Audience and identity, the power of storytelling on the web with Josh Kill of Squarespace and Nathalie Destandau of Tomorrow Partners
July 10, 2014
by Jennifer Schappert-Champeaux
There are websites that I can easily lose myself in for hours—TED.com, immediately comes to mind. I'm not alone; TED.com ranks amongst the top 1000 websites visited globally. TED’s mission is to spread great ideas. In some ways, foundations have similar purpose. Whether the ideas be in the form or research, best-practices, awareness, or scaling programming, foundations are in the business of spreading great ideas. And yet, while TED.com is reaching millions of viewers, many foundations struggle to engage their audiences. But, what if this were to change? Imagine the potential for greater impact.
Throughout the month of June, Contribution Associates analysed the communications of over 100 foundations. Integral to this research was understanding the specific challenges foundations face in engaging audiences and spreading ideas through their websites. We discovered that two primary barriers include:
Websites are often disorganized resulting in a frustrating user-experience.
Foundations fail to communicate the full range of who they are through their websites.
I had the privilege of speaking with two leading design experts, Nathalie Destandau, Partner and Chief Strategist at Tomorrow Partners and Josh Kill, Creative Director ofSquarespace to present them with the above challenges and learn from their experiences.
INTRODUCING NATHALIE DESTANDAU OF TOMORROW PARTNERS AND JOSH KILL OF SQUARESPACE.
I was first introduced to Nathalie when working for BSR. Tomorrow Partners worked with my team to develop a Tool Builder which enables NGOs operating in low-income countries to develop beautiful visual training resources that are culturally relevant, free and online. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness with which Tomorrow Partners approaches its work not only in digital products and services but in strategy, identity and brand experiences.
Squarespace’s mission is to provide creative tools that help anyone give a voice to their ideas. In the past couple of years Squarespace has received a lot of attention—including the Webby Award for best Visual Design in 2014—for doing just that. With a strong emphasis on website templates that promote ease of use and storytelling, Josh Kill is responsible for overseeing everything that is built on top of Squarespace including feel, experience, and functionality.
Both Nathalie and Josh came to design from somewhat unexpected backgrounds. Nathalie started her career as an English teacher at one of the largest public universities in California and Josh has a background in marine biology and genetics. “As the world was changing, I could see that the problems were likewise changing. Movements, such as the social justice movement, were coming to the forefront. I wanted to be able to put my skills towards broader issues.” Nathalie explained. Nathalie and her partner, chief designerGaby Brink, co-founded Tomorrow Partners in order to accomplish that dream. “I’ve always been drawn to the big question of how things operate.” Josh said. Continually asking questions is what propelled Josh from research biologist to photographer to independent website designer to Creative Director of Squarespace.
I discussed the primary challenges that foundations are facing to communicate through their websites with Nathalie and Josh and they provided us with three primary recommendations.
DEVELOP YOUR STORY FIRST.
“When you first start designing a website, you can be tempted to start with the components that are the easiest or most interesting to you. However, take time to step back and understand your story first.” Josh advised. Our brains are wired to respond to stories. When we are presented with facts or lists of information, the language processing part of our brain (e.g. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) is activated to decode words into meaning. When told a story, however, we not only activate the language processing of the brain but other regions of the brain that are used to experience the events of the story. You can read more about the neurological response to storytelling in the New York Timeshere.
It is therefore unsurprising that websites that tell a clear story are compelling. Writing an organization’s story, however, can be a daunting task. Josh was generous to provide us with a list of questions that Squarespace asks themselves when outlining the needs for a given category of Squarespace customer. We've adapted them very slightly for foundations.
- What makes your organization special? Reflect on this question from your heart and write down your response.
- What is the primary purpose of your organization? Reflect on this question from you head. What are your primary targets and goals?
- How can your primary purpose be supported or extended through a website?
- What is the primary action(s) you want to drive your website audience to?
- What content is needed to compel visitors towards the primary action(s)?
UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE.
Every story has an audience and every good story is crafted to respond to the particular emotions, behaviors and needs of that audience. Nathalie walked me through Tomorrow Partners' process of getting to know an audience. “One of our first steps is to catalog user stories. User stories are all of the things that people want to accomplish when they come to your site. There can be hundreds of user stories. Cataloging user stories requires direct interaction with your audience. We often hear, ‘I know exactly what our users want!’ but this is dangerous.” Nathalie warned. Designing for an audience involves far more than simply adjusting the framing of your story or removing the use of jargon; it requires a deep understanding of existing knowledge, ideas, goals, behaviour patterns, time commitments, expectations, learning processes, methods of accessing information, and culture.
