Not My Job

Session 3: Not My Job: The Ultimate Content Strategy Smackdown

I first noticed that SXSW really does have 14,000+ people coming when I was at this session. 15 minutes before it started, there were no empty seats and 130 people waiting outside.

It was clear why, these people are smart, and we had a lot to learn. This was a panel discussion all about content strategy, which is to content like Information Architecture is to Design. It provides substance and structure. It is a plan for content creation, delivery and governance of content—it answers the “why” of content.

What is content, really? Content is the information that is consumed by your target audience. This includes iconography, images, video, as well as words. When it comes down to it, they’re all language.

Content is a business asset, but its real value comes to light when it smartly managed by a well put together content strategy. As a result, many businesses (not Mutual, right?) see content as an unfortunate byproduct of doing real work. Many times, we’ll put together a wireframe and just throw some content in there when we really need to pay attention to what the visitor actually needs. We can talk about making an excellent User Experience (UX), but in the end we must have an excellent UX culture. This means that we turn things around, first asking ourselves (not just through introspection, but also through research), “What problem does the visitor have?” and “How can we solve their needs, rather than the company’s?”

Who owns the content?

Ultimately, it is the organization, meaning the executive-level on 12th floor. They must buy in to having a content strategy—really see its value. One recent example about this is the FDA’s site redesign. Before, there were 11 siloed sites that appeared to have little to do with each other. The head of the FDA ended up mandating that everything come under one roof and armed with this vision for one cohesive content strategy, the 11 websites were brought into one single brand. That’s great for them, but what about a typical midwestern Fortune 500 company?

How do you convince people content strategy makes a difference?

The panel suggests beginning with small wins and using those to leverage your position. If you can show the value of a solid content strategy on smaller projects, you can build a case for a master content strategy encompassing all company communications, or at least the main website. Using real data showing improved metrics will help sell the case. However, there has to be a point where content strategy is valued as an art.

The somewhat famous example of this is Douglas Bowman of Stop Design who was one of Google’s top designers. At one point, Google could not decide between two shades of blue, so they tested 41 shades against each other. Another time he was asked if he thought a 3, 4, or 5 pixel border would be better—and then wondered what data he had to back up his opinion. At some point the designer should be trusted.

What this means for Mutual of Omaha

At Mutual of Omaha, we already have the power to control the website, so why not begin using a content strategy? In some ways, I believe we already have. With the redesign last year, we audited much of the content and re-wrote a portion of it. However, I think we can do better. With upcoming usability tests and the A/B box scheduled for this year, we will be better able to listen to our visitors and what their needs are. From there, though, we must find how the data we see might be extrapolated to the entire site and how patterns we see might be baked into a content strategy and our standards and guidelines. We’re just now at the beginning stages, let’s do it well.

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Answer the call: How to be a better writer

Session 2: The Accidental Writer: Great Web Copy for Everyone

Melanie Siebert • @melanie_seibert

Web visitors don’t have time for you to sound smart, they want their problems solved. Solid advice from Melanie Seibert, a freelance technical writer who tackled the issue of writing better web copy if you’re not actually a writer.

Melanie Seibert had some good advice for those times when designers or developers are called upon to write copy, whether to fill a wireframe, or actually insert into a live page. I’m quite interested in the writing process, especially as it relates to email and I was not disappointed.

One constant refrain from Seibert and others is that content is not cheap. Good content takes time and resources to develop and once you have it, you must maintain it. Count the cost before embarking on your journey into copywriting otherwise you may find yourself in way over your head.

Some more tips she added:

  • Be direct. Don’t simply describe things as this can lead to large bricks of text that actually slow down readers and confuse them.
  • Don’t lead with your needs. Always keep the visitors’ needs at the forefront.*
  • Actionable. Is it clear what the reader should do? Is it understandable?
  • Tell a story. This allows readers to relate to your product or service.
  • Make copy scannable. No one is going to read your copy. Make sure they’re able to quickly get the gist of what’s going on.

*Interesting sidenote: This idea is also mentioned in an article I’m reading called “Email Marketing Best Practice Guide” by Econsultancy. Quite informative stuff.

These were the most interesting things to me. Running my copy through this filter will help me make smarter writing decisions and hopefully make it easier on the reader as well.

