Siouxzi Donnelly

 
 Photo courtesy of SIOUXZI DONNELLY

Photo courtesy of SIOUXZI DONNELLY

 

Senior Content Strategist, Arity

"Content is UX -- we just have a different lens into the UX picture."

Chicago, IL

www.nohwear.net

 

 
 

 

How did you become a content strategist

I think it was just an organic alignment of my talents and interests. I’ve always been a tech person; my dad sold computers to my school and I had to teach the staff how to use them. I am also an entertainer/storyteller at heart. I love to lead people on an adventure. After pursuing writing and acting in college and grad school, the digital world became a natural place to move into. I started out managing websites for companies, creating all the content and doing the basic code to update them. My first big step though was when I became the content manager at paper-source.com. We didn't have a CMS so I had to learn the relationships between data. This set me up with a unique skillset within the greater "Content" discipline. After Paper Source I went to VSA Partners in Chicago. For me content strategy was a natural evolution as I learned content management. I learned to think strategically around how and why an experience works and how to align user-centered design with business goals.

You also have user experience chops. How did you learn about that, too?

I think great UX comes from really understanding your audience and making things easier and more logical for them, while bringing them as much joy and delight within the moment as possible. As a content manager, you can't do your job if you're not observing how and why users are engaging. If you don't pick up on the challenges facing users as you navigate your site every single day, you aren't doing your job. E-commerce is an amazing foundation for how to think about UX.

I think my first real "UX" moment happened when I was doing a regular audit of a retail website and realized how long it took to scroll through a category page. How much time was a user browsing instead of adding to cart/buying? Were they even scrolling the whole way down? Why weren't they going into a detail page from this page?  I suggested bringing these products together and treating them as a suite to make them scroll less and still show users the full range of products. We explored how to photograph the products, how the users would purchase, what would happen if something was sold out. Then we tested it and discovered the new approach increased sales and in instances where we were out of one product, customers looked to buy another. It was the perfect combination of how designing for an improved user experience would fulfill our business goals of increasing sales within this area of product.

Tell us about the project you most enjoyed working on and why.

Easily the IBM Icons of Progress. It was a great combination of team, skills and opportunity. Not only did I get to explore the history of IBM (and nerd out about Benoit Mandelbrot's Fractals) but we got the chance to interview some amazing people. About 8 years later, I walked into the Museum of Science and Industry and discovered there was an exhibit that featured a significant amount of our work. It's pretty amazing to walk into a museum with your kid and be able to say, this is my work. Your mom helped make this happen.  It's also rewarding to know that the way we thought about this content -- what it should be, and how to create it -- was able to extend far beyond the initial channels we created it for.

How has the field changed since you've been in it and where do you see it going in the near future?

Well, considering not too long ago the term Content Strategist wasn't a job title, I think we've come a long way. I love that there's a greater understanding around the importance of content, but I think we still have a long way to go. Content is UX -- we just have a different lens into the UX picture. I think we are still working to be seen as equals, which is reflected in the ever-changing Content Discipline titles. We are trying to distance ourselves from "just writers" (which is completely offensive anyway - writing is hard and should be highly respected) to being seen as designers, strategists, problem solvers and user advocates. What I'd really like to see is more Product Designers come from the Content Discipline. PDs usually come from visual design or UX/IA. Content Designers need more access to the tools that design uses, and we should be included in doing conception and prototyping work. Partly because we have knowledge that should be leveraged, partly because Content Strategists should have broader career growth opportunities. Right now it's not good enough.

How do you deal with resistance from stakeholders (and possibly team members in other functions) who might not understand content strategy or your approach to it?

I've found the best way to get buy-in is to prove the value. Build something, make an impact. It's even better if you can get Research involved. Then you have results to back you up. Working in a data and tech org, nothing makes a better argument than data science.

Can you describe a recent challenge and how you solved it?

