When I turned on the TV to appease a panicked neighbour, reality hit hard with the fall of the first tower. In the days after 9/11, I craved answers, as well as signs that we weren’t on the brink of Armageddon.
On 9/11, Miami Herald reporter Leonard Pitts Jr. won mass attention with an angry letter to terrorists entitled “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment.” From that moment it also seemed his columns on 9/11 evolved into a growing call for Americans to rise above the horror and be the best they could be….to each other.
Two days later his “Hatred is Unworthy of Us” article stood out to me. It offered comfort and inspiration. On the 17th anniversary of 9/11, I checked to see how Mr. Pitts had fared. Turns out, he’s still with the Herald, thriving and continues, as one fan, Connie Schulz (Cleveland Plain-Dealer), says “to challenge us to be bigger than we thought possible, and then shows us how to get there.”
Re-reading his September 13, 2001 column is bittersweet. Remove the US icons and you’ll find much of it is as relevant today, particularly with the rise of the dark side of Populism. Sadly, divisiveness, racism and hatred are even in our own backyard. We need to keep heeding Pitt’s message and find ways to rise above actions, policies and programs that challenge it.
Hatred is as unworthy of us today as it was just after 9/11.
Until we find the fountain of youth, studies show our ability to use websites will drop by 0.8% per year from age 25 to 60, making websites 43% harder for seniors (age 65 and older) to use. Declining eyesight, dexterity and memory create usability challenges that can derail a senior’s interest or online purchase.
With seniors making up Canada’s fastest-growing age group and a rising 48% of them using the Internet, an increasing number of online users face these challenges. For those who don’t start using computers until later in life, there’s the added obstacle of trying to grasp common web terms like URL, download and double-click, which may sound cryptic.
Studies also show many senior users are afraid of making mistakes or potentially ‘breaking’ something. And others may hesitate to try an alternate path, if the first fails.
While we can’t stop aging, communicators, UX designers and digital pros can tweak solutions to accommodate aging users. For maximum benefit, counter ‘ageism’ with an interface that meets seniors’ as well as younger users’ needs.
Looking at AODA requirements, I thought more could be done and took a deep dive to find out. I discovered many recommendations for accommodating seniors pertain to Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics that should apply to interfaces for users of all ages. However, some of them are more specific to seniors or need extra diligence when designing for older users.
Thorough testing with senior subjects is also imperative for any site for this older demographic and should include ample focus testing error and recovery messages.
Key User Experience (UX) Design Recommendations
So here’s a checklist of key recommendations from varied sources for supporting seniors matched with Nielsen’s heuristics:
1. Visibly show user the system status –
• Incorporate visual cues to show users where they are in the website, such as highlighting the current menu, instead of forcing them to rely on memory.
• Display messages that tell users when a successful action must be processed before the screen refreshes to reassure them all is well.
2. Match system objects to the real world –
• Offer familiar, tangible words with explanations as alternatives to common ‘techie’ terms that may confuse newcomers to the web. For example, use ‘picture’ instead of ‘icon.’
• Use meaningful symbols/icons but prudently to avoid image-overload and always include text labels.
• Offer a back-up visual to a standard convention to improve clarity, such as a traditional filing cabinet image along with the standard hard-disk icon.
3. Give the user control and freedom –
• Make Forward and Back arrow buttons prominent and be sure to leave ample space between them.
• Include text alternatives for all media items, not just images.
4. Strive for consistency and standard formats –
• Follow platform conventions and try to keep steps consistent for as long as possible. Conduct thorough usability research and workflow analysis upfront with seniors to give a site design optimal longevity.
5. Make it hard to screw up –
• Given seniors’ ‘fear’ of failure, take extra care to build error-reduction and quick recovery paths into solutions.
• Make forms short, easy to complete and designed to accept anticipated punctuation variations, such as phone numbers and credit card numbers with and without dashes.
• Separate hyperlinks with ample space to avoid erroneous clicks.
6. Design for recognition versus recall –
• Display relevant topic items during searches in much the same manner as Google does. (Stats suggest seniors like and use Google search more than other users.)
• Use different colours to distinguish between visited and unvisited links to help users keep track.
7. Make it flexible and efficient to use –
• Overcome dexterity challenges by offering alternatives. Offer Alt key strokes and Enter key pressing, instead of double-clicking and dragging menus. Try up and down arrow options versus scrolling.
• Offer an option for adept users to take a more proficient path (with less prompts), if they want.
8. Opt for readability and minimalist design –
• Stick to sans serif fonts but not condensed versions.
• Ensure point size is at least 12 points. Use the scalable ‘em’ unit or percentages (e.g. 120% for big text) in cascading style sheets (CSS) to avoid coding restrictions that keep type small.
• Use high contrast dark type on light backgrounds or vice versa but avoid pattern backgrounds.
