How do you 'feel' about information

Do me a huge favour and complete this simple survey. It will only take a 5 minutes. Work your way through the questions in the order they’re presented (don’t you dare peak ahead). Let your intuition take over. Simply opt for the answers that comes closest to your own views. And always go with your first choice.

As with so much online – there is no right and wrong.

I’ll share my findings with you, so watch this space.

» Take the lab rats’ questionnaire

The 'face' of online delivery

Increasingly organisations understand the importance of creating the right Tone of Voice (ToV) for their communications. That tone needs to be ‘modulated’ for online delivery, where communications must be conversational and reply-focussed. Organisations are beginning to understand even that these days.

But when we converse with people face-to-face so much of what we infer and derive is based on visual cues rather than verbal ones. Online, what’s the equivalent of maintaining eye contact? As well as tone of voice think – the face of delivery.

This came to me this week when Mark Tyrrell, a very talented hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy teacher (I was lucky enough to attend one of his courses a couple of year’s back) Tweeted a New Scientist article about how we’re more likely to think other people are attractive if they’re looking straight at us and smiling.

A study at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, UK, paired nearly identical photos of computer-generated faces, with smiling or disgusted expressions. The pairs only differed in where the irises were pointed: straight at the viewer, or off to the side.

Hundreds of participants then rated the faces for sexual attractiveness, and (what I’d like to focus on) for ‘likeability’. Both men and women found faces looking straight at them to be more attractive and more likeable, even if the faces looked disgusted (though smiling faces were preferred). I think we’ll leave the sexual attractiveness of websites for another day.

I think this face of delivery is very important online because of the conversational and even intimate nature of the communication.

  • We know that a brochure is not an exclusive communication (even if our name is lasered at the top).
  • A letter may be personal but it isn’t (generally) intimate.
  • Online communication is an intimate space because of the way we engage with the delivery system – leaning in to our computer, cradling our Blackberry in the palm of our hand…

Reviewing web content against the above – starting with the visuals

So, online, how do you give your tone of voice eye contact and a smiley face? And, when you’re reviewing web content, what measures might you use to determine the face of your current online delivery?

One place to start might appear to be the visuals you use. Ideally they should be of things and people who ‘connect’ in some way with your business. Be aware of simply purchasing shiny toothed  smiley faces from an image catalogue. There is something about model poses and a trick they use, pointing their eyes at the camera but allowing their gaze to soften. This widens the iris – in theory more attractive – but reduces the intensity of the eye-to-eye engagement.

I’m also very grateful to Richard Sedley at cScape for drawing my attention to a study that looked at how web users attention could be drawn to different parts of the screen by using the eyeline of the person in a photograph. Eg if you wanted somebody to look at a product / product offer, have someone else in the ad’ looking in the direction of the offer.

The question here is: do you want to engage with the user (in which case do you want the eyes on the screen to connect with the eyes of the user), or do you want them to be drawn to a product or service offered on the screen (in which case should the eyes on the screen connect with the product or service)? Something to ponder

But don’t stop with the visuals

But the more I thought about it the more that focusing on the visuals alone seemed to be missing the point. When we port a concept online we have to rework it for the new space. It pays not to be to literal in your interpretation of offline best practice for online. All of which begs the question… what is the ‘face’ of your website and who is it focusing on?

Welcome to my hypothesis…

I reckon the face of your website is your Home page. And in the case of larger sites, you may have several web personalities grouped together, so you might also have ‘faces’ on primary landing pages – such as the start of a big section. I’m a great believer in treating your website with the same respect and governance you would any other member of your organisation, so logic dictates that the Home page is the face. (What do you think?)

So, above and beyond the basics of a good Home page; clear layout, clear and consistent labelling, easy to follow nav, good tone of voice… how do you assess the eye contact?

Here are the basic proportions of a human face:

  • traditional rules of proportion (Disagree? Take it up with Vitruvious) show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three
  • the upper horizontal section ends at mid-forehead
  • the lower at the base of the nose
  • the eyes rest on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.


