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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 Thun

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 a message
  • 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 to.

 

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 aspect, self-disclosure.
  • 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.

 

Final Word

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.

 

References

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

Friedemann Schulz von Thun (1993). Miteinander reden (Talk with each other). Rowohlt (out of print; ASIN: 3499174898).

 

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