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Concept Statements and Website Messages – Part I

By Gerd Waloszek, Product Design Center, SAP AG – August 28, 2003

In his book "Making the Web Work," Bob Baxley presents a model of the software design process. By intent, his model covers only a section of the whole development process, which he divides into the four phases, understanding, vision, requirements, and design. It is the latter that is the focus of his model and book. In the vision phase, the design team creates a comprehensive product vision. Baxley covers this phase briefly in the beginning of his book and proposes several techniques including the "concept statement." This is a concise, memorable statement that tries to capture the "essence" of a product, particularly its uniqueness. It can be regarded as a global goal or motto that provides the design team with an orientation point during the whole design process, just as a lighthouse serves as an orientation point for ships during the night.

In this article, I will take a closer look at the concept statement and consider how useful it is for creating meaningful Websites and other software applications. In a follow-up article, I will complement the concept statement with the notion of the "message" that a Website (or application) transmits to its users and look at the connection between the two.

 

What is A Concept Statement?

As stated above, the concept statement is a short, descriptive, and easy-to-remember phrase that tries to capture the intention or purpose of a Website. It makes clear what sets the site apart from competing sites. By establishing a common vision throughout the design process, it serves as an anchor point or common ground for the design team. For Websites, the effect of a content statement even goes beyond the design and implementation phases. During the maintenance period of a Website, newly added content can largely obscure the original concept.

In his book, Baxley offers several examples that illustrate the nature and characteristics of concept statements:

  • Disney Website: The happiest place on earth (disney.go.com)
  • Apple iMac (new iMac design): sunflower (www.apple.com/imac)
  • Example travel site: A personal assistant with the spirit of an explorer and the concern of a mother

You may ask how such seemingly vague statements can help in guiding the design of a Website, software application, or other product. I was skeptical, too – until I started to visit some Websites and consider what their concept statement might have been or might still be. I will return to this "reality check" in the follow-up article. Generally, if a team lacks a common vision, like that captured by the concept statement, the design may become contradictory or ambiguous. A site could, for example, be targeted at professionals but the graphic designer, lacking this information, may give it a "playful" look.

 

How Do You Create a Concept Statement?

How can a design team arrive at a concept statement? Of course, there is no general recipe. A concept statement can result from a sudden inspiration – as the lore with the iMac concept statement goes. More often, it will be the result of a longer process.

Baxley proposes gathering together the product's desirable attributes and narrowing these down by eliminating redundant attributes. This is probably best done in a brainstorming session that includes people with different backgrounds, such as people from marketing, user interface and graphic design, development, and documentation. Once a set of core attributes has been identified, these should be elaborated with respect to their specific meaning and impact on the product. The final step is to distill the core attributes into a brief, memorable concept statement, a statement that should "excite and galvanize the entire team," as Baxley puts it.

It is important that the statement really uses the core attributes and does not add anything new: "Its goal is to synthesize and reflect the information gained through research and observation, not to replace or supersede it." Thus, a concept statement is not "just another marketing slogan," it is grounded in reality.

 

Homepage Concept Statements

When visiting several Websites with an eye on what their concept statement might have been (or still is), I found that some sites place a statement on the homepage that comes close to a concept statement. Here are a few German examples:

  • All about the Mac. In German. And in red (Alles über den Mac. In Deutsch. Und in Rot - www.macnews.de)
  • The German Dimage 7 Forum - Information portal for users of the Minolta Dimage 5 and 7 series (Das deutsche Dimage 7 Forum - Informationsportal für Nutzer der Minolta Dimage 5 und 7-Serie - www.d7forum.de (no longer available))

These statements are less emotional and more factual than the concept statements given by Baxley. They describe purposes and goals rather than visions or emotional states. Nonetheless, these statements make certain claims that can be contrasted with reality. Because such statements raise certain expectations on the side of the user, the words they use really do matter. If a site

  • makes claims, that is, uses words, such as "all," I expect a thorough coverage of the featured product or topic
  • calls itself a "forum," I expect a certain amount of interactivity, such as message boards, on the site
  • calls itself a "passion" site, I expect primarily personal experiences and fewer comprehensive facts about the object of interest, be it a car, camera, pet, person, or whatever.

Actually, this brought us round to thinking about a concept statement for the SAP Design Guild Website as well. Here is our first proposal

  • SAP's people-centric design resource and forum

We know that we cover the resources part better than the forum part. So, this statement should incite us to become better in this respect as well.

 

Setting Your Site Apart

As we have seen, a concept statement expresses what is "special" about a Website and what distinguishes it from others. For example, you may have a passion for Mercedes /8 old-timers and want to set up a Website featuring this family of cars. You find, however, that there are already sites that cover this topic on the Web, such as the Mercedes /8 Club Website. If that is the case, you have to think carefully how you can set your site apart from the other sites, particularly the club site. The club already has a concept statement on its site so it is easier for you to find a differentiating statement:

  • Club site: The information forum for the Mercedes /8
  • Enthusiast's site: The Website for Mercedes /8 enthusiasts

Private Websites might consider how to cooperate with similar sites. Business and consumer-oriented sites, however, often face direct competition and set out to challenge it. Here, a concept statement can be the starting point for the challenge. As a digicam enthusiast, I observed this competition between two major Websites that both offer information on digicams:

  • Steve (www.steves-digicams.com) - the "top dog": The consumer's best source of digital camera information and news
  • Phil (www.dpreview.com) - the challenger: Welcome to Digital Photography Review
    Where you'll find all the latest in digital photography and imaging news, reviews of the latest digital cameras and accessories, the most active discussion forums, a large selection of sample images, a digital camera buyers guide, side-by-side comparisons and the most comprehensive database of digital camera features and specifications.  ...

As "best" could not be topped, the challenger had to use words, such as "latest" and "most active" instead – and his statement came out a little bit long....

 

Final Word

This article presents the concept statement as a means of establishing a product vision for a Website or software application, communicating the vision to the design team, and keeping it alive throughout the whole development process. In the follow-up article, I will take a closer look at the "other side of the coin," namely, the message that a Website transmits to its visitors. In an ideal world, both, the concept statement and the message should be the same, or at least they should play "in concert."

 

References

Bob Baxley (2002). Making the Web Work. New Riders Publishing.
SAP Design Guild review of the book

 

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