Concept Statements and Website Messages – Part II
By Gerd Waloszek, SAP User
Experience, SAP AG – October 9, 2003
Bob Baxley proposes using the "concept statement"
as a means of capturing a product's "essence," particularly its uniqueness.
As I find this statement a useful guiding principle in the course of a software
design process, I am devoting a short series of articles to this statement and
its applications. In the foregoing article, Concept
Statements and Website Messages – Part I, I presented the statement
itself; in this follow-up article, I will contrast it with the "message"
notion: A Website, an application, and ultimately any product transmits a certain
message to its users, be it intentionally or unintentionally. (For simplicity,
I will focus on Websites in this article.) Based on a communication model by
Friedemann Schulz von Thun, I will take a look at the different aspects of a
message. Then I will establish a connection between a Website's message and
the concept statement: I will suggest that the message is complementary to or
reveals the concept statement – it is its "reality check." (Interestingly,
this works even if there never has been an explicit concept statement.) Using
this "equivalence" relationship, I will apply the communication model
to the concept statement, too. Let's see, what that means for Web designers.
What Is a Message?
With the term "message," I refer to all the factual, emotional, and
other clues that a Website transmits to a user. Primarily, I am interested in
the initial impression that a Website makes on a user, which is to a large degree
based on the homepage. (With "homepage," I mean the first page that
actually contains content, not the fancy splash screens that many sites place
before it.) Thus, a Website's message can be compared to the initial impression
that we are left with when we meet new people. This impression is based on how
the people introduce themselves to us and on their appearance, such as facial
expression, talking style, clothing, and body language. When we meet these people
more often, the initial impression is enriched or even supplanted by the experiences
that we had with them – but many of the initial aspects persist. Similarly,
after a while, the message of a Website retreats to the background; ease of
use and usefulness of the site become the focus of attention. Nevertheless,
the message is still present and may become a source of irritation or confusion
if it, for example, contradicts the intended purpose of the site.
Deconstructing the Message – Or: The Four Eyes of a Message
As all Web designers know, a Website's message goes beyond the bare factual
information that is communicated through text and content-bearing images. It
also comprises emotional aspects, such as instantaneous liking or disliking,
feelings of comfort or discomfort, familiarity or unfamiliarity, orientation
or disorientation, and many more. Emotions may also be triggered through the
wording of a site. However, graphic design elements, such as colors, decorative
images, or even fonts are much more efficient and faster in establishing an
emotional relationship between a Website and its users.
A Model of Verbal Communication: The "Four Ears" from Schulz von
Much has been written about these complex and subtle "side" effects
that professional graphic designers usually are aware of. Here, I would like
to present a model for the verbal communication between people that can easily
be transferred to Websites and other software applications; it was developed
by the German communication psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun. The author
distinguishes four aspects of communication, or "ears," with which
we listen to a message:
- The fact aspect: A message (mostly) transmits a number of facts,
its "information content;" many people believe that this is all
a message is about
- The relationship aspect: In addition, a sender transmits clues to
state or influence the relationship between the sender and the receiver of
- The self-disclosure aspect: Every sender also reveals something about
him/herself when sending a message
- The appeal aspect: A message is also meant to effect something on
the side of the receiver
Applying the Model to Websites: The "Four Eyes"
Applied to Websites, Schulz von Thun's model might distinguish four "eyes"
because the visual modality dominates in software; but let's stick to the more
neutral term "aspect:"
- The fact aspect comprises the written information on a page or site
as well as those images that carry content. We expect visitors to grasp and
understand this aspect in a reasonable amount of time, although not instantaneously.
This aspect comprises the "abstract" page content that remains after
we remove all decoration, colors, fancy fonts, and so on. (Which is, of course,
not possible in the real world – thus, the many "taste" discussions
that arise, when you want to discuss Website structure or content.)
- The relationship aspect refers to the relationship that a Website
(actually its owner) tries to establish with a visitor. This aspect is to
a large part based on emotional cues. But the utility aspect, and thus more
rational considerations, may gradually come to the forefront with ongoing
usage. Decorative graphics, colors, fonts, and the layout, are means that
designers use to establish a relation between the visitor and the site (and
its owner) – and typically they understand and master these techniques
well. These cues work subtly and immediately: Most visitors attend to these
cues first and comment on them immediately, for example, by saying: "Oh
is this an ugly/cool Website," or: "I (don't) like the colors of
this site." (See also Bob
Baxley's model of the design process and the impact of different design
aspects on usability and user awareness.) In contrast, comments on content
and navigation are typically rare. Quality also plays an important role –
among others, for establishing trust, which is a major concern of commercial
Websites today. Quality refers to the graphics, to the interaction design,
such as broken links, or efficiency of navigation, as well as to the typographical,
grammatical, and factual correctness and relevance of the Website content.
