One of the overriding themes at SXSW Interactive this year was "humanising technology" – technology products that consider the human experience and seamlessly connect the online to the offline.
Jon Setzen, creative director for Media Temple, was in Austin to discuss why designers and technologists need to think content first. To demonstrate his point, he compared album cover art to the click-to-buy button most of us now use to purchase music. "It's the same content – just presented differently," he said.
We interviewed Setzen and asked him to elaborate on his ideas, and why it's important to give your audience the information they're looking for in a memorable way.
Q: What are some of the design principles that should be applied to any user interface, given that people often switch between screens and upgrade devices frequently?
Setzen: I am a big believer in simplicity. Any decent designer will [suggest] Dieter Rams' 10 principles of good design [as] a great place to start and possibly end. I have always believed that "good design is as little design as possible." There is a lot about the mobile first strategy that speaks to this. I think the variance in screen size has empowered designers to be simpler in their ideas and executions.
Q: Can you explain what has shifted in design, specifically in regard to "humanising technology"? What does that mean, and how should product designers think about that?
Setzen: People love features and, usually, the people who create the products love the features the most. It's easy to fall into a trap where you're talking too much about the features and the "how" of the product rather than the "why." Why would someone want to use this, and how is this product going to solve someone's problems and make their lives better? You can tell me it does "this and that" two seconds faster than anything else in its class, but why is that something I should care about? Obviously, Apple set the bar with showcasing a human side of tech. If you look at the differences between the original Android ads (fortress-like warehouses with computer brains) versus the Apple ads with grandmas and kids using the phones, it tells a totally different story.
Q: Creating a seamless experience between online and offline is critical to brand success these days, but it's difficult for many companies to wrap their heads around what that means. How can designers help lead change in organisations to improve this experience for users?
Setzen: You hear so much these days about companies letting design lead. Startups are hiring designers before just about anyone else. Design should set the standard and continue to raise the bar on what a company stands for, how the company talks, and who the company is. It's branding 101 to have consistency across company touch points, but it's very difficult to achieve. I believe the more aesthetically obsessed designers are, the more that sense of perfection and consistency can seep into the company's overall experience.
Q: How important is it to have a website, a blog, and be on social media platforms these days? What do brands need to think about when deciding “where” to tell their story?
Setzen: It's of paramount importance. I think the more places you can tell your brand story the better, but you should vary the way that story is told and adapt to the users of the platform you are using while still maintaining a consistent voice and tone. At (mt) Media Temple, we tell our company story through a wide range of channels. Our story is about the people behind the brand, i.e. our customers, our employees and our partners. Our customers and partners are industry leaders in design and development, and our employees are the people who are here to empower our customers and partners to succeed.
Our video series, Made on (mt), showcases our customers by letting them tell their stories in a genuine way. We don't ask them to talk about Media Temple, because who wants to listen to a designer talk for three minutes about their hosting company? We want to be inspired and learn (and, hopefully, have others get inspired) about their struggles and successes.
Another platform we use to tell our story is our company blog. Our blog is a reflection of our 15-year-long involvement in the design community. We invite customers and industry influencers to contribute stories, tips, and theories on how to succeed. These pieces are unique to our blog and a great example of extending our brand to the people who have trusted us since 1998. Finally, on social, we're here to help. We were the first hosting company to offer support via Twitter. We're there 24/7/365 to keep our customers happy and feeling like they always have an army behind them. If they're up at 3am cranking out a project for a client, we're around too.
Q: Related to the above question, how do you balance informational content (i.e. if a product has legal language, and so forth) versus lighter more engaging content?
Setzen: This is something that is really tough and requires an elegant solution. Many in-house designers have to marry lots of SEO content with elegant design. It's hard to simplify your designs when you have thousands of words on a page. So, you have to get creative. What is some valuable content a user would care about and how do we present that? Is there a place where we can put extra features, legal copy, etc? We tend to move things in a larger FAQ area. Again, we're always thinking about a less-is-more approach and are constantly finessing how we share content online, usually based on our customers' feedback.
Q: What are some examples of brands that are pushing ahead in terms of content development, brands that are impressing you?
Setzen: Aside from the fantastic work we're doing here at (mt) Media Temple, of course, I think Virgin America has redefined what an airline can be. Their safety video (below) was a great example of taking the same content everyone else had and putting a unique spin on it. When was the last time you watched an airline safety video... and laughed?
I am also a big fan of Rdio. They've made an online music listening experience that makes me feel like I am at a record store with friends. They've thought about the discovery aspect of music and have elegantly turned it into an online experience. Aether Apparel is doing really interesting things in the social space. Their idea to use Instagram as a way to showcase their forthcoming winter products during the spring season last year was ingenious.