Enrich the EYES and mind with data

30 10 2009

When you hear the terms data visualizations, what comes to mind? To me, at least when I first was exposed to these terms at the beginning of the interactive media masters program that I am currently enrolled; I took them to mean data that was apparent. Pretty basic, I know. However, I have begun to see data visualization differently. Thanks in part to a lecture I watched with other interactive media students this morning, I can further expand my interpretation of what data visualizations really are.

Aaron Koblin is a master in working otherwise static data in useful, engaging, interesting products. As a current member of the Google Creative Labs team, he gets paid to apply his terrific skills on a daily basis. One example of his work that really stood out in my mind was his visualization of airplane flight data compiled by the United States Federal Aviation Administration. Koblin was able to make a visually enticing depiction of all the flights that traveled through United States airspace in a 24-hour period. Furthermore, to demonstrate the power of data when visualized, he did not even make a map of the United States. Instead, he let the data do the work and show the patterns that emerged from the flight paths. As a result, a general outline of the country became apparent as, guess what, planes need airports to begin and end their journeys and they tend to be on land.

Relating to all of his works, Koblin shared a critical insight during the lecture. He stated that by looking at something ordinary, again think static data, in a new way can produce an extraordinary experience. I could not agree with him more on this. Think of it as a light bulb suddenly illuminating. It can help people realize things about material they thought they already knew. This awakening of sorts can produce some dramatic changes in a business sense by gaining a new perspective, a new interpretation on product use patterns, economic factors etc.

There exist numerous examples of sound being used in visualizations, which is very interesting. One example shown during the lecture was a crowd-sourced composition of sound bits that pieced together formed a musical song. Imagine taking many, many strangers single second voice clips and melding them together to produce a musical piece that takes on a very unique sound. That is what Koblin did thanks to the Internet, microphones and curious online users. Finally, a sound visualization playing in the background on my computer while I type this is demonstrating the sound variations of the song “Rest My Chemistry” by Interpol.

Interpol – Rest My Chemistry Video from Aaron on Vimeo.

Here, the visual cues explode, disappear, vary in size and color based upon the lyrical and tonal composition of the song. While watching the piece, it almost becomes a mystery of sorts as you try to guess what visual elements will pop through the next stanza of the song.

Bottom line is this; data visualizations are cool and useful. They can capture an audience’s attention while demonstrating new ideas or building new connections from old ideas based around data. As more of the world’s population spends greater time online, I expect people like Aaron Koblin will play an ever-increasing role in how we understand the world around us.

Meshing marketing with social media = tips

28 10 2009

As you read this, people are logging online. Many people in fact. Many of whom you will never meet. You will never get to shake their hands or share a hug with any of them.

Imagine that scenario from a marketer’s perspective. Your goal, hence your livelihood, depends on connecting with those online strangers. Questions is, how in the world can that be done and done effectively? Increasingly, one answer is social media.

Just as the name implies, social media revolves around the idea that people can build a relationship of sorts with others, who they have not physically met and probably never will, by bridging their solidarity with shared interests. If you are a marketer, it is imperative you harness these opportunities to some degree. In order to do this, it would be wise to begin your marketing endeavor by reading Jessica Want’s post at iMedia Connection. As an information architect at the New York City interactive marketing agency Flightpath, she provides some insightful perspectives on how to go about making social media work for your intended purposes.

It may seem simply silly to state this but I bet some folks out there fail to relate this pretty important component of social media, relate to the audience! There is no way any marketing venture will result in satisfactory results if no attempts are made first to understand the audience, what they are like, how to they see things, how do they feel about particular issues. Basically, this is the equivalent of electronically walking in the audience’s shows. Taking the time to do this sort of activity will likely provide solid dividends down the line.

Unless full faith can be had in independently owned online spaces, it would be helpful to own your own parcel of online real estate to use as the launching pad for any interactive social marketing campaign. The form of this space can take on a plethora of forms, depending on many factors such as your target audience or financial considerations. Whatever form the space takes on, it’s success will be restricted if it isn’t easy! Remember the old adage, “Keep it simple, stupid!” Well, it is very apt in this type of situation. Don’t build a marketing effort through social media where users have to go through cumbersome registrations, perform security checks, sell their favorite pair of jeans or go download a hefty file that will take occupy a nice chunk of their hard disk. These are not easy. They are not generally fun; at least I am making a guess the majority of people would not be smiling after all of these tasks.

To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list of tips on creating social media that is actually useable. Rather, it is meant to bring attention to the topic and highlight a couple of what I think are the most important points presented by Ms. Want. I encourage you to read more at her post. What do you know; I am being social and utilizing media doing it! It is funny how things work out that way.

Impacting music through interactive media application

23 10 2009

As a nascent interactive media student, I am just beginning to understand and apply concepts relating to the form and function of interactive media. One such example of this application is forthcoming in a small group project. Within this vein, everything revolves around a band…

Hypothetically speaking, a band

Hypothetically speaking, a band

The project is one that I consider to hold great potential if approached with a solid footing and appropriate resources. We are currently in the discover phase of working with an established band to understand how we can best apply interactive media principles, along with our collective skill sets, to elevate the band into the next level of music world bliss. Is it too much for us to handle? I don’t think so, as long as we have a clear roadmap of the bands aspirations. In the first discussion our group held with one of the band’s founders, it was clear that there are at least two key areas where the band feels they are lacking. The first is a lack of micomedia presence. They have social media presence established, such as Facebook and Myspace. However, they self admit that they have avoided venturing into Twitter and similar tools because they are unsure of the point behind their use. Another area where there is room for improvement relates to the bands electronic press kit. This feature is pretty important when considering that many times this is the tool on the forefront of the bands image, the first exposure a performance venue may have with the band. If the press kit appears to be of a template design, where the true identity of the band is constrained, this presents a problem.

I am excited to explore how my skills, matched with those of my group, will mesh with the future trajectory of an interesting musical group. More and more musical personalities are moving greater resources into online spaces to connect with audiences in various interactive manners. If our group can better connect this band with their established fan base, we have provided a service. However, if we can expand the band’s fan base by reaching those who would be interested in their music if only they knew of their existence, we maybe on to the beginning of something big.

Don’t forget a dose of analytics!

23 10 2009

If you have any familiarity with my blog, or if you don’t for that matter, you now know I am a student of interactive media. When people ask what I am studying and I tell them this, the common reaction is a perplexed look on the person’s face as they ask “What is that?” Instead of going into the explanation here, I wanted to share an insightful experience that may help to clarify the topic.
I had an opportunity earlier today to sit in on a talk by Travis Lusk, New Media Manager at WCBS Radio in New York City. He is someone who is taking traditional media, radio in this case, and helping to transition it into an online, interactive space. Highlighting the means by which this is done, he mainly discussed the importance of analytics to the online environment.

Does the mention of analytics scare you? Bring back memories of high school math classes you thought you erased from your memory years ago? I will be the first to admit I am not a math person, neither are most folks within the greater communication fields. There is no need to worry though as Lusk explained analytics do not require you to have an undue degree of mathematical knowledge under your belt to make effective use of the tools within the interactive media environment. He did specify however that it is critical to understand why people are attracted to certain content. I take this to mean you have to establish a way of getting inside the people’s heads. Analytics are a tool for providing that valuable feedback and explanations through pattern analysis.

Speaking of tracking, I was surprised when Lusk divulged just how much information online analytic tools provide. For instance, he showcased on the projection screen some examples of what data he could access regarding any particular user who visited one of the several CBS Radio websites he is in charge over. This information included the visitors name, the time spent within the website and, most eye opening to me, the location from which the user was viewing the website. Just remember, somebody is watching!

To be clear, I am not saying or even suggesting that analytics are intended to be applied for malicious purposes. Could they be, sure. Could my computer crash at any moment, sure. Lusk did provide some encouraging insight, for those who are a little on-edge by this point, about making personal connections with website users. He emphasized that if you as a media expert can reach out and touch a user, not physically but in terms of a value perspective, just once, you have made them feel important. This is tremendously important in building loyalty to foster a long-term relationship. He does this regularly when responding to user emails. Instead of having a generic company email address to respond to user’s questions, he replies with an email address that contains his name. This little step helps to establish a connection, instead of users feeling like they are one of many cogs in the machinery of modern media.

All-in-all, it was an interesting talk. Ponder over some of those points and remember that somewhere, somehow, someone is likely taking note of your actions online!

Web design should be effective, right?

21 10 2009

Websites, there are a plenty these days! It seems every time you log online, that’s for those who DO go offline, there is a plethora of new websites covering a myriad of topics. Although there may be numerous websites focusing on similar content, it can come down to the design of one website positioning it to benefit from higher traffic rates than the others. Design plays an important role in the user experience. As Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine did a good job showcasing valuable points regarding what design pointers would best be noted. In many ways, the design alone dictates the user experience. Therefore, it is fitting to list several important principles of website design that can assist the creative minds out there how to best craft a site that has the greatest impact for it’s users. By no means is this an exhaustive list but the tips should still provide value:

> Users DO NOT like thinking! Uncertainty is a no no.
Users need clear paths to embark upon when in a website. Whenever clear paths are not present, doubts surface in the users mind as to where to go or what minimal options are at their disposal.

> Time is money. Think of patience in the same way.

Bogging down users with requirements or forms to fill out or long texts to wade through before entering a site is not going to make them thrilled about their user experience. They are busy people too; keep this at the forefront of the design scheme.

> Focus user attention

Human eyes wander to where they notice the greatest visual impact; they do not follow a strict predetermined path. Design elements so that attention is paid to the most important aspects on a website.

> Do not underestimate the power of writing
Online content is crafted differently that that in traditional print media. Avoid using big words that cloud the underlying purpose or intent. Keep thing simple and direct. This way, there is greater likelihood online users — who traditionally scan online content anyway — will get the point your webpage is demonstrating.

> White space is your friend in the design world

White space greatly assists users in digesting information. Their eyes automatically scan a page to determine if the content can be processed into segments. If it can, the user is likely to engage and check out the material. Use white space to help in this process!

> Test in order to complete

In order for a webpage or website to be ready for users and maximize its usability, it should be tested. There will be kinks in the works. There will be things that require improvement. Testing is valuable because it can and does expose these blips, allowing for correction. Also, testing provides useful insight from the perspective of an intended user. Designers may see things one particular way; the intended users may see things another way. Testing is a great tool to iron out these differences to see which approach works best with the intended goal.

Web design is much more encompassing than the topics I have listed here. These are just some of the basics. If you want to explore a more detailed examination of these design tips, check out Smashing Magazine.

Crafting of influential interactivity

12 10 2009

Based upon my studies thus far as a Masters student in Interactive Media, one key insight I have noted is that old fashioned, traditional media is largely static. Before you newspaper lovers jump all over this post, I am not saying that is always bad. However, static content only goes so far, it is rather limited in regards to spreadability. People do not want to interact with content that just stares back at them. On the contrary, growing number of people want to experience content that responds to their own input, allows a degree of relationship to be established between the user and the content even if for a fleeting moment.

It was along these lines that I participated in a group activity to devise a list of the most important characteristics that make interactive video content influential. We ranked characteristics from 1 to 7, where 1 is most influential. Just because something incorporates interactivity does not mean it carries much or any influence. Therefore, without further anon, check out the list and brief explications of our thought processes below:

1) Relevance
Video spreads because audiences can establish some sort of connection to what they watch. Main subcategories of relevance include Audience, Demographics and Culture.

2) Emotional Response
Humans are emotional creatures, though to what degree varies depending on whom you ask. Playing on this emotional bond, we subcategorized two areas:
-Human interest: something humanizes the video
-Identifiable: viewers see relation to what they are watching

3) Innovation
The video has to have a purpose to make it influential; otherwise it is just taking up space on a server somewhere. The idea behind the video motivates the content to an extent where it moves others to act or respond. Breaking this down further we settled upon these subcategories:
-Content is fresh
-Presents new perspective(s)

4) Timeliness
This is all about the tick-tock around the clock, timing. When the video is posted can play a significant role on the influence that the video establishes or maintains.

5) Quality
There has to be demonstration of effort in the final product to the minimal extent that the viewer can see and hear the material, otherwise, it isn’t going to influence a soul!

6) Length of Video
Many people, either by realizing it or not, have grown impatient with material online. They expect something now, not in 3 minutes. Generally, the longer a video becomes the influence it exudes decreases. I stress the word generally.

7) Multiplatform Accessibility
For material to become “viral”, it has to cross borders. In this case, borders are media platforms. Influence is build by having the content easily available in the manner that the user is most comfortable. If the content forces people to change their habits just to experience it, I would bet the material would not reach its full potential.

There you have it. Is it perfect; no. Are there relevant points addressed in this list, yes. You are free to disagree but we feel this does a nice job of encapsulating the core components of differentiating the influential videos in cyberspace.

Prism of Self Promotion?

10 10 2009

The online, hyper connected world can be a scary place. This can be especially true when entering the fray from a business perspective, where the intent is to cultivate interest so that revenue generation can result to some degree or another. One tool that has received significant buzz online is The Conversation Prism. What is The Conversation Prism? The answer to that question is debatable, although the most clear-cut answer comes from its creator, Brian Solis, who says that it “helps chart online conversations between the people that populate communities as well as the networks that connect the Social Web.” What does this mean? How can we trust his perspective on this issue? I wonder about the answers to those very questions. Either Solis is a rather insightful individual regarding the social media landscape or he knows how to talk himself up very well online. This maybe particularly so when you consider he has established his career based upon this information visualization.

I think that the attempt made by The Conversation Prism to provide a level of basic understanding to communication relationships is a noble one, however I do not completely agree with it. One of the most glaring problems is the coloration used throughout the visualization. Several classmates noted this during classes this week, opining that the colors simply serve to dress up the diagram at the cost of diluting the message. Since the diagram roughly takes the shape of a flower, why is it that some “petals” are warmer colors such as red, orange and yellow while others are cool colors like variations of blue and greens? Do these stipulate differences in user interactivity levels of the mediums contained within these “petals”? Had I been in charge of crafting a similar model, while maintaining the general guise of Solis’ creation, I would have done away with the color pallet, instead vesting interest in a uniform neutral background for every portion of The Conversation Prism. In this sense, there would be little or no suggestion that one area of the Prism is more dynamic, active etc. than any others.

The Conversation Prism is an interesting tool but I think it has served most poignantly as a self-promotion lightning rod for Solis. In the world that exists today, change is constant. In turn, a visual such as this will not remain up-to-date unless it is changed constantly. There are much too many social media communication channels and tools to account for and summarizing their supposed relationships in one crafty graphic is not realistic. The Conversation Prism is a resource of note but should not be used as a primary representation of online communications today. A better grasp of these complexities comes from hard work and first-hand experience in your own field. Having a poster of the Prism hanging on your office wall may look nice but trust your gut when it comes to making strategic decisions in the online space.