On appropriate design for an appropriate budget

ON Health Osteopath BristolI’ve just launched a simple website for a friend, and in part it was a pleasure to work on because we weren’t trying to re-invent the wheel. All it needed was clean and clear communication and the functionality for her to maintain the site herself.

Only a few years ago, this would have been a messy and much more expensive process, but with open source software as the foundation (WordPress in this case) a small budget can deliver a decent product if you trust your web developer. This is particularly true of location based businesses; Claire is an Osteopath working in Bristol, so doesn’t need the most amazing osteopathy website in the whole world – just a slightly better website than the other osteopaths working in the same area.

In this scenario, good communication is the avoidance of bad communication. This is a subtle but important distinction when trying to communicate on a limited budget. This website won’t win her business, instead it will reduce the potential loss of business that no website, or a badly designed website would have had. Her business will still come from the quality of treatment and patient care she offers.

Even at this ‘entry’ level of web design and build it’s possible to ship quality code. This is a bespoke, HTML5, CSS3, responsive design, and including all configuration, installation, testing, populating, image sourcing etc still came in at just 30 hours work.

It would have taken longer (and cost more) if for example Claire had wanted to debate 6 different types of headline font; and this is the key to appropriate design. We could easily have spent three times as long iterating design concepts, but this would not change the marketplace in which Claire’s messaging needs to operate.

If you’re working on a limited budget, find a developer/team you can trust and talk to them about what you want to achieve. In their hands, your money can go much further.

On ‘The Fun Theory’ and Pseudoscience

I’ve had this video sent to me three times this week, which was enough to prompt a reply that I’ll share with you.

On a very basic level, this video is nice. To disrupt the mundane with something that makes people smile is great, but that’s where the good in this video stops. If that was the ultimate aim of this video, I’d give it a big thumbs and share it with enthusiasm, but it’s not as simple as that.

“We believe that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better is by making it fun to do.”

That’s rubbish, and I’ll explain why.

I’m interested in changing people’s behaviour for the better, so I willingly watched the video and was presented with the ‘conclusion’ that “66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator. Fun can obviously change things for the better.” – at the point in the film where this fact is presented, the soundtrack switches from what sounded unsurprisingly like cats walking along a piano (very annoying) to actual piano music that was pleasant to listen to. And at the end of the film, when the tuneless sound of people walking on a piano has been adequately covered up, the occasional footage of the floor shows how filthy it became after just a single day. There is a reason tube station floors aren’t white.

Why this video is rubbish

If this was an actual experiment in behaviour change, rather than a pseudo-scientific exercise in brand marketing, the following tests would have been important:

  1. What happens after 1 week of piano stairs?
    • Do regular commuters still ‘play’ every day? (I suspect not)
    • What state is the floor in? (I suspect filthy and depressing)
  2. Same questions after 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year
    •  I suspect the results will get continually worse
  3. What happens if this is applied to the stairs at every station
    • Again, I expect decline in use. Possibly below the original baseline.

When a child first discovers a piano, and tries to play, it is endearing to watch. But ask yourself, how long can you listen to that child plonk up and down the keys before it starts to grate. You can try it out now, just loop the video from 0:42 to 1:00, turn up the volume and imagine listening to this on your commute to work, every, single, day. Would it make you more likely to take the stairs? I think it would drive people insane. It wouldn’t be long before the social outrage at the diabolical noise would actually discourage people from taking the stairs. Escalator users would soon be sighing and tutting at the person rushing down the steps to catch their train.

Now imagine yourself using these stairs soon after any of the following:

  1. Bereavement
  2. Redundancy
  3. Divorce

How fun is The Fun Theory sounding right now?

What this video shows is not fun creating change, but the joy of the novel. I’m not opposed to the joy of the novel, and would definitely have taken the piano stairs myself. But as someone who usually takes the stairs, that ‘solution’ is more likely to make me take the escalator in the long run. This is not science, and this is not behaviour change. If anything it’s a new excuse for people who can now blame the mundanity of non-piano stairs each time they take the escalator going forward.

The real goal of this video:

For you to make the subconscious link between the Volkswagen logo and the word Fun. That’s all it is designed to do.

By making the VW logo secondary in the campaign it becomes harder for you to realise you’ve been sent an advert until it is too late and you’ve watched the whole thing, but the clues are there – even the typography adheres to the brand guidelines. As a marketer, I’d say it’s genius. But as a human being, I think this is depressing.

Some words I’d like to see VW live up to:

“This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”  src

Maybe, just maybe, if VW actually want to show they care about “change for the better”, it would be easier to NOT SPEND MILLIONS OF POUNDS LOBBYING AGAINST COMMITMENTS TO CUT GREENHOUSE GAS EMMISSIONS, than turning some stairs into a piano and presenting it as science.

Further reading:

If you’re interested in VW’s real commitment to change try: vwdarkside.com
If you’re interested in real behaviour change:  valuesandframes.org

If you just like disrupting the mundanity of the day-to-day, it doesn’t need corporate sponsorship:

If graffiti changed anything...

What would I suggest instead of piano stairs?

