and participation for the audience, and the way to use narrative threads to link them—all to create immersive, nuanced digital experiences.

Throughout this article, we’ve looked at specific concepts and structures that you can adapt for your work. Entertain, surprise, and above all, engage your audience—encourage them to ask what if, as they navigate the worlds you’ve spun.

Do Androids Dream in Free Verse?

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |05 May 15 |

From ATMs to Siri to the button text in an application user interface, we “talk” to our tech—and our tech talks back. Often this exchange is purely transactional: we input commands; the machine complies. Newer predictive technologies like personal assistant apps have renegotiated this relationship, preferring to relate to us as peers, even friends. Scarlett Johansson’s flirtatious operating system in Her brought this idea to a lifelike apex, simulating love, even orgasm—all digitally mediated.

As technology becomes more pervasive and gains access to greater amounts of our personal data, how can we design successful human-machine conversations? Should user interface text approximate the lilt, flow, and syntax of human speech? Or does humanizing UI conversations create a false intimacy that distances even as it attempts to foster familiarity?

The answer, of course, is that it depends. Most of us have encountered voice-automated customer service systems. Some of them, in an effort to make their robot customer reps less droid-like, feature voices that try to approximate human diction. A calm, often female voice pauses, suggests brightly, bridges her prompts with almost-ums. Her attempts at realness further underscore the fact that she is fake, blocking you from an actual human encounter.

A computer that cheerfully calls you by your first name can either delight you or creep you out, depending on the circumstances. Just as robots enter the uncanny valley when they seem too human, a user interface that’s too familiar can push people away. The copy needs to strike the right balance.

Consistency within diversity

Until recently, I was a UX writer and content strategist at Google. Specifically, I worked on Google Apps: Gmail, Docs, Drive—all of the productivity tools that help people work and communicate. Writing for a large, entrenched company poses particular challenges because the sheer array of products and experiences offered can make it difficult to achieve consistency in tone and style.

Our audience included people who use Google tools at work. People at work are obviously a very different market from, say, a teenager absentmindedly browsing a consumer app like YouTube for video clips (though that isn’t to say that YouTube browsing doesn’t happen under the guise of work). But work tools should be as intuitive and (dare I say) delightful as the best consumer apps. They should help you be more productive and creative. You shouldn’t have to spend brain power figuring out how to deploy them.

Consider, too, the many modes of work. Some people are desk-bound, whereas others are constantly mobile. Some companies have huge IT departments that can provide support; at others, workers have to learn to use products on their own, often without much technical background. This can be overwhelming. Most workers want to spend time getting stuff done, not learning to use Google Apps. So the experience, and thus the text, must serve the overall usability and ease of the product.

There are ground rules that can guide the writing for all of these interfaces, though they exist in very different contexts and geographies. The YouTube-browsing teen can be in Osaka or Indianapolis. Modifying Chrome settings should be easy and seamless, whether in Farsi, Tagalog, or Italian.

While we can strive for an overarching level of consistency defined by some core principles—be friendly, be helpful, don’t use jargon or technical language—each product carries slightly different conventions, expectations, and contexts. Yet they all have to be reconciled within a domain that is recognizably Google, in over 50 languages. Keeping text brief and scannable, and including only the most essential words, will smooth a user’s journey.

“OK Google, search for Thai restaurants.”

One particular UI conversation that Google may continue to fine-tune is how it initiates a voice search on a smartphone. “OK Google” is the voice prompt Google suggests for striking up interactions on mobile devices. This phrasing suggests that our relationship with both our phone and Google is informal and familiar, even chatty.

If you ever actually “OK Google” your smartphone or wearable device, though, you’ll probably find that doing so feels forced and cheesy at best. I’d personally rather just say “Call Trevor” or “Find nearby Thai restaurants” and stick to semantic, if utilitarian, commands.

“OK Google” is awkward because it insists that we’re chums with the search behemoth. Google is less a company in this recasting than a helpful friend. Yet this same Google also upholds “Focus on the user” as one of its founding pillars. “User” implies both a certain ascetic distance and an unpleasantly parasitic relationship. How can I simultaneously be buddies with and just a “user” to the same company?

Language reveals social landscapes and highlights power struggles, and can shed light on intimacy or distance. When writing for an interface, the smallest words reveal relationship dynamics and cue motivations, even emotions. The microtext on, say, a button can alter the tenor of the interface conversation. Whether you label a button “Got it” or “Continue” signals more than just information conveyance. “Got it” connotes a certain confidence and informality, and assumes agency on behalf of users. “Got it” asks them to own their comprehension and acceptance of whatever information is presented before moving along, rather than merely assenting to “Continue.”

