I returned home from my first Confab on Saturday and I’ve been wanting to write about it. But before I can do that, I have to tell you how I ended up there.
My content strategy story
“Photographer and Communications Strategist” was on the first business card someone else made for me, but really, my new employers just wanted me to draw on my editorial, writing, coding, and photography experience to make their content problems go away. The blog post they put up when I was hired said, “Metts will be doing photography, writing content and assisting with web and video production and social networking,” which is another way of saying “He will do many things and perhaps some other things as well.”
They weren’t sure what their challenges would be, but they gave me the chance to identify and address them. I’m really grateful for that.
I had no idea what I was doing, so I called my brother Christian, who at least kind of knew what he was doing. He told me to take a look at the growing discipline of content strategy, and, in particular, the work of Tiffani Jones-Brown and Kristina Halvorson. I began reading what they had to say and following the people they pointed me toward.
I bought the book Kristina co-wrote with Melissa Rach, and at work, I began pretending that the ideas I found in it were my own. Once I got approval do one of the things I was recommending, I would go back to the book and learn how.
More than cake
So Confab. Renowned as the ultimate annual celebration of cake and content strategy.
Kristina and her team are behind it, which is a big reason I decided to go. I’ve met Kristina twice before when she has spoken at conferences and meet-ups. Both times, I thanked her everything she’s done to advance our discipline. She always plays it down, but without her work, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have the job I have today.
My job allows me to pick one conference each year for professional development, and I had been researching options since shortly after I started with the company last March.
My expectations were really high. That’s dangerous. It would have been easy for me to be disappointed. It’s a bit like going to your high-school prom, and once you’ve been there for an hour and half, you realize that your date was never planning to dance with you and when you ask her why, she says it’s because you’re shorter than her. Not that I’ve experienced anything like that.
But it was just the opposite with Confab. I felt encouraged right from the start.
The right people
The best part of Confab was the humans.
I was able to meet and learn from many of the people I previously only knew through the web. People like Nicole Fenton, Daniel Eizans, Corey Vilhauer, Misty Weaver, Erik Westra, and Eileen Webb. I even found out who is behind Diary of a Content Strategist which has caused some serious laughter
during meetings in my free time this past year.
It’s not easy for me to be outgoing, but the Confab crowd put me at ease. My first night there, I resorted to using hashtags to find dinner company and Devin Asaro kindly extended an invitation. Other people saw our Twitter conversation and before long, we had a group of eight people gathered, most of us meeting for the first time.
Every time I sat down to wait for a talk to begin, stood around drinking coffee during a break, or filled my face with delightful food during lunch, there was someone I could learn from and share ideas with.
Our field is filled with conflicting definitions, ideals, and expectations. This isn’t terribly surprising, since most of us could kill a few hours of an afternoon debating oxford comma usage.
Confab’s organizers didn’t fight this. They had talks on content marketing as well as talks about voice and tone. The two talks about SEO were very different and sparked a lot of discussion. They had high-level talks about content auditing, along with very practical talks about surveying your users.
There wasn’t an attempt to get everyone on the same page about what content strategy is, because that would be fighting the thing that makes us so darn useful and hireable. The organizations we work for aren’t looking to us for a definition of content strategy. They’re looking for help with their content problems.
We’ve all got problems
Everyone I talked to was open and honest about the struggles they encounter in their work. I wasn’t expecting anyone to say they had things figured out, but as I talked to more and more people, it became apparent that content work is a hot mess just about everywhere.
I heard about broken processes, failed goverance strategies, inconsistent values, and sheer apathy.
The authenticity and trust it takes to share things like that is one of the most valuable things we can give each other.
Austin Kleon delivered the closing keynote and I want to make two of his points a consistent part of my life:
- Instead of teaching, learn publicly.
- Talk about your process, not just your final product.
I hope that, as I learn to be more authentic about my own work, I’m able to give something back to the community of content people that has already given me so much.
Empathy as a component of user experience work has been a popular topic recently. The notion is that not only do we need to understand our users through research, we need to care about them too.
There’s no question that to do great design work, you have to get to a point where you’re passionate about the product you’re working on and the people who use it. But that’s not really about empathy. It’s about caring in the first place.
