Break through information overload

Today the term “Information Overload” is a euphemism for drinking from the proverbial firehouse. The reality is that we are exposed to more than 100,000 words each day. We love our always-connected gadgets, but they are shortening our attention spans into small less effective blocks as we try to digest this deluge. Every 60 seconds the world sends another 168 million emails.

We are all being swallowed up by the constant information being pushed across the wireless spectrum. And it is only getting harder to keep up.

  • According to IBM, 90% of the data in the world today was created in the last 2 years
  • EMC claims data will grow 50X in the next 10 years

So how do you make sense of it all? The answer is in taking away the detritus and focusing on ease of use. Leverage the tools available to you today to filter and receive only what you need (sign up for feeds that interest you – i.e. RSS, twitter, Readability tools like that). Check email at appointed times – not all the time. Make changes in your browser preferences to simplify what shows up on screen. Easy example: block popups.

But the real secret for those of us who create information and information products, is to start making it easier to access. Make your customer interactions understandable – even if it makes things harder for you to service or support. The process engineering inside any company should be about how to make things easier for their customers. Companies who have done that reap the ultimate reward of customer loyalty. Amazon is a shining example with their one click ordering. That was expensive for them – and makes them the preferred vendor for the times we still want a hard bound item. Every business is complex. But you don’t need to make your goods or services that way. Just because you can put it all together in a huge mashup doesn’t mean it makes it easier to understand. Today we all have access to more information than we can use. Make sure you delivers the type of information that prospects and customers find valuable. Simplify the way customers interact with your business and you start to break through the growing clutter in their digital lives. In the words of the great Guy Kawasaki – start to make meaning.

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Social Networks and Recessionary Marketing

Marketing personnel, advertising agencies and clients are all debating whether to hunker down or continue marketing during the current business climate. Typically, marketing budgets are cut during tight times, when the opposite is the best answer for business success.

This is not the time to cut. We have seen documentation that dates to the 1920’s, showing how advertisers can gain marketshare during downturns and do it at a lower cost. These companies can also solidify their existing client base and build equity while treating marketing as an investment. NW Ayer Inc’s report, Advertising During a Recession: Key Issues and Opportunites published in 1991, offers some excellent research.

One example, quoted by Wall Street analysts, attributes the 1975 slide of Avon Products and Hershey Foods at least in part to advertising cuts, and credits heavier advertising for the improved performance of Philip Morris and Revlon during the same period.

But most businesses are not the behemoths like Revlon and Philip Morris. This makes it even more important to keep marketing in tough times. Smaller businesses may have a protected market niche or may be able to reduce expenses quicker. Smaller businesses can also innovate products and services faster to meet whatever needs they do find in the customer base.

A recent Forrester Report on Interactive Marketing mirrors the old research and takes it a step farther – now looking at social media. Josh Bernoff opines that measurable efforts may be ok during a downturn and that social applications may actually thrive.

Jaap Favier, Vice President, Research Director, Forrester Research Recession, takes it farther and is shown here describing how it will involve firms responding to the change in consumers core needs by getting them more involved in the ‘pull’ of information, versus the ‘push’ of advertising.

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2009: The Return of Common Sense

We all understand that 2009 will be historic. The U.S. will seat our first President of African-American descent. The economic fallout from the housing debacle will continue to unwind and will effect companies large and small. Perhaps Congress will apologize for pushing home ownership in the 1980’s and 90’s and will flood the markets with dollars for individuals instead. Manufacturers will struggle to get their costs lower for everything.  Labor and benefits will be among those hardest hit. Unemployment will be at the highest level in decades. Financial firms will be very intentional with loans to businesses and consumers. And consumers will be (hopefully) more frugal with their dollars – maybe getting back to the fiscal common sense of the 1940’s and 50’s.

Through all of these troublesome lens – businesses must try to improve and move forward. We have had a decade of companies moving white collar jobs offshore, but what else can they do to lower costs and/or increase sales? What common sense should be applied to businesses?

At Vialogix we believe a key place to start is your web site.

Your web site is the first place most people get an impression of your company. That impression can be true to your way of doing business or it can be false. What unique characteristics does your product or service offer potential customers that they see as a differentiating factor in their choice of vendors? Do you sell based on quality? or price? or quantity? or service? or some uniqueness that only you can deliver? Does your site demonstrate that and allow customers to clearly understand it in a matter of seconds?

Question: What should your web site be doing in today’s economy?

Answer: Assisting your customers in the easiest way possible.

Simplicity works online. In fact it works for all technology. One of the funniest talks I ever heard on simplicity was by David Pogue who tests cool new technology every day for the New York Times and CBS News. His humor shows our true dependence on technology today and how we would prefer EASY or SIMPLE if we could get it in everything.