• Avoid putting yellow, blue and green together, as they’re hard for seniors to differentiate.
• Ensure designs are responsive, as many seniors are taking to tablets, including my elderly mother who finds one easier to use and less intimidating than a laptop/desktop computer.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose and recover from errors –
• Prominently position error messages and use plain language to help the user understand, then course correct. Specifically test error text with seniors to ensure clarity.
10. Offer accessible help and documentation –
• Offer a phone number option for help/support, not just an email or web page.
• Aula, Anne, Learning to Use Computers at a Later Age, Computer Human Interaction Information Visualization Research Group.
• Kantner, Laurie and Stephanie Rosenbaum, Usable Computers for the Elderly: Applying Coaching Experiences, Tec-Ed, Inc., 2003.
• Nielsen, Jakob, Seniors as Web Users and Define Techy Terms for Older Users. NN/g, May, 2013.
• Revera Report on Tech-Savvy Seniors: Key Findings, June, 2012.
A key objective of any content strategy is to speak to your target audience or user and draw them into the story. The rising trend of interactive video enables you to do just that — almost literally.
Interactive video blends linear film or video with interaction options. It’s been on the rise since 2005 thanks to the growing quantity of users who can access the internet at broadband speeds, combined with streaming and other technologies that support it.
Exploratory Videos – Videos that allow the user to move through a space or look at an object, such as a painting, from multiple angles, as if they were looking at it in real life. Video loops, not stills, depict the space to create a more ‘live’ feel. To experience this, check Look Around by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Hypervideo or Video clickthroughs – Videos encoded with clickable hotspots that entice users to try and take control the story, such as this Shoot a Bear ad.
Conversational Videos – Videos that enable the user to interact with it or direct the conversation, almost as though they were having a simple conversation with the characters in the video. In this ESPN video, fans can cut to the chase to hear Jon Hamm (aka Mad Men’s Don Draper) address the topics they care about most.
V-Commerce – Video solutions that integrate e-commerce, marketing, merchandising goals. For example, this Ssense celebrity music video entices users to click desired fashion items worn by the celebrities. When they click, they trigger a process to buy that item.
Video helps an organization emotionally connect to users through a story that comes to life with sight and sound. It also helps communicate a extensive information with less risk of misinterpretation than text, images or audio alone. Combine video with social media and today’s other distribution tools, and it becomes mobile, searchable, sharable and measurable.
Interactive video propels these benefits to a new level through a powerful, user-centred digital experience with hands-on engagement. I also think these videos are particularly effective because, they:
Empower the user to control the story and sometimes the amount of information they want to take in at a time.
Elicit a high volume of opens, views and shares, because they are still rare enough to be novel.
Deliver a message that users will likely reinforce through re-plays that let them change their responses to see different outcomes.
Interactive videos work for various applications, such as:
Instructions and training
Promotional ads for cars, electronics, travel and
consumer packaged goods
Movie and game promo trailers
Fundraising and awareness campaigns
I think they offer huge value to not-for-profits because they can bring the user into the story, pull at their heart-strings to foster empathy and drive offline actions like donations.
An anti-abuse interactive video by Marshall Fenn Communications achieved this by bringing the user into a chilling, domestic scene video with a father threatening his son. It persuaded viewers to stop the abuse by calling a 1-800 number to donate to Boost for Kids Foundation.
Videos like this are often produced as part of an agency’s pro bono efforts to give back to the community. Maybe we’ll see a rise in these not-for-profit videos, as technologies become more cost-effective and the number of free or nominally priced DIY solutions grows.
We’re just beginning to scratch the pixels of interactive media’s potential to evoke emotions, engage users and deliver a rich experience for multiple purposes that create real world impact.
Image Source: Composite image featuring clip from Carly’s Cafe, an interactive video that enables the viewer to experience the sensations of autism.
Despite rising focus on STEM skills, effective communications is still the gatekeeper to success. Even the most brilliant discovery or algorithm falls short if its message is missed or skewed.
To start, ‘speak’ like your audience and tell them what they care about — or why they should. Better still, embed a story to draw them in, sustain attention and boost retention.
Some say digital counters this approach. That it distracts and muffles the message. I disagree.
You can effectively integrate digital in traditional PR/MarCom strategies but only IF it brings you closer to meeting your audience and their needs. Online media rooms can help reporters meet tight deadlines with 24/7 access to photos/facts. Links to videos, articles or other sites, give readers the option to learn more, without losing time to search. With mobile, we can reach time-strapped audiences and tap into their up-to-the-moment needs.
But a ‘locked’ media room, mandatory ‘fluff’ video or cut-off text on a smart phone will kill the message before you can say: “The medium is …”
Digital can also enrich stories with its non-linear format, making multiple subplots or endings possible. And interactive media helps reach auditory and kinesthetic, as well as visual learners.
