The dream brief

So, how can you craft a brief that will attract the good guys and create a solid foundation for success? There are 3 basic subjects that you need to think about:

1. Aims
2. Constraints
3. Response required

Any brief should cover these things as simply as possible. If you want a sort of mantra to repeat to yourself about writing a brief, “aims, constraints, response,” would be it. 

So, let’s flesh that out a bit. Here’s a pretty-much-complete-as-I-can-make-it list of the components of each subject. The result would be our dream brief. (Here at Rechord, anyway. Other agencies are also available.) 

Aims of the brief and the project

It’s quite confusing to us that so few web briefs mention the aims of the project, or mention them only in the vaguest terms. This is the most important part of the whole brief. Without it, we’re lost. 

All you need to do is tell us in a few sentences what success would look like for this project. How will you measure it? Do you need something cool to impress your boss (go on, admit it) or will you be judged by the number of people taking action through the site or application? There are lots of other success factors that we have come across, by the way. Not all of them are obvious. 
We did have one memorable project where we gradually realised that success depended on one director’s husband saying that he liked the design. If only we’d known that, we’d have saved a lot of fuss.

So, think carefully about your aims and tell us what they are.

Here are some related things we need to know about:

Why are you sending out this brief?

This may be better explained in a covering email rather than the brief itself, but it’s worth discussing here. Why does this brief exist? Is it so you can make an informed choice of web agency? (If so, how many agencies are participating?) Do you need to verify your budget? Have you already chosen your web agency and you need some proposals in order to sell the idea internally? There are different reasons for web briefs and sometimes the process of getting from initial idea to pressing the ‘go’ button is uncertain. Explain what you’re expecting.

Target audience

There’s one way to make your web agency’s heart sink, and that is to say “our target audience is everybody”. Design projects will generally collapse in ruins if they have the broadest audience possible. (If you don’t believe me, observe the head-shaking that goes on over the design of pretty much any Olympic mascot.)

A project that wants to please everybody will likely be so bland as to be virtually invisible. So, the closer you can get to narrowing down your target audience, the better.

How will people find out about the site / application?

This is the most often neglected aspect of briefs we have seen. There is an unspoken assumption that websites will generate traffic just by existing. Your web project is not a baseball pitch in a corn field with ghosts of famous dead players. You cannot “build it and they will come”. (Apologies to the director of Field of Dreams.) 

Unless some sort of attention is paid to functionality which draws in more traffic, or there is a promotion plan, your website’s visitors might just be limited to people in your organisation (which might be alright, if that’s your aim).

If you’re expecting your web agency to be responsible for generating traffic to the website by promotion or design, please make that explicit.

Wish list of features and the reason for each one…

…preferably in order of priority. This is the most common component of any brief, and it’s honestly ok to have a wish list rather than a full specification.

However, we often receive wishlists like this: “The website must include: video, podcasts, blogs, integration with social networking websites, a Twitter application and a shop.”

A lot of these features could mean virtually anything, and could range in cost by tens of thousands of pounds, if not hundreds. (Your neighbour’s Ebay store is a shop, but so is One cost nothing to set up and took about half an hour, the other cost several million pounds and an entire decade. Just writing the word shop will not create a reliable guide to cost.)

We understand how it is with web projects; often it’s difficult to know exactly how you want each feature to work at the outset. That’s where we love to help out, and we have a process in place to help you discover that as the project moves along. BUT without knowing why each feature is needed, we’re at a loss to understand how big the project is and therefore how much risk we would be taking on.

How will your staff use the website?

This overlaps with the wish list of features to a certain extent. However, I’m including it because there’s one crucial aspect of web applications that often gets left out of briefs, which is site administration. In the rush to focus on visitor experience, many organisations forget to think about themselves and their internal needs. For example: how will you edit and maintain the website or application? What data will you need to get from it? Will you need moderation? How will you interact with your visitors? These sorts of questions can add time and cost to the project, and your web agency needs to know about them.

What’s the background to the project; why has it been deemed necessary?

We sometimes discover during the process of development that a web brief has been written in order to solve some kind of organisational problem which should have been addressed in a different way. For example, a project to build an online discussion area could instead be a cheaper and less risky series of face-to-face meetings with distributed notes. 

Knowing why you think a web application is needed will help us to understand whether other, more cost effective things could be substituted.

What is the lifetime of your web project?

This allows us to plan for either: 

  • maintenance and ongoing development if the project is expected to be around a long time; 
  • or if it’s a transient thing, a neat close-down which sends users away feeling happy and fulfilled.

If you plan to close down the project, but reuse the code later on, we need to know about that too. 



