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Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Starting Points for Different Media

Every medium has a different starting point. For new media, sometimes the right starting point has to be found through trial and error. For example, conventional wisdom for newspaper information design states that the content starts right on the front-page. A magazine however only gives you a sneak peek of what’s inside, sometimes more and sometimes less thorough.

With websites, we saw different approaches being tried in the beginning, including the approach to have an intro (and its accompanying “skip intro” button). By now most smart people seem to agree intros to websites are silly, and you can see less and less of them around. It’s likely we don’t need an intro to a website because we don’t browse the website itself; we browse snippets in search results, introduction paragraphs in a blog describing them, titles in a directory and so on. This way every website has as many starting points as it has links pointing towards it, and once we’re there, we half-know what to expect (or at least, prefer to have it wrapped up in a tagline below the logo, and be visually communicated to us through the site’s design). This is very different from say magazine covers, which we mostly browse on the newsstand – here the cover serves a good introduction purpose.

On certain small company websites, you can also see “welcome” messages. If you’re home on the web you kind of understand those companies are new here because they greet you with funny sentences like “We welcome you to our web homepage, dear surfer ... click here to go to ...” or something. They write an introduction for the web itself, assuming their homepage is a kind of starting point. (Links themselves may be introduced on such sites, something along the lines of “to download the program please click here” instead of writing “download the program” or just “the program.”) Even “homepages” themselves – which basically offer you a navigation structure instead of actual content – get more and more replaced by blogs or blog-like structures which are pretty much without intro, navigation or “cover.” (The only navigation remaining here is search.)

For DVDs, on the other hand, there are two kinds of intros around. The first intro is the DVD cover if you buy the movie in a store. The second is the intro after you inserted the DVD, ready to watch the movie. I kind of wish this second intro wasn’t there... because every movie has an intro already (a superior one at that). Isn’t it enough to just have a standard menu accessed by a button on your remote control – one where you can access extra features if you like to or switch settings? A bit like a browser menu, which thankfully doesn’t change its layout with every website we’re visiting.

In (physical) books, we have up to four types of introduction or teasers to prepare us for the content. The cover, the back-cover, the foreword and the introduction. The cover is so we notice the book and decide we are interested enough to grab it. The back cover on the other hand convinces us (or not) that we want to buy the book. The introduction and foreword primes us for the content so we know what to expect. (Who decided what’s the best “starting point" for the medium book?)

Or take CDs. CDs come with a plastic case, a songbook/ cover, and another cover on the CD. For me, the starting point to the CD, ideally, is the first song, so I throw away the cover and plastic case but keep the CD out of necessity... as a backup to what I then rip. (I heard the UK just added online sales to their CD charts and already saw a single become #1 even before it hit the stores, so mostly, people today don’t see the CD cover as their starting point to music. Maybe their starting point is the iTunes music store search box, which might be preceded by a recommendation from a friend or a friend’s blog). Different people have different tastes, of course – my friend likes DVD intros and he also keeps his CD cases.

Or, TV. Back in the 80s in (West-) Germany we had only three channels. Later private cable channels were added, and they’d revolutionize some aspects of German TV (probably copying what US stations were already doing). For example, after some years they got rid of presenters introducing movies. This was then different from the first three (part state-financed) channels, because they would still have a smiling lady talk about the upcoming movie for about a minute or so. Turns out the private channels were more effective though with their short, “faceless” trailers put into the daily TV program, and no presenter at all prior to the movie. They changed the traditional starting point, and soon, the other channels followed.

Is an intro always bad when it “misses” the starting point, making you go through a redundant layer to get to the core? Not necessarily, as it can constitute the culture you live in – think of unwrapping a gift for your birthday, which delays the starting point in a good way. On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t as easily accept something gift-wrapped from a stranger on the streets! Likely, the time you are willing to spend on something “introductory” – say an introduction to a funny film clip – is proportional to the trust you have in the person who you got the link from.

On the web, we find ourselves in “push” and “pull” modes, and we constantly switch between the two. When the website maker doesn’t understand these two modes she can easily confuse and annoy us... for example, by expecting us to be willing to sit through a Flash intro to her website (she thought “push”, most visitors want “pull”). That’s just the most obvious annoyance, but even many of those creators who avoid this particular trap build homepages in terms of a “magazine cover,” which may or may not be the right approach for their content. If we create within a medium, we must understand the correct starting point... we shouldn’t juggle the cocktail shaker if our visitors are dying from thirst.


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