My goal was to master technology. But the more I learned, the more I realized effective communications and empathy for the audience or end-user, are the life blood of a successful user experience (UX). Website audits and user test analysis drove this home, with rampant examples of dead ends, static buttons and broken links — sometimes on global brand sites.
Most telling was my prototype project for a niche social media network for caregivers. Technically, it works. But I need to build in steps to reinforce users’ learning and encourage return visits. I also need clear communications and clutter-free screens. Without these considerations, it’s just empty code.
Sure, I boosted my analytics skills, learned how to create wireframes and prototypes in OmniGraffle/Axure, mark-up HTML5 pages with Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and edit video in Premiere Pro.
More important: I learned the value of user testing, how to optimize the UX, efficiently produce software and the necessary trade-offs.
Optimizing the UX
For example, tools like Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics cover broad interactive design principles, such as applying real world images and conventions to interfaces. You can use them as a checklist to objectively assess any UX design and counter subjective arguments about a website or other screen. This way, they help you advocate for the end user’s best interests and set them on a path to purchase, subscribe or ‘convert’ in another desirable way.
I also learned and practised ‘agile’ project management to efficiently produce software. This methodology is collaborative, fast and means striving for a minimal viable project (MVP) — a tough mandate for perfectionists.
Achieving an MVP also includes making trade-off decisions between:
Responsiveness and Resolution or how many message prompts do you need before the user reaches their goal?
Optimization and Ubiquity, such as deciding which screen, tablet or smart phone will offer the best experience and which will be adequate.
Customization and Design or drawing the line between the features you’ll let users decide and those you’ll ‘hard code’ in the design.
Turns out, the ‘Medium is the Massage’ typo-hindered phrase may be partly right. That is, the medium must be massaged into an MVP, injected with content and tested to ensure the audience ‘gets it.’
I’ve graduated, have a part-time contract digging into app analytics and global market research for LongStory — a digital role-play game. Long-term, I’m looking for a content or digital strategy role. In the interim, I’m busy merging the best of digital with my communication skill-sets.
This blog will still focus on my discoveries and how to do the right thing well but with more of a digital twist or ‘interactive for good’ feel.
Summer’s here and we’re scrambling for offline time to enjoy it. From roadside stands to festive events, savvy marketers shift strategies to engage us while we embrace the fleeting warm weather. For many, the season includes cycling on that timeless icon: the bicycle.
From the early posters of the late 19th century, the bicycle has featured in advertising or served as a platform for it. These days, this bicycle is increasingly used in not-for-profit, advocacy and cause marketing campaigns. In fact, when anthropologist Luis Antonio Vivanco wrote Reconsidering the Bicycle in 2013, he named one chapter: “Good for the Cause” – The Bike Movement as Social Action and Cultural Politics.
It works effectively as a versatile communication ‘vehicle’ that can represent many values, such as: youth, health, fitness, renewable energy, sustainability, environmental care, transportation, even enterprise.
Here are a few examples where the creative core is the bicycle:
Wrapping an value-laden social or political message around a bike to carry it to a broader audience. Examples include one bike I spotted aiming to take its anti-bullying and teen suicide prevention messages over 9,000 miles, as well as another with an anti oil wars message.
Visually driving a safety public service message via stationary bikes. This is something ghost bike memorials have done to a certain extent since they began in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003.
Putting a business ‘in the saddle,’ as the Bicycle Opera Project is doing this summer to take its music across Ontario.
Building a cause marketing program around a socially conscious initiative featuring bicycles, such as the Village Bicycle Project. Since 2009, The Cadbury Bicycle Factory has supported this initiative by providing more than 25,000 bikes to help children in rural Ghana get to school.
I think the bicycle is as an ideal fit for offline ‘grass roots’ initiatives — but do we have to stop there?
Full, integrated campaigns supported the Bicycle Opera Project and The Cadbury Bicycle Factory initiatives but others fall short of tapping the full potential. For example, after seeing the anti-bullying bike in Sausalito, California last summer, I searched for online references but found nothing. I even Googled various combinations of ‘bicycle campaigns’ to no avail. How many more people they could have reached with greater impact if they’d bumped the sign’s quality up a notch and created an online campaign to support it?
Beyond cause marketing, I also wonder: Are there other ways to use this timeless icon in a for profit initiative? Maybe even in a Guerrilla campaign?
How have you seen a bicycle used to effectively drive a message, change an attitude or inspire an action?
Ever wonder: “Why didn’t they teach me this in college/university?” Likewise, have you ever asked: “Why can’t new grads come with these skills?”
Addressing these gaps initially piqued my interest but after teaching a mix of communications/marketing/fundraising to international development students for three years, plus PR program courses, I’ve found other benefits. Wealth is however not one of them.
