Many, many years ago, before web design became my proper job, I trained and worked as a journalist. I studied publishing in London and spent three fun years learning how to take a few little nuggets of information and turn them into a story. I learned a bunch of stuff that has all been a huge help to my design career. Flatplanning, layout, typographic theory. All of these disciplines have since translated really well to web design, but without doubt the most useful thing I learned was how to ask difficult questions.
Pretty much from day one of journalism school they hammer into you the importance of the Five Ws. Five disarmingly simple lines of enquiry that eloquently manage to provide the meat of any decent story. And with alliteration thrown in too. For a young journo, it’s almost too good to be true.
Who? What? Where? When? Why? It seems so obvious to almost be trite but, fundamentally, any story that manages to answer those questions for the reader is doing a pretty good job. You’ll probably have noticed feeling underwhelmed by certain news pieces in the past – disappointed, like something was missing. Some irritating oversight that really lets the story down. No doubt it was one of the Ws – those innocuous little suckers are generally only noticeable by their absence, but they sure get missed when they’re not there.
I’ve always been curious. An inveterate tinkerer with things and asker of dopey questions, often to the point of abject annoyance for anyone unfortunate enough to have ended up in my line of fire. So, naturally, the Five Ws started drifting into other areas of my life. I’d scrutinize everything, trying to justify or explain my rationale using these Ws, but I’d also find myself ripping apart the stuff that clearly couldn’t justify itself against the same criteria.
So when I started working as a designer I applied the same logic and, sure enough, the Ws pretty much mapped to the exact same needs we had for gathering requirements at the start of a project. It seemed so obvious, such a simple way to establish the purpose of a product. What was it for? Why we were making it? And, of course, who were we making it for? It forced clients to stop and think, when really what they wanted was to get going and see something shiny. Sometimes that was a tricky conversation to have, but it’s no coincidence that those who got it also understood the value of strategy and went on to have good solid products, while those that didn’t often ended up with arrogantly insular and very shiny but ultimately unsatisfying and expendable products. Empty vessels make the most noise and all that…
I was both surprised and pleased when the whole content first idea started to rear its head a couple of years back. Pleased, because without doubt it’s absolutely the right way to work. And surprised, because personally it’s always been the way I’ve done it – I wasn’t aware there was even an alternative way. Content in some form or another is the whole reason we were making the things we were making. I can’t even imagine how you’d start figuring out what a site needs to do, how it should be structured, or how it should look without a really good idea of what that content might be. It baffles me still that this was somehow news to a lot of people. What on earth were they doing? Design without purpose is just folly, surely?
It’s great to see the idea gaining momentum but, having watched it unfold, it occurred to me recently that although it’s fantastic to see a tangible shift in thinking – away from those bleak times, where making things up was somehow deemed an appropriate way to do things – there’s now a new bad guy in town.
With any buzzword solution of the moment, there’s always a catch, and it seems like some have taken the content first approach a little too literally. By which I mean, it’s literally the first thing they do. The project starts, there’s a very cursory nod towards gathering requirements, and off they go, cranking content. Writing copy, making video, commissioning illustrations.
All that’s happened is that the ‘making stuff up’ part has shifted along the line, away from layout and UI, back to the content.
Starting is too easy
I can’t remember where I first heard that phrase, but it’s a great sentiment which applies to so much of what we do on the web. The medium is so accessible and to an extent disposable; throwing things together quickly carries far less burden than in any other industry. We’re used to tweaking as we go, changing bits, iterating things into shape. The ubiquitous beta tag has become the ultimate caveat, and has made the unfinished and unpolished acceptable. Of course, that can work brilliantly in some circumstances. Occasionally, a product offers such a paradigm shift it’s beyond the level of deep planning and prelaunch finessing we’d ideally like. But, in the main, for most client sites we work on, there really is no excuse not to do things properly. To ask the tricky questions, to challenge preconceptions and really understand the Ws behind the products we’re making before we even start.
