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How to design engaging and enjoyable reading experiences

Finally, some good news from the media industry: digital subscriptions are growing. We’re seeing positive reports from newspapers such as the New York Times and magazine publishers such as Conde Nast: announcements about increases in their digital content sales and paywall members.

When you have fantastic and original content, ensuring the best possible reading experience is critical to keeping and building your audience. The following practices will help you design your content in a way that improves the experience for readers.

Navigation Methods

We often think that having many methods for finding things is easier for users. Unfortunately, the result can be mess of unhelpful and unrelated links, menus, widgets and ads. Many news websites place lists of “most-read articles” or “articles that your Facebook friends are reading” on their websites because they can. Analytics will tell you whether these methods are useful for your particular website. If no one is clicking on them, why are they taking up valuable space?

One way to quickly see the effect of slimmed-down navigation is to use Ochs, a Chrome browser extension specifically for the New York Times, written by Michael Donohoe. Open the New York Times in a different browser, then install Ochs and look at the website in Chrome. Ochs provides the massive benefit of a cleaner layout and clutter-free navigation. Things like reading tools and extra modules are removed from articles. The increased white space and removal of the New York Times’ dense navigation bars are a breath of fresh air.

New York Times with Ochs experience
The Ochs extension cleans up the UI of the New York Times.

There is a difference between having a reasonable way to navigate a website versus having one-click access to all of the website’s content. How do your users typically find what they want? Do they use the navigation links or jump straight to the search box?

Changing the navigation methods may be as straightforward as removing redundant menu bars or as involved as conducting user research to see which methods people use and don’t use.

Another thing to consider when looking at navigation usage patterns is that people rarely click on things that appear hard to read or cluttered. If that’s the case with your website, perhaps it’s time to look at your typography and spacing.

Experimenting With Type And Spacing

Not every typeface was designed to be read on a digital screen. Typefaces can have a huge effect on both the appeal of content and its readability. The typefaces for headlines may be beautiful and attention-grabbing, but if the ones for the copy are difficult to read, you could be turning away readers.

Not everyone will read your content exactly as it was designed. Some people set their own default font size, while others change their screen’s resolution. Still others use assistive technology, such as screen readers, to peruse content. During the course of a day, I read blogs on my iPad, pan and zoom through news on my mobile phone, edit documents on
an enormous desktop monitor and browse the Web from my television screen (at low resolution). For this same reason, tools such as Instapaper, Readability and Evernote are growing massively. The ability to control the format of what you read — and where you read it — is becoming increasingly useful.

The Boston Globe’s recent overhaul of its website received a lot of well-deserved praise, and two of the nicest things about it are the use of white space and the typography. The fonts chosen are central to the Boston Globe’s Web style, and they feel relevant to its almost 240-year-old print identity. Compare the new design to the original one, and the contrast is staggering. The Boston Globe’s new look is a great case study for news websites and readability in general. Definitely have a look if you haven’t yet.

The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe’s new interface has carefully chosen fonts plus more white space.

While some fonts were created specifically for digital reading, there is no magical formula for selecting type. To find out what works, do some testing. User testing, A/B testing and even testing within your own team can yield insights. Have everyone on your team read through a handful of long-form content on various devices. If people can’t make it through more than a few paragraphs, try different fonts, sizes or spacing. Or maybe rethink some of those distracting ads.

Respectful Advertising

How often do you see people rush to turn the page of a magazine just to skip an ad? Probably rarely. But people do it on websites all the time, panicking to find the small “Close” icon on a pop-up ad, or flummoxed as to which browser tab is playing an audio ad. I hope the people who create these creepy auto-play ads will one day experience the terror of being alone at the office late at night as a rogue audio clip begins speaking to them.

As an avid reader of both print and digital magazines, I’m overwhelmed by the stark difference in advertisements between them. Print magazine ads regularly hold my interest and engage me — I do not tear out pages of magazines, nor do I cover the ads. Magazines select advertisements that are relevant to their audience and that are attractive and well designed. Advertisers usually do not spend big money on print ads only to create unattractive content for them.