Empathy can’t just be an ingredient you add during the design process. Ideally, it’s part of who you are as a designer. If that’s the case, the the biggest source of empathy you have for your users began to grow when you decided to take your current job. Ever since then, it has either grown stronger or gotten weaker as you’ve gotten to know the company and the product better.
If you care about what you’re building and the place it holds in the world, empathy is just going to be part of what you do.
On the other hand, if you’re building a stock trading app for wealthy investment bankers and you’re having trouble finding empathy for them, attending the right conference talk won’t change that. Maybe what you’re really feeling is the need for a change.
One of the key components of every project I’ve worked on is consensus.
I’m not talking about consensus of opinion, although that’s great if you can get it. What I’m talking about is consensus of action: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? What did we decide to do? Why are we doing it that way?
These conversations can be tough, but they’re important. They move the project forward. They’re a big part of the design process.
As tough as the conversations can be, having them over and over again is even tougher. Sure, it’s great to refine ideas, but at a certain point, your team has to embrace the solution you’ve chosen and get to work.
Meeting notes and project managements tools help keep a record of the conversation, but often, they aren’t an effective way to quickly understand design decisions. Style guides and documentation do a better job summarizing that information, but they usually appear too late in the project to help you build whatever you’re building.
What I’ve been trying recently is something in the middle. A living, changing, useful, consensus. It will look different for each project because the consensus depends on your goals and constraints.
Here are a few examples:
- After analyzing user research with a co-worker, I transferred the contents of the whiteboard we used to a Trello board. Since the team is largely remote, the Trello board became the place where we kept refining and adding to our analysis. When we showed our research to other members of the team, the board became a valuable reference point.
- While designing a website for a small non-profit, I sketched out the ideas that came up during a lunch meeting. My notes included a low fidelity wireframe, a rough voice and tone guide, message hierarchy, and a preliminary information architecture. After the meeting, I snapped a photo of the pages and emailed them to the group so they could use them during the next design iteration.
- For a project that involved lots of interface writing and group meetings for approval, I created a content wiki for the project. We use it to reference decisions we’ve made as a group along with some reuseable boilerplate content. Since this project involved modifying a lot of existing copy, I also used the wiki to keep a running record of every content change we’ve made.
There are a lot of different ways to keep a written record, but a record isn’t the least bit valuable if nobody sees it. That’s why it’s up to you to keep referencing it. Keep pulling it out. Keep sending the link. Keep sharing your screen and walking people through it.
What I’ve found is that over time, the team will start to internalize the design decisions. If you’ve ever felt like the only person who understands what the group should be doing, that says more about you than it does about the people you’re working with. Give them a written record, point them toward it constantly, and soon they’ll be defending design decisions right along with you.
On Monday, Karen McGrane spoke at the Chicago Content Strategists meetup. Her talk focused on how to approach content strategy as new devices like phones and tablets add complexity to the Web. I read her book earlier this year, and it gives hope to even the most mobile-disillusioned soul. Here are my notes from her talk:
Print is awesome. It’s so easy. You put stuff on a page and it just stays there.
The Web is such a pain. It changes constantly. It’s probably worth the trouble, though.
What about the future?
It’s not about distinct classifications of tablet, mobile and desktop. We have to accept that from this point forward, we don’t have any control over what device people have in their hand.
- Smart TV? Hard to put apply the idea of a page to a TV, desktop, phone, and tablet at the same time.
- What about audio interfaces? They suck right? You know what else sucked for a long, long time? Touch screens. Now Blackberry is out of business.
- What about watches? Could you think about how your interface translates to something you wear on your wrist?
- Digital signage? Had a higher-ed client who wanted an integrated way to publish to a mobile app, website and signs across campus.
- Toaster printers? Is your content ready to be burned into delicious toast?
We have to fight off the horde of Zombie devices.
True separation of content from form
The future of content management systems is in their ability to capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way. – Daniel Jacobson, Netflix
WYSIWYG is dead
WYSIWYG was invented by XEROX so that you could print whatever you want. They invented the entire concept of the GUI because they invented the laser printer. The web is not a laser printer.
Imitating paper on a computer screen is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus on the highway. – Ted Nelson
It’s a workflow problem
How do we define the process for content creators? It’s not our job to give people what they say they want. It’s our job to give people what they need.
