The Myth of the Calorie Count

Elizabeth S. Bennett   April 20, 2010

Content without context can mislead even the savviest sandwich eater. (image via bitchcakes)

A friend recently told me that he sometimes eats a breakfast sandwich made by a popular national coffee purveyor. After describing the amazing meltiness of the savory ham and egg package, he joyfully added, “And it’s only 370 calories!”

He knew this because the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has made it mandatory for the afore mentioned coffee purveyor– and other large food chains– to display the caloric content of its foodstuffs in a location readily available to customers.  My friend, a smart, educated, food-loving sort, made the calorie pronouncement in a boastful tone, as if to say, “It may sound unhealthy, but it’s actually not too bad.” Because I’m not a complete killjoy, I didn’t immediately point out that while the one number – 370 —  is important and provides some value, especially in distinguishing the sandwich from its display-case neighbors, like oatmeal without toppings (140 calories) and double iced cinnamon role (490 calories), the calorie count isn’t the only or even the most important number at issue, at least for many people.  And in isolation, it only tells a piece of the nutrition story. However, its singular presence imbues 370 with a meaning and degree of importance that exceeds its actual value. Remember fat, salt and sugar? What are they, chopped liver? Okay, you get the point.

What we’re talking about here is content without context. Information that seems meaningful by virtue of its presence. In fact, using a sandwich’s calorie count as a sole representation for nutritional value is the equivalent of, say, examining a single paint layer in a Jackson Pollack painting. Yes, it’s crucial and contributes to the meaning of the overall piece. But without the other layers, it’s so many drips of color.

It’s terrific that Mayor Bloomberg and the Board of Health are tackling the issues of health and obesity. Posting calorie counts is a great start in what I can only hope is a long-term concerted effort to support people to eat more healthfully. However, unless customers visit the coffee purveyor’s website, they lack key information that rounds out the health picture, namely–in the case of the ham and cheese sammie–total fat: 16g, calories from fat: 150g, and sodium: 730g. Further, they would have to visit a different site to find the recommended daily allowances of these nutritional components.

In the case of calorie posting, food establishments have little incentive to provide information or context beyond the mandates of municipal agencies, but the case of the melty breakfast sandwich raises some important questions that all businesses should be asking as they create, publish, curate and disseminate mountains of information each year:

  • Are customers/visitors/readers truly better off with the information they’re being served up?
  • Does available content tell a whole, partial or misleading story?

It’s hard to be perfect in this arena, but asking the above questions in both broad and narrow contexts will get you some of the way there.

Content without context can mislead even the savviest sandwich eater.

Video Killed the RoboHelp Star

Bob Maynard   May 1, 2009
smpte-video-color-bars1Press play for instant video help gratification. (image via ffffound!)

The breakdown: for your next help content assignment, consider creating screencastsvideo snapshots with narrationto demonstrate core features of a website or application.

Let’s face it: most help files suck. They bore, they complicate, they fail to illuminate their subject and cause needless frustration for the user. On the other hand, few things are as rewarding in life (online or off) as clear, simple, genuinely helpful assistance. Could be a well-written manual, a lucid diagram, or friendly tutorial. So why don’t we see more of the good stuff?

On a recent project for a major digital radio client, I had the opportunity to take a different approach to developing help content. The project involved creating a stand-alone, iTunes-esque desktop application to manage and record audio. Like most projects, somewhere along the way our feature set became… complicated. The team’s first reaction was to post a sizeable HTML help file to help users grok the interactions. But we thought we could do better by adding video screencasts to appeal to visually-oriented users.

With Jing, an awesome, free screencast tool from TechSmith (known for Snagit and Morae), we recorded several 30-second walkthroughs of the music application’s core features such as creating playlists, recording shows and uploading files. We slapped a 3-second title card at the beginning of each video, posted them to YouTube and effectively expanded the project’s help content beyond the stock HTML or RoboHelp format.

As Michael Pollan has repeatedly pointed out, diversity is critical for a healthy ecosystem. If you’re developing a help “system”, consider adding multiple formats of content to assist your users. Some people prefer video, others may prefer text, but by diversifying your support can only make your content more appetizing and consumable for a range of users.

Attack of the Invisible Gorillas

Bob Maynard   March 11, 2009
ape-unto-apeGorilla spotting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (via)

There’s an old tenet of web design that says if you need to explain how a page works, then you need to redesign the interface. Fair enough: no amount of explanatory copy can make up for bad design. But what to do when a page is necessarily complex, as is sometimes the case with detailed transactional experiences? Or when the client requests a level of complexity you’ve recommended against?

Content strategists often face this problem. An extra bit of directional copy would—theoretically, at least—clear up confusion about what to click and where to go next. Problem is, if users are already engaged in a task (say, if they’re on step 3 of a 5-step process), it can be nearly impossible to reach them. Even if you flash a dancing gorilla on the screen. Seriously.

This lack of awareness is called “perceptual blindness.” In a classic test of experimental psychology, two Illinois professors showed a short video to their students. The video featured a several people passing around two basketballs. Before show time, the professors instructed their students to count the number of times the ball was passed between the players. Watch the video here and see if you get the right answer.

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Supporting the Consumer Purchase Lifecycle

Mary S. Butler   March 10, 2009
marius_watzElegant content strategies map to all touchpoints of the experience, even after the sale. (via)

Manufacturers and their marketers expend a lot of time and effort on brand sites designed to entice consumers to make purchases. But what happens after a site visitor converts from prospect to customer? Is your company, or your client, expending as much effort to strengthen ties with existing owners? Have you developed a content strategy that addresses owner’s needs?

Not only are loyal, satisfied owners your best source of future customers, many of them serve as unpaid brand ambassadors who help attract additional buyers through favorable word of mouth. Why then are so many post-purchase, or owner, sites treated as afterthoughts and populated with repurposed print owner manuals and pitches to buy the next new model? Content strategy principles should not be limited to brand sites alone; they must be developed to support the entire consumer purchase lifecycle.

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Say Goodbye To Lackluster Help Content

Doug Bolin   March 7, 2009


A transatlantic plea for assistance. (via)

What does it take to achieve Best-in-Class status for online user assistance and support content? This post gathers together some key insights gleaned from a survey of recent research studies—with a focus on a (proprietary and pricey) Aberdeen Research Report—as well as professional experience.

But first, what does it mean to be Best-in-Class? Let’s define it here as scoring high, 90% or better, on key performance indicators like meeting project completion dates, staying within cost targets and keeping translation costs under control. Then add in factors like evaluative data from customer satisfaction surveys and results from content user testing for ease of use, relevance and comprehension to complete the scoring matrix.

So here’s what these Best-in-Class organizations have in common.

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Product Manuals Never Make the Best Seller List

Jared Kelleher   March 5, 2009
knight-rider-dashboardMichael Knight never met a product manual he didn’t like. (via)

“Put the user manual online,” she said.

Easy enough; PDF the manual, drop it on the site, and users can download the new, in-car technology manual—all 114 pages.

In-car technology has come a long way since I bought my first car. My ’76 Plymouth Volare wasn’t technological at all—unless you count the indestructible Slant Six engine—which seemed more a response to the oil crisis and market crashes, than technological advancement.

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