The majority of our corporate clients use their web site as a cheap delivery channel. They have organized their product or service areas into groups that control their own web presence. They have dedicated the resources to purchasing and completing projects to update their sites with the latest data cacheing software or content management tools or search engine optimization or templating frameworks. They have made sure their infrastructure scales and is redundant and is backed up for quick recovery from a catastrophic incident.

But there is one area where the vast majority of all web sites still lacks credibility – the ease with which customers can do business with the company. The user interface can cost your business lost sales if it is hard to understand. Jakob Nielsen has been saying it for years, but bad design costs businesses money.

So resolve to return some common sense into your 2009 web projects. Simplify the part your customers see and you will reap the rewards – no matter the times.

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Design as Differentiator

We run into sales opportunities frequently who have no idea of the realistic cost of bad design. These business leaders have done cheap business cards or used family members who had some HTML skill and are left with the impression that web site redesign should be a quick turn project for minimum expense. Many of these businesses treat design as if it were a commodity – when it fact it is one of the few things left that should not be.

Design has become the largest differentiator most businesses have. Don Norman covered a host of everyday problems with products in his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things. He uncovers how you may not be alone in having trouble figuring out if a door “pulls” open or “pushes” open. It is a very worthwhile read and shows off the ability of Design to lesson the value in usefulness.

All businesses have some unique selling proposition for their goods or services too. There is something – besides price – that continues to keep their business in business. In a world where white collar jobs are done by people in far off times zones who have no connection to the customer – design may be the ONLY thing that differentiates your sales efforts. It’s not just techies offshore either. Today you find HR, scanning MRI’s, financial back office, customer service centers, and as much business process as companies are willing to send away. See examples here:
Scanning,HR jobs,Call Center,Contact Center,Healthcare, and of course Software.

In an October Mass High Tech article, Richard Banfield wrote;

“Today, leadership faces an ever-increasing wave of new startups with fewer barriers to entry than ever before. Thanks to the decreasing cost of technology and increased access to microfunding, each of these startups begins with less overhead and less risk. Less risk means more potential competitors for the incumbents. Less than This 20 years ago, you could dominate an industry by simply building a massive infrastructure that would be too expensive or time consuming to compete with. Today, a feisty startup can eat your lunch using a bank loan and a socially exciting website.

To survive in a world in which your competitors are younger, faster and smarter than ever, you’ll need something else. You need a design strategy.”

Fast Company’s 2007 Master of Design Annual had more must-read articles and gave insight into great design minds like Philippe Starck and Yves Béhar.

“The style of tomorrow will be the freedom and recognition of difference. We must replace the name ‘beautiful’ by the name ‘good.’ Beautiful means nothing.” Philippe Starck

Meaning: good design is really about simplicity. It is about stripping out all the extraneous visual nonsense and leaving only the key elements needed to communicate clearly. It means designing only the necessary elements to make your product or service be preferred.

Massimo Vignelli, who founded Unimark in 1965, believes that “It’s really more about logic than imagination.”

He and his wife Lella have done brand identity work for Bloomingdales, Ford, American Airlines and Knoll. But all of their most lasting work is SIMPLE.

Created in 1972 (before Adobe made graphic design easier for all) their New York Subway map is a perfect example of simplicity – and it was all done by hand. Each line bends at 45 or 90 degrees. Every line has a color and it was modeled after London’s underground map.

Design as a differentiator is not new – but it does have more believers today. Legendary Apple is one of the “True Believers” who controls the hardware, software and industrial design elegance. MIT’s Technology Review did a great story last year on why Apple’s success stems form their design culture. You can read the MIT article here. Robert Brunner says his team pushed manufacturers to find new solutions during his tenure with Apple industrial design. And bloggers write about Apple constantly in this role – including sending more tech business reporters to MacWorld each year.

Who should be next Apple CEO?

What we can Learn from Apple

Newsweek looks at MacBook Air

But even companies like Proctor & Gamble and SAS have claimed that Design will be one of the ways they differentiate in their marketplaces. And not just visually.

An older article in Bnet discusses the actual Value design can add to enterprises. The article shows how Design has 4 Powers:

Design as Differentiator

Design as Integrator

Design as Transformer

Design as Good Business

This is really where Design makes a difference: adding value to the equation of your business. Our own case studies have shown some correlation to the value of design. We have had clients increase online sales or decrease costs using simple web design. Getting measurable ROI from Design differentiation is the ultimate goal.

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2008 – Deja Vu all over again…..

With apologies to Yogi, 2008 is starting out with a lot of discussion about Usability and User Interface.