Forking: treating each device as a separate entity
Most companies handle mobile this way. The big problem? Now you’re updating and creating content in two separate places.
Beyond that, arbitrary decisions are made about what content should be included on the mobile site.
"It looks like you’re on a train. Would you like me to show you the insultingly simplified mobile website? – Cennydd Bowles
The thing is, we can’t learn anything about what a user wants to do from the device they have.
- 77% do searches on mobile at home or at work.
- 90% start a task on one device and complete it on another.
- 31% say mobile their primary way of going online.
Responsive: adjusting to screen size
A great solution for 90% of the web. When it’s implemented well, it’s amazing.
One problem: responsive is client-side. 72% of responsive sites download all the content to every device.
Adaptive: separating content from presentation
The CMS detects the device and dynamically sends the right content. In a way it’s forking, but you’re forking pages, not content.
NPR is the poster child for this. They use a system to create a story once and publish it everywhere. They can publish the full article with audio and images to a website. They can publish audio and a summary to a mobile app. It all comes from one central location.
What are we doing to do?
You can use all of these strategies and you probably will.
You don’t have to make everything responsive. You don’t have to make everything adaptive. If you have a specific situation you want to handle differently, just serve something different.
The concept of the page is dead. We need every tool that can help us.
To help prep for a research project, I’m reading Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. As Portigal covered what kinds of questions to ask and how to ask them, he talked a lot about using silence to draw out insight from a participant:
We work in a society that judges us primarily by our own contributions, rather than the way we allow others to make theirs.
While our society clearly works this way, I don’t want to follow suit.
My inclination is to speak up quickly, but I need to be more aware of the people around me and the value they bring to each situation. They may be looking for just the right moment to speak up, and I have make sure I give it to them.
A great piece from Nicole Jones:
I didn’t plan to “work in technology” and I don’t really think of it that way. I love solving problems and humanizing what otherwise becomes lifeless and awkward.
Perhaps the fastest way to work on the web is to start now. Pay attention to things around you and play with them. Make a site or sketch an app on paper. Write down what bothers you about things you use. Do you have a mobile device? What feels unfinished about it?
Have computers changed your life in a memorable way? Everything we use was designed. What feels broken? What leaves you with questions?
Her story is inspiring. It’s amazing how this industry rewards the people who have an earnest desire to make things better.
Some ideas are just bad. They’re bad for business, bad for people, and badly designed.
When I hear an idea like this, my first impulse is to pull out the knife and start poking holes in it. I want to start dumping all the reasons I think the idea is terrible right on the head of the poor soul who brought it up. I want to fight that idea until it dies.
Rejecting an idea so forcefully will actually strengthen it. Every story is a fight between good and evil, and to the person who got vulnerable and shared their idea, I just chose the dark side. Now they’re on a mission to restore freedom to the galaxy.
Recently, when I hear an idea I think is bad, I do my best to hear it out. I ask questions. Not provacative, accusatory questions, but helpful, informative quesitons. I also try to hear beyond the idea itself and listen to the deeper issues behind it.
When I walk down this path with someone, I appreciate them more. I understand what they’re trying to do, and I have a few ideas of my own about how I can help. Maybe it’s actually a good idea, and my initial feelings were unfounded. Maybe it’s still a bad idea, but we can see how to make it better.
Either way, we’re better off.
A little over two years ago, I was stepping out of work to take a phone call.
I’d spent the past year doing marketing for my father-in-law’s auto repair business on Chicago’s south side. I’d gratefully taken the job after failing to find a better fit during my post-graduation job search.
The call was from Jason Archer, and I was nervous. He was going to tell me whether I’d gotten a job on his team, and I felt certain he’d say they were going to hire someone else. When I picked up the phone, that’s exactly what he said.
Jason and his team were looking for a lead writer, and they hired a great one. Jeff Finley is a former editor at the Sun-Times Media group here in Chicago, and he was the perfect choice.
“Here’s the thing, Michael,” he said. “We want to hire you too.”
He went on to explain that the team had seen my passion for improving experiences and really wanted to hire both of us. They didn’t know for sure what they wanted me to do, they just wanted me to join them. I was flattered.
