Progressive enhancement has proven to be such a great strategy for the technical side of the web that I think we should take a similar approach for its personal side as well.

Just as we assume the harshest conditions technically (outdated browsers, slow connection speeds, etc.) and layer enhancements from there, we can assume interest levels and moods are equally harsh.

“I’d rather be doing something else.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“I don’t give a shit about this.”
“I’m out.”

While this might not reflect every user’s attitude, there will always be some who are apathetic, bored, rushed, etc.

Consider this in the context of real life. If I call you without prior warning you’d expect me to be polite and say something to the effect of, “Hi, it’s Trent. Have I caught you at a bad time?” Common courtesy requires that we assume first that we are inconveniencing others unless we’re told otherwise, showing respect for their time and attention.

Similarly, If I met you for the first time at a party and spent an hour talking your ear off about my deepest secrets, or showed up unannounced at your house the next morning you’d rightfully freak out. I know I’d feel violated. Who hasn’t felt similarly imposed upon by overzealous email campaigns or overwhelmed by a website that has too many things demanding attention all at once? For relationships to evolve, there must be mutual disclosure and trust. Social penetration theory sums it up well:

As relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more intimate ones. […] It can also be defined as the process of developing deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability.

Online relationships are no different, and we should aspire to design interfaces that recognize users are humans by mirroring this natural process of relationship building. Perhaps common entry points (like home or product pages) should only be responsible for that introductory-level exchange, and things like further navigation or account creation could be taken as a signal to share further: more information, more options, and more permanent connections via Twitter or email.

I think there are a lot of cases on the web where assumptions start at the opposite end of the spectrum, and our behavior online would be considered intrusive and shallow in real life.

We hope you enjoyed your stay.

I recently took my wife and 2 kids along for a business trip. We stayed at a popular hotel chain downtown and were thrilled at the experience—clean rooms, nice views, and positive interactions with every staff member from valet to check-in to room service. They took every care to make sure our experience was positive so that we’d return, and when we left I was certain I would.

Two days after the trip I woke to an email on my phone from the hotel—not a receipt but a solicitation. After wiping the sleep from my eyes I zoomed in to find an unsubscribe link only to land at a page that told me the unsubscribe feature was unavailable on mobile devices. Frustrated, I deleted the email.

Later that morning I got another email, clicked unsubscribe, and went through the process of entering my email address and receiving another email prompting me to confirm my email list removal.

The next day I woke to yet another email from them. I don’t know if I failed at unsubscribing or if I have multiple email categories to unsubscribe from, but it didn’t matter. I was angry. The negative experience of e-mail marketing eclipsed the fond memories of the hospitable staff, and now I don’t want to go back. In my mind, the head of digital marketing should head over to the hotel and apologize to the entire staff for undoing the relationships they spend all day building with their customers.

What if already checked email newsletter boxes buried deep within the booking process online were replaced with big “Can we email you?” buttons, or unsubscribe links were as large as the main call to action? By all means, offer discounts and incentives but do it in a way where you’re opening every possible door to customers rather than trying to barge in on theirs.

You won’t read this.

Slate recently published an article analyzing why users fail to fully engage (completely read) an article page. An excerpt:

Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway.

Are users failing at the task of staying focused or do we (as web designers and site owners) assume too much? Does a page view equal someone’s full attention and intent to engage?

What are our designs telling users to do when we bury a 12px font-sized river of text in a sea of animated banner ads, sensationalist flat belly links, and fixed positioned social sharing widgets? In my mind, if users leave they’re just doing what the design told them to do because all the crufty noise linking elsewhere is the most engaging thing on the page. It is not my goal to single out Slate because many pages across the web look like this.

The only way to build is with real people in mind. They’d rather be with their families than deleting emails. They’d rather not mine a cluttered layout for content. They start off not knowing you and not caring, but if they detect a hint of grace and respect you just might have something upon which to build a relationship.

