Digital Alone is Not the Message

Home screen for niche social media network
For my senior project, I produced an interactive media prototype of a social media network for unpaid caregivers at: http://rmafpf.axshare.com/#p=home
flower store mobile wireframes.
Wireframes are a key step in developing an interactive solution. Effective ‘how it works’ notations are almost more important than well-drawn screens. Here are mobile screen wireframes I developed for a flower store site.

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.

Back to School

Recognizing digital’s rising value, I disappeared for a year to immerse full-time in a post-grad interactive media management program at Centennial College and sharpen my skills.

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.

Drawing of Agile / scrum process
Most interactive projects are developed via an Agile methodology with an iterative ‘scrum’ process focused on developing an MVP — a radical shift from PR’s typical ‘waterfall’ project management path.

Agile Efficiency

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.

Tough Trade-offs

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 11.44.56 PM
My favourite project was a narrative between personas (audience/users) to show how a niche social media network (Senior Care Share) would make caregiving easier for them. Click through to run it.
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12 Visual Resume Tools and Ways to Depict Your Expertise

Spurred by inspiring convocation addresses, a slew of new grads are hitting the streets and competing with seasoned professionals. More than ever, the push is on to stand out from the crowd and boost your appeal to prospective employers. Many hiring managers are among 65 per cent of the population classified as “visual” learners. Why not visually profile your brand to catch their attention? You’ll still likely need traditional tools but there are several ways to also visually depict your expertise.

I created this personal branding wordle from references on my LinkedIn profile.
I created this personal branding wordle from references on my LinkedIn profile.

Choose from a wealth of free or nominally priced do-it-yourself (DIY) infographic tools, follow a template or adapt an application/social media platform to meet your needs or combine several tactics.

Below are some options, with examples and links to start. (If you’re not looking for a new role, maybe you can share this post and links with someone who is.)

Infographic Resume Tools –

1. ResumUp.comProvides a template for you to create a comprehensive profile with a: work timeline, skills chart, personality profiles, skills and education summary and preferences.

2. Re.Vu – Enables you to auto create a visual resume with a photo backdrop from your LinkedIn profile. Comes with timeline, stats  (revenue generated, events implemented..), and other mix & match options that you can edit, customize or skip. Includes options to upload portfolio/work samples.

3. Vizualize.me (Beta version) – Enables you to create a visual resume from your LinkedIn profile, with a timeline, references, stats and various other mix & match options to edit, customize or skip.

4. Nuzume – This service creates a custom visual resume for $69 and within four business days.

5. About.Me Page: Use this free, intuitive tool, to quickly create a personalized, single page site as a central anchor for your online profile. It can showcase your text bio, photo, social media and other contact links and a range of other plug-ins that tell your story.

Other DIY Options & Ideas:

6. Personal Website: Showcase your skills in several pages, with portfolio samples and video links, by creating a website using WordPress or a similar platform.

7. Présumé (with Slide Rocket): Select one of Slide Rocket’s “Présumé” templates and customize it to create your own combo presentation and resume. For a basic Presume, just change the text and photo to make it your own, or take it further by embedding photos, video, charts or plug-ins for word definitions and quotes.

8. SlideShare Presentation:  Start from scratch to tell your story and value proposition (i.e. how you can uniquely address a potential employer’s pain points) in a PowerPoint presentation. Then post it on SlideShare, a growing social media platform that plugs into LinkedIn and others.  Check these innovative SlideShare resume examples from workawesome, many for non-creative roles.

9. Pinterest Resumes: Use this rising social media star as a base to create an innovative resume.

10. Word Graphics: Create a word graphic using Wordle or  Tagxedo to depict your breadth of expertise or what others say about you. Copy references from LinkedIn (as I did) by stripping out article words (the, a, in…) and using what’s left as a base. Alternatively, review your past jobs and type the key single word skills used in each, with repetition as required.  The resulting graphic shows your more finely-tuned skills/attributes larger than the others.

11. Video: If video is your forte, profile yourself in this medium, as these job seekers have done. You may however want to include a link to a PDF with summary details, as well.

12. Hire a Pro: You can of course always hire a professional like Christopher J. Spurlock to create a resume like his.

What have I missed? What’s worked for you or someone you know?

Great Content But Can Your Audience Find You?

Stone ArrowRecently I received an exhaustive URL to a great web page about a city’s new project. Then I looked for menu prompts to direct external visitors there but found none. Short of keying in a series of cryptic characters (which would look horrid in print), there was no way to find the page. Likewise, have you ever searched a website for an organization’s specific office or product and given up in frustration?

As communicators, we develop quality content and share it with our audiences, often using it to ignite conversations and engagement. But these efforts are in vain if a large segment of your audience doesn’t find you because the “path” is broken or desperately needs a renovation.

Sure you can fix website menus/links within your organization and use key words effectively but what about sites that others control?  Check how relevant third parties are representing your brand, if at all. You may find some surprises. I don’t mean media/blogger stories where editorial integrity has the last word and your organization’s core messages may never be conveyed verbatim. I’m thinking of websites/other digital properties owned by organizations affiliated with yours − so your brand has a legitimate reason to be there and properly represented.

For example, what if…

  • You manage communications for a public sector organization and your parent Ministry lists you on its website but with an outdated value proposition.
  • You work for a retailer that runs a customer loyalty program with a trusted vendor − but the vendor lists only a few of your participating stores on its promo web page, if at all.
  • Your socially responsible employer is actively dedicated to a cause; the recipient not-for-profit features all its corporate supporters on its web page, with links to their sites, but leaves yours off the roster.

