HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 57
Digital Citation

Anthropomorphizing mass communication

Nick Bryan-Kinns, Peter Broadbent

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For mass communication to develop, it needs to develop conversational skills. That is, rather than one-way communication from the commercial entity to the consumer, it needs to be a two-way conversational dialogue characterized by short but meaningful interactions.

We are at a pivotal time in our use and experience of digital media. To date, many uses of digital media for mass communication, such as Web sites, have come from a print-based culture. Early commercial adopters typically moved print-based brochures into a digital online form. The resulting Web sites often lacked usability and poorly represented the company's brand online.

As the 1990s progressed, work on interactive systems addressed some of the shortcomings of a print-based approach to interactive digital media development. This was reflected in the growth in usability elements in design companies at the time and the increase in academic interest in commercial Web-based issues, reflected at conferences (see, for instance, [3]).

As understanding of interaction increased, companies wanted to outdo their competitors by building sites with more and more functionality, growing levels of complexity, and several participating partners. For example, in 1999, Abbey National, a leading U.K. retail bank, had several thousand pages of content, much of which was not related to its core business proposition and was either irrelevant (information on how to move goldfish) or the result of partnership deals (links to removal services). In addition to overwhelming users with large quantities of information to navigate, such sites typically cost large amounts of money to build and maintain.

Nowadays companies are seeking to reflect their brand coherently and concisely through mass communication mechanisms. Moving away from repurposing print content for the Web, companies are starting to consider how their brand will be actively presented across different channels. The next step in the development of mass communication is to move beyond the Web and simple online presence into more interactive and engaging brand representations.

Future mass communication design needs to focus across a number of channels on how to represent the brand of a company using three interrelated aspects of user experience: interaction, aesthetic, and content. The key issue is that target audience groups will require different styles of user experience—this does not mean different styles of aesthetic as has previously been the case, but, more important, different styles of interaction, aesthetic, and content. Moreover, the style will be determined by the media and channel used.

Conventionally, most mass communication has been push-based. That is, a company pushes information at potential consumers in the hope that they respond to it, such as through mass mailing. However, these approaches have tended to be poorly received. Successful sites are those that have pulled consumers to their sites through some brand awareness, such as the BBC, or by word of mouth, such as eBay and Amazon. But, at best, we need push and pull; we need conversation.

Users need new ways of interacting with commercial entities, which start to form the basis of an intimate and engaging conversation. They need to be able to develop trust in the entity—over time the entity needs to start releasing relevant information about what it is doing, what its needs and motivations are, and how it is feeling—so that users can start to anthropomorphize the communication. They need to be grounded with the company—to share an understanding of each other's needs and motivations [2]. This contrasts with current models in which the commercial entity is always at a knowledge advantage.

The starting point for allowing anthropomorphization of communication is to know the basics of the target audience. We have found that by interviewing, observing, and empathizing with target users we could develop more engaging mass communication through Web-based systems. Working with global companies, we started to explore the cultural differences between countries and to reflect these needs in the interaction design [1]. (Such understandings are too coarse-grained to use as a basis for future mass communication, but we use it here to illustrate the possibility of one global entity speaking with different interaction, aesthetic, and content to different groups.)

The next stage is to allow this initial piece of conversation to act as formal introduction to the commercial entity from which an informal conversation evolves. This stage is the crux of the problem for anthropomorphizing mass communication.

In the 1990s, we saw the control of Web site development change hands from internal print departments to external agencies, and back, to take advantage of content management solutions. On the one hand, content management gives the company control over the interaction, aesthetics, and content of its own site, but it can also lead to a situation of too many cooks spoiling the broth—each department will inevitably have differing style, purpose, and depth. For a consumer, such lack of consistency may lead to confusion and will affect their use of the site and in turn their perception of the brand of the business. This situation will become graver as businesses communicate through different channels (such as interactive television, mobile devices, or point of sale), thus increasing the possible dimensions of confusion. Consumers will start to view the business as schizophrenic—apparently having different personalities in different situations and in different conversations.

Conventional approaches to resolving this issue have focused on brand management, or brand guardianship, in which an employee, or an external agency, manages all additions or changes to external views of the company. However, this will not be practical for an expanding set of channels, content, and interested parties—the workload will simply be too large to manage coherently. Instead, explicit models of brand that can be employed to generate elements of conversation need to be developed, rather than relying on implicit brand models in brand guardians' heads.

The future in mass communication lies with anthropomorphizing the communication. This is only practical by designing the conversation, and the interactive mechanisms to establish mutual understanding, to reflect the intended brand. Moreover, this design must take place at multiple levels and across multiple channels. We need to design the conversation holistically—working from multiple viewpoints (interaction, aesthetic, content, and business) in fine-grained conversational terms, while taking the overall personality from the brand. Furthermore, the design of the conversation needs to take into account the inevitability of users interacting across several different channels while expecting a consistent experience.

back to top  References

1. Bryan-Kinns, N.J. and Hamilton, F. One for all and all for one? Case studies of prototypes in commercial projects. In NordiCHI 2002, Aarhus, Denmark, 19-23 October 2002.

2. Clark, H.H. and Brennan, S.E. Grounding in communication. In Resnick, L.B., Levine, J and Behrend, S.D. (eds.), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. American Psychological Association, 1991.

3. Proceedings of First International Conference on the World-Wide Web (CERN, 1994), Elsevier Science BV.

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Authors' Bio

Nick Bryan-Kinns runs Optic Experience Design and lectures on user interface design and computer mediated communication. He also researches into the nature of mutual engagement in collaboration, taking group music improvisation as an exemplar domain. Nick received his Ph.D. in conceptual modelling for interactive video from Queen Mary, University of London in 1998.

Peter Broadbent is a user experience consultant who has worked for many agencies and consultancies including, Icon Medialab, Optic Experience Design and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. He specializes in public sector and e-government consulting, especially around accessibility and usability of online services. Peter studied Fine Art and European Media at the University of Portsmouth UK.

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