The art of storytelling

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Users. Customers. Buyers. Shoppers. Clients. Patrons. Consumers. We use many different names to describe the people for whom we build things on the web, but we often forget that they are just that – people. People with emotions, contrasting opinions, differing reactions and distinct expectations.

People don’t get excited about websites. People aren’t excited by a fancy interface or an expensive font. People get excited about experiences.

And this is why I became a designer. I love the look on my client’s face when I present a project for the first time, and totally knock it out of the park. I love seeing a group of users excitedly exploring a new version of a product they have used for years. The more I put into this job, the more I get out of it.

Everything put on the web tells a story. The challenge is to write a story that your customers will want to tell over and over again.


A man's feet, looking down from the top of a building

The view from above

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A satellite image of Forth Vean, the street where I grew up.
A satellite image of Forth Vean, the street where I grew up.

This is a satellite image of the house where I grew up.

When I was young we had a real photograph of this view framed on our living room wall. It had been taken by a local man who, as the only pilot in the village, had hired a photographer and flown him across it, to take photos of all the houses.

He advertised them in the Post Office, and at local craft fairs, and the villagers would stop next to the stacks of photographs and flick through them one by one, searching for their own home. Along the way, they would spot the houses of friends and relatives, pointing and exclaiming their excitement.

My parents did exactly that, and then purchased and mounted the picture, as did many others. Neighbours would discuss and compare their own photographs in the street, and this little phenomenon became a sense of pride in our community.

At this young age, I would often look at this photo, taken high above the home I knew. I had never flown before; never seen the roof of my house. I would sit and look, imagining that this must be what the birds saw when I heard them calling and singing. It stank of freedom, and had a strange other-wordly aura.

By the time I first set foot on a plane two years later, I had moved to a different house, in another country. I had no frame of reference, I’d never seen the roof of this new home, but I remembered that photograph. As I travelled overhead, I stared out of the window for the entire flight, trying to see the roof of my house. I had no concept of distance and countries and borders. All the way over Germany, Belgium, France and then England, I stared and stared, knowing that my house was somewhere in the rolling terrain below.

When we arrived in England, I ran to my father in excitement. “I saw our house! I saw our house!” I shouted, not because I actually had seen it, but because I’d looked at every single building below that tiny plane window, and therefore one of them must have been ours.

It is now eighteen years later, and the picture which fueled my imagination so much is long since lost. That one photograph, nothing but paper and ink and a wooden frame, opened my mind to the idea that the world I lived in had a z-axis, and now sits discarded in a cupboard or box and forgetten.

I look back and remember that picture well, and struggle to see where, in this modern age, children will be able to excercise the same imagination and curiosity. The satellite image I embedded above only took me 30 seconds to find; but I didn’t frame it and hang it or discuss it with friends, I simply closed my browser window.

As much as I love the community that has been built around the web, I wish that I could bring back those days when the world and the simplest things within it were so awe-inspiring, because I worry that as my daughter grows up she will have so much information available to her that she’ll feel no need to go looking for it. Pictures and maps and videos and virtual three-dimensional models of every little corner of the earth are so prevalent online that they no longer attract our attention, and almost negate the need to visit the places they depict. Stories of disasters, tragedies and personal struggles are no longer as potent, so numbed we are through over-exposure. Friendly debates no longer take place, as the answer to an argument is a few taps on a smartphone away.

It is as though as a society we have been climbing a rope, higher and higher, trying to get a better view of the world, just like the pilot. Except now, as we are nearing the top, we are so high, and we are faced with so much of the world below us that we are simply incapable of feeling the awe which we anticipated. We are simply staring, unsure which way to turn, such that we cannot find the enthusiasm, the innovation and the time which we need to bind thread and make the rope longer. Instead we have no choice but to gingerly climb back down, or simply let go.

And I feel partly responsible, as I am helping contribute to this impasse. I build websites and write articles that people will read alone, and then post on social media for other people to then read alone. I am helping to build a web which is slowly nullifying the enjoyment of exploration and discovery, as experienced by the pilot, the photographer, and the many families who purchased a photo of their home.

We need a shift of direction. The web is already prevalent in every area of our lives; we need to stop building it so that it only improves and contributes to itself. So much of the focus in open-source and publicly accessible software is on building “a better web”, but what if instead we could work together to build a better world. What if we could write software that contributed to society, rather than providing it with more distractions?


A Typewriter

Writing

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I love writing. More accurately, I love the idea of it.

I love the idea of finishing a completed piece, and sharing it with the world to critical acclaim and admiration. I love the idea of seeing my name at the foot of a column in a popular tome, or seeing it in bright colours on the shelves of a book store.