Just for fun I then overlaid these proportions on some web Home pages I liked or solicited from others who didn’t know what I planned to do. I situated the top of each Home page at the forehead line.


What I find interesting is just how much important stuff is going on in the mid-face section, around the eyes . And much of the very practical information – including links, T & Cs etc – lines up with the mouth area.


So, lab rats, where are you going with all this?

Firstly, check out how much interesting stuff is going on in and around the eyes above (about the only exception is Philips).

The lab rats are still working on this one but I strikes us that, in terms of the way you evaluate your web (and particularly, Home) page real estate, you might want to draw a smiley face on your wire frames.

1. Is there something your users can make ‘eye contact’ with – a responding human face, other strong visual, focusing information?

2. Is there a face-like quality to the page? (Keep in mind that faces are not totally symmetrical.)

3. How do you ‘feel’ when you engage with your Home page?

Not only is very engaging information concentrated around important facial elements on our examples above, but this content is written and displayed in a very ‘likeable’ way. I don’t think you should disregard the basics, including the role of the F Pattern.

But… it makes you think.

Useful links – each one takes you away from the lab, so we’ve opened them in new windows for you

>> New Scientist article

>> The eyeline of models

>> The F Pattern

>> The cScape Customer Engagement Unit blog (CDA are CEU members)

>> Mark Tyrrell’s new website – Uncommon Help

Useful links within this blog (we want to keep you here, so they open in the same window)

>> Reply-focussed communication

PS I’d be very interested to hear about the role of ‘eye contact’ and conversational tone in Asia where the rules for appropriate interaction are different.

To draw the human head accurately, first become familiar with the basic proportions. Traditional rules of proportion show the face divided into six equal squares, two by three. The upper horizontal division is roughly at the ‘third eye’ level mid-forehead, the lower at the base of the nose. The eyes sit on the horizontal centre, the mouth on the centre of the lower third.

Archive as a presentation of your brand

Mad Hatter cartoon

In Alice in Wonderland the Mad Hatter is doomed to live his life at tea time. He and his companions cope by moving round a giant tea table, leaving behind the detritus of their last repast in order to begin again at a new place setting.

I sometimes feel the web is modelled along similar constraints. I ponder the detritus we leave behind in terms of useless links and even more useless pages, while we’re guzzling Darjeeling somewhere else. Like the Mad Hatter we’re doomed to live life in the present tense and there isn’t time to tidy up what’s gone before. Which brings me on to the subject of archiving (‘At last!’ exclaimed Alice).

Some organisations have embraced archiving. But often there’s a clear driver. For example, they have archivable product of intrinsic value. The US Congress digital preservation program, designed to preserve political historic context and the British Library web archive, come to mind. I select these 2 at random and don’t want to get drawn into commenting on their execution. Newspapers and libraries have always archived and are therefore predisposed to do so digitally.

And, within the context of this blog, neither do I want to get into the technical developments that enable archiving. What interests me is why so many of us are Mad Hatters? What’s the mindset that prevents us engaging with archive projects and what are the implications for brands?

Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of how important their online touch points are, not just in terms of sales and information but as an extension of  brand. At CDA we talk about usefulness as the essential online brand attribute. Online, people don’t want marketing messages. They want facts and information, fueled by clear navigation, that allow them to get on an do.

But what do businesses do about content that’s no longer current?

1. The simple answer would seem to be: take it down.

For much material that probably makes perfect sense. If it has no intrinsic value, even as a matter of record, then it can probably go.

But you need to be asking some pertinent questions around this and not acting in haste (because it’s the easiest solution). These questions should exend to considering links that inhabit the pages you are considering taking down – not just out from them but links in from other pages and other sites. Sites that may well belong to other organisations and are therefore are outside of your direct control. (CDA recently undertook a BBC archive project where link evaluation was the critical factor.)

