The 7 Deadly Sins of Digital

There’s a bunch of things that people who are just getting into digital always seem to propose at some point or another. I guess they’re things that are part of the learning process. Things that a lot of us have done, and hopefully learned from. I’m not suggesting that anyone is stupid for doing any of these things (I’ve done the majority of them at least once). But I’m hopefully going to explain why they’re not good ideas in most cases.

Of course they’re not deadly. And like all ‘rules’ there’s good reasons to break them. But in most instances these things are not good. I’ve left out the new ‘trendy’ things like Google Earth, SecondLife, UGC, etc. I’m saving those for 7 deadly sins of digital 2.0.

In no particular order…



They say: “A game where you have to feed this little character to keep them alive, and you give them stuff, and they do stuff”

You say: “You want to create something based on an obsolete early 90s toy that wasn’t actually any fun? And you’re expecting people who don’t give a toss about your brand of fake-cheese-based snacks to go though a bunch of meaningless interactions for no real reward why?”

Why it seems like a good idea: prolonged engagement, a ‘relationship’, the original tamagotchis had a certain amount of Jap-cool

Why it’s not a good idea: they weren’t actually fun then, they’re still not now, if you’ve created one in the past you’ll find that the involvement rate drops off faster than a D’angostini subscription after issue one’s free binder. And it’s been done lots of times before.



They say: “Let’s make a screensaver”

You say: “When was the last time you installed a screensaver? When was the last time you saw a screensaver on someone’s screen?”

Why it seems like a good idea: screensavers were kind of fascinating when we were younger, at the time they were much richer and more visual than most of the web stuff that was around. They were animated, they had flying windows, zooming starfields, even scrolling text! They’re full screen (so they look a bit like a TV). And the idea of something that’s sitting there in the background, hiding, ready to jump up and surprise you when you’re being lazy has some kind of appeal I reckon.

Why it’s not a good idea: screensavers are a product of a byegone era, people don’t like installing stuff, the only time they actually come to life is when you’re not there. And they’re kind of a beacon that says my computer should be off or at least asleep to save power, but I’d rather show off some fancy graphical nonsense.


Interfaces that look like the tops of desks or tables

They say: “We could make it look like the character’s desk, you can click on a file to read it, if you click on the answering machine you can hear a message… And so on…”

You say: “Oh FFS we can bend space and time and create things that redefine the way that the world works, but you want to use a clumsy metaphor that people are going to have to decompile in order to figure out how to get to a bit of information that in some rare case they might actually want. And it’s not extensible. And besides how many people watch youtube videos of their own adverts in the residue at the bottom of a coffee cup? And it’s not accessible… And so on…”

Why it seems like a good idea: its safe and familiar. Everyone understands atoms and physical things. Lots of people don’t understand navigation, menu structures and information architecture. So it’s easier to ignore them and cling to something comfortable and comforting, like a messy desk.

Why it’s a bad idea: Aside from the stuff above it just is, trust me. Perhaps this imagined conversation between me and Ridley Scott makes it clearer:

Me: Hi Ridley, please will you direct a commercial for me, it’s basically a 60 second spot and it goes like this. We open on the first page of a book. There are words on the page, we need to wait for people to read the words. Then a hand turns the page and we move to scene two. It’s the second page of the book.
Ridley: Silence
Me: It looks like an aged book, there are coffee ring stains on page two.
Ridley: Silence
Me: You still there?


Desktop assistants / characters

They say: “You know the Microsoft paperclip, can we…”

You say: “Stop right there sonny, don’t say another word! Nobody likes the paperclip. The only good thing that ever happened to the paperclip was death. Even Bill Gates hates the paperclip.”

Why it seems like a good idea: being helpful is good. Stepping outside of a web-page and having some form of permanence and ongoing relationship makes sense.

Why it’s a bad idea: people don’t like installing things, they want things on their terms, it’s been done a lot and failed a lot no matter what the sales guys for DeskBuddy(tm) tell you.


A virus

They say: “Could we create an actual virus that spreads our message”

You say: “Why not do it in the real world instead – why not just make a branded version of HIV, there’s more people in the offline world that you can infect”

Why it seems like a good idea: massive unstoppable spread of your message.

Why it’s a bad idea: viruses are not a toy, they are really not good, you don’t want your brand to be associated with not good things, unless you work for evilcorp.


A ‘viral’

They say: “We’ve made this film, can you make it a viral”

You say: “I’m just going outside to suck on an exhaust pipe for 30 minutes – if I make it back I’ll stick it on YouTube for you”

Why it seems like a good idea: we’ve all seen ‘viral’ hits, they’re things that everyone has watched, that have been passed around, loved and genuinely become part of the culture of the web. We’ve not all seen the ‘viral’ wasteland, the thousands of clips that sit gathering dust at the bottom of the ‘exploding heads’ category on YouTube. And because most of us only see the good stuff that works we assume it’s easy.