But in reality, I’m not very good at writing. I have ideas aplenty. I have a decent understanding of the Queen’s English. I even know a thing or two about the things I try to write about; but I lack direction, the ability to draw the reader in. The things I write, after a while, bore myself.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

As such, I’m always writing, but I’m never finished. My drafts folder is full of unfinished case studies, articles with no direction, tutorials with no insight, and twelve chapters from two separate novel attempts. Even this article, the one you are reading now, sat in my folder for three months containing just the first line, until I finally thought of a second one.

Two months ago I redesigned this website, and in doing so, reformatted and re-read a lot of the content. I was reminded of my youthful naivety, my pretentious sense of entitlement, and the forced nature of the articles I had written.

I vowed to do things differently. I promised myself I would write meanigful articles, and give useful advice, rather than force my thinking down people’s throats.

I devoted myself to making my blog as readable as possible. I toiled for hours over choosing the correct typeface. I designed graphical elements, and other inventive ways to display content. I thought it would give me focus; make me a more interesting person; make me write things that people wanted to read. I haven’t published a damn thing.

So this is me, publishing something. Hopefully the next one is more interesting.


Confidence

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Lack of confidence is not a curse. It’s a problem; a thing to be overcome.

I’ve spent my entire life solving problems, but I can’t seem to break this one. And I’m not alone, there’s quite a few of us.

We’re the ones dotted around the edge of the room at conferences, awkwardly playing with our phones, hoping to be noticed.

We’re the ones who travel to meet ups, only to spend 10 minutes outside chain-smoking, trying to build up the confidence to enter, only to give up and leave.

I could chat for hours about what I do, if I only I could find the balls to introduce myself.

All it takes is one friendly face; one person to spot me, and I can become a normal person again.

It’s a problem, that’s all. I’ll get there.


Dear Client

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Hello there,

Chances are, this is your first time hiring a web designer. Even if it isn’t, you may not understand the methods I use, or the processes I follow, or even some of the language I speak. You may not even fully understand what it is you actually want me to provide for you, further than ‘a website’.

The good news is, you don’t need to know these things; that’s what you’re paying me for.

The bad news is, you have a new job now; well quite a few actually. My whole business is about providing value for money, and I can’t give you the best value without your input. We’re starting on a journey together, and I need your help just as much as you need mine.

Your first job is to teach me as much as you can about you and about your company. I’ll do a lot of research myself, but the best information will come from the horse’s mouth.

Why do think you need a website? Who of your clients/customers have expressed interest in using one? What do they want to use it for? Are you aiming to replace offline processes with online ones, or just use it as a marketing tool?

Until I know the answers to these questions I won’t know which audiences the site should focus on, and it will fail.

Secondly, what content are you going to put on your shiny new website? Get it to me straight away. Hire a copywriter if necessary (in actual fact, it’s always necessary).

If I don’t have any content when designing the site, all I can build is a bland template, with a hole to put some text in. Give me good content, and give it to me early, and I can tailor the entire website experience to it, and guide your users through your site in an immersive way that they will remember, and return for regularly.

Without content I can’t do that, your site will be forgettable, and it will fail.

Thirdly, do you have people in house who will maintain and support the website? Do you already have in-house designers, or another third-party that regularly create content, graphics or other design work for you?

I need to meet all of the people above, and they need to be involved in the design process from the beginning; therefore I’ll need you to introduce me. These are the people who already know your customers, and what appeals to them - as such they will be hugely valuable when creating a site that blends seamlessly with the brand they have helped you build. Without this insight, your site will fail.

And lastly, who are your customers? Let’s meet them.

All the research in the world is no good if we don’t put a prototype of the new design in front of the real-world users of your website. These users will play with it, get frustrated with it, break it, tell their friends about it, and based on their experience, use it, or leave it. If you wait until launch before you first show your new site to users, you are playing with fire. At launch, if a customer can’t use the new site in the way they want, you’ve lost a customer, and your site has failed.

Get their reaction early in the process, so we can respond to it, and at launch know in advance that together we have built something your customers will love and enjoy using.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this might be your first website, so you may not know the above is required of you, and without doubt there are many web designers who would not ask for that kind of involvement.

But it is absolutely necessary, however busy you are, that you or an equally-well-informed representative are as involved as I am throughout the design process. Whilst it may cost you time or money, this way we can ensure that I am designing a site that fits your company and is not just an empty shell, lacking in personality.

So please, be the client of my dreams, and help me out.

Sincerely,

Your friendly web designer.