I was working on a project where UX and Visual Design created a user flow with wireframes and sample copy, and then they came to me to ask me to polish it. I had them walk me through it, I asked questions, I got answers. I then asked for some cave time. During that cave time I tried to just polish, but it was quickly obvious to me that the users' experience would not be easy, logical and definitely not delightful or full of joy. So I mocked up a new approach and invited them over and we walked through it. We talked about why this not that. They had knowledge I didn't, so together we were able to take the two approaches and find the most streamlined one. After that, the entire team embraced a stronger collaboration style and the content team was included in every meeting involving design, without fail.

Has volunteering with Kidical Mass (kids and bikes) taught you anything about project organization, i.e. maybe how to herd cats? 

Clarity is critical for getting the best outcome. Before I lead a ride, I go over our rules, how do we ride together, how do we communicate with each other, what we have to do at intersections which can be different at a stop sign and a stop light. We do these rides to have fun, but also to teach kids how to bike, the rules of the road and how to be safe around cars. We teach the community to see us, to respect us, that we are there, that we will obey traffic laws. We teach kids and adults to be respectful of each other.

In my work, this clarity and communication is important too. We need clear ways of working, communicating and leadership, even in an autonomous org. We need clear business goals, customer goals, and measures that will tell us if we were successful or not.  Clear content, UX and design enables a product to have a purpose in this world.

 

Jess Vice

 
 Photo courtesy of JESS VICE

Photo courtesy of JESS VICE

 

User Experience Lead, Clearlink

"I'm still seeing a widespread trend of 'We need [UX or Content Strategy]!' without understanding what the two disciplines are, what they offer, and how to empower them to success in individual organizations."

Salt Lake City, UT

Medium
Twitter

 

 
 

I was struck by the keen sense of humor in content you've written. Would you agree that’s essential for anyone in this field?

I think a sense of humor is an essential trait in general right now. But in content strategy and UX, yes, absolutely! Humor helps us keep our humanity in mind and connect more authentically with the people we're building for. It helps us think less of ourselves and listen to others. And when all else fails, humor is the first to reach for the Nutella and a spoon.

How did you initially get into content strategy and why have you moved into UX and user testing? Does content strategy inform any of what you’re doing now, or vice versa?

I shifted from copywriting to content strategy in 2010 after Kristina Halvorson's book came out, and she started talking about a big, clear direction for CS. It felt like a natural next move for me: like taking a few steps back from writing the content into planning how the content campaigns and website should be pieced together. With a degree in English and writing, it made sense to look at the broader story lines and start considering the experience a user might have from end to end rather than the day-to-day craft of putting words together.

As I spent more and more time up to my eyeballs in CS, I kept talking about users and advocating for users and then wondering, "Who are our users and what do they actually think about our site? And how can we go beyond content to improve this experience?" I started reading everything I could on UX and talking about it to anyone who would listen. In content strategy, a lot of the research we do starts to bleed into user research - if you really want to know what people think about your brand, your site, your content, you have to talk to them directly. That's user research. And I had so many ideas for how to present information or smooth the experience for users that it made logical sense to step from high-level site strategy into experience mapping, user research, prototyping and user testing.

I think the progression from copy to content strategy to user experience has been very beneficial in building a systems thinking mindset. In the copy phase, I learned all the pieces and people that make a site or brand work, and I learned to talk to them in their languages. In content strategy, I learned to plan how those pieces and people interacted and to coordinate their efforts into work that was beneficial to users. Now, in UX, I find myself remembering all the things I wished I'd known about users as a content strategist, and trying to deliver insights and data that help content strategists, SEOs, and more as they plan sites and campaigns.

In your article, “Where do we go from mobile first,” you say user-first thinking requires a shift in thinking about user context and how to meet their immediate needs regardless of platform. Can you give an example of how you’ve done that?

