Wednesday, 9 September 2009

It's not how loud you speak, it's who is saying it and why that matters

You have to wonder, sometimes, about people’s sense of proportion. The trouble with the Internet, and especially social media, is that messages can spread so quickly and widely, and people can confuse volume with importance. Just because x-thousand messages appear on Twitter or Facebook about something, doesn’t mean to say that it issue is truly important.

Take the case of IKEA’s new catalogue font. They are swapping from Futura to Verdana. Verdana is a little less elegant than Futura, but it is more widely used and its also cheaper (so lets hope some of the savings go into product design and pricing), but does it really matter? Who cares what font IKEA uses in their catalogue so long as it’s easily readable? The fact that some – what appear to be - design specialists have got hot under the collar about it is near here nor there: it’s the IKEA customers who matter, and they don’t seem to be too fussed.

Have a look at the article in Time – surely this completely misses the above point. It seems much more interested in promoting the interests of design professionals than in having a sense of proportion:

“the desire to remind people — and corporations — that design matters is what spurred design consultant Ursache to start a petition asking Ikea to do away with the offensive Verdana typeface”

(by the way you can sign said petition if you really want to, here), and

“Bucharest designer Iancu Barbarasa … sounds somewhat bitter... With its attention to the curve of even a $9 lampshade, Ikea has become renowned for its understanding of good design. ‘Designers have always thought of Ikea as one of their own,’ Barbarasa notes. ‘So now, in a way, the design community feels betrayed.’”

Well wake up to reality – it’s the product design that matters (the lampshade), not the blurb that describes it!

I go along with Chris Bailey, who raises the same issue in his Gravit8 blog:

“Each of the news items above – along with several blogposts … – make the mistake of assuming that all voiced outcries on the web are equal. In this case, a relatively small number of designers are treated as being the definitive source for whether Ikea’s decision was sound. But what about those individuals who shop the stores and purchase from the catalog and online? What do they think about all of this? Well, what’s interesting is that none of the bloggers or mainstream media sources bothered to ask that question and talk to actual customers. The assumption seems to be that any outrage, regardless of where it originates, constitutes the end-all, be-all of the discussion.”

The underlying point here is one we have always grappled with in human communities: how much should we take the voice of the loudest minority to be representative of the community as a whole? We can take the richness and reach discussion of Phillip Evans and Thomas Wurster in their book “Blown to Bits”, and apply it here.  They applied this to online success stories, where reach (how many customers you can get to) combined with richness (the added value of the experience and product you’re selling) have to both be right to get the astonishing successes of the world. We can use the same factors in a slightly reverse fashion: reach still applies to how many people you can get to, but richness applies to how relevant and useful your message is. The problem with social media is that it allows this minority to have a much louder voice (i.e. their reach is wider) – but just because more people can hear them doesn’t make them any more right. In other words, if the richness factor (relevance and quality of the message) is low, then you don’t need to take action. Social media needs to be used carefully by organisations that want to take the pulse of the community, but you need to consider richness as well as reach.

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool: just be careful about whose pulse it is you’re taking (the richness factor)! The IKEA example shows that the pulse of the design community is certainly racing, but the pulse that matters – IKEA’s customers – seems hardly to have fluttered.

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