For some reason, all of this goes out the window when it comes to online ads. Companies are told that no one notices ads unless they grab attention, and so they create loud, garish ads — ads that do nothing for the product and that most likely diminish the viewer’s interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The advertising network The Deck prides itself on tasteful, targeted ads for an influential audience of creative professionals. Its ads are uniform in size and amount of text. The Deck does not pay for or run ads unless it has used the products themselves, so it vouches for all of its advertisers. The emphasis on small graphics forces advertisers to be creative, and advertisers get a return of 3% of all page views in The Deck’s current network.

Ads from the Deck
The Deck’s ads are tasteful and subtle.

Both advertisers and audiences have something to gain when ads are relevant and attractive. The growing shift towards responsive and respectful advertising has been written about at length by people such as Mark Boulton and Roger Black (see the related links at the bottom of this article). It’s worth reading their takes on these new Web ads, and you might even want to have an internal discussion at your company about how the advertising on your website could be made more valuable for everyone.

Moreover, if the ads on your website are respectful and relevant, people might check out the advertisers’ products, increasing both visited metrics and click-through rates, thus allowing you to charge more for advertising. So, do dive into your website’s analytics.

Check Your Analytics

We want to do the right thing: build websites that are responsive and that adapt to devices. But we have to be reasonable, too. What is achievable given your budget and time frame? Analytics are one of the best ways to hone in on what to prioritize. Even a simple free tool like Google Analytics can yield important insight into who is viewing your website and how. Google Analytics can also track readers’ paths through the website, showing you what content and sections are being avoided or ignored.

The Financial Times keeps a close eye on its visitor analytics. It has over 1 million registered users. In November, it announced that its Web app (which launched in June 2011) was replacing its native mobile app. The Financial Times also released data indicating the types of devices that are being used to access its website and the times of day. And it recently launched a native Android app — perhaps because the number of people accessing its website on Android devices is growing.

The Financial Times
The Financial Times ditched the App Store for its own Web apps.

If you notice that most of your traffic is coming from people on tablets, you can optimize for that experience first. Management at your company may be pushing hard for a native app, but you should determine a couple of things before writing the design specifications for a native app:

  1. Does the audience for such an app exist, or is one growing?
  2. Is that audience not getting a good enough experience from your website.

If your current audience barely has any iOS users but has a significant chunk of Android users, why not start there instead? Additionally, what are those Android users doing on your website? Are they sticking around and enjoying your mobile experience, or do they bounce quickly? The latter could indicate that the experience on your website isn’t ideal.

But if you want to know for sure, ask them.

Has Anyone Asked Your Users?

It saddens me how often content and experience decisions are made without consulting the people who those decisions will affect. Facebook users are familiar with the pandemonium that occurs every time a new interface goes live — people often struggle to find what was once familiar and obvious.

The Sunday Times’ iPad app was updated in August based on user feedback. Users requested to be able to download all sections with the click of a button. The Sunday Times added the ability to download all or individual sections, improved the functionality for deleting sections and editions, and bundled sections more usefully. These changes were the result of direct comments and feedback from users.

The Sunday Times iPad app
The Sunday Times listened to users and changed its downloading options.

Short in-person interviews or widespread surveys are fast and easy ways to get feedback directly from readers about what they like and don’t like about your content. Find out about their reading habits. Learn when and where they read articles — the answers may surprise you. Perhaps the section you were considering cutting has a growing audience. Maybe a feature that gets very good engagement in print doesn’t translate so well online and needs to be rethought.

And if users tell you they’re frustrated by trying to read anything on your website, consider offering them a quiet room.

“A Quiet Room”

Walking from the cacophony of New York’s Times Square into a tiny, quiet office can bring a feeling of relief. All of a sudden, no one is in your face trying to get you to buy something or take a tour or give them money. You can just relax and focus.

Finding a website or app that lets you read and enjoy its content is just like this. The experience is not stressful, and you can take your time and enjoy the writing, which seems to have been created just for you. As a designer, you can create this “quiet room” for readers, a place where they can fully absorb the content without having to close pop-ups or be confronted by an animation that screams that they are the 1,238,901st visitor that day. A quiet room is why applications like Instapaper and Readability get effusive praise.

A List Apart does a good job of avoiding clutter and letting the reader focus. Articles have minimal sidebar navigation and only a couple of small, tasteful advertisements. The majority of the page has a simple format: easy-to-read text (peppered with images), a conclusion that points you to related material, and a chance to discuss the article.

