Slow Food, Slow Content: Exploring 21st Century Content Experiences

Amidst the world of streamlined content aggregators and news summary apps, there’s an increasingly popular movement to actually lengthen the experience of consuming digital content. Let’s wholeheartedly welcome this.

Fast Food, Fast Content

If there’s anything human beings could use less of, it’s those technologies and distractions that shorten our communal attention span even more. Watching the motion blur of people blazing through their Facebook and Instagram, one could argue that humans have evolved to read in fast-forward.

As you read this, Twitter users send over 100,000 tweets per minute, Tumblr blog owners publish 27,778 posts per minute, 571 new websites go live every minute of every day. Some of this speedy information consumption may be positive and, perhaps, some isn’t—all of it being subjective, of course. But I think we can all agree that content is consumed and devoured at a lightening-speed. And, for the most part, this content vaporizes minutes and hours after it’s posted. In fact, much of this content is served up and designed for quick consumption – much like fast food.

Consider a jester of our time, Louis CK.  Late 2013 while appearing On Conan O’Brien, Louis claimed that our devices are taking away our opportunities to just be, exist—and he argued that they may even stifle our ability to empathize. While its easy to understand and even agree with these sentiments, it doesn’t change the reality that our screens are always with and around us. Sure, we can (and probably should) use them less, but what about actually using them in ways that foster our ability to be

Like the “Slow Food” movement which focuses on whole foods being consumed by traditional methods (not the microwave), let’s consider creating more content experiences that are less drive-thru friendly and slower to take in.

Slow Food, slow read, slow content

The Opportunity: Slow Food / Slow Read / Slow Content

Let’s harness this opportunity to not only bring more thoughtfulness to our approach to the digital world – but also use this insight to distinguish our clients and create interesting projects to work on.

The diminishing presence of print media has created a potential vacuum that digital media will ironically have to fill (but ideally not entirely replace). Ideas and stories need to be treated with more respect than a mere tweet, and long-form publishing can meet this need. Brands and authors now have the opportunity to create deeper connections with their readers in the same place we delete emails and like cappuccino photos.

A few years ago, people would’ve laughed at this notion.  In fact, it was industry standard to keep digital content as short as possible.

Why does the print medium promote more presence, more “being” and, in effect, more meaningful consumption of information?

Print media has become more rare and selective, forcing the remaining few publishers to accentuate the medium’s most stand-out, compelling qualities. The choice of paper is very deliberate, the layout, typography and use of beautiful photography has all been highly curated. We see printing effects like engraving, foil stamping, and letterpress used more commonly, but even the simple scent of ink emanating from the printed page is a delight (at least to us).

All of these things lend themselves to a visceral experience—a mindset that we believe makes consumers have a special relationship to the content. This is also true with the resurgence of vinyl records and our fleeting experience with music today. One of the biggest losses we’ve experienced with digital music is the tangible one; having that sleeve artwork and liner notes to visually brand what you are about to listen to. Of course we consume music differently today (and bringing back the holistic music experience can be another article for another time).

It would be in error to try and emulate the manifestation of the analog world within the digital.  Sure, there are many things that print has influenced in digital publishing: richer typography, full bleed or salon style photographic layouts, large quotes, pull quotes… But if we are to truly make big ideas and stories digestible on our devices, then we need to embrace the busy contexts of our lives and design around them. Thankfully, we have arrived at a time when technology has matured enough to allow for ideas and stories to be delivered on screen in ways that weren’t previously possible.

So how do we design for the “slow read?”  

Good content is the first requirement.  Long-form can’t equate to “wordy” or unedited, it takes a laboriously-chiseled piece of meaningful copy for people to scroll to the end. Short form content shoots from the hip, and because of this, it has a half-life of maybe a couple of hours. The point is to make sure we start with something worthy—something that will get people to stop, even if just for a moment.

Second, let’s exploit the advantages of the digital realm. Print has its advantages for sure, the very nature of having a physical, printed object lends itself to an array of slow read-friendly behaviors; brewing a cup of tea, creating a cozy space, laying in a hammock, etc…

Digital Media, Instant Community + User Experience

Digital media simply can’t compete with what printed materials evokes.  But digital has something that analog doesn’t: instant community. We as designers have to think this way when designing public-facing digital experiences. Users want to interact with content, rather than just passively consuming it. Giving them the keys to interact with the content is one big step towards users spending more time with it. When audiences become cheerleaders and share their experiences virtually, via social media, this exposure reaches an exponential number of people – far beyond the capacity of an analog book. Coupling community with great content is surely a recipe for success.

But in utilizing community comes the responsibility of user experience design. UX design is more important today than it’s ever been, and figuring out the best way for your readers to share, comment, and follow your publication/brand/product is key. You might have the best article on the internet, but if you don’t compel your readers to share or comment on it, then you’re limiting its impact.

Thinking through new, innovative and intuitive user experience patterns is paramount. Wireframing and prototyping is an essential ingredient in crafting a refined digital storytelling experience. Add to this that we can easily include photos, video, and audio in our stories means that we need to be thoughtful in our approach, and not blinded by the shiny new object in the room that is long-form publishing.

There are some long-form products and examples that are combining all of these elements and ultimately pushing the needle forward: ESPN’s Outside The Lines Series, The Atavist, Medium, The New York Times –  Snowfall & The Jockey. These all pair interactive media, audio, data-visualization, commenting and sharing throughout the story to help support, authenticate and make the story sticky. We yearn for visual support inside stories rather than just blocks of paragraphs. Like Medium, interesting publishing platforms Exposure and Storehouse also do a nice job of allowing anyone the ability to create visually-rich and engaging long-form stories.

Now vs. Later: The Varied Practices and Context for Content Consumption

Finally, something that has really helped us in creating slow read experiences is thinking about them in terms of now and later. If our goal is to provide rich content to users on their devices, then we need to provide the time and space to consume it. This means creating an experience that allows for time-shifting, so a user can read at a time they feel is right. What will the user consume now vs. later? And how we cater to these two drastically different contexts is a tricky matrix to untangle.

For example, the “Now” experience of an article could mean that they read a small portion of the piece then bookmark it, email it to themselves, or some form of “save it for later.”  These simple behaviors could be optimized in very different ways depending on the kind of user or the device they are using.

Or the “Now” experience could mean that they want to read it now but have limited time or attention span to do so.  The New Republic relaunched last year with a feature that read aloud your selected article.  We thought this was a step in the right direction as it takes into account our busy contexts.  A user might not have time to finish reading an article, but might be able to deal with other low-focus tasks while an article is “playing” in the background. The use of audio is vastly underused, especially since nearly everyone can hear audio on their devices.

The “Later” side of the paradigm can encompass many things. This could relate to designing a successful user experience around readers who start an article on their computer, but finish it later on their tablet. This really gets into the realm of responsive design, and though this is a complex subject there are so many wonderful opportunities to design innovative experiences that work across different devices.

But perhaps the biggest facet of Later, is how will you design an ecosystem that will inspire people to slow down, participate, and subscribe. Sometimes the most immersive subject matter can be ruined by a bloated technological experience reminiscent of the Flash sites of yesteryear. Looking forward though, this opportunity for deeper engagement with content in the digital realm could actually benefit us in more human ways.

Maybe those moments where we are tired of scrolling through beautiful landscape photos could be punctuated by reading something inspirational. Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times recently said that, “Empathy [is] the real hallmark of great immersive journalism.”

Assuming that we can figure out ways to deliver truly compelling storytelling anytime, anywhere, perhaps we can get to a point where reading a great story on our phone won’t be so far removed from reading that magazine or novel at the beach…

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