The four Ws
For product definition, only four of the five Ws really apply, although there’s a lot of discussion around the idea of when being an influencing factor. For example, the context of a user’s engagement with your product is something you can make a call on depending on the specifics of the project.
So, here’s my take on the four essential Ws. I’ll point out here that, of course, these are not intended to be autocratic dictums. Your needs may differ, your clients’ needs may differ, but these four starting points will get you pretty close to where you need to be.
It’s surprising just how many projects start without a real understanding of the intended audience. Many clients think they have an idea, but without really knowing – it’s presumptive at best, and we all know what presumption is the mother of, right? Of course, we can’t know our audiences in the same way a small shop owner might know their customers. But we can at least strive to find out what type of people are likely to be using the product. I’m not talking about deep user research. That should come later.
These are the absolute basics. What’s the context for their visit? How informed are they? What’s their level of comprehension? Are they able to self-identify and relate to categories you have created? I could go on, and it changes on a per-project basis. You’ll only find this out by speaking to them, if not in person, then indirectly through surveys, questionnaires or polls. The mechanism is less important than actually reaching out and engaging with them, because without that understanding it’s impossible to start to design with any empathy.
Once you become deeply involved directly with a product or service, it’s notoriously difficult to see things as an outsider would. You learn the thing inside and out, you develop shortcuts and internal phraseology. Colloquialisms creep in. You become too close. So it’s no surprise when clients sometimes struggle to explain what it is their product actually does in a way that others can understand.
Often products are complex but, really, the core reasons behind someone wanting to use that product are very simple. There’s a value proposition for the customer and, if they choose to engage with it, there’s a value exchange. If that proposition or exchange isn’t transparent, then people become confused and will likely go elsewhere. Make sure both your client and you really understand what that proposition is and, in turn, what the expected exchange should be. In a nutshell: what is the intended outcome of that engagement? Often the best way to do this is strip everything back to nothing. Verbosity is rife on the web. Just because it’s easy to create content, that shouldn’t be a reason to do so. Figure out what the value proposition is and then reintroduce content elements that genuinely help explain or present that to a level that is appropriate for the audience.
In advertising, they talk about the truths behind a product or service. Truths can be both tangible or abstract, but the most important part is the resonance those truths hit with a customer. In a digital product or service those truths are often exposed as benefits. Why is this what I need? Why will it work for me? Why should I trust you? The why is one of the more fluffy Ws, yet it’s such an important one to nail. Clients can get prickly when you ask them to justify the why behind their product, but it’s a fantastic way to make sure the value proposition is clear, realistic and meets with the expectations of both client and customer.
It’s our job as designers to question things: we’re not just a pair of hands for clients. Just recently I spoke to a potential client about a site for his business. I asked him why people would use his product and also why his product seemed so fractured in its direction. He couldnt answer that question so, instead of ploughing on regardless, he went back to his directors and is now re-evaluating that business. It was awkward but he thanked me and hopefully he’ll have a better product as a result.
In this instance, where is not so much a geographical thing, although in some cases that level of context may indeed become a influencing factor… The where we’re talking about here is the position of the product in relation to others around it. By looking at competitors or similar services around the one you are designing, you can start to get a sense for many of the things that are otherwise hard to pin down or have yet to be defined. For example, in a collection of sites all selling cars, where does yours fit most closely? Where are the overlaps? How are they communicating to their customers? How is the product range presented or categorized?
It’s good to look around and see how others are doing it. Not in a quest for homogeneity but more to reference or to avoid certain patterns that may or may not make sense for your own particular product. Clients often strive to be different for the sake of it. They feel they need to provide distinction by going against the flow a bit. We know different. We know users love convention. They embrace familiar mental models. They’re comfortable with things that they’ve experienced elsewhere. By showing your client that position is a vital part of their strategy, you can help shape their product into something great.
So there we have it – the four Ws. Each part tells a different and vital part of the story you need to be able to make a really good product. It might sound like a lot of work, particularly when the client is breathing down your neck expecting to see things, but without those pieces in place, the story you’re building your product on, and the content that you’re creating to form that product can only ever fit into one genre. Fiction.