Ah yes. The budget. 

We understand the fear of laying your cards on the table. We’ll suck up all the budget no matter what happens, right? 

Do I need to prove that we’re not all money-grubbing monsters who like to waste supporters’ donations on cigars and caviar?

That might be get a little too personal for my liking, so let me talk you through what happens when no budget is supplied for a web brief:

Scenario A: The brief is vague, and we don’t know it yet, but your budget is lower than it should be for the expected project. You may get a disturbingly wide range of costs back from web agencies, each for vastly different functionality. It’s impossible to make a reliable decision based on such different responses.

Scenario B: The brief has a detailed specification, and your budget is lower than it should be. In this scenario, unsurprisingly, the responses you get back will be way over your budget and you have to close the project due to lack of feasibility. This is the fastest route to annoying your potential suppliers, who will collectively have wasted thousands of pounds creating a proposal for something which was never possible.

Scenario C: The brief is either vague or detailed, and the budget is higher than it should be.  In ten years of running a web agency, I have never seen this happen.

To avoid the fear over making the wrong decision, and prevent frustrating your suppliers, you do need to supply a budget. And if there does happen to be a money-grubbing monster in among your chosen web agencies, they’ll be easy to spot by a discrepancy in features or a hesitation over references. 

Any deadlines (and why)

Of course, we need to know about any deadlines you have, but it does help to know why those dates in particular have been chosen. Do you have a launch party booked? Are you expecting thousands of visitors from a particular ad campaign or TV spot? Do you have budget to spend in a fixed timeframe?

Any applicable legislation

In the UK, this usually means the Data Protection Act and the Disability Discrimination Act, but there may be others which apply to your situation. Other countries have their own equivalents which have different guidelines. If you can, take legal advice and tell us how you would like us to fulfil the requirements. We are able to make suggestions, but we are not permitted to give legal advice. 

I know, I know; nobody likes talking to lawyers, but it’s better than being fined. Sorry; I wish I had better news for you.

Accessibility requirements

What kind of devices and software do you expect people will use to browse the website or use your application? Consider mobile phones, netbooks, kiosks, gaming devices, set-top-boxes, screen reader software and different input devices such as speech recognition. Which of these things are your target audience likely to be using? Don’t go mad here, folks. Some accessibility requirements can be very expensive and can even have a negative impact on other parts of the project. However, if you’re in the UK, we do suggest that you read PAS78 and seriously consider commissioning your web agency to carry out disability testing on real people. 


While many people agonise about which browsers to optimise their work for, there is one simple thing you need to do to find out. Have a look at the web statistics for your existing website and list the browsers, screen resolutions and operating systems which are used by 95% of your browsing audience. 
Now, wasn’t that easy? 

If you don’t have an existing website, you might need to bribe the webmaster of a website or application which is similar to the one that you’re thinking about building (in an ethical way of course). Free lunches work particularly well here. So I’ve heard. 

Design requirements

Do you have an in-house design team supplying designs that we’ll use to deliver the project, or can we take on the design work? Do we need to build in rebranding with this work? Are there any specific design constraints we’ll need to work with? For example, if your funders are all clamouring for you to feature a bunch of random logos on every page of your site, we’ll sigh heavily and say yes, but that’s not an easy design problem to solve. Likewise, if there are any fonts, colours or graphic styles that you’re wedded to, letting us know about those will help a lot. What works best here is a link to a page, or an attached document, containing your brand guidelines. 

Technical considerations

Are there any technologies that you think would cause outbreaks of measles amongst your users or organisation? Are you a Microsoft or a Linux kind of place? Can your users cope with Flash? Do you need us to arrange hosting for your website, or is that all sorted already? (If so, we need to know the specification for your hosting, specifically which platform it is, what programming languages it supports and whether we’re allowed total control over it.) What security measures need to be in place? Is the website likely to be hacked or spammed? And finally, what address will the web application have, and is the domain name already registered? If this paragraph made no sense at all, then we’re happy to guide you or help you to find out.

How many people will be making final decisions about features and design and what are their job titles?

I’ve never actually seen this mentioned in a brief, but I would love to. 
Perhaps you’re wondering if I’m some kind of stalker. Let me explain…  

One factor which has a massive effect on the likelihood of a project’s success is the number of people who must agree when it is finished. (Imagine how differently things might have gone if Genesis 1 read “In the beginning a committee was formed to decide on plans for the heavens and the earth.” The rest of it might gloss over how it took 2 billion years to… oh, um, hang on a minute…)

Beginning with two people, for every person who is added to the decision-making process, the project timescale will expand exponentially.