Having lived each of these scenarios, I think it’s worth the time to occasionally retrace your audience’s steps to see how aligned stakeholders cite your brand on their sites.

To do a digital audit, run a:

  1. Manual check of all the relevant affiliate and stakeholder organization websites that should or could mention your brand.
  2. Google search and dig beyond the first couple of pages to find any gaps.
  3. Search on Bing/Yahoo or use other online tools to uncover missed opportunities.

If mentions or messages are amiss, you can outreach directly or use your contacts/networks to tactfully request changes.

More importantly, maybe it’s time to take a page from the social media best practice of “listening” to conversations and using what we hear to inform strategy.  We can do so by using this audit to find out why a mistake or omission occurred. Maybe your contact list is outdated, there is a major disconnect or a relationship gone amok?  With this insight, we can take steps to course correct or adjust our strategy for engaging that stakeholder as we move forward.

Do you do these checks? What works for you and what “surprises” have you uncovered?

8 DIY Tools for Visual Content Creation and Infographics

Since about 65 per cent of us are visual learners, it’s no wonder high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles (according to customermagnetism). Visual content is also noted for boosting SEO performance and consistently appears as a “must have” on content strategy checklists.

If you have the budget or an in-house resource, it’s best to have a data visualization specialist create top-of-the-line visual content but this isn’t always possible. Fortunately, there is also a growing list of free or nominally priced online tools you can access to visually depict data and tell your story.  Here are some I’ve discovered for creating infographics, as well as word clouds and graphic timelines.

DIY Infographic Creation Tools:

  1. EasellyEasel.ly – Provides drop-and-drag templates called “Vhemes,” which  give you a framework for creating infographics that feature Venn diagrams and traditional graphs, as well as maps and pathways. You can easily customize them further by changing backgrounds/colours and inserting shapes, lines or icons from a range of categories (including people of varied demographics) or uploading your own images.
  2. piktochartPiktochart – Offers a choice of six free templates (with more available for an upgrade fee). You can customize your graphic by changing colors, themes, fonts or inserting/uploading icons/images. You can also create charts manually or by uploading CSV files.
  3. InfogramChartsInfogr.am – Still in beta, this easy-to-use tool comes with six templates for creating your own infographic or standalone graphs. You can enhance it by editing data and text and uploading images. I find it stands apart with its incredible range of 14 adaptable graph formats, which include progress gauges, tree maps, and word clouds, as well as bar and other standard charts and tables.  However, unlike some of the other tools, it lacks pre-fab icons.
  4. VisuallyEgVisually – Offers a range of templates that enable you to create infographics but they must be based on Twitter or Facebook data. According to econsultancy.com,  you can also order Visually infographics, which start from $1,495 and take at least 18 days to produce.
  5. GraphicDriverGraphicriver – This tool is not free but offers a variety of intricately designed templates that you can purchase for a licence fee as low as $6.00 and then customize to meet your needs.

Word Cloud Tools:wordle-tree

  1. Wordle – Generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The words are sized according to how frequently they appear in the selected chunk of text, with the largest point size used for words that appear more frequently in a selected chunk of text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.
  2. Tagxedo – Similar to Wordle, this tool gives you more control on what specific shape your text forms, as well as its colour scheme, orientation or font style.

Timeline Tools:

  1. Dipity – This tool enables you to easily create, share, embed and collaborate on developing a static or interactive timeline that can be integrated with video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and time stamps. (An alternative, more sophisticated  tool for creating multimedia timelines is Timeline JS)

Some Cautions

The work however starts long before you open the tool, when you….

  1. Decide the purpose of the infographic and what you want it to inspire the viewer to do.
  2. Identify an angle that speaks to people beyond your organization or client. Ideally, it should tell a story and try to answer a question (or questions) that someone, somewhere has likely asked or wants answered. (News hooks like human interest, novelty, drama, proximity or conflict might be a good place to start.)
  3. “Google” the web to source ideas and check for infographics with similar themes to ensure you create an original.
  4. Gather and validate stats, which may show: a sequence/process, relationships, before & after, comparisons, map…
  5. Clean, refine and cull the most compelling data points.
  6. Storyboard, sketch ideas and try out formats for graphs or images offline that you can bring to life online.

I know many designers cringe at the thought of  over zealous “suits” and others creating abominable results (like early websites with mismatched “ransom note” text that blinked on and off). Fortunately, many of these tools have built-in features to keep you on the right design track but to play it safe:

  • Keep text to a minimum by making your graphs and illustrations tell the story.
  • Restrict your colour scheme to a maximum of three core colours, plus black but avoid white backgrounds.
  • Keep it simple, by sticking to a core message and using a conservative number of elements that leaves the viewer with some blank spaces to rest their eyes.
  • Limit yourself to two font types, if possible and use a type’s weight (bold or light), italics or colour to emphasize a point, instead of  all capitals or underlined text.
  • Draw the viewer in by setting illustrations/icons to move from left to right (or the direction your audience reads), versus featuring a graphic of a person/animal running or looking to the left side of the screen.

What tools have you used? How did you apply them to your business needs?

Note: In researching this post, the following sources were particularly useful and worth checking for more relevant insights: