Shrink to Fit

Lee Thomas

Whether it’s the printed word, television, or text messages, a new medium is often cause for debate: Some people lament what might be lost and warn of lurking dangers. Others celebrate the new possibilities and buy a new gadget from Apple.

So, it’s no surprise that new communication tools based on short formats—like Facebook, Twitter, and text messages—would prompt such a discussion. What are all those status updates, Tweets, and texts doing to our brains? Are they rotting our attention spans? Making us more distracted than a cat at a laser light show? Changing the very way we think?

Mittens is so totally into Floyd. 

There’s a thoughtful piece about this over at Tom Johnson’s blog, I’d Rather Be Writingdiscussing contemporary reading behaviors and short formats. The post was prompted by feedback Tom received suggesting that he shred some already sparse content because “no one’s going to sit through this.” In the accompanying thread, Tom and his readers discuss the more vs. less balance in different media and situations in detail, so I won’t try to summarize here. Suffice it to say that, as content strategists, the issue of enough vs. too much never goes away.

How much? How many? How often?

My favorite comment in the above thread comes from Tim Rich, who proposes the following mantra: “As little as possible, as much as necessary.”

Tim’s handy phrase caught my attention because clients still ask: What’s the “right” number of navigation buttons and content categories? What’s the “right” length for a piece of web copy? How far will users scroll? How many clicks are too many?

Say it with me now: It depends.

That answer is a running joke, but it’s also true. One-size-fits-all works for a pretty small number of things. (Scarves, for example.  And possibly, eye patches.)

Most situations call for some kind of assessment. Certainly that’s true of messy human endeavors like communication, knowledge, and understanding—all of which are interlaced with content.

As content strategists, we know there’s no simple answer to the question,How much content do we need?  We have to assess a host of factors, including audience needs and tasks, business goals, the delivery medium, the nature of the content, the environment in which the content is accessed and used, and so on. And then we have to use human judgment, skill, and craftsmanship in our attempt to find the right balance.

Some clients can handle that kind of ambiguity—offer up a metaphor about tailors or house builders, and they get it; they see the value in a thoughtful, customized answer to complex questions.

Other clients want us to cite best practices or to emulate what the competition is doing. Best practices are useful, sure, but applying them blindly and without consideration for the particular situation misses a whole lot of opportunity and may even cause damage.

Less is more. Except when I want it more.

Maybe Goldilocks was fickle. Then again, maybe she really knew her own mind and didn’t want to settle for something that didn’t fit her needs.

Recently, I wrote about the benefits of a less-is-more content strategy. I wasn’t advocating a “gut-and-cut” approach to content or for brevity above all. Like cocktails, politics, and reality TV, maxims should be consumed in moderation.

In the post I commented on the value of ditching excess in order to make room for what’s essential. The thing is, what’s essential changes with every situation, and imposing strict limits based on what’s “right” is arbitrary and counterproductive. Random examples:

  •  Most books aimed at young adults are under 200 pages. There are exceptions. When the content is good and in demand, attention spans stretch to accommodate 784 pages. Sales were good.
  •  Most help content is short for a reason: users want quick answers in order to get a task done and move on. But there is such a thing as too sparse. I’m looking at you, Spøklaår nightstand.

“As little as possible, as much as necessary.”

Tim’s mantra is reasonable and useful. It may be only slightly less ambiguous than “it depends,” but it is more to the point. An answer like that might help clients understand that content strategists aren’t trying to apply a set of one-size-fits-all rules. Instead, we’re trying to create bespoke solutions that fit the needs of audiences and businesses in specific situations.

(Image above adapted from adorable! by Flickr user brianschulman (cc: by-sa 2.0) and Ministry Of Sound - Laser Light Show with DJs Deep Dishby Flickr user Anirudh Koul (cc: by-nc 2.0))