If I was running an experiment tasked with encouraging people to walk instead of taking the escalator, I’d slow the speed of the escalator down to a quarter of it’s standard speed. Maybe even slower. You could measure walking-rate against speed across a high enough volume of routes for a long enough period of time to find an optimum speed based on robust science. I reckon that would get people walking, and possibly keep them walking too. Either they’d choose the escalator, then walk if it’s too slow for them, or just switch to the stairs altogether. It wouldn’t make a fun video though, so it’s unlikely the Volkswagen marketing budget would be used to encourage the 17 million+ views the piano stairs idea has had.

On ‘We, the Web Kids’

Intel inside

I thoroughly enjoyed reading We, the Web Kids, and could probably have picked a quote from any paragraph to highlight it’s quality. But I’ve picked one in particular as it connects with one of the themes I’ve been writing around here for the last couple of weeks. That is: paying the artist. Like Piotr, I’m happy to pay for the art I love. And whether it’s a painting, sculpture, performance or book, I’d like to pay the artist as directly as possible. In this extract, he captures some of the motivations excellently:

“Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.”

Piotr Czerski (translated by Marta Szreder)

However, while the whole text resonates with me, if it were read as a manifesto, there’s one section I’d caveat before offering my support:

“To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others.”

That’s true; but it’s a blessing and a curse, and the subtle implications are important. The web offers us instant everything, and as with all new technologies, like clocks and cars and computers, it changes the way we use our brains. And the way we use our brains shapes the people we become. The example from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that always sticks with me (probably because it supports what I want to believe anyway!) is that the part of our brain used to imagine, follow and remember a complex idea in detail, say when reading a novel or studying a topic in great detail, is the same part of our brain used to feel compassion.

And it is up to us how we exercise our brain.

Hat tip to Ade for flagging up We, the Web Kids.

A response to anger about the SOPA strike

I received the email below on Wednesday when Bibliofaction was on strike for the day. It’s a good, passionate email, so I thought I’d share it, and my thoughts about it, on this blog. I’d have replied sooner, but I’ve been ill for a few days and this is the first time I can bear to face the screen:

“It’s nice that you’re on strike, but you are aiming your protest at your customers and readers, not at the Congresspeople who need to see it. Google is placing a black mark on their website, Wikipedia is also on strike, and many other websites are doing the same thing. Nice that you are punishing your users, rather than actually gaining the attention of anyone who really needs to be made aware of your feelings, like people in Congress.

This is why I am generally against mass protests. They generally are not aimed at the people they need to be aimed at.

So, when the day is over, you can feel like you did something worthwhile by going on strike, your users will have been inconvenienced, and Congress will do what they were going to do anyway.

Wouldn’t it have been more useful to encourage a mass writer-letting campaign, and mass emails, aimed at Congress? But, no, we can’t do this. It might actually be effective.

You ever wonder why protests are generally so ineffective, and the agencies being protested against tend to do what they want regardless? Think about it.”

So, the email is a bit angry, but I can forgive that because it’s written by someone who cares and I’ve written plenty of angry emails in my time.

My short answer… I did the best I could in the time I had. I heard about the planned Wikipedia Blackout on Tuesday night. Looked at the SOPA Strike site and implemented their quick fix code for blacking out a website. I wrote a very quick email to Bibliofaction members. My wife checked the email for any nonsense spelling and then I forgot to press the send button. On Wednesday morning while I ate my porridge and looked at emails on my phone I was surprised no one had replied (Bilbiofaction members are generally pretty vocal and articulate and I thought this would be of interest). I realised I hadn’t press send. I sent the email. Then I was ill for a few days.

My longer, post-rationalised thoughts, considered after-the-fact and mostly prompted by this email…

  • Wikipedia drew a great big line in the sand. I had to choose which side of the line to stand. It would have been negligent not to take part in the strike, even if other methods of protest individually are more effective
  • “Customers” isn’t the right word for Bibliofaction members. We’ve run the website at a loss for over five years because it gives people a chance to express themselves creatively. I don’t care if the first time someone writes a short story it’s Harry Potter fan fiction, or if it uses trademarked copyrighted names, I just want people to have the confidence to write something. Anything. SOPA/PIPA are in direct opposition of that goal.
  • We couldn’t afford the time or the money to fight a claim under SOPA/PIPA if this became law. We can barely afford the hosting. It would be the death of Bibliofaction.
  • People rarely have time to read their emails, so blacking out the site is harsh, but it shows our members what is really at stake better than any email I can write.
  • Bibliofaction’s audience is worldwide, but a big chunk is in the US – if these people write to their members of congress it has more impact than me signing the petition (which I still did)
  • I can only email registered Bibliofaction members who have opted in to email comms. By blacking out the site I could also reach the readers of the website who don’t have registered accounts.
  • On a technicality, the links provided did ask you to write to congress. It would have been more effective if I had asked you to do that directly in the email (see excuse about limited time for that one)

So these thoughts are not the careful considered process I went through to decide what to do. This was not a planned campaigning activity, it was an action taken as a matter of urgency. However, it’s reassuring to reflect on these questions and still agree with the action taken.

Just as I finish writing this article, this message popped up in my email

“Thanks for letting me know. I live in Switzerland and never heard of it !”