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27 Responses

Leave a comment or contact me via Twitter @TrentWalton

  • The Peach

    And that’s why having carefully crafted personas on top of properly targeted analysis and statistics, when designing the UX or deciding the content strategy of a website, makes everything more clear and immediate.

    On the other hand this takes an effort which not everybody is willing to accept and justify in business terms. We’ll see who’s right. :-)

  • Aniket Lawande

    Although I agree with the stats, you have to concur that many articles could be made better...

    As a budding technical writer myself, I’m often torn between putting the effort in making my articles reader-friendly or technically sound.

    Often I try to reach a stand point between the two and I end up doing neighter.

    Internet articles, like any other form of writing, are an art, not a science. And every form of art must tell a story.
    Many writers tend to forget that...

  • Ryan Boone

    So, how does this affect (or does it?) a blog like this one? The first thing user sees is the latest post, so there’s no introduction. I’m just curious because I’m in the planning stages of a blog. Does this argue for the merits of a dedicated home page? (BTW, I very much appreciate the absence of distractions here.)

  • Mikhail

    Excellent insight as usual Trent. I found a lot in common with this article and the Dark Patterns talk by Harry Brignull (http://darkpatterns.org/). I can imagine how being personable and kind could easily offset any subscribers you lose by not automatically emailing people and making it as hard as possible to uncheck email boxes.

    Lookin’ at you LinkedIn.

  • Andy Westmoreland

    I had a similar, but opposite experience recently: I reluctantly used an online chat to contact a service provider I already use. Expecting a scripted, and likely unhelpful exchange, I was pleasantly surprised to get a swift and informed response, so much so that I was effusive in my thanks.

    Appreciatively, the party on the other end directed me to a feedback form where it was made clear my comments - good or bad - were being directed to the company CEO, who was waiting to read and respond to my feedback in 48h.

    This all felt very gratifying until I opened my inbox the next day to find a canned response with “Mr. Westmoreland” injected throughout. They made me feel like a valued customer, right up until the last step which wasn’t even necessary.

  • Crispen Smith

    I’ve started this reply three times, and I’m finding it genuinely difficult to write. That’s coming from the fact that I respect the heck out of what you’ve written here.

    For me good design starts with compassion and empathy; design is transparent and when you look at design you look through it to see the person or people behind it. This still holds true whether you are designing a site or a brand experience. In the case of your hotel experience the team behind the brand experience was left looking like a bunch of callous profiteers.

    As consumer intelligence grows we are seeing more and more cases where the quality of the people you do business with is more important than the price you pay to do that business and the transparency of design is a huge part of that.

    Thank you for a brilliant article.

  • Attila Bujdosó

    Nice writing, Trent.

    I think it comes down to our culture of social interactions.

    How we initiate, start, manage or pick up a relationship? What level of trust is already there before an interaction takes place? What amount of trust is built during a specific phase (especially the first one) of interaction?

    It is probably more interesting to think about the potential strategies we can use to increase our chances of building more trust and quicker: being more honest and clear about our goals, always providing an easy ‘escape button’ for the other without making her feel bad etc.

    I will save this article, thanks!

  • Lluis

    I think you wrote a brilliant article. Thank you.

    It deeply reflects the future attitude that we, builders of the web (web designers, companies, etc...), should embrace: respecting and honouring the users with whom your product interacts first, not just treating them with just conversion statistics in mind...

    The metaphor about the hotel and the questioning were quite illuminating :)

  • Dimitris Havlidis

    The funny thing is that I was JUST about to close the page when I reached the “You won’t read this” header. Not because I did not like what you were saying but because it seemed like I have reached my personal quota of written words.

    Well I did read to the end at the end but only because the header picked my curiosity. By the way the large well spaced font helped a lot.

  • Charlie

    Awesome article. I completely agree with your perspective on users being inadvertently asked to leave. I have had numerous discussions with CD’s, who push extra stuff or links that negate the actual content on the page. We are forgetting the simple act of reading in order to push more things into view.