Why it’s a bad idea: because it’s not easy. Now that ‘viral’ has become a dirty nasty industry full of paid for placements and seeding bungs you need to plan for it from the word go. It’s mostly not really about things being viral at all, it’s just about dark media buying.


Starting a list of seven things and not counting how many you’ve got.

I’m going to open this one up for submissions, anyone got any ideas for the 7th deadly sin? Best suggestion wins a book from my library. Seriously I’ll send a good book to you if you come up with the best suggestion – plus happy to replace any of my ones that are rubbish…

115 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Digital”

  1. Comment on Screensavers:
    They say: -“Hey, lets make an interactive screensaver that pulls off various data sources and that you can use as a simple browser and does all kinds of cool stuff!”

    I say: Umm, yeah, well, I don’t know about others, but if my screensaver starts that is because I’m not at my computer. I will not be able to interact with anything on my screen. If I’m in front of my computer and haven’t moved my mouse for 15 minutes I’m either gone, asleep or dead and interactivity will be wasted on me, and as pointed out, my power save will hit home and shutdown the screen in another 5 minutes after that anyways.

    They say: -“We’d like this 500kb document turned into a web site, but our users don’t know how to scroll so it all has to be presented above the ‘fold'”.

    I say: If your content is so boring your ‘users’ willingly transplant the part of their brain that contains the natural reaction to scroll interesting content when it disappears off screen, and which they already do on other web sites, word documents and in general on their computer, you should probably reconsider putting it online in that shape in the first place.

    Hmm…that was more a rant or two, but hey, you got me started here. Sorry. :)

  2. Music on sites, just plain annoying on all levels, unless Im watching a video I dont want to hear it. It ruins my “User Experience”.

  3. Yes,well don’t get Mathias (Dare’s first tech manager for 5 years) or me started on Dare’s handling of technical staff. Suffice to say, they just don’t get it. In fact we have started the Creative Technical Council as part of the IAB in order to stamp out these kind of practices when it comes to hiring and retaining high quality technologists. There are companies, such as Iris, who do value people and it is these companies that will attract and retain the good people. Most decent techies I know are either freelancers or started their own companies now anyway so the agencies that attract and retain good technologists are few and far between. Its a vital area to master as clients become more tech savvy but I feel this could become a whole different thread ;)

  4. “Problem with people who come from billboards and print ads”


    These people are coincidentally on the list of seven deadly sins for events, retail, PR, sponsorship and broadcast, as well as digital.

    These people also seem to account for 70% of the ad industry. WTF!

  5. So maybe the 7th deadly sin of digital is Dare’s handling of technical staff.

  6. Can we find out more about our visitors by asking them more lifestyle questions when they sign up for an email? We won’t use this information in any way that will change the way we speak to them and it’s just an extra hurdle to sign-up to something they’re not that interested in anyway, but it would seem like a good idea.

  7. I’ve just spend half an hour reading this, thus reducing my work time – which will undoubtedly result in my having to commit a sin.

  8. “Let’s put a guy a in a room for one week and people will be able to interact with him through webcam/instant message etc.”

    Actually this one has been known to be a deadly sin for so long, and thus hasn’t been done for so long, that when Diesel did it last year it was actually a success.

    The deadly sins of today, the succesfull memes of tomorrow!

  9. The deadliest sin is calling it “Digital”.

    It’s just communicating with ‘stuff’, stuff that other people also like to use.

    Incidentally, “Digital” has 7 letters.

    That’s a sin for each letter.

  10. Another deadly sin is using the phrase “Web 2.0” without having a damn clue what it really means. I know a lot of ad agencies and digital ad agencies bandy round that phrase like it conveys some sort of automatic technical convergence understanding and credibility. I can tell you one thing if you asked any of those people to articulate what they actually mean, there will be a pause and then lots of mention of Google Maps and Second Life and ‘mashups’ sigh…

  11. Why all the negativity about sins… they’re the best bitsarn’t they?

  12. Can’t believe I forgot this one:

    Teasing websites!

    “We’ll do a fake *wacko* website that pretends to be real and will have people scratch their heads as to what’s it’s -actually- for so much they’ll come back every day for weeks to find out what product or service we’re *really* trying to plug.”

  13. I have two more.

    The first is “Can we have a navigation that takes ages to build up and makes sounds and stuff like The Matrix”.

    The second is murdering idiots, but I think that’s probably just a sin and not really to do with digital.