Of course! In content strategy, when we're planning site structure and looking at existing user flows, we talk a lot about continuity and pathing. Sometimes we talk about tasks, sometimes not. I've been working from the UX side to help shift our priorities toward task-based planning: what does a person want to DO when they come to our site? Are we facilitating that task or obscuring that task? How complicated is that task currently, and how could we make it simpler? That way I'm working with content strategists who are building for action-oriented sites, and the tests that I run can help determine priority, ease, and user needs around those actions. Tasks can be active in signing up, purchasing, or customizing, or active in education, research, and comparison. Gerry McGovern has been doing a ton of work and research in task-based user testing. I got to see him speak at An Event Apart last year, and I was jumping out of my skin to get back to work and focus my tests more clearly.

What do you see a lot of clients getting wrong or not understanding about UX or content strategy?  

I'm still seeing a widespread trend of "We need [UX or Content Strategy]!" without understanding what the two disciplines are, what they offer, and how to empower them to success in individual organizations. In a lot of places, CS is still essentially blog management and content calendaring when it has the space and potential to offer so much insight into what works for an audience, why it works, and how to build on that success. UX is in a similar boat. It's often still an afterthought - "Oh, hey, we finished building our landing page. Would you look it over for UX?" (One of my favorite articles right now is "Hey can you 'do the UX' for us?" by Fabricio Teixeira.) I absolutely love that C-levels are aware of CS and UX and asking or advocating for them in their organizations. That's a huge first step! But I think there's still a lot of education left to do - at least once a week I have a conversation with a peer that ends with, "You can do that or find that out? That's amazing! How come I didn't know?"

There's also an upper limit we haven't hit yet in content strategy and user experience - we're still testing small, worrying over details. There are so many times I get a test request and just ask, "Do you think this is a better experience than what you have on your site right now?" If the answer is yes, we don't bother testing - implement the better ideas and test into the new functionalities, the new flows, the "crazy" ideas that keep you awake at night. The internet has been kind of the same for the last eight-ish years (from a user's perspective). What's next? How do we get there? How do we keep leveling the playing field until we get a fast, intuitive, user-centric, device-agnostic internet?

The amount of available content about content strategy and UX is overwhelming—how do you manage to sift through it?

My boss jokes that I've already read all the articles on the internet, but my bookmarks folders and Medium account and Twitter lists are still overflowing with things I haven't read yet. It's tough! Especially now that I'm in implementation and not as much research, there's very little time for reading. I've started subscribing to a few newsletters that aggregate good articles and news bullets in the industry. And I've been really careful with curating Twitter lists of highly relevant folks who specialize in UX, SEO, content strategy, interaction design, information architecture, testing and data, etc. I still feel like, even on a good week with a couple hours of reading, I'm about two years behind!

Where do you see experience design and research going in the next few years?

I think the trends we're seeing in experience design will continue: voice activated, touch or gesture controlled, faster, more mobile-centric. Those are all in the works and still being refined. But I think we're also going to see a huge emphasis on accessibility in the next year or two. Google's already monitoring mobile experiences and pushing for building things "users first." The next logical frontier is "all users" - no matter where in the world they are, what devices they have access to, or what abilities they do or do not have. And I think that's going to suddenly bring the internet into a new age - there will be legal changes and requirements around accessibility, net neutrality is going to continue being more and more talked over, and the digital is going to run smack up against the tangible. I know this sounds kind of ominous and grand, but I think it won't be so much a revolution as a continuous honing of the internet as a tool to build a global community.

What gives you the most satisfaction from what you’re doing and why?

I love finding answers for people - in test results, in case studies, in articles and research. I love a good challenge and being left a bit to my own devices to solve that challenge. User testing is just that, all bundled up together. I'm offered a problem from a marketing team, given the space to develop multiple solutions and do research around what others have already tried, and given the tools to test each experience thoroughly. Then I get to sit with the team and go over the results, talk through their ideas and insights, and set a plan to move forward. It's so many parts people, strategy, users, and research - I love coming to work every day. It doesn't hurt that the CRO team I sit on is some of the smartest, funniest people I've ever had the privilege to work with.