This has been a trend in software design and web development for the last 2 decades, but today you can’t read about a product that doesn’t have some simplified user interface. This year’s International CES in Las Vegas is showing off thousands of new gadgets and all the marketing language seems to have a common theme “Ease of Use.” I found it interesting that prior to the show, the VP of Communications discussed how important Content is to all consumers.

We have very low quality video from 1993 of me saying almost the same thing.

Manufacturers are all in the ‘usability’ game today with new releases of products that differentiate their products. Check out a few recent product announcements from:

JVC as their “Everio hard disk camcorders offer enhanced usability in a colorful lineup for 2008.”

Samsung
has this user friendly language in a recent press release “Whereas previous versions of MagicNet offered a simpler User Interface, MagicNet Pro is equipped with a professional, multi document User Interface, which offers enhanced flexibility and ease-of use for the network operator. Furthermore, MagicNet Pro offers a highly-customizable user experience, allowing operators to control the content and design of several designated areas. The upgraded MagicNet Pro system also offers two types of network connections: auto connection, within an easy-to-use sub-network and direct WAN connection.”

SONY
rolled out improved versions of their Bravia flat panels with “slim bezels and thin depth, along with Sony’s new 3D graphic user interface.” And about 4 scrolling pages of features and specifications 😉

Magellan
is aiming to make GPS navigation as easy as Amazon’s “one-click” purchase.

So what does it mean?

It means that EVERYTHING should be easy to use. Start 2008 with your online experiences.

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What does Web 2.0 really mean?

You would have been asleep at the wheel over the past few years if you haven’t heard how Web 2.0 ideas have engaged individuals and consumers with cool new possibilities. But the Web 2.0 moniker is still undefined to many corporate clients. What does it mean to their business?

The web has moved forward from Hypertext to a more rich ability to share information. Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State, made this great video that demonstrates the transition from text to Web 2.0. It is worth the 5 minutes of history if you haven’t already seen it.

Social networking, blogs, wiki’s, RSS, widgets and mashups have been all the rage on sites created by individuals. Facebook, MySpace, Googlemaps and even personal pages from Apple have generated tremendous media coverage as personal publishing took center stage in the ‘always on’ internet space.

The next generation of tools from Google includes customized home pages with groups and blogs, mail and chat, spreadsheets and video, calendars and checkout widgets to name a few. More focused solutions come from the likes of Zillow where a consumer-driven real estate market is blossoming using these Web 2.0 ideas combining tax values, satellite images, maps and personal info that may dis-intermediate realtors in the near future. Check out the ‘Make me Move’ feature which allows you to advertise your asking price – even if you don’t have your house on the market.

A couple of recent reports from McKinsey and Forrester show that Web 2.0 tools are not just the hype of next-generation marketers, but are also being adopted in mid and large companies at a far faster rate than previously reported. CIOs are taking note and adding Web 2.0 tools to corporate offerings in the hopes of demonstrating improved efficiency both in and outside the organization.

web2

Web 2.0 companies who sincerely ‘get it’ understand that they need to have a core competency in data management or collective intelligence. And to really become a Web 2.0 company, they need to allow end users to ‘create’ and not just ‘consume’ their information. Many corporations struggle with the need to allow users to publish and the result is enterprises have embraced the Web 2.0 tools they can have more control over – but are not finding as many uses for the peer-to-peer and social networking elements. Dion Hinchcliffe’s recent ZDNET blog has this understandable diagram segmenting the Central production vs Peer production views.

Business tools are being leveraged in intranets and development areas, but the true collaborative knowledge sharing has yet to reach outside for many corporations. Exceptions include the types of all-in-one web services tools like NetSuite which allows a mid-sized company to throw away a whole smorgasbord of software titles for one rentable online tool set that includes financial, purchasing, payroll, CRM, web site, e-commerce, sales force automation and marketing campaigns among others. These types of Web 2.0 tools allow far-flung employees to collaborate and see real-time information in ways that took thousands of man-hours and custom development just a few years ago.

Interestingly, one of the discussion points from the recent articles claims that CIO’s really want one vendor to deliver all these Web 2.0 tools. Or a mashup with one service center maybe. One decent example is found in ConnectBeam

Another is En.terpri.se which is a BEA product making it one of the first enterprise packaged solutions delivering Web 2.0 answers for corporations.

Smaller – more specific project management tools like Copper and Basecamp have grown organically because they do one thing well. Smaller businesses have jumped at the ability to quickly shift their operational needs to a rentable solution like this. As these Web 2.0 concepts share their code they will extend the software. One example: Blinksale (an online invoicing tool) allows users to leverage their client data directly from Basecamp. In fact many more products now integrate with Basecamp because of the shared API.