  14. Enjoyable read. Interesting that you use the John West Bear ad ( I wrote it by the way) as an example of a succesful viral (at least I assume that’s what you meant to use it as) because it was never really intended to be a viral per se. It got posted on just one site (the adcritic site in the good old days – when it was free and anyone could access it) and people just started forwarding it at a phenominal rate. It was a fortunate accident really – at least to a digital retard like me at the time – but I suppose it was one of the first films that showed everyone the potential of a viral if the content is right. I actually think that potential is still true today – but you’re right about the market being saturated with crap – just like the rest of the media landscape really

  15. Ok, I’m not entirely sure how relevant this is to this particular post, as no client would ask for this. However, I truly think that one of the seven deadly sins of digital is a complete and utter depreciation of the English language. Text messages, blog entries and emails; all guilty of abandoning any English you learned whilst in school, and at the end of the day just plain lazy.

    I’m bored of reading things written by intelligent adults who can’t even be bothered to display good use of basic grammar.

    Some good reminders:

  16. I’ve just had to pick myself up from the floor laughing while reading your post and it’s comments. How, how true they all are. Bring on the 2.0 list.

    How about
    “Here’s the poster we paid a lot of money for. Can you make us a website from that?”

    Client: “We sell clothes and we want to create a virtual changing room where you can enter your waist size and then try on all our clothes in 3D, spin them round and do things like change your toe nail colour.”

    Agency: “Do you have any budget allocated for the project?”

    Client: “Yes! Somewhere in the region of £10k, but we could stretch that to £15K if required.”

    Putting your nice corporate brochure on your website as a PDF download.

  17. digital designers/creatives who have no training or experience in creative strategy and ad writing coming up with hackneyed badly written and ill thought out ideas, that are born out of trying to use the latest technology and tricks and not out of writing something normal people (not the industry) will find persuasive.

    this leads to all of the deadly sins mentioned.

  18. Hey Iain,

    Wow, what a fantastic post. And here’s my entry for the 7th Sin:

    They say: Let’s do an online contest, people submit their entries and they win

    You say: Ah, that’s original. So you now want me to bank on the luck-that-never-shone by not just buying something but wasting my broadband, time, mindspace, going through your flash and html intros, freak out over the millions of participants that your website says already have sent in entries and lose sleep?

    Why it sounds like a good idea: Anything that sounds like it’s gonna make people trigger-happy and queue in like they would for rationed food during the post-World War days sounds like a good idea

    Why it’s not a good idea: It’s simple. People don’t want to display their talents publicly unless they choose to do so. They’d rather spend that much time finding a job or a new girlfriend/boyfriend. And the least when ten other brands are trying to invite them to do something – you watch my ads, you watch my POS material, you listen to my sales women, you pay, you buy, you participate. Excuse me, and where the F do you fit into this picture?

  19. Great list Iain.

    I think there are a couple of Web 2.0(TM) deadly sins beginning to emerge:
    – Let’s do a Facebook app
    – Let’s start a corporate blog

    With both of these there are so many bad examples, and very few good.

  20. I love it! How about…

    (apologies if these have been coverd off already)

    1) ‘Personalised’ video experiences…upload your photo and marvel at the sight of a badly cropped image of your face moving (out of synch) with the live action.

    2) A Myspace page for your campaign hero! Just to keep everyone guessing as to whether they are real or not.

    3) Video-based “UGC”, with a proven track record of being wildy (un)popular in most attmepts to date. Perhaps because there is a site called Youtube, and nobody can be arsed to upload video for a chance to win a signed, limited edition toothbrush.

    4) A branded desktop RSS reader, because there simply aren’t enough of them out there already.

    5) A Facebook app, “you know, like Red Bull Roshamble”. Well, perhaps this isn’t a sin just yet, but chances it will be quite soon.

    6) Mouse trails! Although, that said, I quite like this one:

    7) Online polls and “10 Greatest/Worst. Best” ;-)

  21. ‘Live streaming’

    basically take any crap idea then say you want to stream it live onto a website. suddenly even the most mundane activities seem oddly riveting……

    …….NOT (copywrite Wayne’s World 1992)

  22. Now how about turning the thing around: what digital types like myself can learn from above-the-liners.

    An example would be digital guys often use the “time spent on website” measurement. While they’d say “if I get my message accross in 5 seconds they don’t have to spend more than five seconds”. And they’d be right.

