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Think of storytelling before responsive design

Attention span of the human is shorter than goldfish’s for a reason.

Jani Modig
Nov 19, 2013 · 4 min read

I’m currently reading Experience Design book from Patrick Newbery and Kevin Farnham who are the CSO and CEO of a design/strategy company Method Inc. In the book the duo explains how important it is to identify and create value to users through coherent experiences across interfaces.

I have witnessed how difficult is to create those coherent experiences across different media. Especially digital experiences often lack the same service, story, passion or enthusiasm than the company’s representatives offer in face-to-face interactions. How come the digital experiences are so lame?

First of all, we don’t concentrate as intensively as we used to. Our attention spans, as humans, have decreased from 12 to 8 seconds in the last twelve years according to the latest statistics (verified by The Associated Press) and even the goldfish have an ability to concentrate longer than us (so you probably looked at the Kevin Spacey picture before below before reading this far — if not, good job). The lessening attention spans also affect to our web browsing habits: shorter page visits and heavy use of back button, while only 4% of page views lasted longer than 10 minutes according to the same study.

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It’s about content

The expanding amount of online content could be an an easy target for the diminishing attention span, but I believe that poor content plays even bigger part. Content in most of the websites is totally useless and gives absolutely no value to the user. If the content is good and valuable for them, users will definitely spend more time in the websites and platforms. And with more time I don’t mean seconds.

Couple of months back Kevin Spacey gave a speech (check the YouTube video from 35.00) at the Guardian Edinburgh International Festival praising the Netflix’s model and how the attention is still there if the content is good:

“If some one can watch an entire season of TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span? Because when the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera.”

And content is king

When Kevin Spacey explained about the attention spans with House of Cards examples I felt stupid. I had spent couple of all nighters watching Game of Thrones on my laptop and in the following mornings I realized I was explaining to clients that people are just browsing web, not really concentrating on the content. But that is not totally the case. Yes, they browse the web, but when they find something that is interesting and brings value to them they will read it through as well as they will finish the video or podcast they started. It is important to put the content in centre of the user experience, way ahead of responsive layouts, pixel perfection and coding tricks.

Current websites rarely tell compelling stories and create amazing experiences. I would like to see more and more websites that are designed to be journeys and paths to valuable content, whether it is information, entertainment or both. This kind of structure with engaging content would keep users/consumers longer in the website, adding more value to them and even let their imagination flow. I give couple of examples that I’ve seen in the past month or two, plus one classic that I urge you to visit:

  1. As a digital designer I have to praise Teehan+Lax, which is a UX/digital company based in Toronto, Canada. I probably spent a good 30 minutes in their site and ended up to their The story of Our Company page which itself is a great example of engaging content. Really good stuff and no moving image is needed.
  2. Another website I recently enjoyed visiting (although I’m not a big car fanatic) is the Lexus Beyond Digital Magazine. It is visually great, has somewhat good UX and interesting articles and pages.
  3. And this is a classic from the past Drexler University’s Get Going Today. Visit the site and you’ll see it’s power. No more words needed.

Adding value to the user

Storytelling doesn’t exclude telling those “cold facts” of your company, its products and services or the project. They definitely should be part of the story. I just feel that websites are often designed with company’s point-of-view only: telling all what companies can do and how. Not even explaining why they do it!

In the book mentioned earlier, the authors Newbery and Farnham continue to explain how important is to understand also the customers point-of-view when designing experiences. Content should always fulfil the needs of the company as well as the user’s needs, so it’s good to stop to make some research to identify the needs of the user before starting the website or any digital design process.

And when your story is ready to be told, it is time for those responsive layouts, HTML5 and CSS3 plus all the magical things that digital agencies, designers and developers can produce.

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