Once they understand the users and have cataloged user stories, Tomorrow Partners creates journey maps and use cases to inform navigation. Tomorrow Partners thinks through what the audience needs now (i.e. to do one’s work) versus what the user could need in the future (i.e. library). “Our goal is to remove redundancies and simplify pathways so that the taxonomy is clear.” In many cases, organizations have had websites for years and over the years they have added more and more content without carefully considering the architecture of the site. “You can think of this site like a house.” Nathalie explained. “You have the original rooms of the house, then you decide to add more and more rooms on. If you don’t consider the existing rooms you will end up with two living rooms.” The case of “adding-on rooms” is almost impossible to manage for the organization and incredibly difficult to navigate for the audience.
As the creative director at Squarespace, I asked Josh what drives his design choices in developing website templates. "We have a very purpose drive approach. We conducted an extensive amount of research. When you look at 10,000 websites for a particular industry, you start to understand that there are only 5-10 models that really work. We identify what the goal of the industry is as well as what the audience wants in order to develop a core set of really solid layouts. Always think through the lens of your story and your audience.” Josh advised.
COMMUNICATE YOUR IDENTITY.
We know the foundations that we assessed to be passionate, relentless, creative, and thought provoking, but the words that came to mind when we reviewed their websites were often corporate, uninspiring, and disorganised. We asked Nathalie to walk us through how Tomorrow Partners strategizes with an organization to understand its identity and then how it gives that identity visual life.
“When strategizing the brand identity, we get internal and external stakeholder input.” Nathalie explained. “If we just talk to friends and family of the organization, we’re going to get the party line. We go to external parties to understand their view of who the organization is, why they exist and why should people care.” Tomorrow Partners presents their clients with two sets of information: how they are being perceived and how they want to be perceived.
When asked for an example, Nathalie discussed Tomorrow Partners' work in aligning the visual aspects of Adaptive Path's website with its organizational identity. “Adaptive Path had quite literally written the book on user experience. They had already done the strategic work and determined that they were about designing human experiences." Nathalie explained. "We decided to use very real photography to show humanity up-close.” Tomorrow partners chose not to use photoshop or to alter the photos so that the rawness of the photography reflected the humanity of the organization. “Adaptive Path does quite a bit of mapping so we also incorporated very clear illustrations." Nathalie said. "Adaptive Path is a serious, technical company but we also knew them to be flexible, creative, nimble and collaborative. The typography, voice, and color all needed to bring those words to life. ” Tomorrow Partners communicated the identity of Adaptive Path—designing great human experiences—by creating a delightful user experience for the audience.
Squarespace is perhaps best known for its beautiful templates that enable users to express their stories and identities easily. I asked Josh to explain where this visual emphasis stemmed from. “The web as a medium is naturally cold. We felt a real responsibility for the sites that we were creating. We felt a responsibility to help people communicate online as best as possible." Watch the one-minute video above to see how organizational ideas, goals and personality can be reflected through a website.
Even after thoughtfully seeking internal and external perspectives on an organization's identity, communicating a story and identity is challenging without the right visuals. I asked Nathalie and Josh for advice on how organizations can address this challenge. “For not-for-profits, finding good photography is the most challenging.” Nathalie agreed. “It’s often really hard to use the photos that an organization already has. One ideas is to develop guidelines for photography prior to going out into the field. Every time that you are in the field, take the shots that you’ve mapped out for the event. You will then have a treasure trove of pictures that you can use, a library for showing impact.” Josh too pointed to photography. “Telling your story and who you are is the most important part of your website….Once you have your story write out the text description of the images that support your story.” Josh also recommended that foundations seek help from photographers or designers who know how to tell a story visually.
SPREAD YOUR IDEAS.
Let us now loop back to TED. TED's mission is to spread great ideas. On their website they write, "Everything we do ... is driven by this goal: How can we best spread great ideas?" Foundations too have the opportunity to spread great ideas--ideas that are heard and resonate with audiences. The secret is to take time to develop your story, understand your audience, and reflect on your idea--design will follow.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION.
We'd love to hear your thoughts, reactions and examples! Leave a comment below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @j_champeaux #design4impact.