  23. I think while we’re about it, there should be some retro ideas that are probably ripe for a comeback now. Those of us (and most of you lot were) who were doing this back in ’94 will remember: Page Counters!!!!(34 people have visited my site. In faux-stamper typeface) , Grey #EEEEEE backgrounds with Times New Roman default text and default button styles, This site is best viewed in Microsoft Internet Explorer / Netscape (download from here), Whole web pages created out of big images with hotspots because the ‘web designers’ didn’t know how to use HTML or slice properly. And I think instead of loading bars, which darling are SO
    yesterday – let’s go back to yesterday and bring back 80’s style loaders. You know the random colour bars that flashed as you loaded a game on your C64 from cassette. Replete with added binary loading sounds. Now that would be different…;-)

  24. Great post. One of the biggest problems is jumping on the bandwagon of the latest new media toy, even if it’s not right for the brand. So much of working with social media is about what not to do as it is anything else.

    From one client on our recent brand tour came this gem: “We need to be on the blogosphere.”

    @paulk – and don’t forget on 2) make sure you try and write it in the ‘lingo’ of today’s kids. They love it when you do that.

  25. @Dino – effing nailed it.

    My add: Bury the contact information. People LOVE that.

    Bonus: Any page that is “under construction.” May your construction site be closed for lack of a permit.

  26. Bit late on the uptake, but…don’t you just hate websites and banners where you have like a digital pen and you can like draw stuff! Because that’s way more exciting than writing in the real world. And you can say naughty words like fart.

  27. Two suggestions… a skin for winamp, msn or media player (I can’t believe I still hear this being suggested by clients).

    A fake person who’s quirky and goofy and is really a covert way of getting advertising shoved down people’s throats.

    Pardon if either are repeats but 80+ comments is a bit much to go through for quality control for a comment.

  28. 3D Space as a navigation tool.

    Them: “Let’s have a web site where you’re INSIDE the navigation. So, to start the website you have to walk in the front door, and then to learn about each section of the web site you have to walk to a different room of the building. In real time.”

    Me: “….”

    Them : “We could have a search feature in the Library!”

  29. Nice post Iain, we’ve all been guilty of these – as someone who’s name I can’t remember once said ‘Experts are people who’ve made every mistake thats possible” – my entry:

    Broadband as an excuse for bad design/programming

    They say : “Can we have everything on the site moving and animating and put this video in the background and this video in the foreground and maybe make the logo catch fire and animate some alpha masks and play some music at the same time?”

    You say : You canna break the laws of physics captain – why don’t we just make the content/interaction model interesting?

    Why it seems like a good idea : Every ad on TV basically saying you get your own T1 line to you desktop for free + a £300 quid computer being the equivalent of a Cray these days = we can do anything!!!

    Why it isn’t a good idea : Not everyone has a good broadband connection for starters, and if they do they’re probably using it for something else in the background. Thinking your going to get 200k a sec for your site is highly unlikely. Even if you do get the content you need onto the end users computer in a short enough time for them not to have left from boredom, if you try to play it all at once then your going to get a jerky mess (thanks Flash ;) And anyway, it’s going to look shit, have some class!

  30. I’d have to add high/low bandwidth versions of websites. We’ve reached over 70% broadband adoption… it’s not necessary anymore!

    I might also add using quicktime or windows media files for video. Flash is the future, baby. It has higher market penetration, and ensures that the fewest number of people possible are having to download plugins to view your content.

    I could go on… great topic.

  31. Errr, we’ve got this wicked idea for a homepage takeover on MSN or Yahoo where we want to turn the whole page upside down! Imagine! It’d be wicked! Like, turning the whole advertising industry on its head!

  32. They say: We want to build a Facebook application

    You say: Ok, what do you want it do to?

    They say: Get people looking at our logo

    You say: I’m off to run a warm bath and open every vein in my body

  33. It isn’t that I’m dying to get the last word into this brilliant thread, but still, there is one more thing that have annoyed me quite a bit over the years, and even though the 7th one has been mentioned already, I think this is worth being mentioning for the collection when we look back at this thread in a couple of years:

    Thinking that just because you publish something online (web site, campaign, application or whatever), and that “everyone” in theory CAN see your web site/message/campaign, and confusing that in itself with that everyone actually WILL see it/visit it/download/interact with it.

    I guess “lack of target group understanding” would be the short version of saying it. :)

  34. Great feedback from such a simple observation ! it got me thinking and post about my pet peeve.. clip art !

  35. Nice post Iain, a great read.

    These may be in the comments already, but I don’t have enough time to read all 95 :)

    – Flash navigation.

    – Any site where you have to click something before you can read the content of the page. For instance, a light switch that you have to click to “turn on” the page. (This may fit into the book sin anyway).

    – Telling you they want a site to be made accessible after the design and wire frames have been signed-off. (That’s from a developer’s perspective!)

    – Building a standards compliant front end that get’s fubar’d once the back end developer puts it into his crappy .NET application or some other code cruncher that adds about 40 DIV tags to get a line break and in the long run took more time to get all the tweaks sorted than if you had built it from scratch. (Hang-on, I’m just whining about my own gripes now…)

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