Third parties involved

It’s a similar tale with third parties. If your project’s success depends on other firms, an API we haven’t used before, or even your IT department, we also need to know about that. We are always willing to work with other firms delivering different parts of the project, or whose technology is untested, but we can’t guarantee that they’ll deliver as reliably as we expect them to. So there are inherent risks there that we’ll need to take account of when considering whether the project will be a success.

Technical skills of staff involved

We want to build a project that is easy for you to maintain. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance that need against tight budgets. If we know what the skills and experience are of the people who will be updating the website from its construction to its end, that helps us a lot with making recommendations to you about what sort of platform it should be built in, and how much attention we should pay to the expensive process of making complex administration systems easy to use. It will also guide our recommendations on the amount of time we should budget for training. 

Response required

Timetable for response

When do you need to hear from us by, in order to get things moving in time to hit your deadline?

Do give web agencies a reasonable amount of time to respond. Two weeks is a minimum, unless you’re really up against it and don’t mind receiving a limited response.

In addition, remember to give yourself a reasonable amount of time to make a decision. In our experience, most organisations overestimate their ability to choose the right web agency by about 10 working days. So, allow plenty of wiggle room in your timeline for deliberating about web agencies. Having said that, it’s poorly-written briefs that create headaches for decision makers as they struggle to compare apples and oranges. A good brief will make your choice easier.

What kind of response is expected and what should it contain?

Be clear and direct about what you want agencies to tell you. We’re happy to provide descriptions, links and screenshots of relevant portfolio projects, references, ideas, recommendations, timescales, demos, interviews and presentations. What we will not do is provide speculative design work (not even wireframes). Spec work devalues design, and provides you with poor value for money in the long run as agencies’ costs rise to accommodate the risks involved. We’d rather eat an iPhone.

Do you expect your chosen web agency to contribute ideas / suggestions to the project?

Here’s a hint: our most successful projects have, on the whole, been a 50/50 collaboration between us and our clients, especially when it comes to design concepts and functionality.

We have 11 years of experience of what works on the web, and what to avoid. We’re champing at the bit to share it with you. We want to be able to recommend things that will delight your users. Give us that chance and see how it works. You don’t have to accept all our ideas, but you may be excited by what we suggest.

If you must, you can tell us exactly what we should build and how, but we might not be quite as excited about working with you. Not to mention that the project might lose out on something extra special.

So, bearing that in mind, tell us how much freedom we have in interpreting or questioning the brief, and whether we’ll have the chance to contribute our own suggestions.

There it is. I know, it’s a lot of stuff to compile. If it makes you feel any better, it’s probably half the work that your agency will do in responding thoughtfully to your brief.

If you’re still quaking a bit, consider hiring a consultant to help you construct a solid brief. This will give you somebody else to blame if it all goes wrong (ok, I’m joking about that). Seriously, doing so will give you more confidence in what you send out, and save hours or even days of head-scratching.

Comments? Questions? Flames? Cries for help? Email them all to, except flames, which you can send to

Rachel Collinson is Managing Director of Rechord, an online creative agency specialising in non-profit and campaigning clients.


Facebook advertising

When we took over the Facebook Fan page for Weekly World News , they had 3,244 fans. 4 days later, we had 40,310 fans– 10 times larger. We’re going explain exactly how we did it in this exclusive article for In the coming days, we’ll demonstrate how fans translate into trackable revenue, how to perform analytics, integrating social widgets (Open Graph Protocol) with your site, and other aspects of effective Facebook marketing. But today we’re looking only at growing your fan base quickly.

The Background

A few weeks ago, Facebook made some massive changes– more of your personal data as publicly available, you could like something from a website (as opposed to only from Facebook), community pages launched to challenge Wikipedia, and so forth. But the biggest change in our mind was that “become a fan ” was changed to just “like”. The user doesn’t know what they’re liking– the cute saying, the underlying page, the website they’re on, or their friend’s remark.

It used to be that you could tell when clicking on an ad would take you to a fan page or to a website. The fan page would have the “become a fan” button, creating an in-line fan– meaning that they can become a fan without ever having to go to your page. At first we thought this was terrible, since we felt that users wouldn’t want to be yanked outside of Facebook. Therefore, the ads that send users to Facebook pages would have a higher CTR– and this, we reasoned, would be something Facebook would “like” (pun intended), too.

But it’s a funny thing how data often proves you wrong. The highest click-to-fan conversion rate we had achieved prior to the F8 change was 55%– that’s for an in-line fanning of the ad. After the switch to like, we saw conversion rates consistently in the 50-90% range. We tried a range of ads– here are a couple:

Weekly World News Ads

RULE #1: Ask users to like you in the ad.

