What I Digged at Webstock

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a day soaking up the latest digital wizardry at Webstock 2010. My plan was to get a better understanding of all things digital to help us do even better digital work.

In reality, the biggest thing I discovered was just how little I know. It freaked me out. But when I tiptoed between the things that totally blew my mind I discovered a theme than ran through every single presentation.

It’s all about people.

Every presentation, from talks on design to advice on launching online businesses, centered on the same simple point – the better you understand the people you’re talking to, the better your work will be.

What do they do? Where do they look? What frustrates them? What surprises them? What’s the thing that really pushes their buttons.

When you think about it, that’s obvious. (Especially for someone like me who’s a hard-core DM nerd.) But what struck me was how easy it is to get caught up in the hamster wheel and miss the whole point of what we do every day.

My favourite single slide of the whole day came from @amyhoy. When talking about design, she suggested:

“Read five books on psychology and one on design.” And I reckon she’s right.

You see, I’m a creative. I love my job. And I want to do the best work in the world. So I read stuff. Annuals, websites, industry blogs, even tweets—I follow all the work I can from all around the world to inspire me to do stuff better.

And the result? Ads that look like ads.

Sure they’re a bit different. No self-respecting creative would ever make an ad they knew had been done before. But are they really different? If you get ruthless about it, it can still sometimes still feel like the work we do is more about the ad itself and less about the person we’re trying to influence.

That takes me to one of the day’s more interesting side debates. It was loosely about cows. Here’s the gist:

@dburka (ex-CD at Digg) has been designing for the web for almost as long as there’s been a web. He was one of the early designers for Mozilla and is reputed to have scribbled the first Firefox logo. Now he’s onto bigger and better things!

Anyway, his point, is that web design should be intuitive. People act in a certain way and web design should acknowledge that and help make their interactions easier by aiding them along the path they’d likely take naturally.

He illustrated this point with a story about a university. Specifically, it was about paths across their grounds. Basically, they didn’t build any for a while.  They waited for people to make their own paths, chose the most commonly used and then bricked them in to make them less muddy.

Or in other words; they watched what people were doing, then made their lives easier. Good point, makes sense, I bought it.

Next up was @amyhoy again with exactly the same point—only backwards. Her illustration was the Labyrinthine streets of London. She explained how the major streets have always been where they are, but once upon a time they were cow paths.

But rather than celebrate the intuitive development of roads, she pointed to a bend and asked, “why is that bend there? Is it because that’s the best way to go? Or is it because a cow walked around a boulder three hundred years ago?”

Her point (well made) was that some things are built a certain way just because that’s how they’ve always been built. (Her main point was around email clients and to-do lists). But sometimes, if you have a solid understand of the consumer, there’s a better way to do things. And often that’s an opportunity.

So I reckon they’re both right. (And that makes me a fence sitter). But there are no absolutes in design (or advertising, or anything really). So for me, the point about designing for the user is totally valid. But Amy’s point about not-blindly accepting the status quo is equally valid. (In our agency we call that DISRUPTION\).

The challenge as I see it is to follow the herd, when it’s right, but always keep a sharp eye on any opportunity to lead them somewhere new. It seems like the best of both worlds.

That’s what I reckon… what do you think?

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