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How to Create Fantastic Media User Experience

2011 April 27

An American jurist once famously remarked that, although he couldn’t define pornography, he knows it when he sees it.  In other words, porn looks like porn, seedy and crass (or so I’ve heard).  Nobody would mistake it for anything else.

We often hear about misunderstood artists, but not misunderstood pornographers, which is probably one reason why pornography is so profitable (or so I’ve heard).

A starving artist?  Sure.  A starving pornographer?  Never! It’s a shame that more products aren’t like pornography.  All too often, they confuse us and they usually do it in a very foolish way.  They want to show us how clever they are by making us think about how to use it.  What could be more thoughtless?

Don’t Make Me Think!

What do you think about on the drive to work?  Chances are, if it has anything to do with how you’re going to get to work, you’re pretty angry.  Unless we’re going to a new place, we only think about where we’re going if something has gone wrong: An accident, unexpected traffic, a detour caused by road construction or another mishap of some sort

If everything is going smoothly, we do not think about everyday routines.  They are automatic and we think about something else, like what we’re going to accomplish at work, how we’re going to have fun afterwards or how we can stick the new guy with a particularly troublesome client.

That’s why we prefer regular stuff to look like other regular stuff. If we’re going to have to make the effort to deviate from the subconscious way we go about things, we expect to be compensated in some way.  We don’t like it when somebody makes us work for nothing.

The Logic of Dominant Design

Everybody wants to be original, mostly because being original makes people think and we like for people to think about us.  However, media is a content business and that’s what we want people to notice.  When users have to think about how to find content it’s less likely that they will ever get to enjoy it.

Let’s take a typical magazine.  It opens with some departments which offer short articles and advice about specific topics, then goes to a “feature well” with longer form content.  The table of contents in the front guides us through.  We know this instinctively whenever we open the cover, so it’s not something we think about.

Now look at the CNN site, one of the world’s most popular.

Notice how the layout is very similar to other news sites so that people who go to CNN and immediately know how to use it.  They receive full value without having to learn anything.  The design elements are so well done that, except for the logo, you hardly notice them.  Your eyes are drawn straight to the content, which after all, is what they’re selling.  Almost like porn!

Dick Stolley, the editorial guru of Time Inc, likes to say that a great media product has two things: consistency and surprise.  I think that’s about right, you need to set  and manage expectations, but you don’t want to be boring.  Unfortunately, too many people focus on the surprise and forget about consistency.

The Importance of Clear Visual Communication

Think about a trip to the airport.  There are three important usability events there:  check-in, security check and gate.  Your experience will be greatly determined by how quickly and easily you get through those three events.  The last thing you want is any surprises.

(Having burly men with earpieces throw you to the ground might be exciting, but not good user experience!)

Now imagine that someone wants to get creative with how those events are communicated to you.  The gate to New York is renamed “The Big Apple” and check-in has a big sign over it announcing “Guest Services.”  Chances are, you wouldn’t appreciate such originality.  You might even be so confused that you miss your flight!

Just like commuters at airports, users on web sites have their own way of doing things.  Look at these eye-tracking scans from usability pioneer Jacob Nielsen’s web site.

There’s a few important things to notice here.  First, on three very different pages users scan in the same F-shaped pattern.  Second, they spend very little time on design elements and menus and lots of time on content.  Third, they will stop when they’re told to, like at sub-heads or on the information box in the upper right of each page.

Any effective design will take advantage of what users naturally focus on rather than trying to convince them to put their eyes elsewhere.

It’s the Content, Stupid!

If you compare the above eye-tracking scan with the CNN screenshot it should immediately become clear how well CNN’s layout is optimized for the F-shaped reading pattern.  Readers can scan a lot of content very quickly and find someplace interesting to go.

Bad design takes precedence over content.  Good design communicates to users how to get what they want. All too often that simple, basic fact is ignored in favor of flashy gimmicks.

Unfortunately, the process of designing a web site is usually far removed from the everyday activity of content creation.  If the task at hand is to design basic elements like a header, menus and sidebars, there’s a natural tendency to jazz it up a bit, which is why most web sites are designed so poorly.

However, it’s not just web sites that fall prey to the trap of confusing content and visual communication.  Wherever you go, whether that is an ad agency, magazine publisher or broadcaster, there is always a slew of marketers, strategists and other hangers-on who can’t wait to put content in the back seat.

For Work There Must Be Pay

Of course, originality isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.  However, something new and different requires work and users expect a payoff.

Don Norman gives a great example in his classic, The Design of Everyday Things.  Imagine if we put time on the metric system, so that a day was 10 hours, an hour was 100 minutes and a minute was 100 seconds.  Any benefit gained would be dwarfed by the mass confusion entailed in getting used to the system.