Give them a reason why. In our case, Weekly World News has plenty of entertaining content about aliens, Michael Jackson, Elvis, you name it. We tried capitalizing the word “LIKE”, writing short versus long copy, testing dozens of images, and trying out different interest targets. Don’t make it complex– keep the language casual, as if a friend was telling you about something cool.

When you have a high click-through rate, Facebook rewards you by decreasing your CPC. As you test out hundreds of ad variations, you’ll inevitably find a couple winners. In this example, we got 631 fan for 95 cents. That’s not a typo. We had a CTR of 0.98% to get 770 clicks. Then 631 of those 770 clicks became fans from within the ad itself (what’s defined as an action).

631 Fans Screenshot

This doesn’t count the fans we got from users who then clicked to our incentivized like page or the viral users that we got when friends of fans came in to participate on our wall, because they saw in their news feed that their friend just became a fan.

Warning: We saw spammers that were impersonating brands, just to drive likes to their page and then monetize via affiliate ads– explained here . Because there is no direct connection between the ad and underlying page, if you’re a spammer, this open the door to all kinds of tomfoolery.

RULE #2: Send users to your Facebook page.

Don’t send them to your website, which removes the ability to get a like from the ad. If you send them to your website, the like action now means they like the ad, not the page. It’s true that when you send traffic to your page that you no longer have control over the ad headline– it becomes the page name. However, the ability to get fans from the ad is well worth the loss of being able to choose a headline, since the choice of image and targeting are far more important in determining ad effectiveness.

So choose your page title carefully, since it will be your headline from now on.

RULE #3: Create an incentivized LIKE page.

Incentivized Like Landing Tab

Facebook allows you to show one thing to people who are fans and something else to those who aren’t. So you can say “click like to reveal the exclusive video”. This is a scratch off card, essentially– so use your imagination on what you can do here. What are your fans going to get by hitting the like button?

We found that incentivized like pages got 200-300% higher click to fan conversion rates than regular landing pages. Some people argue that Facebook is going to shut down this technique, because of the practice of incentivized invites from 2 years ago in the app world. Remember when you’d get points in a game for inviting friends or where the results of the “quiz” were revealed to you only when you invited 10 friends? Incentivized liking on your landing page is not the same thing– it doesn’t result in spamming other users.

RULE #4: Do NOT send users to your wall.

This is almost as dumb as sending your Google AdWords traffic to your homepage, as opposed to a PPC landing page. The Wall is the last dozen or so random things that you and your fans have said– it’s just not going to convert. Instead, change your default landing tab to be your incentivized like page. Most users will click “like” to see the special content and then head over to the wall anyway to see what others are saying and how many fans you have. For better or worse, Facebook users judge how trustworthy you are by how many fans you have and how many of their friends are also fans. So jack up your fan count.

You can test conversion rates from different areas of your fan page. In the example below, we had a 19% conversion rate from the wall, versus a 35% conversion rate from the custom tab, prior to supercharging the page with an incentivized like page.

Fan Conversion Screenshot

RULE #5: Rotate your ads DAILY

For those folks who are PPC professionals, you’re probably used to the “set it and forget it”. We’ve found CTR to often fall by 50% within 24 hours. The smaller your target, the faster your ads burn out. Remember that Facebook doesn’t have frequency capping or the ability to placement target. So the burden is on you to watch your CTR, even if you’re bidding on a CPC. Just because you might be bidding on a CPC basis, don’t think that you can just ignore your CTR.

Do you have that annoying friend in real life who likes to talk only about his or her favorite subject? You know, the one who no matter what the subject of the conversation is– somehow it goes back to that particular topic? If you don’t keep your ads fresh on Facebook, you’re that very person.

Click To Fan Slide

Rule #6: Optimize primarily to cost per fan (CPF), not just CTR or CPC

Sometimes the ad with the highest CTR also converts the worst. Maybe you’re getting a bunch of irrelevant users in your targeting– children, singles, who knows– folks that may still click on your ads. Systematically root them out by multiplying ad variations like this:

Ad Variations Slide

If you’re trying to do this manually, good luck. We have our own software to do this, as do many other engineering-oriented companies. More important than blind multiplication, which can blindly increase your costs from having more cells to test– is being able to quickly prune the unsuccessful variations.

Rule #7: Separate into test and production campaigns

When you multiply ads into a single campaign, it’s easy for a single bad ad to hog up the entire budget. So when you have a group of ads that are performing, place them in a separate production campaign with a high budget, while you test in a low budget campaign. There are no ad groups in Facebook– just ads and campaigns.