A List Apart
A List Apart creates room for readers to enjoy the content.

When Doesn’t This Work?

These approaches will not work for every group of content or every website. Some content is meant to be skimmed for quick comprehension. Other websites contain no narrative content. And many websites rely too much on advertising revenue to be able to change their ad strategy.

If your content changes rapidly, is short and to the point, contains little analysis or has any combination of these, then it’s likely not a good fit for this approach. But if you have done your research and you have content that is well written and that your audience likes to get lost in, then perhaps some of the ideas mentioned above are worth a try.

Regardless of the length and type of your content, here’s a useful exercise: go through each of the issues covered above and think of one thing you could change to make your content more readable. Some of the revisions might be long term and big picture, but you might be surprised by the easy opportunities to make a big impact. Give your readers a reason to enjoy your website as it is, instead of a reason to reformat the content and turn the page as fast as possible.

Resources

How to work on your website content

In content strategy, there is no playbook of generic strategies you can pick from to assemble a plan for your client or project. Instead, our discipline rests on a series of core principles about what makes content effective—what makes it work, what makes it good. Content may need to have other qualities to work within a particular project, but this list is limited to qualities shared across all sorts of content.

If this looks like theory, don’t be fooled. It’s really entirely practical: if we consciously refer to principles like these as we go about our work as info-nerds of various kinds, we’ll have an easier time making good, useful content—and explaining our priorities when we’re called to do so.

Good content is appropriate

Publish content that is right for the user and for the business

There’s really only one central principle of good content: it should be appropriate for your business, for your users, and for its context. Appropriate in its method of delivery, in its style and structure, and above all in its substance. Content strategy is the practice of determining what each of those things means for your project—and how to get there from where you are now.

Right for the user (and context)

Let us meditate for a moment on James Bond. Clever and tough as he is, he’d be mincemeat a hundred times over if not for the hyper-competent support team that stands behind him. When he needs to chase a villain, the team summons an Aston Martin DB5. When he’s poisoned by a beautiful woman with dubious connections, the team offers the antidote in a spring-loaded, space-age infusion device. When he emerges from a swamp overrun with trained alligators, it offers a shower, a shave, and a perfectly tailored suit. It does not talk down to him or waste his time. It anticipates his needs, but does not offer him everything he might ever need, all the time.

Content is appropriate for users when it helps them accomplish their goals.

Content is perfectly appropriate for users when it makes them feel like geniuses on critically important missions, offering them precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form. All of this requires that you get pretty deeply into your users’ heads, if not their tailoring specifications.

Part of this mind-reading act involves context, which encompasses quite a lot more than just access methods, or even a fine-grained understanding of user goals. Content strategist Daniel Eizans has suggested that a meaningful analysis of a user’s context requires not only an understanding of user goals, but also of their behaviors: What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they capable of?

Venn diagram of user's contextsFig. 1. The user’s context includes actions, constraints, emotions, cognitive conditions, and more. And that in turn affects the ways in which the user interacts with content. (“Personal-Behavioral Context: The New User Persona.” © Daniel Eizans, 2010. Modified from a diagram by Andrew Hinton.)

It’s a sensible notion. When I call the emergency room on a weekend, my context is likely to be quite different than when I call my allergy specialist during business hours. If I look at a subway map at 3:00 a.m., chances are that I need to know which trains are running now, not during rush hour tomorrow. When I look up your company on my phone, I’m more likely to need basic contact info than your annual report from 2006. But assumptions about reader context—however well researched—will never be perfect. Always give readers the option of seeing more information if they wish to do so.

Right for the business

Content is appropriate for your business when it helps you accomplish your business goals in a sustainable way.

Business goals include things like “increase sales,” “improve technical support service,” and “reduce printing costs for educational materials,” and the trick is to accomplish those goals using sustainable processes. Sustainable content is content you can create—and maintain—without going broke, without lowering quality in ways that make the content suck, and without working employees into nervous breakdowns. The need for this kind of sustainability may sound boneheadedly obvious, but it’s very easy to create an ambitious plan for publishing oodles of content without considering the long-term effort required to manage it.

