Unfolding, content, design, strategy and… string theory?

string theory image

A wise man once said (on the Tim Ferriss Show, no less) that nobody examines obvious things.

Right now, I’m thinking about the fact that even though content professionals work within things that are called ‘webs’, they actually work on, in, and to, singular instances. Pages. Components. Entries. Paragraphs. Phrases. Assets.

It’s hindering us from crafting amazing experiences online, because we are working in flat, two-dimensional, word-centric models, with flat, two-dimensional, word-centric tools. The inspiration for this article is entirely a result of a recent article about design tools, by Viljami Salminen[1], and is merely my contribution to that conversation.

Salminen writes:

Finally, our tools completely discourage systematic thinking. They make it hard to pay attention on how different parts of a system influ­ence one another within a whole.

The problem is that we are all working within a flat, linear framework that is legacy thinking from pages and page design. It’s the same thinking that has stymied strategic thinking, the idea that you do A then you do B and then you do C and then somewhere along the line F happens.

The problem with linear thinking is that it stops us from being able to see and action all possibility, and locks us into finite progressions. If you’re a matrix thinker, then you know that this not the way that your mind or your consciousness works, and it’s certainly not the way that the internet – or digital experiences as a whole – can work.

Therefore, I argue that it’s time for the content and design communities to level up and conceive the notion of working in models that have real dimensionality. Maybe not just three dimensions; maybe four dimensions. Perhaps we go so far as to imagine that content creation and digital experiences can be created along principles similar to string theory.

The internet experience is not a series of static moments but a flow of continuous movement

Action on the internet is all about movement.

The internet is loading, reloading, going forwards, going backwards, going inside navigations. It is going to pages and from pages. It is scrolling, clicking through, opening gateways, scrolling and swiping.

In contrast, we create and design experiences from a static line of text, some really primitive tools like squares and blocks that we arrange on boards to ‘look’ like sequences or storyboards, and we write code in little linear lines. WE design these experiences from a series of flat perspectives.

This is why I like pulling random elements from string theory to explain my thinking.

When we consider the idea of string theory, then we have a number of strings and no particles. Each string may be closed in a loop or open, and each of the strings vibrates at a certain rate. The strings are relative to mass and to energy or its vibrational frequency.

Taken in the most abstract sense then, each experience on the web is an experience along a string from entry point to exit point, and which entry and exit points occur are determined by one of two things:

  1. The purpose and intention of the agent
  2. The purpose and intention of the creator.

Note that if the agent doesn’t have a strong purpose and intention, then the creator’s purpose and intention (within whatever entry and exit nodes are encountered by the agent) will overtake the agent’s. The environment can easily influence and redirect or misdirect the agent accordingly, until suddenly an entire hour has been wasted by looking at cats.

People take on the shapes of the songs and the stories that surround them, especially if they don’t have their own song.

– Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys.

In terms of content and design, then we need to start thinking about crafting content within relevant nodules along a string, which are being simultaneously co-created by a designer.

This way, each of the nodules occupied by the agent is only a step along the string that takes the agent to its desired or logical conclusion. The size of each of those components therefore is determined by the speed at which the agent could (or should) move through them, rather than by a determination of whether or not someone stays a long time on a page.

A digression: Metrics

The metrics that we currently have are perhaps backwards and potentially damaging to the human experience within a web of strings. Existing metrics have given us a way of thinking about the web as a series of pages that are tenuously and arbitrarily linked together, rather than a series of strings for which each nodule is a moment in a series of moments. The point of the string is that the user can travel, using whatever method of motion is required, along a specified path to a specified end.

The current idea of metrics and engagement is about time on the page rather than time to the destination.

Is it possible to encourage faster time to the destination instead? And what would that mean for metrics rather than engagement?

The existing time on a page is only relevant when the purpose of the agent is to read, to be entertained, to stop in the forward movement long enough to become entertained, to have read. Reading therefore is only relevant if you are offering a reading experience as a content creator, and only important to you if your core business is publishing.

Going further down this rabbit hole, the commerce attached to the instance in which that purpose is executed – advertising – is only relevant if the commerce occurs by way of a reading or stopping experience. This means that the current business model for online advertising is completely wrong; it should be about length of time shown, rather than numbers of views. This equates to the importance of length of time on a page, as the metric, rather than movement through the page (for which the numbers of times an ad is loaded would be more critical).