Finding Content Strategy
With some encouragement from my brother Christian and Peter Shackelford, our web architect, I focused on an area I’d always been interested in: user experience. Because of my editorial background, it was a natural fit for me to work on content strategy specifically.
I also learned a lot. I read books and articles by Kristina Halvorson, Karen McGrane, Nicole Jones, and others. I also joined the Chicago content strategy meetup group and the Chicago chapter of the Interaction Design Assocation.
Jason and the rest of the team gave me the freedom to practice what I was learning. They are some of the most encouraging and supportive people I’ve met. We pursued excellence together.
A New Team
Last Friday, I was in a conference room at Wolfram Research in Champaign, Ill. This company has been creating great scientific software for as long as I’ve been alive.
I was sharing my portfolio with the user experience team, and there was a lot of excitement on both sides of the table. They know the content within their websites and applications is important, and they want to make sure their audience finds it useful and effective. This week, I accepted their offer to join them in this work.
The team at Wolfram is incredibly smart, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can learn. Content strategy is gaining traction in the user experience world, and I’m so excited to be part of that.
More than anything, I’m grateful to my team at the FMCUSA for helping me get to this point.
Important thoughts on Facebook Home from Om Malik:
Facebook will be able to pinpoint on a map where your home is, whether you share your personal address with the site or not. It can start to build a bigger and better profile of you on its servers. It can start to correlate all of your relationships, all of the places you shop, all of the restaurants you dine in and other such data. The data from accelerometer inside your phone could tell it if you are walking, running or driving. As Zuckerberg said — unlike the iPhone and iOS, Android allows Facebook to do whatever it wants on the platform, and that means accessing the hardware as well.
Facebook insists Home won’t track anything they don’t already track, but of course that could change anytime. They rely on ads for revenue and the more data they can gather, the better for their bottom line.
As I watched Zuckerberg announce Home, what struck me most was his choice of words. The line he kept coming back to was that Facebook Home takes the focus away from apps and puts it on people. Here’s another way of saying that: Facebook Home shifts the focus from other apps to Facebook’s apps.
People and Facebook might be interchangeable words for Zuckerberg, but they’re not for me.
Mailbox is a new email app for iPhone and it has been making waves in the startup world. I’ve been using it for a few weeks and, given my obsession with managing email, I thought I’d write a short review. The app only supports Gmail.
If you download Mailbox from the app store today, the first thing you’ll notice is that new users have to wait in line to get access.
Once you get into the app, there’s a lot to like. Most of the actions you’d need while editing your inbox are gestures, and clever ones at that. Archiving is a quick swipe to the left and delete just requires a longer swipe in the same direction. The app’s snooze and organizational features are swipes in the opposite direction. These gestures remind me how much better an app can be when it takes advantage of a touch interface. It’s a dangerous line to walk, but we don’t have to build a UI out of boxes and checkmarks just because it has always been done that way.
The app also supports push notifications, as long as you’re okay with handing over your Gmail credentials. They work well, and it’s nice to have an option besides Google’s own iOS app that truly supports push.
Mailbox also features some organizational tools it claims will help you “put email in its place.” You can snooze email to show up in your inbox again at a later date. You can also organize your email into lists using Gmail’s labels. The makers of Mailbox hope the snoozing feature will help you manage your email better by making it easier to get to inbox zero. Here’s what they say about it:
Stop staring at emails you can’t deal with now. Mailbox lets you put off messages until later with a swipe and a tap. Snoozed emails return to your inbox automatically, so you can focus on what’s important now.
This probably sounds like a dream come true for people who have a hard time managing their inbox, but unfortunately it’ll just make their problem worse. The whole point of inbox zero is that you’re dealing with email quickly and effectively. If an email contains a task, you get it on a to-do list, send a reply and get it out of your inbox. If you snooze that email for later, you’re just postponing the problem. The thing is, when it pops back into your inbox, it will add to what you’ve already received that day. Procrastination and email don’t mix: they’ll just snowball out of control.
Unfortunately, the snooze feature is the part of Mailbox many people are focusing on. What’s lost is that Mailbox is a beautiful design with intuitive gestures. It’s a breath of fresh air in an area that doesn’t see a lot of innovation. Now that they’ve been acquired by Dropbox, maybe we’ll even see a competitor to the almighty Gmail.