Fundamentally, though, “right for the business” and “right for the user” are the same thing. Without readers, viewers, and listeners, all content is meaningless, and content created without consideration for users’ needs harms publishers because ignored users leave.

This principle boils down to enlightened self interest: that which hurts your users hurts you.

Good content is useful

Define a clear, specific purpose for each piece of content; evaluate content against this purpose

Few people set out to produce content that bores, confuses, and irritates users, yet the web is filled with fluffy, purposeless, and annoying content. This sort of content isn’t neutral, either: it actively wastes time and money and works against user and business goals.

To know whether or not you have the right content for a page (or module or section), you have to know what that content is supposed to accomplish. Greater specificity produces better results. Consider the following possible purposes for a chunk of product-related content:

  • “Sell products”—This is so vague as to be meaningless and is likely to produce buzzword-infested fluff.
  • “Sell this product”—Selling a product is a process made up of many smaller tasks, like discussing benefits, mapping them to features, demonstrating results and value, and asking people to buy. If your goal is this vague, you have no idea which of these tasks (if any) the content will perform.
  • “List and demonstrate the benefits of this product”—This is something a chunk of content can actually do. But if you don’t know who is supposed to benefit from the product, it’s difficult to be specific.
  • “Show how this product helps nurse practitioners”—If you can discover what nurse practitioners need, you can create content that serves this purpose. (And if you can’t find out what they need before trying to sell them a product, you have a lot more to worry about than your content.)

Now do the same for every chunk of content in your project, and you’ll have a useful checklist of what you’re really trying to achieve. If that sounds daunting, think how much harder it would be to try to evaluate, create, or revise the content without a purpose in mind.

Good content is user-centered

Adopt the cognitive frameworks of your users

On a web project, user-centered design means that the final product must meet real user needs and fulfill real human desires. In practical terms, it also means that the days of designing a site map to mirror an org chart are over.

In The Psychology of Everyday Things, cognitive scientist Donald Norman wrote about the central importance of understanding the user’s mental model before designing products. In the user-centered design system he advocates, design should “make sure that (1) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on.”

When it comes to content, “user-centered” means that instead of insistently using the client’s internal mental models and vocabulary, content must adopt the cognitive frameworks of the user. That includes everything from your users’ model of the world to the ways in which they use specific terms and phrases. And that part has taken a little longer to sink in.

Allow me to offer a brief illustrative puppet show.

While hanging your collection of framed portraits of teacup poodles, you realize you need a tack hammer. So you pop down to the hardware store and ask the clerk where to find one. “Tools and Construction-Related Accessories,” she says. “Aisle five.”

“Welcome to the Tools and Construction-Related Accessories department, where you will find many tools for construction and construction-adjacent activities. How can we help you?”

“Hi. Where can I find a tack hammer?”

“Did you mean an Upholstery Hammer (Home Use)?”

“…yes?”

“Hammers with heads smaller than three inches are the responsibility of the Tools for Home Use Division at the far end of aisle nine.”

“Welcome to The Home Tool Center! We were established by the merger of the Tools for Home Use Division and the Department of Small Sharp Objects. Would you like to schedule a demonstration?”

“I just need an upholstery hammer. For…the home?”

“Do you require Premium Home Use Upholstery Hammer or Standard Deluxe Home Use Upholstery Hammer?”

“Look, there’s a tack hammer right behind your head. That’s all I need.”

“DIRECTORY ACCESS DENIED. Please return to the front of the store and try your search again!”

Publishing content that is self-absorbed in substance or style alienates readers. Most successful organizations have realized this, yet many sites are still built around internal org charts, clogged with mission statements designed for internal use, and beset by jargon and proprietary names for common ideas.

If you’re the only one offering a desirable product or service, you might not see the effects of narcissistic content right away, but someone will eventually come along and eat your lunch by offering the exact same thing in a user-centered way.

Good content is clear

Seek clarity in all things

When we say that something is clear, we mean that it works; it communicates; the light gets through. Good content speaks to people in a language they understand and is organized in ways that make it easy to use.

Content strategists usually rely on others—writers, editors, and multimedia specialists—to produce and revise the content that users read, listen to, and watch. On some large projects, we may never meet most of the people involved in content production. But if we want to help them produce genuinely clear content, we can’t just make a plan, drop it onto the heads of the writers, and flee the building.

