Blink and you’ll miss it

Who gets to decide, when folk can’t agree on the look and feel of a website?

Allow me to digress for a moment. Among the early pioneers of the worldwide web was a fellow by the name of Louis J. Montulli II (pictured). Among other things, Montulli worked on two of the web’s first browsers: Lynx and Netscape. He also invented “cookies” – those little bits of code that websites use to pass systems information back and forth.

Somewhat less glorious was his 1994 idea of a command that would make text blink. If that word is not blinking on your screen right now, it is because most web browsers these days refuse to implement the command.

Montulli never claimed credit for the idea. Quite the opposite, in fact:

“…We had a pretty good laugh at the thought of blinking text, and talked about blinking this and that and how absurd the whole thing would be. … Saturday morning rolled around and I headed into the office only to find what else but, blinking text. It was on the screen blinking in all its glory, and in the browser. How could this be, you might ask? It turns out that one of the engineers liked my idea so much that he left the bar sometime past midnight, returned to the office and implemented the blink tag overnight. He was still there in the morning and quite proud of it.”

In keeping with the aesthetics of this nameless engineer, legions of home designers in the 1990s took pride in making their offerings blink. The trend continued even after evidence showed that readers hated it, and that it hugely reduced traffic and the effectiveness of messages. In 1996 Jakob Nielsen described the blink element as “simply evil” and added it to his highly influential “Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design”.

Undaunted by this disapproval, web designers have continued to find ways to make things blink, inventing special scripts and animated images to get around the restrictions. If you click on the image below you’ll see a recent example, from 2015. It won its author first place in a list of the world’s worst websites.

It’s too easy to scoff. The point is not that fashion can be embarrassing. I mean, look at Montulli’s hair above! What’s more important is to learn from our mistakes. And blinking text is a perfect example. What you like might actually clash with your communication goals.

The usual way forward in matters of taste is awkward negotiations between designers and clients. Once both are reasonably content, then the thing should be reasonably okay, shouldn’t they?

This ignores the reality of the underlying relationship. The designer does not have the same stake in the final outcome. He/she may be in a hurry to get on with the next job. The design company may be hoping to reduce hours. Or they may be thinking, well, “well I think it looks dreadful but who am I to argue… the customer is always right”. I was once told, rather imperiously: “No blue. I don’t like blue”. Among other things, the company logo was several shades of blue. At the same time, the client  may have had their expectations confused by a worrisome price estimate, or they might not understand what is and/or isn’t possible. They may have been convinced that there are mysterious limits. eg “We can’t do this or that because some people have slow internet connections”, or: “This platform is better than that platform because (insert I.T. prejudice)”.

The solution is not to bring in more staff members. Design by committee rarely works. Rather, remind yourself of your primary audience.

Primary audiences
Getting this part of the assignment right from the start is critical. I once worked for a magazine whose primary audience had been defined as: “ordinary working people, policy makers and academics.” Needless to say, the communications staff had been finding it difficult to address this group.

Your primary audience should never be more than two or three contiguous groups.  By this, I mean groups whose basic requirements do not create a communications conflict. In the example above, “ordinary working people” do not speak the same language as academics. They have quite different needs, as an audience. And the pragmatic concerns of policy makers are also quite likely to clash with the theoretical deliberations of academia. If your communication goals are complex, I suggest you consider separate or targeted communications.

Now let’s get back to that blinking text. When it comes to deciding whether or not you are on the right track, design-wise, do not rely on your own taste. This applies even if you feel that you are part of the target group. Nor should you leave the decision to designers or techies. And don’t try to arrive at a solution by passing uncertainties up the hierarchy. Let your primary audience be the judge. Once you have a draft, take it out to the people it has been created for. After all, it is they who control the outome. You are best to acknowledge this from the beginning, before any feedback starts rolling in!

Rather than making your logo blink, or assigning each letter of your headline a different font, size and colour, find a sample(s) of your target audience and talk things through. Buy them a coffee, offer a prize, create a survey, or constitute a more formal focus group. Just get yourself into listening mode.

Let me just say that again, unless the key point got lost:

Let your primary audience be the judge.

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