Now look at this Hermes corporate web site that I’ve criticized before.  What could possibly be behind any of these icons that would compensate for the confusion this ridiculous design causes?  You can’t  even be sure what web site you’re on!

That’s not to say you should never do anything differently.  Every product is defined by the rules it breaks, which is why you should choose points of departure with a specific purpose in mind.

The Economist, for example, structures their magazine in a very unique way.  There is no feature well, but a serious of articles of roughly similar length centered around titled sections.  It takes a bit of work to get used to, but both reinforces and perpetuates The Economist’s core brand values.

Know Your Target

Of course, all this talk about conventions misses a crucial point: convention is a relative term.  People vary widely in their habits and knowledge.  What might seem simple and conventional to you might seem hopelessly complicated and obscure to me.

Probably the most common mistake in media user experience is confusing, in Donald Norman’s terms, “knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world.” If we assume that people have knowledge in their heads, we don’t feel the need to provide any for them in the world.  However, we usually vastly overestimate to what extent our audience thinks like we do.

Specialty publications, like medical journals,  can get away with assuming that their audience has specific knowledge, but for the most part, you’re better of erring on the side of providing cues, whether that is visual communication in the design or simply providing a few signposts in the content.

Unless you have a strong indication that you’re target audience understands where you’re trying to take them, it pays to make the effort to help them along.

Great Products are User Centered

In the end, user experience, not publisher’s intent, determines whether a product succeeds or fails. (Much of Apple’s success is owed to this simple truth).  In recent years, media usability has been associated with web sites, mainly because the basic principles of user experience in traditional media were worked out decades ago.

However, as Steven Johnson vividly shows in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You, media has been continuing to evolve on and off the Web.  So the key to creating fantastic user experience is to never consider the job finished.  Every great media product is perpetually in beta.

That doesn’t require an enormous investment; Jacob Nielson estimates you can eliminate 80% of website usability problems with a panel of just 5 users.  What it does require is a change of thinking, with less emphasis on gimmicks and more stress on the task at hand: pleasing users.

Maybe that’s why pornographers tend to get it right.  They have no illusions about what they’re doing – they know that they’re running a business!

– Greg
Note: Some UX aficionados might have noticed that I stole the headine for the first section of this post from Steven Krug’s excellent book Don’t Make Me Think.  So I’m referencing here along with his web site.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. April 27, 2011

    We also have to consider the curation of the experience in relation to these insights you mention, even though CNN may have a pattern formalized is it creating/adding value beyond the “normal” structure? In other words can the reader/consumer leave with added value.

    For example, what would be a transitional value step that would help the reader become more or “better off”

    With all this technology offering insight i still see a large lack of understanding how to use it to implement value adding initiatives.

    Even the porn industry has taken a hit with free videos online and had to change up their game, for example, POV user experience where in the old days it was a simple start to finish but now you see that same start to finish in your own POV, 🙂

    That’s where i think web experience should be heading into a POV opportunity where even though you may be looking at anothers words, how can it be implemented that you are looking at your own value adding initiatives.

    Another example would be social information for me at least i can’t go without tweetdeck and the column view perspective, these are small little tidbits of observing what is creating value instead of just sharing it, because in a lack of attention market now what i read may be forgotten in split second….

    the user experience in my opinion is adding value to which you are trying to create it for yourself or the initiative. scrambling and tryng to find it instead of having some sense in how to guide it will be an effective user experience in relation to content.

  2. April 27, 2011


    Those are all good points. However, I do think we have to be careful about confusing content with user experience, which do have to be dealt with somewhat differently. Content creation is ongoing, user experience is structural and needs to be thought through so that users can get the most out of content, whether it is professionally produced, curated or user generated.

    – Greg

  3. April 27, 2011

    I agree, but in some aspects are they not intertwined, i quote “user experience is structural and needs to be thought through so that users can get the most out of the content.”

    thus isn’t content a structure as well, ex. storytelling… for example reading your posts your way of writing is user experience friendly is that not a frame of structure, are you not adding value with the structure of your words, can that in itself be a user experience framework?

    you have a gift of writing but you also structure it to make it “make sense” that for me helps my experience, plus you keep a tidy blog 🙂

  4. April 28, 2011


    In practice, not really. Generally, the structure is something that’s ongoing. It allows the user to immediately orient himself. The content is what’s being communicated. That’s important, of course, but a good media product is engineered so that it’s easy to take the content in.

    The structure, in other words, is the stage. The content is what happens on it.

    – Greg

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