In a panel I attended at Internet Week 2013, “Tomorrow’s Media Landscape,” one of the issues discussed was how to express content across the various media available: print, TV and radio, web, mobile app and social. I would also add wearables to this list — devices physically connected to our bodies, such as the Nike FuelBand, smart watches, Google Glass (though they’re barely in the content flow now, they’re already edging into the ecosystem).
This sounds daunting, doesn’t it? Yet if we look at the issue from the perspective of user multiplicity and UX (user experience), it becomes manageable.
By user multiplicity I mean understanding how various threads of content might lead to different endpoints and yet coexist to create a coherent pattern: your different user groups each have their own objectives, but your company has one clear brand. It’s like weaving a Turkish rug, where each color follows its own pattern yet intertwines with the others to create a beautiful whole.
Too abstract, right? So let’s take a closer look.
I work at a university. Just like a business, we need to attract customers (students), purveyors (faculty), and investors (alumni, businesses), and keep them all happy once they’re in the fold, not to mention run the institution with internal consistency across diverse units.
You might be surprised at how diverse our main stakeholders are:
- prospective students (undergraduate, graduate, full-time, part-time, continuing education)
- prospective students’ parents
- current students (undergraduate, graduate, full-time, part-time, continuing education)
- current students’ parents
- alumni (undergraduate, graduate)
- faculty as teachers (undergraduate, graduate, tenure-track,
- non-tenure-track, lecturer, adjunct, TA, emeritus)
- faculty as researchers (science, non-science, medical)
- staff (full-time, part-time, temporary, exempt, non-exempt, administrative, technical, union)
- corporations, VCs, etc. interested in research
- local/community groups
- the state (my university is within the state system)
- news outlets
This might look like a long laundry list, but it’s actually longer. You’ll notice that several of the user groups are bundles of stakeholders and will have to be treated both as a part of their primary group (for example, current students) and as a part of their subgroup (undergraduate students), depending on the instance.
You may be tempted not to be so granular in knowing your users. Identifying many different users and what they need may seem like too many threads to keep track of. The thing is: once you know (or, if you’re in a new space, can creatively postulate) who your users are, then everything else falls into place.
Follow your users as they follow the content they want. As they follow their content, the various platforms they use becomes clear. If you’re in a new space, take the characteristics of the users you want to attract and imagine how each group would use your content or product or service. They’re human beings, just like you — they have wants and needs and hopes, likes and dislikes, preferences with regard to technology.
Okay, you might be thinking – I know all this. It’s obvious. And yet, this obvious approach is often first and last in the process, and not in between. Even though UX is getting more love these days, it’s still seen as the shiny candy shell that merely encloses the delicious content inside. But it’s not the shiny candy shell – that’s design. UX is more like the candy maker imagining the entire piece of candy – what it will look like, taste like, if her friends will like it. UX encompasses the operating principles that should inform everything else.
Where do design and functionality come in? All the way through. They’re dependent on the user. Gorgeous design is pointless if it doesn’t point the user where he or she wants to go. Functionality doesn’t live up to its name if the user can’t achieve his or her purpose. The user needs to be in the forefront of any decisions when it comes to design and functionality. We can use intuition to begin with, then user testing, then data — once a design or process is live — to discover if we’re doing things right.
The truth is, if you know your user, then you know where you’re going. If you know where you’re going, you’re more likely to get there.
Why isn’t everyone doing this? Because multi-disciplinary teams are not the norm in development. In general, workers with certain skills work together. Programmers work on the tech team. Designers work on the design team. UXers work on the UX/UI team, or no team at all.
In the “Tomorrow’s Media Landscape” talk, panel member Callie Schweitzer of Vox Media explained that, at Vox, they’re trying to implement what they call “radical collaboration.” She was talking about collaboration between advertising, editorial and technology, three groups that usually operate in very separate silos within media companies. What we need is radical collaboration within technology.
But let’s go back to that Turkish rug. It’s laying on the floor of your customer’s living room. Imagine she takes a photo of the rug and posts it on Facebook, or hangs it on the wall instead of laying it on the floor. Or maybe she cuts the rug down from 8-by-12 to 3-by-4 because she wants it as a bath mat. Eek!
The thing is: once that rug is out there, you have no control over how it’s used. Accept this and control what you can. Figure out who your users and watch what they do. Iterate and innovate and make mistakes. You’re only human, just like your users.