Of course, clarity is also a virtue we should attend to in the production of our own work. Goals, meetings, deliverables, processes—all benefit from a love of clarity.

Good content is consistent

Mandate consistency, within reason

For most people, language is our primary interface with each other and with the external world. Consistency of language and presentation acts as a consistent interface, reducing the users’ cognitive load and making it easier for readers to understand what they read. Inconsistency, on the other hand, adds cognitive effort, hinders understanding, and distracts readers.

That’s what our style guides are for. Many of us who came to content strategy from journalistic or editorial fields have a very strong attachment to a particular style—I have a weakness for the Chicago Manual of Style—but skillful practitioners put internal consistency well ahead of personal preferences.

Some kinds of consistency aren’t always uniformly valuable, either: a site that serves doctors, patients, and insurance providers, for example, will probably use three different voice/tone guidelines for the three audiences, and another for content intended to be read by a general audience. That’s healthy, reader-centric consistency. On the other hand, a company that permitted each of its product teams to create widely different kinds of content is probably breaking the principles of consistency for self-serving, rather than reader-serving, reasons.

Good content is concise

Omit needless content

Some organizations love to publish lots of content. Perhaps because they believe that having an org chart, a mission statement, a vision declaration, and a corporate inspirational video on the About Us page will retroactively validate the hours and days of time spent producing that content. Perhaps because they believe Google will only bless their work if they churn out dozens of blog posts per week. In most cases, I think entropy deserves the blame: the web offers the space to publish everything, and it’s much easier to treat it like a hall closet with infinite stuffing-space than to impose constraints.

So what does it matter if we have too much content? For one thing, more content makes everything more difficult to find. For another, spreading finite resources ever more thinly results in a decline in quality. It also often indicates a deeper problem—publishing everything often means “publishing everything we can,” rather than “publishing everything we’ve learned that our users really need.”

There are many ways to discover which content is in fact needless; traffic analysis, user research, and editorial judgment should all play a role. You may also wish to begin with a hit list of common stowaways:

  • Mission statements, vision statements, and core values. If the people within your organization are genuinely committed to abstract principles, it will show in what they do. The exception is the small number of organizations for whom the mission is the product, as is the case with many charities. Even then, this kind of content should be supplemented with plentiful evidence of follow-through.
  • Press releases. These may work for their very narrow intended audience, but putting them undigested onto a website is a perfect example of the how-we’ve-always-done-it mistake.
  • Long, unreadable legal pages. Some legal awkwardness is acceptable, but if you want to demonstrate that you respect your readers, take the extra time to whittle down rambling legalese and replace needless circumlocutions with (attorney-vetted) plain language.
  • Endless feature lists. Most are not useful to readers. The few that are can usually be organized into subcategories that aid findability and comprehension.
  • Redundant documentation. Are you offering the same audience three different FAQs? Can they be combined or turned into contextual help?
  • Audiovisual dust bunnies. Do your videos or animations begin with a long flying-logo intro? Do they ramble on for 30 minutes to communicate ten minutes of important content? Trim, edit, and provide ways of skipping around.

Once you’ve rooted out unnecessary content at the site-planning level, be prepared to ruthlessly eliminate (and teach others to eliminate) needless content at the section, page, and sentence level.

Good content is supported

Publish no content without a support plan

If newspapers are “dead tree media,” information published online is a live green plant. And as we figured out sometime around 10,000 BC, plants are more useful if we tend them and shape their futures to suit our goals. So, too, must content be tended and supported.

Factual content must be updated when new information appears and culled once it’s no longer useful; user-generated content must be nurtured and weeded; time-sensitive content like breaking news or event information must be planted on schedule and cut back once its blooming period ends. Perhaps most importantly, a content plan once begun must be carried through its intended growth cycle if it’s to bear fruit and make all the effort worthwhile.

This is all easy to talk about, but the reason most content is not properly maintained is that most content plans rely on getting the already overworked to produce, revise, and publish content without neglecting other responsibilities. This is not inevitable, but unless content and publishing tasks are recognized as time-consuming and complex and then included in job descriptions, performance reviews, and resource planning, it will continue.

