Beautiful Content

The Last Waltz Screenshot
The Last Waltz as Presented in Netflix

I learned something in a recent experience with Netflix. In content, we don’t want just brevity, clarity, efficiency, or effectiveness. What we really want is beauty.

We seldom really know what customers want. I was reminded of this when rereading Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile. She chides the digital community for creating substandard mobile experiences because we think we know enough about the customer’s context. The customer is on a mobile phone, we reason; she can’t possibly need to research her family’s vacation or buy a car or get information about a critical medical condition. So we don’t do the design and content work of creating those experiences.

Sadly, we reason wrong. We choose not to deliver content the customer needs.

Delivering content on mobile [is] … a necessity. It isn’t a luxury. It’s a requirement. Do people want to look it up? They’ll want to look it up on mobile. Do people need to search for it? They’ll want to search for it on mobile. Do people want to read it, deeply and fully? They’ll expect to read it on mobile. Do they need to fill it out, document it, and enter it into the system? They’ll need to do it on mobile. Think of any piece of information people may want to access on the internet. They will need to access it on a device that isn’t a desktop website.

Karen McGrane, Content Strategy for Mobile

It’s easier for us, the digital designers and content managers, to assume that customers don’t need certain content because they’re viewing a smaller screen. It makes our jobs easier – responsive or adaptive content is hard work. But this is important work we need to be taking on now to lay the foundation for the satisfying, even delightful experiences we want to deliver in the future.

Before we get there, we need more analytics, research, and insight. We need to know a lot more about our customers before we commit them to any experience.

In a recent Contently post about digital media, Dillon Baker writes that “with mobile’s rapid rise to dominance, it turns out people are spending a ton more time with every screen – or at least every screen besides TV” (“The Digital Media Boom, in One Chart,” The Content Strategist, Aug. 20, 2015).

My recent Netflix experience confirms this statement. At the end of a day, I found myself lying in bed with a cat on one side of me, the kids finally asleep upstairs, and my iPad on my lap. After a day of tending to and worrying over screens, I was ready to be entertained by another one.

I selected Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz from My List and tapped the play icon.

In interviews and performances, the film chronicles the last concert of the Band, the influential rock group from the 60s and 70s. I’m not old enough to have been a fan of their music then, but I can’t deny its popularity and power now.

Yes, I could have transferred the film to the larger screen TV in that room, but I didn’t dare. I couldn’t risk disturbing the peaceful cat next to me or the sleeping children upstairs.

Despite the small screen, I can’t imagine being more moved by this film. It’s probably a heretical thing to say to film purists (and even to Scorcese himself), but nothing could match my experience of first watching the Band sing “The Weight” with the Staples Singers. At the end of the performance, Mavis Staples just can’t help herself; she has to say what it was, and is: “Beautiful.”

Of course our digital products are a long way from knowing the context that went into my experience. The long day, the cat, the kids, the comfy pillow – my context. Having my devices know all that about me would probably be creepy. But it’s that kind of customer insight and empathy that will help us build the right experiences for any device.

I’m writing this in Seattle, where I’m going to deliver a presentation about content strategy for mobile. As I’ll explain in my slides, we are making progress, slowly, toward creating digital products that reflect an informed understanding of our customers. When we get there, we’ll be delighting users in pleasantly surprising ways. We’ll deliver just enough of the right words and media, and that content will be current, accurate, meaningful, useful – in a word, beautiful.

Content Strategy Southern California presents Debbie Fellman’s “Content Strategy for Mobile: A Case Study” on August 27 at Epic Spaces Coworking in Pasadena. For more information, visit Content Strategy Southern California on

Want to experience “The Weight” for yourself? Here’s the link on YouTube. Play it loud.