So why teach? Here are my reasons that outlive the pay cheque.
Forces you to re-think the rationale behind the tasks you intuitively do each day. It also motives you to keep current and gives you firsthand knowledge of “gen next” thinking.
Opens access to insights in direct/related fields. While reviewing a paper on skilled migration, I recently learned about the large variance between remittance and foreign aid to developing countries.
Connects you to academia and potentially the opportunity to inform the process. Your proximity and heightened understanding makes you a good candidate for surveys, review audits and panels to develop new curriculum.
Gives you an excuse to expand your own network of experts. Sometimes you invite new contacts as guest speakers who can offer real life examples beyond your own. Down the line, these contacts may prove invaluable to your core work.
Can lead to presentation opportunities and even new business. Last year I moderated a social media panel for a student-run event. The Dean attended and invited us to present to faculty and administrative staff.
Provides an accessible database of talent to fill internships, one-off projects or short-term contracts. What’s a better time saver than having a direct line to emerging talent that you’ve vetted?
Prompts interesting collaborative opportunities. To address the shortage of relevant case studies for the international development niche, I collaborated with an NGO to develop a case study on its challenges.
Nets invitations to innovative initiatives in their infancy. One former student started Canada’s first North Korean Film Festival for Human Rights (now JAYU) and gave comps to his professors. The event has rapidly grown and even secured a space with TIFF.
Delivers the intrinsic value of opening someone’s eyes to a profession you’re passionate about. And many students thank you in their own way. A few even send notes like one student who said: “I have found myself looking back on your slides for insights. ….bringing up our assignments to design strategies and tactics for NGOs has been a real point winner in interviews.”
Offers the ongoing opportunity to “pay it forward.” The commitment doesn’t end with the final marks. I’ve provided a handful of references to commendable people, as well as editing and job hunting support. Hopefully they’ll do the same for others someday.
What have you taken away from teaching? What reasons have I missed?
Note: This post originally appeared in IABC/Toronto’s CommVERSATIONS blog in June 2013, but the messages are still relevant.
When you book a painter, you don’t insist on adding your own strokes to their work. When you hire an accountant, you don’t recalculate depreciation in your own way, even if you excel at math. When you retain a lawyer, you don’t even expect to re-write sections of their work, even if you believe “everyone can write.”
Why then do many people feel compelled to make sweeping changes to the copy they approved an experienced business communicator or PR practitioner to write?
Here is what may be a well-kept secret: A skilled communicator delivers more than clear, concise and error-free writing. They tailor precise prose to resonate with their audience and achieve one step in a strategic series to meet specific objectives.
So when their copy is radically altered, consequences range from disjointed quality to a new meaning that undermines the reason for communicating in the first place. It’s like amputating a runner midway in the race.
If you’re a communicator, PR practitioner or similar, you know this firsthand but maybe we need to convey this message further. So here’s a partial list of the added value a communicator brings to writing. They…
Sequence each point to tell a compelling and memorable story (ideally with their audience as a key character), versus a plethora of forgettable facts.
Lead and end communications with positive messages or positioning, even if they must cover negative points within.
Take a “devil’s advocate” approach to avoid any words our nuances that might confuse the reader or have a negative angle. For example, describing the “killer app” as such to a physician will not foster confidence. Similarly, it’s better to describe fertilizer as “granules” and save terms like “grains” for something edible.
Aim for consistent terms, editorial conventions and metrics in all communications across the organization, target audience or strategy. Also avoid using the same word or phrase for multiple meanings in the same document/presentation.
Weed out phrases and terms that may conflict with the organization’s decision-makers, protocol or culture, even those with a subliminal impact.
Apply affirmative words to convey a positive point, such as “safe,” versus relying on “not” to flip the meaning, as in “not dangerous.” This avoids giving the reader a negative cue or running the risk of the text being quoted with the “not” inadvertently dropped.
Write like the audience speaks but avoid acronym clutter and define the few used, while keeping word count down.
Identify any factual challenges, definitive or other statements that could pose issues down the line.
Take steps to persuade the audience to respond as intended. This means focusing on benefits to the audience. It can also mean framing a complaint by: objectively describing the issue, defining impact on the reader and tactfully proposing a mutually palatable solution.
Write for the current purpose but proactively consider how the text might be reused and build-in short-cuts. This includes constructing a speech with tweetable soundbites to writing punchy headings that transition smoothly from a white paper to a presentation.
If you’re a communicator and nodding in agreement, here’s a “Communicator’s Manifesto” with these points simplified and directed at your client/boss. So feel free to append/edit, as desired and ‘copy and paste’ next time you submit fresh or edited text to someone oblivious to your value-add. And tell me any pivotal points missed from this list.
For the rest, please safeguard your investment in a skilled communicator by revising for accuracy but avoiding amputation.