The depleted bookshopJulius Honnor, July 2017
A good bookshop is full of books that inform but also books that entertain, move, or frighten. They make you laugh, they make you cry, they make you see the world in a new light.
This isn’t the way most would describe the web.
Beyond users’ needs
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of how the web should meet user needs. A revolution of sorts, for which gov.uk is the poster child, has persuaded the world of the importance of simplicity, of putting the user first.
This revolution is a brilliant thing for knowledge transfer, for the digital transformation of services, for the evolution of the web beyond brochureware to something more task-based.
The success of content design, of the gov.uk model, has swept away all sorts of unnecessary clutter, making our lives significantly easier.
And plenty of websites still have lots to learn from this approach.
But meeting existing user needs is inadequate for inspiring, moving or entertaining. The web is not the Yellow Pages. Not all content is about goods and services, not all people are customers, not all visitors are users.
If we aim only to help users achieve existing tasks, the web will be a useful but dull place; a giant reference section.
The impoverishment of clicks
As a measure of moving or activating, visitor numbers aren’t great either. Click-counting encourages a click-bait race to the bottom. That way lies a web that resembles a tabloid newspaper more than it does an inspiring bookshop.
Alternative contexts, alternative paradigms
The worlds of film, literature and music would hardly be satisfied with meeting users’ existing needs and expectations, and neither should we be.
But the arts are not the only alternative paradigms.
Good cookbooks are not just about task completion. They are beautiful objects in themselves, in a way that makes them more pleasurable to use.
Campaigning is also a sector where to be successful, content needs to do more than meet people’s expectations. When the bottom line is changing people’s opinions and people’s actions, content takes on a role that is more about intellectually and emotionally stimulating people than meeting users’ needs.
Museums and galleries need to do more online than provide practical information. It’s vital to make the opening hours and ticket prices easy to find, but success is as much inspirational as transactional. To be truly successful, they need to nourish and excite.
In some respects, design thinking has stolen a march on content strategy here: prioritising the user, but also the quality of the experience.
And there are some good examples (Burberry, Tate…) of organisations who have gone further, for whom digital has become an integrated part of the real-world experience as well as the experience becoming an integrated part of digital.
Front-end, back-end, top-end
Content strategy has front-end and back-end specialists. Both flavours are important. But from all angles, creating great content doesn’t have to mean being reductionist.
The potential of digital content, to make the world a better place, to make us cry, to make us giggle, is almost unlimited. We should aim to satisfy user needs. But we should also aim higher. We can build a more satisfying, enlightening, inspiring bookshop.
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