  • Gaz Shaw

    Slate may want to get rid of pagination by default. I must admit to being a bit peeved upon reaching the bottom of the article to realise there was another page of it.

    I know why I felt this way. If I’m not sucked in by an article straightaway, it’s a good bet that I will either scroll quickly to the bottom and back to see what I am up against, or check how short the browser’s scrollbar has shrunk.

    Neither of these methods are sound, what with comment streams, mega-footers and what not. But I know I do it regardless. I wonder how many other people do?

  • Chris Krycho

    @Ryan Boone: on blogs, I think there’s an expectation of finding articles there—sort of in the same way you expect to find articles in a newspaper. Perhaps even more importantly, people only very rarely hit a “landing” page anymore as their first point of interaction with a blog. They nearly always hit an article first anyway.

    I actually *have* an intro page on my own site, but I’m not sure whether it will survive to the next version.

  • Bella

    You said it yourself in your last paragraph-- we would rather be doing other things. By nature, we strive for efficiency. Yet, few things are designed with this goal in mind. Good design should support our desire for efficiency, so that we may work in harmony with the products with which we interact. Think about the internet in general terms: it is a source of *infinite* information, and we use it for the purpose of gathering *specific* information (example: using Google, we have to directly type in words to retrieve the information we want). We as people have the ability to navigate amongst it to wherever our little hearts desire. Point: we are searching for something, looking for an answer. If one article doesn’t give us the information we need (pretty damn quickly), we will surely find another, the search continues. I skip the first few paragraphs of every article I read, because I hate riff raff, and the information I seek is never displayed so nakedly as to reside in the first few paragraphs. I wish all internet articles were written in bullet points, so that I could search more efficiently. If I wanted to read long-winded literature for pleasure, I would buy a book! Even when I am perusing a website (say, a news website), without knowing in specific terms what I am looking for, I still get irritated that I have to read through so much blah blah blah to get the main point of an article. This applies to unsolicited emails as well. Give me what I want, and nothing else. The ironic thing is that designers would kill to solve the mystery of what it is people want. Here is the answer: exactly what is asked for. Since that is mostly impossible, I think a simpler, more thoughtful approach is best.

  • Mathew Porter

    I agree, progressive enhancement is a dev approach that we employ and feel that it works for our client base.

  • Trent

    Thanks for the comments, everybody! Good stuff all around…

    @Ryan Boone:

    So, how does this affect (or does it?) a blog like this one? The first thing user sees is the latest post, so there’s no introduction.

    My best excuse might be that I like that all my site has to stand on is the latest article I’ve written. It’s a motivator to keep going. That said, I imagine a introductory landing page would probably be pretty helpful, though Chris Krycho makes a good point.

    @Mikhail:

    Excellent insight as usual Trent. I found a lot in common with this article and the Dark Patterns talk by Harry Brignull (http://darkpatterns.org/).

    Thanks for posting that :)

  • Adam Bramwell

    Great thinking!

    The nature of the relationship a reader has with a site completely changes when they’re ready to engage as a commenter. The context switching used by 24ways.org is a great example.

    Having comments in a separate tab allows a separate space for both the ‘premium’ curated content and UGC.

    And Dimitris, I agree the story arc had near completed when the ‘you won’t read this’ header was encountered. Waymarkers like internal headers need to be used more, it’s courtesy akin to asking in conversation: “may I continue?”

    Thanks Trent

  • Noel

    I must admit to you Trent, I’ve always been fascinated by this website’s design, but as with “The Great Discontent”, I merely stare at the visuals, and never end up reading the article. (No hard feelings to the Essmakers either...) Ironically, this is the first one of your articles that I read top to bottom. Funny how that works? I’ll be interested to read more of your writings sometime...

  • Francois Royer Mireault

    @Noel
    @The Peach

    About UX...

