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  • January 6, 2011

One Man's Ceiling

Any mint can mask lunch breath, but only Certs has a golden drop of Retsyn. That drop and its golden hue, which no one but a copywriter has ever seen (the actual visual end-product is a trail of green flecks), Decorative Illustration may have made a powerful differentiator back when Tang was a breakfast drink, but it’s not enough to sway a modern consumer.

That’s why even the dinkiest American convenience store offers a broad assortment of breath mint disk brands, and nobody cares which they buy. Interest in the category requires a change of form factor plus a benefit: sugar-free Tic Tac, curiously strong Altoids. A product that wants my loyalty as a consumer must offer a difference I can actually experience—and it must be a good experience.

What’s true for low-interest disposable consumer goods is even more true for websites and web applications. As creators, it’s our job to fashion experiences that gently tug at the heart or lightly tickle the pleasure centers, lingering in the mind and quietly demanding reengagement. Good enough is not good enough, unless we want our web products to sit on the cyber-shelf, gathering digital dust.

Most of us know our site or app must be “special” simply to survive, but how should it be special? Should it be special like a 3D IMAX summer blockbuster? In a word, no. The era of the blockbuster website, if it ever existed, has surely passed. Viewed through today’s eyes, a site that calls excessive attention to its creators’ skills is like an oversized, gold-plated vanity press book of rhyming couplets. Or maybe it’s more like a penis extension in a men’s prison. Either way, although it may be impressive, it’s something nobody needs.

My favorite metaphor for what I’m trying to create when my team and I begin to plan a website is the apartment I’ve lived in since 2007. I still remember the realtor showing it. It was roomy and got a lot of natural light for an apartment in New York City. But what seduced me were the floor and ceiling—the former of beautiful hardwood, the latter with moldings. Okay, the moldings are applied, but still. I might have seen nicer apartments but I’d never lived in one. As soon as I noticed those little touches, I imagined myself living in the place, and I subsequently made it my business to move in, securing a mortgage the day the global economy crashed—but I digress.

My apartment’s lovable details surround me as I write this, and while I’m not conscious of them most of the time, they persist at the edges of my perception, like a gently strummed guitar. From time to time I even notice them. But I only notice for a moment, and then I’m back in my life. And that’s the point. Engaging sites and apps have that extra something that commands our loyalty without demanding our constant attention. It isn’t a showy opulence, and it isn’t a technology—bragging that your site is built with HTML5 and expecting users to care is like Certs hawking Retsyn. So how do we set our sites and apps apart? What ways of thinking and working lead to the details and touches that aren’t just special, but are special in a way people care about, and to which the right customers will respond?

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