Rule #8: Send updates regularly to fans

Most companies just use the wall to communicate, throwing away the massive power of email. Did you know there’s an option in Facebook to “Send an Update to Fans?” This sends a real email, so don’t abuse it. In fact, group this in with your current email marketing campaigns.

We find that a Facebook fan, incidentally, is worth twice as much as an email list subscriber. Why? Almost half of Facebook users log in every day, while email addresses are going dead from spam. Even Sheryl Sandberg is saying that email is dying. Think of building your fan base as a giant list builder with these social options for free.

Weekly World News Fan Updates Screenshot

You might not be a national brand like Weekly World News, nor might you have the kind of content that lends itself readily to social media. Whether you are a consumer packaged good, non-profit, or small business, many of these technique will work for you. You might not be able to drive 631 fans for under a dollar, but you can certainly do a LOT better with proper Facebook ads than you’re doing with Google alone.

If you’re a local business, you don’t want 40,000 fans. Perhaps just 500 of the RIGHT fans might be more than enough to supercharge your business. In our next article, we’ll cover how using Friends of Fans targeting is the most powerful feature in Facebook advertising and the proper and improper ways to use it.

Dennis Yu is Chief Executive Officer of BlitzLocal, a firm specializing in the intersection of Facebook and local advertising. Mr. Yu has been featured in National Public Radio, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur Magazine, CBS Evening News, and other venues. He is an internationally sought after speaker and author on all things Facebook. BlitzLocal serves both national brands and local service businesses.


Writing Microcopy

by Joshua Porter

The fastest way to improve your interface is to improve your copy-writing.

UIE Payment Information

I remember the first time I realized how much even the smallest copy can matter in an interface. It was on an e-commerce project at UIE for which I had created a checkout form asking for billing information. I had coded up a system to notify me when an error occurred (even if people can overcome the error it was very helpful to know when one occurred). I kept getting notifications of billing address errors…it turns out that transactions were failing because the address people were entering didn’t match the one on their credit card.

So I ended up adding the copy “Be sure to enter the billing address associated with your credit card” at the top of the form. And just like that, the errors went away. It was clear the right copy meant I didn’t have to worry about that problem anymore, thus saving support time and increasing revenue on the improved conversion.

Ironically, the smallest bits of copy, microcopy, can have the biggest impact.

Microcopy is small yet powerful copy. It’s fast, light, and deadly. It’s a short sentence, a phrase, a few words. A single word. It’s the small copy that has the biggest impact. Don’t judge it on its size…judge it on its effectiveness.

Five Simple Steps ~ Designing for the Web

Here’s another example. On the purchase page of Mark Boulton’s wonderful book Designing for the Web, he’s written a bit of microcopy that is crucial for people considering purchase. The copy is “Transactions are handled through paypal but you don’t need a paypal account to buy this book“. This turns out to be a huge question of would-be purchasers (I’ve seen it in several projects). People see the Paypal logo and they assume that they need to have an account…and everyone knows how annoying it is to create an account simply to purchase a single item. Actually, for a long time you did need an account to purchase something with Paypal. Only more recently did they change that. In this example, Mark has written half a sentence that communicates this fact and eases the fears of would-be customers.

Tumblr microcopy

Update Reader David Yeiser points out another good example of microcopy on Tumblr. When users are about to sign up, they’re asked to choose a sub-domain name for their site. This seems like a big deal, as you’re defining the URL at which you’ll be found by others. In order to reduce the stress of making a big decision that could affect the future of your blog, Tumblr gently reminds you that “You can change this at any time”. Done. No more worries about choosing the wrong sub-domain name…just choose one and start posting.

Microcopy is extremely contextual…that’s why it’s so valuable. It answers a very specific question people have and speaks to their concerns right on the spot. And because its so contextual, microcopy isn’t always obvious. Sometimes you have to hunt to find the right words. (or create an error notification service like I did) How to discover these hurdles? Talk to people! Why aren’t they adopting your software? What concerns do they have? What are they worried about? Successful salesmen know the power of these small turns of phrase. They have an arsenal of them for every situation.

Here are some other examples:

  • When signing up for a newsletter, say “this low-volume newsletter”
  • When people add their emails, say “we hate spam as much as you do”
  • When subscribing for something free, say “you can always unsubscribe at any time”
  • When selling an paid-for web application, be sure to let people know if you have a free trial.
  • When storing customer’s information, say “You can export your information at any time”
  • If offering optional account creation, say “If you create an account, you’ll be able to track your package”

All of these microcopy examples have one thing in common: they help to alleviate concerns of would-be customers. They help to reduce commitment by speaking directly to the thoughts in people’s heads. That’s why this copy can be so short yet so powerful.