2. Plenty of content can probably be kept digitally but not made available.

I remember being told about a tobacco company that keeps everything on the basis that they don’t know where their next class action is coming from and they can’t afford not to have a record of everything they’ve said and written (web is just a part of that).

3. But there is also a great amount that should be archived in a way that still allows public access.

An easy example is past copies of annual reports and accounts.

But a publicly accessible archive also stands testament to organisational longevity. Even at a subliminal level this is an important brand attribute, particularly in financial services and the public sector.

So, I hear you thinking, we’ll keep all these pages up then? Ah, if only life was that simple. Pour me another cup of Darjeeling and I’ll explain.

The web, like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, exists in the here and now. For online users it is forever tea time. They’re looking for content that will allow them to do things now and are evaluating against personal criteria that allow them to make judgements about this in the fastest time possible. A matter of seconds. They expect web content to be current because they are.

Archive pages need to evidence the fact that they are archive in nanoseconds. They also need to evidence that they’re still up there because they’re useful in some way. Obviously a date helps but is it really clear? Explore some of the dustier corners of mega sites and you’ll find all sorts of pages, PDFs, printer friendly versions that seem to exist outside of time and space.

And there is a clear governance issue here. Take the hypothetical case of a health site that over the years has written and commented on various reports relating to diet, including how many eggs we should eat. (I choose eggs because the guidelines seem to go up and down like Topsy. I have no idea what they currently are but I’m healthy and I like omelettes.)

And this health organisation has done some pretty impressive work over the years; collaborated at a government level and the like. To take down the older reports would mean their online presence is diminished. Plus, they are a valueable site for research and student traffic who want to access this past material. Password protecting a whole load of content would be counterproductive in terms of this traffic (having considered this approach thoroughly) and also reflect badly on their brand. They’re a public health organisation.

But say I’m an overweight man in his late 50s with heart and collesterol issues. In an attempt to look after myself I visit this health website and download information about diet. But in my haste I download previous advice on eggs. Six months down the line I’m facing a coronary bypass and there’s a leaflet in the doctor’s waiting room about no win no fee legal advice.

Now I have no idea what the legal argument would be in this case. But up until the end of last year I was Chair of Governance for a small UK NHS organisation so governance and duty of care are things I feel very strongly about. Could something like this never happen? Or is it just a matter of time?

So, I hear you thinking, we’ll take all these pages down then. Ah. Cut me a slice of cake and I’ll explain.

This brings me back to an earlier point. Your past is part of your brand. If you were at a dinner party with someone who refused to talk about anything that happened pre-2008 you’d be a little suspicious. Wouldn’t you?

So archiving has to be about striking a balance. It’s about governance, curation, usefulness and record. If you have sites and pages languishing out there because it’s just too complicated to consider doing something about them, well… have you met my friend the Mad Hatter?

Useful links (that take you to CDA main website pages)

>> How useful is your brand?

>> Brand usefulness – help not hype

>> How people use language to search online

Useful links (you’ll leave the blog and CDA, so we’ll open these in  a new window for you)

>> British Library UK Web Archive

>> US Congress archive program

The power of metaphor – discuss


I was lecturing to a room of health professionals the other week about how to handle vast quantities of information . This is not simply a question of moving and storing the stuff, but getting the right bits of it into the right hands. The health service is awash with data, much of it designed to shore up government aspiration. If you want data to become information, and from there get turned into knoweldge that is used and enthused over, you have to distil and present it in an engaging fashion. That’s why I was discussing metaphors.

I wanted to understand what metaphors this group of bright young health service leaders used when talking about knowledge. Your choice of metaphor (about anything) can say a great deal about how you view what you are talking about. There’s some very interesting research about metaphors, including work done amongst physicists, who were concerned that the traditional metaphors used to describe energy were inhibiting the way students grasped some newer scientific concepts, such as quantum mechanics ( David T. Brookes and Eugenia Etkina ).

