Are we all becoming users?

One of the most important  things us lab rats do (when starting to work with a client) is getting them to ‘think like users’. Instead of thinking about what they want to say they must be totally absorbed in what their users want to do.

This means organisations have to get inside the psyche of users, whether that’s visitors to websites, ‘target segments’ opening emails, or less controllable interaction via social media. “Who are these user people and want do they want?” “Can’t we just sell them stuff?”

But I think I’m currently caught up in a profound and seismic shift ,which is turning us all into users (businesses and individuals alike). As a business, do I still need to engage in a time-hungry project of Borgian magnitude to construct a website, or do I download WordPress? Is my next budget demand a massive add campaign or an imaginative poke on Facebook? Is it all about build and cost or is it all about visualisation and imagination?

Don’t get me wrong, businesses who too-eagerly embrace social media,  with no clear idea of what they will bring the millions of social mediators they seek to interact with, do so at their peril.

But it strikes me that if businesses, organisations and other coporate collectives can engage with social content generation tools wisely and thoughfully, it will bring them one step closer to being users instead of simply mimicking users in order to turn a buck.

That brings a smile to my lips.

Are we grunting online?

Reading University researchers have developed a computer programme that has identified the words “I”, “we”, and the numbers “1”, “2” and “3” as some of the oldest still in use.

With them I could, apparently, communicate with a prehistoric ancester. I couldn’t discuss the current “global economic meltdown” (see my ealier post on Armegeddon language) but I could manage, maybe: “I hungry, need 3 helpings of roast Mastodon. We hunt now!”.

The researchers are also predicting which words are likely to become extinct, citing “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as those most likely to become obsolete first (according to a BBC article on the project).

This means the sentence: “I had some bad sushi last night and I feel like my guts are being squeezed out through my bottom, so I’ll stick to dry toast for lunch” will, one day, have no meaning.

This story has thrown my morning out of wack because I’m now obsessing about what enables some words to thrive while others do not? I can see the importance of being able to identify myself (I), creating alliances (we) and basic numbers (1, 2, 3). Does that mean usefulness is the key to language longevity? If so, are the words which die out (or are on their last legs), words which are no longer useful?

Or is it to do with the fact that we have better / alternative words? Is ‘guts’ going because ‘stomach’ or ‘entrails’ are more accurate alternatives?

And what influence, if any, does the medium of delivery have on a word’s viability? Are some words less viable because they are open to misenterpretation when skimmed at speed online, for example? And are words liable to die out through overuse. (In which case, please let ‘Welcome’ go first. THE most overused word on the internet.)

According to the Reading researchers, the less frequently certain words are used, the more likely they are to be replaced.

Other simple rules have been uncovered – numerals evolve the slowest, then nouns, then verbs, then adjectives. Conjunctions and prepositions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’ , ‘on’, ‘over’ and ‘against’ evolve the fastest, some as much as 100 times faster than numerals.

The evolution of language interests CDA. It was one of the driving forces behind our recent language pathways white paper. I’m firmly convinced that the way we engage with language has been profoundly changed by screen-based media and this in turn is influencing language and its evolution.

Which all begs the question: have we reached a pivot point where the way we create language and meaning is changing and at an ever increasing speed? (Think about younger age groups and txt (sic) messaging and how quickly their new ‘rules’ were widely accepted.)

And what does this mean for people like me?

I think this Reading research is going to keep me awake tonight.

Eager to know more?

Reading University press release: Scientists discover oldest words in the English language and predict which ones are likely to disappear in the future

Radio 4 interview with Professor Mark Pagel about the research

CDA’s language pathways White Paper

Have websites had their day?

I can feel the morning getting away from me. A train beckons and I can’t be late for that meeting. But I AM running late and I haven’t done half the things on my list: my Facebook pages are still woefully incomplete, I need to load a new image on the blog (yep, this one) and I’ve only just signed up to Twitter. Who, for heavan’s sake, has got time for a proper job?

Social media is rather like the really good looking person standing next to French windows at a party. You’re immediately attracted but you’re cautious of going up an introducing yourself in case you sound like a sad prat (tell me it’s not just me who feels like that).

Some of us have embraced sites like Facebook as if they were long lost credit cards. Others of us are sidling up, still figuring out what it is we’re going to say. Businesses, in particular, are trying to get the measure of social media and have the hugest potential to look embarrassing if they get it wrong.

None the less, embrace it they must, or be left on the sofa while everybody else is gathered round the beautiful person standing by the French windows and laughing like drains.

There’s are numerous reasons why businesses should do this: some of which I’ll go into in more detail when I don’t have a train to catch, but the most critical is that all this social energy is definitely reaching cirtical mass. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 (hardly the home of cool) was plugging its Twitter url this morning. I’m currently involved in a project where it is becoming increasingly obvious that the website is going to be the least important component online.

Perhaps the headline: ‘Have websites had their day?’ is overly provacative, but I feel the platform morphing from one based on technology to one based on social energy.

More anon.

Kindle 2 – online magazines nil


News of Amazon’s Kindle 2 has just leaked out, causing tremors of excitement amongst those of us who’d rather do anything than our day job.

The new ‘wirelss reading device’ (think what would happen if an iPod and a paperback had a baby) is sleek and gorgeous and very practical… which got me thinking.

I’ve noticed that  magazine publishers, still chasing that Holy Grail – the perfect online magazine – are increasingly settling for jazzy pdf versions that make ‘swish’ noises when you click your cursor on the corners of the pages. Is this a step forwards, or a step backwards? (Yeah, yeah – rhetorical question.)

The problem with an online graphic representation of a printed magazine is it doesn’t take full advantage of the ‘3D’ space and breathtaking functionality that the internet offers.

People absorb information differently online. They’ve spent the last few years (and online has only been around a few years) acquiring new skills and adapting old ones at a breaktaking pace. And what do we give them? Gussied up pictures of printed magazine pages. It’s a bit like passing your driving test and being handed a push bike.

Readers like Kindle 2, on the other hand, are finding new and exciting ways of bridging the space between online and offline. It gives people the offline framework – book dimensions, use of white space etc – but the ease of new media. Hurray!

Don’t get me wrong, there are some very nice magazine websites and emails out there, but we’re still a long way from doing print successfully online. In fact, should we be doing print at all? I’m seeking some inspiration here.

Why men look twice at prospective mothers-in-law

It’s an old, very old and rather chauvinist gag, but the idea is that you should always look at the mother of the woman you plan to marry because that’s what your wife will look like in 25 years time. I suspect that if women looked at their prospective fathers-in-law the same way marriage would have died out some time ago. But let me get to the point…

Sometimes you really need to take the long view. If your plan is to have and to hold until death do you part then take a 25-year perspective.

But, if you looking at digital platforms and functionality – how far ahead should you future proof?

  • What do you need to send out an email campaign for your business right now, or in a year’s time?
  • What functionality does your web platform need for it to support your business right now – or in 2 year’s time?
  • What length of contract are you (or should you be) signing? What’s the deal if you break it?

Apparently marriages don’t last as long as they did, so maybe the mother-in-law test is no longer valid. It certainly doesn’t make sense if you’re doing digital. Why think even 5 years if you know you’re going to want to change in 3?

The beauty of the digital arena is the speed and fludity of it all. New advances are being made and new insights are being gleaned every day. Stay light on your feet, so you can take advantage.

Instead of getting married to the delivery platform, think instead about the conversation you want to have and who you want to have that conversation with. Don’t be boring and only think of customers… or prospects. Think about knowledge seekers, detractors, distractors, advocates… Heck, if you find the right sweet words you can get married to them all.