It's a Social Media World

A Discussion on Digital Media & Communication Trends

Digital Experiences: The Importance of Simplicity & Context

Trying to create messages in a digital space is not easy. In fact I have failed just as many times as I have succeeded. The great thing about usability testing is no one knows you fail unless you tell them. In a master’s class I am taking on digital communication and information design, we had to create a digital experience by changing the meaning of a piece of chosen text through images and sound.

My original goal was to use applications, creating the piece completely on my iphone. I am particularly interested in how the ubiquity of smart camera phones  are changing the way we communicate. Photographs are sometimes the only message and photography applications are one of the fastest growing downloads for smart phones. Everyone is picture crazy.

Understanding this phenomenon and wanting to explore it further, I set out to use two applications. One called LifeCards, which allows you to create photo montages, and one called Fotobabble which allows you to add sound to a photograph and share it. What I thought was going to be an experiment in learning these applications and the sharing process for them instead turned into a complex communication conundrum.

Pumped Up Kicks was my first project foray. I wanted to visually showcase the irony of how high school students are portrayed as happy care free kids, when we have what could be considered an epidemic of school shootings occurring. I used a song by Foster the People called “Pumped Up Kicks,” In order to juxtaposition a happy upbeat tempo with an eerie dark message. The song is about a student planning a school shooting. The photographs I included are the cover album with the band obviously at a party, a familiar school yearbook photo of two students smiling (the students were the Columbine killers), a photo of the popular Kicks shoe, and another photograph of two students mourning. The idea was to create an experience that married the irony of the way students are portrayed with the mounting societal pressure that exists. I used text from the song to underscore the message: “All the other kids with the pumped up Kicks better run, better run, outrun my gun.” What the digital experience ended up being was a mess. The message was too complex, the ideas to foreign. I asked friends and colleagues their opinions, and they thought the images were familiar, but didn’t recognize them. They also didn’t know what the song “Pumped Up Kicks” referenced. When I explained the lyrics of the song and each photo to the end user they understood the message and seemed to believe that I had created some irony, but the problem was the digital experience should be able to stand alone. See the Pumped Up Kicks Digital Experience Here

After pondering why the message failed it dawned on me. The audience did not have readily available context. Just knowing the lyrics of the song would have helped people understand the meaning a little bit better. Additionally, although the high school yearbook photos were familiar, no one remembered they were the Columbine killers. This created confusion and prevented the digital experience from being effective.

The second reason the first project failed was because of simplicity. The goal was to create irony about how high school students are portrayed as happy care free individuals when in reality there are many issues involving violence, bullying and suicide. The digital experience used too many images that were not well known or recognizable by the end user. This created a hard to understand, disjointed experience.

Armed with the ideas of simplicity and context – I sought to develop a new project ensuring that both of these existed. I took a very well known verse from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” I then placed this verse below one large solo photograph of a man losing his hair. The goal was to create a play on words using parting. Finally, I used a very old Jerry Lee Lewis song to underscore the fact that the man was getting older and losing his hair. In constructing the message this way I told a succinct story. Allowing the user to empathize with the picture and then chuckle after seeing the text and hearing the song. The result is complete comprehension. When I showed this piece to friends and colleagues they immediately understood the references, the text, the song and the idea that as men grow old they worry or lament over losing their hair. See the “Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow” Digital Experience Here

The photography medium I choose may have hindered my ability to tell the first story. If I had to recreate the first digital experience again, I would probably do it using more text, and a movie format so that the passing of time could be used to help create context, simplicity and comprehension.

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