Don’t be deceived by the size of microcopy. It can make or break an interface.


The Psychologist’s View of UX Design

You may have heard this story about an elephant:

A king brings six men into a dark building. They cannot see anything. The king says to them, “I have bought this animal from the wild lands to the East. It is called an elephant.” “What is an elephant?” the men ask. The king says, “Feel the elephant and describe it to me.” The man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar, the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope, the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan, the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall, and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. “You are all correct”, says the king, “You are each feeling just a part of the elephant.”

The story of the elephant reminds me of the different view of design that people of different backgrounds, education, and experience have. A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.

I’m a psychologist by training and education. So the part of the elephant I experience applies what we know about people and how we apply that to UX design. I take research and knowledge about the brain, the visual system, memory, and motivation and extrapolate UX design principles from that.

This article is a snapshot of the psychologist’s view of the elephant.

1. People Don’t Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To

  • People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.
  • It is better to show people a little bit of information and let them choose if they want more details. The fancy term for this is progressive disclosure, which I wrote a blog post about recently.
  • Instead of just describing things, show people an example.
  • Pay attention to the affordance of objects on the screen, page, or device you are designing. If something is clickable make sure it looks like it is clickable.
  • Only provide the features that people really need. Don’t rely on your opinion of what you think they need; do user research to actually find out. Giving people more than they need just clutters up the experience.
  • Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done.

2. People Have Limitations

  • People can only look at so much information or read so much text on a screen without losing interest. Only provide the information that’s needed at the moment (see progressive disclosure above).
  • Make the information easy to scan.
  • Use headers and short blocks of info or text.
  • People can’t multi-task. The research is very clear on this, so don’t expect them to.
  • People prefer short line lengths, but they read better with longer ones! It’s a conundrum, so decide whether preference or performance is more important in your case, but know that people are going to ask for things that actually aren’t best for them.

3. People Make Mistakes

  • Assume people will make mistakes. Anticipate what they will be and try to prevent them.
  • If the results of an error are severe then use a confirmation before acting on the user’s action.
  • Make it easy to “undo.”
  • Preventing errors from occurring is always better than helping people correct them once they occur. The best error message is no message at all.
  • If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks.
  • If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show what you did.
  • Whoever is designing the UX makes errors too, so make sure that there is time and energy for iteration, user feedback, and testing.

4. Human Memory Is Complicated

  • People reconstruct memories, which means they are always changing. You can trust what users say as the truth only a little bit. It is better to observe them in action than to take their word for it.
  • Memory is fragile. It degrades quickly and is subject to lots of errors. Don’t make people remember things from one task to another or one page to another.
  • People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The “7 plus or minus 2” rule is an urban legend. Research shows the real number is 3-4.

5. People are Social

  • People will always try to use technology to be social. This has been true for thousands of years.
  • People look to others for guidance on what they should do, especially if they are uncertain. This is called social validation. This is why, for example, ratings and reviews are so powerful on websites.
  • If people do something together at the same time (synchronous behavior) it bonds them together—there are actually chemical reactions in the brain. Laughter also bonds people.
  • If you do a favor for me then I will feel indebted to give you a favor back (reciprocity). Research shows that if you want people to fill out a form, give them something they want and then ask for them to fill out the form, not vice versa.
  • When you watch someone do something, the same parts in your brain light up as though you were doing it yourself (called mirror neurons). We are programmed with our biology to imitate. If you want people to do something then show someone else doing it.
  • You can only have strong ties to 150 people. Strong ties are defined as ties that with people you are in close physical proximity to. But weak ties can be in the thousands and are very influential (à la Facebook).

6. Attention

  • I am beginning to think that the whole idea of attention is a key to designing an engaging UI. I’ll write more in future articles about that. Grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting someone when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns.
  • People are programmed to pay attention to anything that is different or novel. If you make something different it will stand out.
  • Having said that, people can actually miss changes in their visual field. This is called change blindness. There are some quite humorous videos of people who start talking to someone on the street (who has stopped them and asked for directions) and then don’t notice when the person actually changes!
  • You can use the senses to grab attention. Bright colors, large fonts, beeps, and tones will capture attention.
  • People are easily distracted. If you don’t want them to be distracted, don’t flash things on the page or start videos playing. If, however, you do want to grab their attention, do those things.

7. People Crave Information

  • Dopamine is a chemical that makes people seek… food, sex, information. Learning is dopaminergic—we can’t help but want more information.
  • People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.
  • People need feedback. The computer doesn’t need to tell the human that it is loading the file. The human needs to know what is going on.