Another common copy example: “enable” versus “turn on.” “Enable” feels unnecessarily technical and implies a subtle hierarchy between the enabler and enabled. The softer “turn on,” by contrast, could indicate the flow of water from a faucet, or—depending on where the mind goes—a sexy precursor to further action. When aiming for “friendly,” where is the line between cloying and mechanical?

Brevity with soul

Being conscious of words doesn’t mean that one needs to make UI language purely functional. Balancing well-placed, clever copy with short, concise text can add delight and magic to an experience. Note Chrome’s “Aw, snap” for a page-load error, or the sly personality that suffuses the airfare purchase flow on Virgin America’s site:


Screenshot of Virgin America’s homepage.

Virgin’s brand voice is flirtatious, fun, and irreverent. Their approach resurrects an earlier age when air travel promised a thrilling luxury rather than a cramped seat, broken pretzels, and the purgatory of airport security. They don’t take themselves too seriously and their approach injects brassy humor into a task as lackluster as flight booking.


Screenshot of a modal dialog from the Virgin America site.

That tone comes through in small ways, such as this playful modal dialog about additional upgrade charges. The button is labeled not with the expected “Okay,” but with “I understand, let’s do this.”


Screenshot from the Virgin America site showing the UI text—‘Hey there’—that pops up after a user enters their first name.

When a user enters her name while booking a flight, the form field greets her with a sly bit of text: “Hey there.” Subtle winks like this can humanize an interface without being intrusive, yet aren’t so colloquial that they’re alienating.

Text should inform readers and help them along—and then it should get out of the way. A well-written UI recedes into the background, imbuing—but never overpowering—the user experience. There’s poetry in writing for the web, but it isn’t the luxuriant run-ons of Whitman. Rather, it’s the economy of poet Masaoka Shiki’s haiku—so spare it’s almost missed.

Friendly but functional

The popularity of “digital detoxes” hints at a growing frustration with our reliance on tech interactions. The future may well contain more unobtrusive and silently helpful technologies, rather than intimate human-machine relationships à la Her.

As such, UX writers and designers might consider how we can keep conversations friendly but functional. We can provide signposts without the baggage of a relationship. Sue Factor, a former colleague and Google’s first dedicated UX writer, taught me that short text is often the best text. Although I earn a living writing for the web, I don’t flatter myself that anyone opens an app to carefully read and savor my language. We’ve all got better things to do. As Shiki writes:

My life —
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.

Do Androids Dream in Free Verse?

Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart |05 May 15 |

From ATMs to Siri to the button text in an application user interface, we “talk” to our tech—and our tech talks back. Often this exchange is purely transactional: we input commands; the machine complies. Newer predictive technologies like personal assistant apps have renegotiated this relationship, preferring to relate to us as peers, even friends. Scarlett Johansson’s flirtatious operating system in Her brought this idea to a lifelike apex, simulating love, even orgasm—all digitally mediated.

As technology becomes more pervasive and gains access to greater amounts of our personal data, how can we design successful human-machine conversations? Should user interface text approximate the lilt, flow, and syntax of human speech? Or does humanizing UI conversations create a false intimacy that distances even as it attempts to foster familiarity?

The answer, of course, is that it depends. Most of us have encountered voice-automated customer service systems. Some of them, in an effort to make their robot customer reps less droid-like, feature voices that try to approximate human diction. A calm, often female voice pauses, suggests brightly, bridges her prompts with almost-ums. Her attempts at realness further underscore the fact that she is fake, blocking you from an actual human encounter.

A computer that cheerfully calls you by your first name can either delight you or creep you out, depending on the circumstances. Just as robots enter the uncanny valley when they seem too human, a user interface that’s too familiar can push people away. The copy needs to strike the right balance.

Consistency within diversity

Until recently, I was a UX writer and content strategist at Google. Specifically, I worked on Google Apps: Gmail, Docs, Drive—all of the productivity tools that help people work and communicate. Writing for a large, entrenched company poses particular challenges because the sheer array of products and experiences offered can make it difficult to achieve consistency in tone and style.

Our audience included people who use Google tools at work. People at work are obviously a very different market from, say, a teenager absentmindedly browsing a consumer app like YouTube for video clips (though that isn’t to say that YouTube browsing doesn’t happen under the guise of work). But work tools should be as intuitive and (dare I say) delightful as the best consumer apps. They should help you be more productive and creative. You shouldn’t have to spend brain power figuring out how to deploy them.