    Some people tend to “like” noise. Some watch documentaries, some watch the news. Some read Medium, some skim Buzzfeed.

    At the end, it’s our perception of clutter that matters, not someone else’s, right? Yes. But we can also try to push people away from that noise. Clutter overloads our senses and makes us feel stressed. Nobody needs that (even people who didn’t realize it yet).

    The hard part is saying no to the “noise business”.

    Blogs like this one reminds us how good it feels to swim in an article, not just surf it.

  • Adam Greenwood

    This isnt a problem for a company that has a product, like your hotel, but for us, being a software vendor targeting new business via marketing departments etc, I feel that waving the unsubscribe button too easily in front of them could mean that we never hear from them again.

    Although it may be annoying to make the unsubscribe a little difficult to find, it does mean that a potential customer may just ignore that email AND the next six or seven, but when they are ready to listen to what you have to say, you are still able to make contact.

    So I guess it is about finding the right balance.

  • Jim

    That point about ‘show a little grace’ really hits home. If it’s the one thing I take away then I’ll be proud to have done so.

    Take care.

    J

  • Lauren McCabe

    We say that people don’t read entire articles online, but digital writing is crafted so users don’t have to: short paragraphs so their eyes move quickly down the page, bold sub-sections so they can easily scan the page and sentences that are short and blunt for quicker reading.

    That online writing is now called content, the pie-filling of web pages, and we blame readers’ attention deficiencies for not following through, seems as if we’re missing the point.

    Readers will read great writing. They always have.

    If your writing is not transfixing, if it doesn’t tell a story, if it is not emotionally or intellectually gripping, people will stop reading way before the end of the article. No matter how “valuable” it is.

    When I stumble onto a piece of writing online that is finely shaped with descriptive language, elucidating metaphors and juicy details, I read it without even thinking.

    I find myself reading each sentence by careful sentence, entranced by a well-hewn art.

    Let’s bring the craft of writing back to content, and perhaps call it another thing: art.

  • Irene

    This is brilliant. Thank you for writing a great article on genuine human connection. I can’t put any more strain on these words other than to say them again. This is how thankful I am to have read this.

  • Francois Royer Mireault

    @Lauren McCabe:
    Good point. Very spot on: “Readers will read great writing. They always have.”

    It’s also our duty, as web workers, to protect the quality of writing. It’s of course, very difficult in our “pageviews” era. But I feel (hope) we are getting out of that.

    Like Trent’s article states: “People are failing at the task of staying focused”. I’d go further and state that content websites are failing at delivering content.

    I tried to read an article on a big US portal the other day. I opened it on my phone and got: trashy ads from content farms, a sign-up pop-up and a carousel. After finally finding the button to read full article without the 10 slides, I ended up on related articles about “secret diets” and “productivity” tips.

    Apple doesn’t ship computers that do not work. Online magazines should not ship articles that you can’t read.

  • Rose

    Well said.

  • Douglas

    I think everyone here should know about a great free product called Ad Block Plus. It is an add-on for all the big browsers and it does just what it says. It blocks all the ads and the social media buttons too. It is beyond me why everyone does not use it. It reduces said clutter and makes many web sites readable again. I would bet a lot of you are fighting this product in the hopes to keep your click income up. :-)

  • Martin

    I know I’d feel violated..!!

  • Rose

    @Douglas
    I use AdBlock too Douglas and I think it’s fantastic. But, I’m not sure that’s the point.

    If you strip out all the Ads and are still left with trite, badly written content, stuffed with attention grabbing buttons leading to other pages, then you simply can’t expect a user to engage fully and read everything you’ve written on the page they are on. AdBlock doesn’t get rid of all “call-to-action”. I think Trent is trying to encourage us to abolish superficial filler content (that ends up like an unappealing side dish) in order to look at truly engaging visitors instead. That can’t be achieved just by blocking ads. It requires more thought. Otherwise, all you’ll have is soggy lettuce.

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