8. Unconscious Processing

  • Most mental processing occurs unconsciously.
  • If you can get people to commit to a small action (sign up for a free membership), then it is much more likely that they will later commit to a larger action (e.g., upgrade to a premium account).
  • The old brain makes or at least has input into most of our decisions. The old brain cares about survival and propagation: food, sex, and danger. That is why these three messages can grab our attention.
  • The emotional brain is affected by pictures, especially pictures of people, as well as by stories. The emotional brain has a huge impact on our decisions.
  • People’s behavior is greatly affected by factors that they aren’t even aware of. The words “retired”, “Florida,” and “tired” can make even young people walk down the hall slower (called framing).
  • Both the old brain and the emotional brain act without our conscious knowledge. We will always ascribe a rational, conscious-brain reason to our decision, but it’s never the whole reason why we take an action, and often the rational reason isn’t even part of the reason.

9. People Create Mental Models

  • >People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task (paying my bills, reading a book, using a remote control).
  • The mental model that people have about a particular task may make it easy or hard to use an interface that you have designed.
  • In order to create a positive UX, you can either match the conceptual model of your product or website to the users’ mental model, or you can figure out how to “teach” the users to have a different mental model.
  • Metaphors help users “get” a conceptual model. For example, “This is just like reading a book.”
  • The most important reason to do user research is to get information about users’ mental models.

10. Visual System

  • If pages are cluttered people can’t find information. Use grouping to help focus where the eye should look.
  • Things that are close together are believed to “go” together.
  • Make fonts large enough. Use fonts that are not too decorative so they are easy to read.
  • Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the “gist” of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn’t mean they are paying attention to it.
  • The hardest colors to look at together are red and blue. Try to avoid red text on a blue background or vice versa.
  • People can recognize objects on a screen best when they are slightly angled and have the perspective of being slightly above (canonical perspective).
  • Color can be used to show whether things go together. Be sure to use another way to show the same info since some people are colorblind.

How Consumers Interact with Brands on Social Networks

The social networking audience in the US has reached critical mass. eMarketer estimates that 57.5% of all US Internet users, or 127 million people, will use a social network at least once a month in 2010. By 2014, nearly two-thirds of Internet users will be on board.

Marketers have been chasing this audience for several years, but the question remains: Do consumers notice, or care?

“Those who still think that social network users are too busy engaging with friends to notice marketers must change their viewpoint,” said Debra Aho Williamson, eMarketer senior analyst and author of the new report “Brand Interactions on Social Networks.” “Brand interactions are real, valuable and growing. “

According to a February 2010 survey by Chadwick Martin Bailey, a market research firm, 33% of Facebook users have become fans of brands on the network.

US Facebook Users Who Are Fans of Brands on Facebook, February 2010 (% of respondents)

Another survey, by Edison Research, found that 16% of social network users had friended brands there. And half (51%) had done so on Twitter.

Coupons remain a leading driver of brand interactions in social networks. Learning about sales and new products is also a strong motivator for people to interact with companies in social media. Beyond the tangibles, such as coupons, consumers do gain positive feelings about a brand as a result of their interactions.

Still, social networks are not seen as primary research sources when consumers are looking to buy. Although people are very inclined to take advice from friends and family about products they are interested in, they are not nearly as likely to seek out their social network friends when they are researching online.

According to a study by PowerReviews and the e-tailing group, only 3% of online buyers said they sought recommendations from social network friends first, compared with 57% who started with search engines.

Sources Used to Begin a Search for Information on Branded Products* According to US Online Buyers**, March 2010 (% of respondents)

“More than half of all Internet users now use social networks, and the percentage of social network users who talk about companies, either in organic conversations or on branded company pages, is growing,” said Ms. Williamson. “Consumers do pay attention and they do value positive interactions with companies.

“But while people trust their friends for advice and use social networks as part of their research process, social networks are long way from replacing search, if they ever will, as a source of information leading to a purchase.”

The full report, “Brand Interactions on Social Networks,” also answers these key questions:

  • How are consumers using social networks to share information about the brands they like?
  • Are consumers doing product research on social networks?
  • Why do people interact with or “like” brands on social networks?
  • Are social network users aware of how their personal information is used for marketing? Do they care?

To purchase the report, click here.


The discipline of content strategy

We, the people who make websites, have been talking for fifteen years about user experience, information architecture, content management systems, coding, metadata, visual design, user research, and all the other disciplines that facilitate our users’ abilities to find and consume content.

Weirdly, though, we haven’t been talking about the meat of the matter. We haven’t been talking about the content itself.

