2015 Digital Trends for Influence

Each year at this time, we at Forum One take a moment to consider where we’ve been and where we're going with regard to technology and craft, and how they help us to extend our clients’ influence.

Digital Trends

Just as we did last year, we interviewed our strategists and asked them to ponder thoughtfully, dust off the ol’ crystal ball, and share their insights into what technology trends are likely to impact our digital communication efforts in the year to come. These are the trends we see for the year ahead:

Data Visualization Is Maturing

Data visualization and infographics have been an area of buzz for a few years now. It goes without saying that the reams of valuable data that organizations are creating will continue to be assets that savvy organizations will use to help drive their influence. The increasing popularity of interactive data visualizations and infographics is bringing about greater maturity in this space, and will increase the effectiveness of the data products organizations are publishing – or at least the scrutiny they’re given. Organizations and their data partners will need to be more deliberate in choosing the types of visualizations to use and be more cognizant of best practices. The most effective data visualizations and infographics will be more celebrated and discussed, but the ones that fail to meet standards will face greater criticism.

Material Design Is the New Black

The design world is abuzz with talk of Duarte’s Material Design principles, which was the inspiration for the most recent OS for the Android mobile operating system, Lollipop. Material design can essentially be viewed as a modest rebellion against flat design, which has been dominating the web design world for the past few years (see Apple’s iOS 8 for iPhone). The addition of drop shadows and deliberate representation of 3D space in general is something I feel we will be seeing a lot of in 2015, thanks to Google’s Material Design language. This approach borrows a page from atomic design language, which Brad Frost first spoke about in 2013. Since then, the idea has been building a lot of steam. Here at Forum One, we have been begun to utilize Pattern Lab as a tool to more fully embrace its approach. Read my full blog post for additional thoughts around 2015 design trends.

Content Strategy

This will be the year of content! After stealthily building buzz over the past few years, the content strategy movement will happen in earnest in 2015. These tactics can help your organization’s content rise to the top:

  • Mobile: We know websites need to reflect the increasing movement to mobile devices by being responsive, but your content should also strategically maximize those experiences. Karen McGrane’s book, Content Strategy for Mobile, is a great place to start.
  • Metrics: Data and analytics can regularly gauge the performance of your content, as well as inform your content revisions and editorial calendar planning. Jon Colman has some great pointers here.
  • Long-form: Organizations are establishing themselves as thought leaders by moving away from clunky PDFs, opting to publish their longer, evergreen content in more web- and user-friendly formats.

We’ve already seen a shift in our client priorities, with organizations requesting a content-first approach or long-form content in their RFPs. This is great news because every word, image, and video on your website should be intentional. This emphasis will have a profound effect on your organization’s impact.

Drupal 8 Is Coming

This year will be the year that Drupal 8 may finally see the light of day. Drupal 8 represents a major upgrade of this extremely popular platform for creating websites for public-sector organizations. The paradigm will shift in the PHP world as it moves towards a new backend using Symfony and a new templating system with Twig. Although an initial beta was released last October, the release date remains uncertain at this writing, which definitely makes my authorship of a book on the subject challenging. While only the most forward-thinking organizations are likely to initiate new projects on D8 this year, you can take a number of important Drupal 8 planning and budgeting steps now, to be ready to adopt this exciting platform in the coming year or two.

Organizations Should Drop Support for IE8

Microsoft is dropping support for Internet Explorer 8 in January 2016. Therefore, organizations should not invest heavily in attempting to achieve backward compatibility for this troubled browser. To our continual surprise, we still receive RFPs that require us to support this browser, which was released six years ago – an eternity in the world of web development. By focusing development efforts for more modern browsers, including IE9 and above, digital communicators gain access to much more powerful and higher-performance frameworks, and they avoid burning time and budget retrofitting modern web components to function in an antiquated browser. For example, we are excited to use D3 and more modern versions of AngularJS, which allow us to deliver speedier performance for jazzier web apps such as interactive data applications.

Cheap Smart Phones for All

Apple led the way with the iPhone, and Samsung has spent billions (yes, billions – $14 billion on marketing in 2013 alone) to become a market leader in the smartphone market.  But there have never been quality, cheap smartphones in the US. That will change this year. We will see a number of high-quality smartphones under $150 by the end of 2015. They may not gain market share quickly, but good options will exist for those willing to branch beyond the iPhone. By 2017, I expect even the new iPhones and Samsungs will rapidly fall in price as competition grows.

Your Next Internet Thing: Ideas

As content online becomes increasingly granular (quotes, infographics, video clips, etc.), one content type will become more prominent: “ideas.” At this point, ideas aren’t captured, archived, ranked, commented on, or shared the way other types of content (like photos, presentations, or documents) routinely are. One service that we run, Good Ideas, may play a role, but other organizations in the information and the ideas business will also take note.

Thanks for the Open Data (Now What?)