For more information specifically on writing for the web, she suggested the book Letting Go of the Words by Janice Reddish

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Collected Photographs: SXSW Day 2

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Design, CSS, and Content: Another packed day at SXSW

Today kicks off discussing out print design is the future of interaction. I love both print and web design, so I’m curious what Mike Kruzeniski from Microsoft has to say. Especially since it is Microsoft talking about the future of print. Interesting.

The first day had a ton of information and I hope to build on that today. Yesterday, Chrissie Brodigan urged designers to design with the future in mind. I appreciated this long range way of looking at our work, but what do you think that means to you in a corporate setting? I believe it must have something to do with setting up standards & guidelines globally for a website, but Chrissie also talked about a design’s forkability, how others will take and add to or otherwise change your work. Please share your thoughts below.

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Now back to our regularly scheduled broadcast.

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Collected Photographs: SXSW Day 1

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Designers vs. Developers, a solution?

Today was packed. I was happy to have flown in last night as the line for registration seemed to stretch for miles as early as 11 am. I met up with my friend Adam Burt, a talented designer/developer who works for TCU (go Team Halperin!). I enjoyed seeing a bit of Austin before settling into the first session of the day, How Not to Design Like a Developer.

Session 1: How Not to Design Like a Developer

Chrissie Brodigan • @tenaciouscb

Chrissie Brodigan is the Engagement Lead for Mozilla. She has a passion for Open Source projects and seeing designers get involved to make them better. Her talk centered on designing for Open Source but the principles are applicable to a corporate setting as well.

She outlined the divide that often exists between Designers and Developers—both are prideful and protective of their work, but often approach problems very differently. For instance, Developers will often use logical problems as a way to bypass Design altogether. Often their arguments can be quite convincing.

Developers often utilize workarounds as a way to get more done quickly while Designers attempt to cut out the need for workarounds altogether. Developers are quite good at version control and documentation whereas Designers aren’t. Designers design for the moment, Developers write for the future.

The solution she posits is to give a little on things like doing better version control as these will actually help everyone in the long run. I especially liked her take on forkability. As a designer, I do not often think about what comes next for the design, how it might be adapted and changed, grow and move. Thinking for the future like this can only help us to be better thinkers and more efficient at the same time.

This is why a Standards & Guidelines document is so important. It saves time to think about design problems as if they will be implemented elsewhere for different, but related purposes. It allows us to pay more attention to the overall picture rather than burying ourselves in loads of detail.

She describes this as designing for localization meaning that what we do now is a local version of a much larger picture (even if that larger picture has yet to be created). Fascinating! I hadn’t thought about web design in those terms before.

All in all, a fine first session with great content.

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SXSW Expectations

Living in Omaha has its benefits. One of those has got to be the airport. We’re large enough to attract larger activities, like the Mutual of Omaha Swim Trials, yet small enough that we don’t have to get to the airport 3 hours ahead of time to barely sneak onto the airplane. OMA is one of those places that you might run in to someone you know, which happened to me today waiting to board the plane to Houston. Some family friends of ours happened to be at the same gate awaiting their own flight out and I love how things like that can happen when your home airport is OMA.

SXSW is a massive event. Much larger than any other conference I’ve been to—some estimates are at 12,000. A bevy of gadget makers and online services pin their hopes on persuading this mass of technorati to adopt their product. Twitter famously got its start here in 2007 and Foursquare after them. But any new interesting service will be a side benefit for me. I’m here to visit the sessions, and all the thought leaders in our industry are here. Jeffery Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, Frank Chimero, Dan Mall, Matt Cutts, Tantek Celik and Steve Krug among others are all taking part this year. With so many top-notch speakers, you can imagine the number of sessions is overwhelming. Sorting through them all to find the very best proves to be a tremendous task, but thankfully, there is no shortage of lists of SXSW sessions to go to. UX Mag clues you in on all the best UX design sessions, the BBC has a list of apps to make the most of it, the Marketing Leadership Council chimes in with their own list to cut through the clutter. In the end, I’m not sure I feel any more prepared for the onslaught. In the end, I’m hoping to take back to our team a sense of how to do our jobs better and quicker. Stay tuned for the best.

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