The string theory view of content changes your view of why content is created and what that looks like.

It does this in two ways.

In the first, it requires you to define the string of that experience. Many content professionals already do this; they are creating singular, linear “journeys” for users, and then creating pages for moments along that journey. The string theory view says that you create a string rather than a journey, and that string might be linear, but it might not be. It might be looped. It may turn back on itself. It might do something else.

In the second, it requires you to retain a sense of the reality of that string throughout each nodule along the string. If you move from one string to another, then the world has changed, and your experience of the visuals and the content should change to indicate that, and yet still have a sense of where you’ve been. The internet isn’t a web. It’s a composition of multiverses.

In either case, the desire is movement. Whoever uses your content must be given the opportunity to move quickly through whatever nodules they encounter, thus moving to some other point on the string.

For example, if they go to your website because they want to apply for a visa you give them two options: Apply for a visa and Everything else. By knowing the desired exit point for the users, you then craft the everything else based on whatever your user research tells you to create.

Therefore, the experience becomes a highly active, task-driven enterprise rather than an educational platform from which to attempt to “engage” people in a funnel. If the funnel is correctly completed it will be a critical path along the string, and each section or nodule along the string will cumulatively add value to the experience of the user until such time as the user hits the natural end point and exits their current string in favour of another one.

This is a series of unfolding for the user

The idea of unfolding is something that any savvy strategist should be familiar with. In corporate strategy, simply “applying” a strategy doesn’t work. The reality is that you have a toolbox, you come to understand the problem as best you are able, and then you find the next best immediate resolution. Once you get to that point, you find another tension to resolve. You can’t find The Solution in any strategic exercise; you can only find The Best Solution. This is because any real strategic problem has two (or more) outcomes, and all that you can do is to find the best fit for the given point and then let the next stage unfold.

Unfolding is the same thing online. Every step unfolds the next step.

Yet how do we approach the creation? Like it’s all set in fucking concrete. This has led our clients to expect concrete results, to expect concrete returns, to expect that doing A will give them A, B, or C.

The truth is, doing A might give you B, but it might also give you C, and it might also give you D. But you didn’t see D until you did A.

Unfolding is the nature of life, and so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the best strategists, the best content pros, and the best communicators, are the best at letting things unfold and then dealing with whatever is in front of them at that point.

So what does this tell us about tools?

It means, as Vijami so eloquently pointed out, that our current tools are rubbish.

The tools for creating these kinds of experiences should never be flat but should instead visualise the extent and depth of the string and the nature of the movement within the experience. They should allow “content” to be placed and moved throughout a 3-dimensional model rather than the flat, singular dimensional, textual model that we are currently living with.

The right tool, properly developed, would enable you to write a sentence in this section, move to the next one where it’s relevant to that journey and that purpose, and for the designer to work alongside the content creation and craft an experience that gains meaning exponentially. That is, with every step to the next node along the string, the intensity of the experience in terms of its relevance to the agent’s desired exit-point gets stronger.

This means not only that content design should only ever be created in teams of two at a minimum – content + designer – but that there is never a singular responsibility. It means that the creation of the experience can only ever be user-focused, that the web of the creation is actually completed inside the web of strings that is the same output.

Even if we can’t touch all of the dimensions of the internet, our tools ought to be able to visualise them for us, so that we can see along the dimensions ourselves. As content professionals, we ought to be able to create and move along a string at each and every natural exit point from one node to the next.

But instead, we are locked into pages, into tools that have only ever been conceived by people whose histories are in paper, and whose futures can’t conceive of any other way to do things. We are constrained by “analytics” that tell us what a page needs to look like, instead of designing analytics that properly track an experience, so that metrics are singular, meaningful and tied to specific string instances.

If we were to be able to work in a deep, modularised, dimensional methodology, we would always have a bird’s eye view of the depth and stages, and would be able to understand and completely eliminate search behaviour. Searching would never be required if the purpose, movement, entries, and exits along the strings were clear, and if content creators and designers worked in a dualistic method, crafting experiences and echoes of experiences from start to finish.


[1] On Design Tools and Processes by Vijami Salminen https://viljamis.com/2017/design-tools-processes/

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