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Cognition

Discontent

Have you ever had to fit three lead stories onto a web page that was designed for only one? Ever needed to hastily rework a design because nobody realized that a product description might run to more than 200 characters until after you delivered the templates? Ever found yourself slapping big yellow alert banners and screaming headlines onto an otherwise tastefully designed home page because the layout actually distracted your users from the site’s most important content? (And why did the layout distract them? Not because it was elegantly designed, but because it was designed before the client figured out the content strategy.)

It doesn’t take too many experiences like this to realize that content is not just a writer’s problem, it is a design problem. As good advertising comes from the product, and good filmmaking begins with a riveting story, good web design starts with content. If you don’t believe me, try designing a universal template.

On the web, design is almost always in the service of content. And yet our designs are often hostile to content. Try to read a Roger Ebert review on your smartphone. For that matter, try to read it on your desktop computer. The creators of Mr. Ebert’s site have lathered it with so many layers of navigation, so many options, so much SEO-inspired linkage, that actually reading the review is far from the treat it should be. It’s as if a master chef crafted the perfect meal, only to have it served by a careless waiter in a chipped, dirty plastic bowl.

If our designs don’t serve content, users will find ways to get the content anyway. Used by millions, apps like Instapaper and Readability now deliver great reading experiences when the designer forgets to.

Of course, users have always had the ability to tailor their web reading experience: a custom style sheet here, a non-default font setting there. But these days, it’s not just those with special needs or quirky personalities who are changing our designs on the fly. It’s ordinary users who care about content.

And just as, for every user viewing our pixel-perfect masterpiece in the “right” browser and at the screen dimensions we envisioned, there has always been someone else trying to use it in an older browser or crummy kiosk, now more and more of our users are engaging with our content—or trying to—via smartphone and netbook. These users don’t have time—or screen real estate—to patiently wade through all the crap we’ve poured into the interface against our better judgement merely because the stakeholders requested it. These users want content. If we don’t deliver it, Flipboard—or someone else’s site—will.

Responsive design, mobile-first responsive design, and content strategy for adaptive design have made important inroads but there’s lots more work to be done. For one thing, there’s the dilemma of who pays for content. Our designs have trained users to ignore ads, so we make ever more annoying ads to try to grab those eyeballs back. To the extent that we succeed, we create more customers for Instapaper and Readability, where those ads are removed.

Responsive ads address the technical and visual aspects of the problem—or might if someone were working on them—but they don’t deliver the key metric, which is attention. How can we simultaneously satisfy the reader by allowing them to focus on content in a clutter-free environment, yet also satisfy the advertiser who is tired of paying to be ignored? What are you doing to help readers focus on the message they came to read—and your client or boss wants to deliver?

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