 

 

Sally Bagshaw

 
 Photo courtesy of Sally Bagshaw

Photo courtesy of Sally Bagshaw

 

Content Strategist, independent consultant

"At the heart of it, everything that we do is about people. The best thing I've learned from UX colleagues is to understand how to find out more about people's goals, motivations and decision making."

Based in Brisbane, Australia, but working globally

Web Content Strategy | Australian content strategist - Thoughts and musings on content strategy by Sally Bagshaw
 

 
 

Your article Beyond Words: using content strategy for better UX is an excellent explanation of content strategy! How did you get into the field? 

I have a degree in business communication and have worked in the digital space since about 2000. Right from the beginning I was all about content. At first I managed a government department's intranet, then I moved to website projects and at one point I even managed a CMS implementation. The mix of communication, project and people management plus a few years as a copywriter built a really solid foundation to become a content strategist. It also helped that I'm a bit of a geek and can translate more technical ideas and requirements into conversations that non-technical folk understand. 

You seem to possess a fantastic command of not just content strategy but UX too! What advice would you give budding content strategists who want to solidify their UX knowledge?

We all should have at least some understanding of UX methods and processes in our content strategy toolkit as there's so much cross-over with our disciplines.  At the heart of it, everything that we do is about people. The best thing I've learned from UX colleagues is to understand how to find out more about people's goals, motivations and decision making.

I've also learned good techniques to validate ideas - from basic paper prototyping to more involved user testing.

So, my advice is if you work with UX folk, invite yourself along to their user research and testing sessions. See firsthand actual face-to-face interaction with the people using your product or service rather than looking at rows in a spreadsheet (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

You’ve illuminated content strategy so well you’ve made me wonder why I sometimes struggle to explain what I do! What is the hardest thing for people to grasp about content strategy?

Because most of my work is at the intersection of content, UX and technology, I find the biggest challenge is that people still focus mostly on the editorial side of content. Don't get me wrong - it's perfectly OK to create an editorial content strategy but it's still only one part of a bigger puzzle.

We often neglect the people side of things. Who's doing what, what resources do we actually need for great content, how do we empower people to make good decisions about content, how can teams effectively communicate with each other, how do we share and celebrate success. 

All the style guides in the world won't fix an internal culture that's broken.

The other thing is that good content strategy happens every day. It's not just for one campaign, one website launch or one project. We should be constantly improving, measuring and refining what we do.

I loved your blog post/conference presentation about taming fiefdoms and the reluctance to give up control. How do you get past that with clients?

As I touched on before, people are the hardest part of content. You have to appreciate that content is personal. Nobody woke up one day and thought - hey, I'm going to produce some really terrible content. So if it's your job to help create a better content experience, then you mustn't forget to support the people who will be planning for, creating and managing that experience in the long term. Some of this is through being empathetic, some of it is about being confident (people look to someone to help guide them through difficult times) but most of it is about listening. Listen to what they are saying and not saying. Invite the quiet ones to the table. Don't discard their ideas. Give them the tools they need to do a great job.

The other thing that helps is to have good user research. Remove personal opinion from decision making and base it on evidence. If you can tie actions to outcomes it makes it hard to argue for anything else.

Tell us about one of the projects you’re most proud of and why.

I recently worked as part of a team on a large project for a university. We were tasked with transforming the university's web presence from an old, outdated and unfriendly experience to something that was completely user centric. We also had to set up new ways of working internally, adopting Agile processes and building a strong content community across the different business areas and faculties (colleges).

The reason that I'm proud of this project is because throughout all the challenges we had (including navigating a complex, political environment, mountains of existing content, working out what to do with legacy systems), the team never lost sight of our end goal: helping the user. We tried new things, adapted and refined what wasn't working, and developed a fantastic team culture. We also created a really strong story about what we were trying to achieve that we shared with stakeholders. People felt that they were part of something that was going to have a massive, positive impact across the university. And it did.