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A Goldfish Argues for Cinematic Design

2/17/2020 | Co-authored by Bryan Fitch and Don Low

Hey, you don’t know me, but we have a lot in common. Well, honestly, we don’t have THAT much in common, except for one thing – our attention spans. Yes, that’s right. You humans have an attention span almost as long as a goldfish. We’ve been clocked by those white lab coats at nine seconds. You humans, on the other hand, have an attention span of eight seconds. It’s interesting to note that back in 2000, you humans crushed us goldfish with a 12-second attention span.

You may wonder, “To what do you owe your 20-year, 25% attention span demise?”

May I suggest…YouTube. Reddit. Netflix. Snapchat. Mobile phones. Texting.

While you pride yourself on your ability to multi-task (actually, it’s multi-sequencing), you are getting more distracted by the day. So, let’s chat a bit about what UX designers are doing to help rekindle your human focus.

The good folks at Tahzoo Studios call it Cinematic Design. It’s a philosophy built on a simple premise. When you design UX for laptops, tablets, phones, wearables, etc., you must create a visual environment reflecting TV and movie making theory. You humans have been watching TV for 92 years and you’ve burned some interesting orientations into your brains. You tend to focus in the middle of the screen. Your brain can only process so much visual stimuli at a time. You humans start in the dead center and move your eyes slowly to the right edge and then around the perimeter of the screen. Too much visual stimulation and your brain says, “peace out.”

It’s what our friend Barry Swartz calls the Tyranny of Choice. Give humans too much visual stimuli and we run for the hills (or look away or go to the kitchen for food).

Why Cinematic Design?

Cinematic Design is based on the notion that, if you present fewer visual choices to the user, they will stay and engage. If you create a visual focal point in the center, a user will fall into a comfortable TV experience and will want to spend time on your site. Overload a user’s visual options and they will quickly move on.

Let’s consider these two examples:


Which layout makes you want to stay awhile? Which makes less noise? Which layout does not get in the way of the key message the site is trying to convey?

Boston Consulting Group (A Tahzoo client) captures your attention and invites you to stay awhile. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, just overwhelms your screen. While a newspaper format works fine on a large newspaper, it overwhelms you in a digital environment.

When Mel Gibson directed Braveheart in 1995 he didn’t throttle the screen with a lot of visual stimuli in hopes that the viewer would just get it. He carefully chooses the visual elements that work best together to support a simple, minimal storyline. Even the largest Braveheart battle scenes are organized so the viewer doesn’t get lost in the details and is able to maintain a higher-level sense of plot.

Director David Fincher, in the movie Seven (Yes, 1995 was a good year for film) does a brilliant job using Cinematic Design to hold the viewer’s focus. A Cinematic Design philosophy gives Mr. Fincher enough room to engage our emotions without overwhelming us. He carefully plots each shot so as to avoid the Tyranny of Visual Choice.

This weekend, watch Seven again, noting how restrained Mr. Fincher is in his visual composition.

It’s all about hierarchy

Good Cinematic Design gives you a primary, secondary and tertiary option. It helps to maintain human’s measly eight second attention span so you can move from one visual/content option to another without getting overwhelmed. Another Tahzoo Client, Shearman & Sterling, one of the top law firms in the world, is restrained enough to offer their viewers distinct content choices that guide them through a primary, secondary and tertiary experience, careful never to overwhelm. Your human brains just work better when really good UX designers limit your choices.

Where do you begin?

Cinematic Design, like any good movie begins with the script. One of the biggest reasons most clients can’t realize the benefits of a restrained visual experience is that they don’t have the discipline to limit content in the site. The best Cinematic Design starts with Curly’s philosophy of life:

What’s the one thing you want to say (By the way, don’t get me started about watching Jack Palance’s one arm push-ups at the Oscars. That was cool, even viewed through my fishbowl).

Why do clients have difficulty limiting their content? They have a lot to say. Moreover, concise writing is really hard. When enterprise content managers have the discipline to limit the content, UX Designers can limit the visual noise.

Mobile First

When they asked Michelangelo how he carved David, Michelangelo simply replied, “Well, I got a really big chunk of marble, then chipped off everything that wasn’t David.” Cinematic Design requires the ability and discipline to chip away everything that isn’t David.

One thing that has transformed UX is the advent of a mobile-first strategy. Did you know that Google only SEO’s mobile sites? They’re not even spidering desktops anymore. Even Google wants to reward digital communicators for making quality content and visual choices. Mobile forces content strategists and UX designers to major in the majors and minor in the minors.

The importance of wires

Beyond content, the best UX designers incorporate Cinematic Design into the wireframes they create. Tahzoo designers always start with mobile and then work their way to desktop -- wooing, cajoling, begging clients to help them chip away everything that isn’t David. When Sodexo hired Tahzoo Studios to develop a universal UX format for 700 college dining sites around the world, Tahzoo started by severely narrowing content options. This enabled Cinematic Design to ensue. Tahzoo found that college students came to the site with two questions in mind, “How can I replenish my meal card?” and “Where can I find the nearest burger on campus?” That became a central focus of Tahzoo’s Cinematic Design approach.

Wireframes followed
Then and only then, did they move to UI Design

A Cinematic Design UX philosophy gives me hope for you humans. I’d like to think that better UX and UI design can help restore the brain cells you’ve lost in the last two decades, clearing away the digital clutter and making it easier for you to manage your digital day. The last thing we goldfish want is for you to be found lying belly up in a digital sea of choice.



About the Authors:

Bryan Fitch, Creative Director, Tahzoo Studios: Don Low, Managing Director, Tahzoo Studios: After having built and owned two Seattle-based digital agencies, and with client-side gigs as CMO for Apex Learning and Regence/TailorWell, Don took up residence at Tahzoo to help manage Studios and encourage clients to think creatively about their CX transformation. Don has had the privileged of managing notable clients: Microsoft, Pike Place Market, Overlake Hospital, Starbucks, Cedars Sinai Hospital, Sodexo, and HR Block. Don’s recent speaking engagements include Ad Club, The Mayo Clinic Foundation, CMO Club, and Olive Crest.

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