The Ultimate Design Language? Words.

The more user-centered design is, the better. And no medium is more user-centered than the written word.


I once toured the Good Housekeeping Research Institute in New York. It’s the lab where scientists, engineers, and nutritionists test products and award the famous Seal of Approval. It was established in 1900 and it’s a very professional institution.


What the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval did for a century, we do now. We, the people who go online. One quarter of the whole world. We’re the crowd that is sourced. We’re the source that makes the platform open. We are the peers in peer-to peer. Our reviews are the new advertising. It’s a Pro-Am world.

Peer reviews are pure, instant, on-the-record word of mouth. I may be slower than you, but I didn’t understand the weight of peer reviewing when introduced it to the masses. Later, an arc light turned on over my head–reviewing is the customer at work.


The idea of prosumption–consumers as producers of work–seems obvious in hindsight. We pump our own gas, we serve ourselves at restaurants. It’s giving a little labor to get a better experience back, even if it’s just saving money. I live in Boulder, the first electricity “smart grid” city. Customers save by volunteering labor to the local power company, Xcel. It’s pretty simple. With a smart meter in your house you manage your own consumption, and the grid has more juice to spread around.


“Markets are nothing more than conversations,” The Cluetrain Manifesto famously said. But what conversations! Galaxies of words, swirling in digital space in real time. No wonder brick-and-mortar companies are tripping over themselves to be the subject of the conversation.

In about 1995, a young creative guy at the advertising agency I was at left to seek his fortune in the real world. AOL, at that time brand new and a virtual monopoly, hired him to freelance. The next time I saw him we had this conversation:


HIM: Listen, this thing is exploding. They’re begging for content. Anything! Let’s do some!

ME: What’s content?

HIM: You know–content! Reporting, videos, reviews, humor, whatever! Anything!

ME: You mean writing.

HIM: Yeah, whatever! Content!


It exploded all right. But in the beginning, we all pretty much expected the Internet to be another broadcast medium. A monologue, with a little dialogue thrown in. It’s how we’d been trained. “Content” sounded pretty much like programming with advertising. Who knew?


So here we are, 15 startling years later. “User-centered” means something different now, but what? How do companies raised on setting the agenda adjust to sharing it?

Like a good host at a table full of strangers, some understand that a little of the right content will do. You say something insightful then let the conversation flow. Mars held a global online vote for a new M&M’s color in 2002. Toyota introduced a product prototype in Second Life. Chevron and The Economist are running an online game, Energyville. And so on.

But there’s a lot of fear in the air. This summer, Morgan Stanley in Europe released a report written by a 15-year-old intern. Observations like “Teenagers do not use Twitter.” Five words from a kid. Several CEOs called or emailed as soon as they got it.

We think of design as a philosophy expressed in real world experience. The more centered it is on the user, the higher the quality. We’re living in a time now when good design is a response to fluid needs in an open forum. The alpha medium is words.


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Graham Button is a writer from London who worked in advertising for
more than twenty years. He took the scenic route to Genesis, passing
through agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto and finally New York, where he
was a creative director and executive vice president at Grey Worldwide.
He has created advertising in most media for every kind of brand and
all sorts of companies, including Diageo, Kaiser Permanente, Molson
Breweries, GM, and South China Morning Post
Newspapers. Beaver Creek, one of the Vail Resorts brands, chose to
follow him to Genesis from Grey. Work he originated as a copywriter or
championed as a creative director has been recognized in awards shows
in Los Angeles, Toronto, New York, London, Cannes, Hong Kong,
Singapore, and Sydney and has been featured on
America’s Funniest Videos and Larry King Live.

About the author

Graham is a founding principal of Bravo Echo, working with leaders of organizations to evolve their business through brand, strategy and commuications. “We find the truth behind the noise, distill insight from human patterns, and build narrative that changes behavior.” He is a writer from London who spent 20 years in the advertising world, at agencies in Hong Kong, Toronto, and finally New York, where he was an Executive Vice President at Grey Worldwide