Hoping that a content management system will replace this kind of human care and attention is about as effective as pointing a barn full of unmanned agricultural machinery at a field, going on vacation, and hoping it all works out. Tractors are more efficient than horse-drawn plows, but they still need humans to decide where and when and how to use them.

Of theses and church doors

One of the great images of the history of the Protestant Church is that of a German priest standing in the cold in front of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on All Saints Eve, nailing his manifesto to its wooden doors.

The reality of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses is messier, and whether the church doors were really involved at all is the subject of academic dispute, but one thing is clear: Luther published his theses to begin an open, public conversation.

Our industry doesn’t lack for manifestos, some of them even explicitly modeled after Luther’s. This article—and the book from which it’s extracted—is not one of the firebrand, nailed-to-the-door attempts at full-scale revolution.

But it is intended to continue conversations we’ve been having for years, and to spark new ones, about the shared principles and assumptions that underlie our work, and the weird and interesting things we can build on top of them.

Difference between journalism and blogging

The Web is a galaxy of information that is rapidly expanding. Blogs and online magazines are helping shape the future of this Information Age that we live in. Those of us who read, write and design blogs and online magazines possess extraordinary power and potential. How will we choose to use it?

If you use your website to publish news, events, opinions or interviews, you should familiarize yourself with the basics of journalism. These tools can help us develop and share information that is exciting, intelligent, and responsible. They can provide guidance and support as you pursue a career or hobby writing online.

Newsstand2 in We Can Do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism

This article is accompanied by examples of photojournalism, which is the practice of communicating news through photographs. The above photo of a 1940′s newsstand in New York City was taken by photojournalist Ruth Orkin

We, designers, go on all day about the usability of our WordPress layouts and the readability of our typography, but all of those things have been considered in vain if our writing is poorly spelled, riddled with inaccuracies, or based on second-hand assumptions that will leave our audience misled, confused, or worse. Even if you’re just casually writing about why you personally love/hate the iPad (for example), you can do so in a truthful way (truthful to your own opinions and truthful to the information you are discussing).

Whether or not you strive to produce writing that you consider journalism is not all that important. What is important is that no matter what writing genre you specialize in, you have a responsibility to your readers to publish high quality writing that is truthful, accurate, and readable. Oh, and this applies to your professional Twitter stream and Facebook updates, too. All of these elements have a reflection on you and your brand.

Trained professional journalists spend years studying the complex techniques and thorny philosophical values that define the trade of journalism, so don’t expect to receive a Master’s degree from Columbia by the end of this article. What this piece can serve as is a crash course designed to introduce concepts that will improve your writing, pique your interest, and instill a sense of respect for the fundamentals of a noble profession.

What is Journalism?

The most familiar function of journalism is ‘hard news’ reporting you’ll see on the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post. But journalistic writing also extends to editorial writing, cultural reviews, interviews, and more.

According to The Elements of Journalism (written by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel), “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Journalism is the pursuit of truth, accuracy and fairness in the telling of a story. Journalists serve and inform their audience by investigating and reporting on news, trends, issues, and events. Much like designers, journalists pride themselves on a duty provide their audience with useful, high-quality content.

What’s the difference between Journalism and Blogging?

CNN.com delivers journalism. Your cousin’s homemade Twilight fan fiction site, on the other hand, is a blog. However, somewhere in between lies a hotly debated grey area.

So can blogs be journalism? According to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, “They can be, sometimes.”  How can you tell the difference? Depends on who you ask. Rosen himself is both journalist and blogger (he runs PressThink, a weblog about journalism and the press). In his essay ‘Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over’, Rosen decides that the sometimes indiscernible difference between these two forms of writing is less important than the implications of massive shifts of power in the media. Rosen acknowledges what Tom Curley (Chief Executive of the Associated Press) called “a huge shift in the ‘balance of power’ in our world, from the content providers to the content consumers.” What does that mean for those of us in a position to take advantage of our newfound power?

It means we should move forward with a spirit of responsibility and immense excitement. We live in a revolutionary time when just about anyone with access to a computer can make his or her writing available to an enormous international audience with the click of a button. As Web designers and online writers who are experienced with the Web, the potential of our medium is tremendous.