Yeah, yeah. We know how to write for online readers. We know bullet lists pwn.

But who among us is asking the scary, important questions about content, such as “What’s the point?” or “Who cares?” Who’s talking about the time-intensive, complicated, messy content development process? Who’s overseeing the care and feeding of content once it’s out there, clogging up the tubes and dragging down our search engines?

As a community, we’re rather quiet on the matter of content. In fact, we appear to have collectively, silently come to the conclusion that content is really somebody else’s problem—“the client can do it,” “the users will generate it”—so we, the people who make websites, shouldn’t have to worry about it in the first place.

Do you think it’s a coincidence, then, that web content is, for the most part, crap?

Dealing with content is messy. It’s complicated, it’s painful, and it’s expensive.

And yet, the web is content. Content is the web. It deserves our time and attention.

And that’s where content strategy comes in.

What is Content Strategy?

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

Necessarily, the content strategist must work to define not only which content will be published, but why we’re publishing it in the first place.

Otherwise, content strategy isn’t strategy at all: it’s just a glorified production line for content nobody really needs or wants. (See: your company’s CMS.)

Content strategy is also—surprise—a key deliverable for which the content strategist is responsible. Its development is necessarily preceded by a detailed audit and analysis of existing content—a critically important process that’s often glossed over or even skipped by project teams.

At its best, a content strategy defines:

  • key themes and messages,
  • recommended topics,
  • content purpose (i.e., how content will bridge the space between audience needs and business requirements),
  • content gap analysis,
  • metadata frameworks and related content attributes,
  • search engine optimization (SEO), and
  • implications of strategic recommendations on content creation, publication, and governance.

But wait…there’s more

In her groundbreaking article, Content Strategy: the Philosophy of Data, Rachel Lovinger said:

The main goal of content strategy is to use words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences. We have to be experts in all aspects of communication in order to do this effectively.

That’s a tall order. I’d like to propose that, in fact, there are far too many “aspects of communication” for a solitary content strategist to truly claim deep expertise in all of them.

Instead, let’s assume that there are a number of content-related disciplines that deserve their own definition, by turn:

  • Editorial strategy defines the guidelines by which all online content is governed: values, voice, tone, legal and regulatory concerns, user-generated content, and so on. This practice also defines an organization’s online editorial calendar, including content life cycles.
  • Web writing is the practice of writing useful, usable content specifically intended for online publication. This is a whole lot more than smart copywriting. An effective web writer must understand the basics of user experience design, be able to translate information architecture documentation, write effective metadata, and manage an ever-changing content inventory.
  • Metadata strategy identifies the type and structure of metadata, also known as “data about data” (or content). Smart, well-structured metadata helps publishers to identify, organize, use, and reuse content in ways that are meaningful to key audiences.
  • Search engine optimization is the process of editing and organizing the content on a page or across a website (including metadata) to increase its potential relevance to specific search engine keywords.
  • Content management strategy defines the technologies needed to capture, store, deliver, and preserve an organization’s content. Publishing infrastructures, content life cycles and workflows are key considerations of this strategy.
  • Content channel distribution strategy defines how and where content will be made available to users. (Side note: please consider e-mail marketing in the context of this practice; it’s a way to distribute content and drive people to find information on your website, not a standalone marketing tactic.)

Now, this breakdown certainly doesn’t imply that a content strategist can’t or shouldn’t be capable of playing these roles and creating the associated deliverables. In fact, in my experience, the content strategist is a rare breed who’s often willing and able to embrace these roles as necessary to deliver useful, usable content.

BUT. And this is a big “but.” If our community fails to recognize, divide, and conquer the multiple roles associated with planning for, creating, publishing, and governing content, we’ll keep underestimating the time, budget, and expertise it takes to do content right. We won’t clearly define and defend the process to our companies and clients. We’ll keep getting stuck with 11th-hour directives, fix-it-later copy drafts—and we’ll keep on publishing crap.

We can do better. Our clients and employers deserve it. Our audiences deserve it. We as users deserve it.

Take up the torch

David Campbell, the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue, said, “Discipline is remembering what you want.”

When it comes to creating and governing content, it’s easy to forget what we want, or even worse, to settle for less.

But until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests. We’ll keep trying to fit words, audio, graphics, and video into page templates that weren’t truly designed with our business’s real-world content requirements in mind. Our customers still won’t find what they’re looking for. And we’ll keep failing to publish useful, usable content that people actually care about.

Stop pretending content is somebody else’s problem. Take up the torch for content strategy. Learn it. Practice it. Promote it. It’s time to make content matter.