Consider, too, the many modes of work. Some people are desk-bound, whereas others are constantly mobile. Some companies have huge IT departments that can provide support; at others, workers have to learn to use products on their own, often without much technical background. This can be overwhelming. Most workers want to spend time getting stuff done, not learning to use Google Apps. So the experience, and thus the text, must serve the overall usability and ease of the product.

There are ground rules that can guide the writing for all of these interfaces, though they exist in very different contexts and geographies. The YouTube-browsing teen can be in Osaka or Indianapolis. Modifying Chrome settings should be easy and seamless, whether in Farsi, Tagalog, or Italian.

While we can strive for an overarching level of consistency defined by some core principles—be friendly, be helpful, don’t use jargon or technical language—each product carries slightly different conventions, expectations, and contexts. Yet they all have to be reconciled within a domain that is recognizably Google, in over 50 languages. Keeping text brief and scannable, and including only the most essential words, will smooth a user’s journey.

“OK Google, search for Thai restaurants.”

One particular UI conversation that Google may continue to fine-tune is how it initiates a voice search on a smartphone. “OK Google” is the voice prompt Google suggests for striking up interactions on mobile devices. This phrasing suggests that our relationship with both our phone and Google is informal and familiar, even chatty.

If you ever actually “OK Google” your smartphone or wearable device, though, you’ll probably find that doing so feels forced and cheesy at best. I’d personally rather just say “Call Trevor” or “Find nearby Thai restaurants” and stick to semantic, if utilitarian, commands.

“OK Google” is awkward because it insists that we’re chums with the search behemoth. Google is less a company in this recasting than a helpful friend. Yet this same Google also upholds “Focus on the user” as one of its founding pillars. “User” implies both a certain ascetic distance and an unpleasantly parasitic relationship. How can I simultaneously be buddies with and just a “user” to the same company?

Language reveals social landscapes and highlights power struggles, and can shed light on intimacy or distance. When writing for an interface, the smallest words reveal relationship dynamics and cue motivations, even emotions. The microtext on, say, a button can alter the tenor of the interface conversation. Whether you label a button “Got it” or “Continue” signals more than just information conveyance. “Got it” connotes a certain confidence and informality, and assumes agency on behalf of users. “Got it” asks them to own their comprehension and acceptance of whatever information is presented before moving along, rather than merely assenting to “Continue.”

Another common copy example: “enable” versus “turn on.” “Enable” feels unnecessarily technical and implies a subtle hierarchy between the enabler and enabled. The softer “turn on,” by contrast, could indicate the flow of water from a faucet, or—depending on where the mind goes—a sexy precursor to further action. When aiming for “friendly,” where is the line between cloying and mechanical?

Brevity with soul

Being conscious of words doesn’t mean that one needs to make UI language purely functional. Balancing well-placed, clever copy with short, concise text can add delight and magic to an experience. Note Chrome’s “Aw, snap” for a page-load error, or the sly personality that suffuses the airfare purchase flow on Virgin America’s site:


Screenshot of Virgin America’s homepage.

Virgin’s brand voice is flirtatious, fun, and irreverent. Their approach resurrects an earlier age when air travel promised a thrilling luxury rather than a cramped seat, broken pretzels, and the purgatory of airport security. They don’t take themselves too seriously and their approach injects brassy humor into a task as lackluster as flight booking.


Screenshot of a modal dialog from the Virgin America site.

That tone comes through in small ways, such as this playful modal dialog about additional upgrade charges. The button is labeled not with the expected “Okay,” but with “I understand, let’s do this.”


Screenshot from the Virgin America site showing the UI text—‘Hey there’—that pops up after a user enters their first name.

When a user enters her name while booking a flight, the form field greets her with a sly bit of text: “Hey there.” Subtle winks like this can humanize an interface without being intrusive, yet aren’t so colloquial that they’re alienating.

Text should inform readers and help them along—and then it should get out of the way. A well-written UI recedes into the background, imbuing—but never overpowering—the user experience. There’s poetry in writing for the web, but it isn’t the luxuriant run-ons of Whitman. Rather, it’s the economy of poet Masaoka Shiki’s haiku—so spare it’s almost missed.

Friendly but functional

The popularity of “digital detoxes” hints at a growing frustration with our reliance on tech interactions. The future may well contain more unobtrusive and silently helpful technologies, rather than intimate human-machine relationships à la Her.

As such, UX writers and designers might consider how we can keep conversations friendly but functional. We can provide signposts without the baggage of a relationship. Sue Factor, a former colleague and Google’s first dedicated UX writer, taught me that short text is often the best text. Although I earn a living writing for the web, I don’t flatter myself that anyone opens an app to carefully read and savor my language. We’ve all got better things to do. As Shiki writes:

My life —
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.