- Self-disclosure is a very prominent aspect on most Websites; this
is much less the case for traditional applications. On Websites, companies
want to tell visitors how proficient they are, how useful, pleasurable, and
desirable their products are, and so on. Private Website owners want to tell
the world who they are, what their opinions and hobbies are, and much more.
Self-disclosure is based on both facts and emotional cues.
- Finally, the appeal aspect may be the most important for many commercial
Websites, namely that visitors order the advertised products. Therefore, for
the success of a commercial Website it is mandatory that the appeal is expressed
unambiguously. Many Websites transmit secondary or even conflicting appeals,
such as animated banner ads from Website sponsors. These bear the risk of
dragging the visitors' attention from the main appeal to their own objectives.
This is just a short walkthrough of the aspects that a message from a Website
may comprise. There are surely many more aspects that Web designers should attend
Relationship Between Concept Statement and Message
In my opinion, a Website's message is a good subjective indicator of how well
its concept statement has been implemented. Ideally, the message should reflect
the concept statement – or something has gone wrong with the design. Put
differently: When creating a concept statement, a design team should ask, which
message it wants to convey to the users. This intimate relationship between
the two led me to state in the introduction to this article that the message
is the reality check for a concept statement. It is a check even if the design
team never created an explicit concept statement: The message will reveal an
"implicit" concept statement – and it may not be in line with
what the designers intended, particularly if there was no common agreement on
what the Website should be about...
Let's return to the communication model described above and ask what it means
for a concept statement, or rather, for the concept that underlies a Website.
I will go through the aspects one by one.
- The fact aspect tells us that the concept statement and the message
should coincide, otherwise there would be a design or implementation mismatch.
If a Website promises to offer "all" the information on a subject,
the coverage of the subject should at least be fairly comprehensive and not
full of gaps. If a site promises to be the "happiest place on earth,"
visitors would not expect to be terrified by news about crimes or environmental
disasters. Even visual elements, such as decorative images, may be problematic
if they lead to wrong associations. If a photo finishing Website, for example,
presents images of cats and dogs instead of people, visitors might expect
a Website about pets.
- As shown in the previous article, concept
statements often refer to the relationship between a site and its visitors.
Bob Baxley's "A personal assistant with ... the concern of a mother."
and Disney's "The happiest place on earth." are examples of such
an orientation. As relationships are largely established through the
emotional channel, it is vital for the graphic design to support the concept
statement in every possible aspect and not to contradict it. For example,
if a site declares itself as a happy, pleasant, or helpful site, colors should
be warm, fonts smooth, images friendly, and so on. Crazy color combinations
would transmit a disturbing message, contradict the concept statement, and
make the Website's message ambiguous. Professional Web designers have to be
instructed about the concept statement so that they can apply their design
knowledge properly. Owners of personal Websites, however, seem to be much
less aware of how different design aspects work together, and often lack sufficient
knowledge of what comprises "good design." On many personal sites,
we find a screaming mixture of colors, animated graphics, and other effects
in order to demonstrate that the Website owner and creator has mastered all
the many exciting Web technologies of today well. Which leads us to the next
- The self-disclosure aspect often shows up in the claims that a Website
makes in its concept statement (often it is explicitly written on the homepage),
such as "all the information about...." If such claims are unrealistic
or contradict the Website's reality, the message runs counter to the concept
statement and undermines trust – and thus a possible "appeal"
of the Website.
- The appeal aspect may not be explicitly expressed in the concept
statement, even though the appeal is often directly related to a Website's
goal or purpose: An online shop's appeal is simply "buy here!" Consequently,
there is a close connection to the relationship aspect: Only if a successful
relationship between the Website and its visitor is established, the Website's
appeal – and economic goal – also succeed.
In two articles, I covered the concept statement and the message that a Website
transmits and looked at the relationship between both. In the final article
of this series, I will present some applications of these concepts.
Bob Baxley (2002). Making the Web Work. New Riders
SAP Design Guild review of
Friedemann Schulz von Thun (1993). Miteinander reden (Talk with each other).
Rowohlt (out of print; ASIN: 3499174898).