In the Netherlands, Daniel G Andriessen, noted how many Western metaphors for knowledge equated it to ‘stuff”. This is pretty sad. Knowledge should be fluid and energic not stuff. But that got me thinking…

When clients approach large digital projects, such as a new website or email programme, they often approach the content as STUFF. This stuff has to be moved around and put into piles. It has to be ‘loaded’. The task itself is daunting. People don’t want to deal with the STUFF. STUFF is boring.

So, what metaphors do you use to describe content? Is it ‘stuff” or is it something more dynamic and fluid. If you’re a provider of digital services, what metaphors are your clients using to describe aspects of a digital project? Listen out for them. They may speak volumes about what sort of client they’re going to be.

Using metaphors online

The other aspect of metaphor I’m currently exploring is the way it can be used in online content.

Some of you are aware that I’m obsessed by the how the human brain engages with content offered via a computer screen, as opposed to traditional print medium. A University of California study, featured in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry last year, found that a simple task like searching the web enhanced brain circuitry in older adults.

Brain scans on volunteers aged between 55 and 76 showed that both searching the web and reading books produced evidence of significant activity in regions of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.

However, the web search task produced significant additional activity in separate areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning – but only in those who were experienced web users.

The researchers hypothesised that this was due to the sheer range of choice available online compared with the pages of a book and that users developed these skills over time. I don’t know about you, but stuff like that makes my skin prickle.

I also believe that the sheer visuality of the medium engages the brain in different ways, triggering skills that we first developed when drawing in charcoal on cave walls, or carving ornate pictograms inside temples and tombs.

Is metaphor the chimera that straddles both language and image?

Our general advice to clients is keep web copy simple. Avoid the clever and be very cautious of the humorous. People on the web are seeking knoweldge at speed and have no time to decode your wit.

But can the right metaphor enhance the speed at which a web users grasps a point? Could it give them a fast visual cue and trigger the parts of the brain your words cannot reach?

Me? I haven’t made my mind up yet. But it’s worth giving some brain time to.

The 'strikethrough' as a visual cue – and maybe hypnosis thrown in

I received a marketing email the other day which used ’strikethroughs’ in the text.


For a second I thought someone had just pressed ’send’ on an early proof, but I quickly figured out that the strikethroughs were being used as visual devices designed to layer some additional meaning into the text.

I’ve given up hunting about in my email inbox for the specific example but the text went something like this:


A bit tricksy? Maybe. But what was rocking my boat was how the strikethroughs were being used as visual metaphors to convey both a thought process and some softer values.

I passionately believe that the way we engage with content is being profoundly changed by the visuality of screen-based media. I’m not convinced that you could use strikthroughs in printed material and achieve the same effect. (Shoot me down in flames now, if you don’t agree.)

I also came across the strikethrough technique on a website trawl recently.

All of which leaves me with a couple of questions. Can visual clues work on a hypnotic level? I’m thinking about the use of negatives in written and spoken language eg: ‘Do not think about pink elephants!’. I know for a fact that everybody who read the previous sentence ended up thinking about pink elephants, albeit briefly. This is because you have to think about whatever the ‘not’ is being applied to before you can not do it.

If you’re still with me, I need to know how people decode the information that is ‘under’ the strikethroughs and how they weight it compared to the replacement words that are not struck through (tortuous bit of past tense, but there you go).

If telling someone ‘not’ to do something actually adds emphasis, then a word under a strikethrough should be more powerful than the word it is replaced by. But I’m not convinced that’s the way this technique is currently being used. So, if you’ve got a minute, tell me what is the lasting image you retain after reading the following:


Shut your eyes for a few seconds and conjure up an image based on what you remember from the sentence above. Is the image closest to:

Option A

The flowers in the meadow were azure and shook as the storm howled.

Option B

The flowers in the garden were blue and swayed as the wind blew.

Comment through this post or send an email to the lab rats at


Extra points are awarded if you enclose a pretty drawing based on which image you found the stronger.