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Curating

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is currently featuring a Cézanne exhibit. To help promote it, they’ve hung a monstrous banner in front of the museum. They do similar treatments for every special exhibit. Sometimes, they’ll even go so far as to paint the steps—yep, those steps—with a portrait of the artist or her work.

At a museum, a curator is reponsible for the safety and proper presentation of work. Translation: a museum's content is so vast that it’s a very important job to decide what gets presented and in what manner.

As of today, there are 30.02 billion reported pages on the indexed web (source: WorldWideWebSize.com). And yet, even as the web grows larger, most web presences have no such curator position, no one who really oversees and evaluates the important of content and what should be presented front and center. Generally, that job has been cast on information architects, UX designers, graphic designers, or even webmasters, but it really should be the responsibility of someone intimately familiar with the subject.

Because of this devaluation, content decisions have been relegated to political discussion. What appears on a site’s homepage gets decided by which organizational branch has the most to say, which section gets the most unique hits, or—worst of all—which department gets the most money in donations.

Attempted “Solutions”
The Carousel

The “above-the-fold” mentality is waning. Unfortunately, the dogma still exists. There’s still a large push to pack as much content as possible into the “most valuable real estate” of a page.

Enter the carousel. A seemingly perfect way to fit a lot of content within the same space. But does it really accomplish the goal? Soon enough, I guarantee that we’ll be discussing which piece comes first in the carousel. Do we auto-cycle through them? Can one stay surfaced longer than the others? How much content can a department fit in their 5 seconds? We’ll start fighting about how to prioritize real estate within our carousels (as if this weren’t happening already).

Random

You’ve seen this one before. You visit the site and see a beautifully chosen piece of content. After browsing around the site, you visit the homepage again to go back to that content, and it’s gone, replaced with something completely different.

I can just see how this reasoning was conceived. “Instead of choosing, we’ll let math handle it! That way, no one can blame us for playing favorites.”

Both of these methods are more reactions than solutions. The popularity in these solutions were likely technology-driven decisions as JavaScript becomes more widely accepted. However, as I’ve said before, technology over technique often produces emotionless design, information that allows users to window shop without falling in love.

So what do we do instead?

Call to arms

Tailor content, and insist on avoiding appeasement mechanisms. Build consensus among stakeholders as to what is important. Admittedly easier said than done, but it’s not an impossible task. The Apple website does this masterfully.

Imagine if the art museum had hung 7 banners instead of 1. How watered down would the message be? How ineffective?

Hearkening back to my retail days, one rule I always armed my employees with was the fact that 75% of customers will purchase an item suggested to them over items that they find themselves. As someone who creates and designs content, I’ve found that the same holds true on the web.

Don’t be afraid to recommend and promote. More often than not, featuring a piece of content works really well as opposed to surfacing 10 items for a user to wade through. Granting your users the ability to choose between a number of options is definitely a good thing, but remember that some will always opt for the guided tour. Make the browsing experience as pleasurable and directed for your users as you can, and they’ll surely thank you for it.

Comments

Brett Tilford said:

Thanks for the reminder that if everything is important then nothing is. We need to hand hold people through the experience of the website.

Posted on May 4, 2009 07:39 AM

Erin Kissane said:

Thanks for bringing this up, Dan.

I think curation is one of the most important and most neglected areas of content strategy, and I also think it needs to be handled within a larger content framework that deals with editorial calendars / sources, so that the desire and the reality are connected.

Posted on May 4, 2009 11:02 AM

Naz Hamid said:

Excellent points and solutions Dan.

The choice of using Random and similar showcasing of a variety of content I feel and have experienced, comes from the client's lack of ability to curate that content properly. Either they don't have staff on hand or the budget to pay someone to do it as time goes on -- therefore, projects tend to be built with some form of lasting illusion of freshness.

That said, I completely agree that having someone curate the homepage or work or such would be ideal and if set-up right within the CMS and if a person in-house has some basic image editing skills, then templates and style guides can be provided for them to minimally make succinct updates.

Posted on May 4, 2009 11:15 AM

Dan Mall said:

Brett: Well said!

Erin:

it needs to be handled within a larger content framework that deals with editorial calendars / sources, so that the desire and the reality are connected.

Great point! I can’t express enough how disappointing it is when a client loves an editorial idea but just doesn’t have the means to make it happen.

Naz:

projects tend to be built with some form of lasting illusion of freshness.

True, true. Here’s to eliminating the “illusion” part!

Posted on May 5, 2009 06:22 AM

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