This web site is a collection of Web 2.0 ideas allowing us to leverage tools like Radiant for overall web site Content Management while plugging into WordPress for the blog engine. Open Source tools like these can be grouped almost at will with a little technical imagination.

Ultimately all Web 2.0 businesses will need to open up parts of their information that they have historically kept closed. Successful companies will engage customers in dialog – and allow them to create and publish dialog along the path to corporate success. These customers will share in the success or failure of the ventures in a much more compelling fashion than even the recent past.

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The Way Things Look for 2007

The beginning of the year is a good time to rethink everything from personal finances to the extra stuff in your closets to your business plan. I looked at many of those things thinking through possible ‘resolutions’ for 2007.

There is growing evidence that visualization and “the way things look” effects all we do – especially now that we get a majority of our information through a computer screen. My wife has not been a heavy internet user, but she spent December researching her next vehicle using Edmunds.com and Consumer Reports info mixed in with manufacturers sites and actual test drives. She liked certain sites and hated others – because they made it easy to understand a lot of data about new automobiles. When it came time to decide – she was armed with more information than ever before and when her car arrives later this month I expect there will be no cognitive dissonance about the purchase.

Internet usage continues to grow at an unprecedented rate and people are actually choosing the usefulness – not just the self-publishing (MySpace, Facebook) and time-wasting (YouTube) features.

The fact is there is so much more information available now – that we need intelligent design of it – and advanced filtering to see for ourselves. Reading my daily blogs and info updates I have recently seen a couple of interesting articles on the history of the Graphical User Interface. Of course, there is a wikipedia entry, but also a nice collection of GUIs found here as well.

At Macworld 2007, Steve Jobs rolled out the much-anticipated iphone (naming rights still pending;-) with a very slick user interface that only requires our fingers. This type of touch-screen interface already has competition from Microsoft, GE Healthcare, Mitsubishi and brilliant engineer Jeff Han who made his debut last year at TED 2006 and then had his video downloaded a quarter of a million times from YouTube to become on of the most popular tech videos of all time according to Fast Company.

Last week Guy Kawasaki riffed on the The Art of Visualization where he pointed to some very cool third-party graphical representations of his book The Art of The Start. He also linked to the Periodic Table of Visualization about how data and abstract thoughts can be visualized. I recognized many of my thoughts (and way cooler diagrams) on how we can visually explain our client’s businesses.

This visualization clarity is related to our love of Tufte’s information design books. The poster he sells of Napoleon’s March on Moscow in the Russian campaign of 1812 may be the best example of complex data being visually displayed for laymen to understand. Tufte offers an excellent course if interested.

Boxes and Arrows (with a brand new web interface themselves) has an interview online with Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice
“The problem used to be, ‘how do we get information out to people?’ That problem has now been solved in spades. Now the problem is, ‘how do we filter the information so that people can actually use it?’”

One answer: user-centered design with multiple avenues to find the information that solves their needs – when they need it. Information Architects and Web Designers should all start with a better understanding of their audiences. Those personas and user profiles are not steps to be skipped, but instead are steps toward visual design that works.

In User Interface Design for Programmers, software guru Joel Spolsky describes it as:

“When you’re thinking about user interfaces, it helps to keep imaginary users in mind. The more realistic the imaginary user is, the better you’ll do thinking about how they use your product.… Thinking about a “real” person gives you the empathy you need to make a feature that serves that person’s need.…”

So how do things really look to your users? In this recent post from Joining Dots they have an interesting quote from Larry Bassidy, former CEO of Honeywell “Ask a CEO what kind of culture they have and they will describe the kind of culture they want, as if it exists, instead of describing what is really going on.”

They go on to wonder aloud if companies really “want” a user-centered design or collaboration and knowledge sharing or whether companies really want to impose guidelines within which users can publish intranet material. A difference between what they say and what they do.

Actually creating useful pages is far harder. We have found in user tests of our own web development, users say one thing and actually do another (they also frequently overstate their web-savviness – but that’s another topic;-). So just how can a developer use audience information and user personas to improve the visual medium? We all must have a more thorough understanding of the way people will use our sites and web application pages. Too frequently client directives like marketing, advertising, corporate opinions, and most often “how they sell” stand in the way of creating truly useful interfaces to “why customers buy.” Solve that one and your web application has a far greater chance for success.

Start 2007 with a renewed push for the way things look. Make resolutions that make you look at things differently. Review the masters of visual display who have solved far greater problems with elegant solutions. Have your newsreader search the web for useful insight. And don’t settle for “because that’s how we have always done it.” It’s all new again.

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