We are seeing in 2015 some Federal agencies starting to look beyond their open data efforts at ways they can better foster innovation around this open data. Since the President’s 2009 Open Government Directive, Federal agencies had developed open government plans (e.g. USDA), made data sets available on, and also hosted events to bring together developers, like Energy Datapalooza, and Safety Datapalooza.  These are huge steps forward since 2009, but we hear that they are not leading to the level of innovation around these data sets that agencies want to see.

To foster greater innovation around open data, agencies are looking at ways to develop ongoing collaboration with data innovators. We think that the best approach is to seek to build an “ecosystem” public and private sector data players. And to build an ecosystem requires more than a periodic datapalooza event. It can require providing: ways for innovators to convene with each other year-round; a clearinghouse of people and resources; and structured discussions to focus efforts on key gaps and challenges. To develop such an ecosystem requires ongoing leadership, resources, and management — which Federal agencies may not be able to provide on an ongoing basis.

One example of building a sustained effort is how the Department of Health and Human Services, and other supporters, in 2012 set up the “Health Data Consortium” as an independent public/private sector partnership (launch story). In 2015, we are seeing Federal agencies looking at models like the Health Data Consortium and others as ways to build more collaboration and innovation around their open data resources.

“Appify” Your Site for Success

2015 will be the year in which leading organizations take the “appification” of the web seriously in their planning and digital communication decisions. For the uninitiated, “appification” refers to a fundamental – some say seismic – shift in how we create and consume digital information. The websites we’ve developed over the past 15 years have been engineered to deliver documents. Over the next decade, communicators need to think less about the web as a library of interconnected pages and instead think of it as a large collaborative information store that serves up content to any screen or device – from desktop computers to cars. Even now, many of the best websites are actually apps.

To stand apart, innovative organizations need to be planning their sites so that they respect users’ needs. Users’ expectations will include the ability to save work in progress (such as a filtered view of your content) so that they can continue where they left off at a later time or even on a different device. For example, they might create a custom visualization of your data on their desktop computer, but will want to return to where they left off when they pick up their tablet or phone – just as one currently does with Facebook, Gmail, or any of the other great websites that are actually apps.

Hold the Pickles, Hold the Lettuce. “Hamburger” Menus Don’t Upset Us

Last year, my colleague Brian Verhoeven stated, “This is the year of the hamburger menu.” A year later, I would say that the jury is still out on whether everyone fully understands what the heck it does (expands the menu/navigation) and whether we love it or hate it, but the hamburger menu is everywhere because more and more sites are responsive or at least are taking mobile into consideration. Additionally cards and canvases are becoming ubiquitous. You’ve seen them on Pinterest and now they’re taking over, primarily because they transition so nicely between screen sizes. Whether you love them or hate them, hamburger menus and cards have one thing in common: They force us to prioritize and get to the point.

Impact Dashboards: Measure Your Mission Moving Forward

Nonprofits and governments exist to serve the public good in some form, but too few know how well their programs and initiatives are meeting their stated objectives. In digital communications, we have the unique benefit of painting on an inherently measurable canvas – the web. In 2015, groups working in the public interest will shift from analytics reporting that focuses purely on website performance to impact dashboards that demonstrate how an organization’s online and offline activities are moving its mission forward.

This evolution will require organizations to develop measurable goals that support their missions, and then select and implement software to track these “impact KPIs.” (We’re fans of Google Analytics and their new, powerful Universal Analytics tool that allows tracking of online and offline actions and integration of analytics across multiple platforms.) Then, reporting dashboards will capture and share these data. Much of this is easier said than done, but leading the pack in demonstrating the impact of program work, development, and communications will be immensely attractive to funders and the public whose support is mandatory.

Smart Phones and Smarter People

The clear trend in mobile is towards bigger screens and faster processors. As of early 2014, smartphones and tablets had overtaken PCs in internet traffic, firmly establishing the new norm in internet browsing behavior. It’s an understatement to say mobile is everywhere, from the smartphones we carry around in our pockets, to the tablets and e-readers we browse while reclining on our couches. These devices are rapidly connecting us to our physical environments, from heads-up displays in cars and wearables that track more than your health, to small IoT (Internet of things) devices that connect our homes.

Anytime a new technology trend increases our information consumption, data reporting, or ubiquitous connectivity, it’s critical to stop and ask the question: “Is this actually making us smarter?” How do we stay focused on things that matter, whether that be relationships, organizational results, or simply the road in front of us. We have to make technology work for us. (For a funny take on this, listen to the “Fritz” segment on the Jan. 24, 2015, “A Prairie Home Companion.”) We are only beginning to see greater understanding of context driven through data, seamless interactions across devices, and simplification of interfaces. This leads me to hope and wish for our mobile technology to lead us to less distractions and more richness in our lives. That’s the mobile trend I want to see in 2015.