Padma Gillen

 
Photo courtesy of PADMA GILLEN

Photo courtesy of PADMA GILLEN

 

Digital content consultant and trainer

"Digital transformation…involves a shift from telling people what you want them to hear to meeting the needs that they actually have. The whole organization must work together effectively to give one voice and one version of the truth across multiple channels at all times.“

Brighton, United Kingdom

LinkedIn
Lead with Content

 

 
 

 

Does “digital transformation” mean just going digital with all your content or do you see it meaning something more?   

I think it means much more. "Just going digital with all your content" sounds easy doesn't it. But when you try to make that happen in any meaningful way you realize the entire organization is going to have to think differently, act differently and work together differently. The pace of production and pace of innovation will speed up significantly. You'll also need a different approach to risk and a different way of measuring it. 

All of this a big deal for a large organization that's been around since way before digital came along. 

One small example: Years ago I was working in a central government department in the UK when they decided they ought to start using Twitter. It's amazing, you can talk directly with citizens! 

The trouble was, they used the same sign-off process for a tweet that they used for a press release. So someone would get in touch with them on Twitter, and before they could respond, someone needed to write the tweet, then it got checked by a bunch of different people, including the legal team (and amended several times) before they could put it live. By this time the conversation on Twitter had moved onto other things, the tweet sounded like a government robot wrote it, and the person who tweeted them in the first place felt utterly ignored and unimportant.

Being a digital organization means being able to function effectively in a digital world. The digital world has a different tone of voice (more conversational, less stuffy), doesn't expect you to know all the answers straight away but does expect you to be honest about that, wants a quick response, wants a high quality user experience, and most importantly wants to be able to trust you and your content.

Digital transformation is about making all that possible. It involves a shift from telling people what you want them to hear to meeting the needs that they actually have. The whole organization must work together effectively to give one voice and one version of the truth across multiple channels at all times. It doesn't just happen. You need changes to governance, changes to workflow, content specialists writing content, cooperation from the rest of the organization, support from the top, and a commitment from the digital specialists to bring the organization along with them. You can't do digital transformation to an organization. The organization must understand what it means and commit to going in that direction together. 

At that point someone like me can help make the changes required. Before then my work is generally about helping the people in an organization who get the need for this make the case to everyone else.

Could you explain the difference between content strategy and content design? I’ve heard the latter term mostly coming from the UK but can’t believe that’s the only difference.

Different people mean different things when they say 'content strategy'. When some people say it, it's quite similar to what we mean by content design. But the way I see it content design sits within content strategy.

For me, content strategy is more about looking at the big picture whereas content design is about creating and maintaining content within that big picture.

For example, a content strategist will seek to answer questions like:

  • what's the current situation, what needs to change and why?

  • what content is needed?

  • who requests it and how?

  • who creates it and maintains it?

  • what kinds of content formats do you need?

  • how does content go from request to published?

  • how might content be reused, or personalized, or automated?

  • how will users find the right content for them?

  • when it comes to making content decisions, who can say no to whom, and when?

  • how do all the channels work together to achieve the business goals and meet the needs of the users?

  • what kind of team do you need and how should they be organized?

  • what style and tone is appropriate and in which circumstances?

  • etc

The content strategist will then create a strategy that contains processes, systems and structures to enable the right content to get to the right user through the right channel at the right time. But they don't actually create the content.

A content designer creates the content. Their aim is to meet user needs. This involves:

  • working with other UX professionals, such as user researchers and interaction designers

  • analyzing data and making content decisions based on it

  • structuring and writing content that matches the user's mental model so they can consume it and act on it easily and quickly

  • using plain language

  • creating user journeys that work for users, not creating websites that reflect the structure of the organization

  • using agile approaches to iterate content

That's a little overly simplistic. A senior content designer may well get involved in content strategy work and a content strategist may well get involved in content creation. So there's often overlap but they're not the same thing. 

Your book, Lead with Content, was interesting and fun to read, expressing a lot of complex content strategy ideas in a way that’s easy to understand. What was your purpose in writing it?

Over the years it's become clear to me that getting some content designers into an organization is a good start, but it's only a start. In itself it doesn't result in any significant improvement in content quality. This is not because the content designers aren't any good. It's because the structures, systems and processes in the organization actually prevent quality content from going live.

The result is a poor experience for users, a frustrating experience for the content designer and a waste of time and money all round.

My book is for the people in the organization who know things aren't working and want to know how to put it right. I'm hoping that content designers will show it to their bosses. I'm then hoping the bosses will read it, have an aha moment, and commit some energy to putting these strategies into practice.

When you worked in content design for the UK government, what was the most frustrating aspect of the work and how did you deal with it?

The most difficult thing was the culture clash aspect. We had pretty lofty goals with GOV.UK but we were the new kids on the block when it came to working in government. We really believed in what we were doing but it was considered radical at the time. In 2011, blogging about your work, admitting you don't have all the answers yet, writing in plain English and not publishing anything that didn't have a user need was quite shocking to many people in the civil service. We had to argue - A LOT - to get good quality content live.

We were fortunate at that time in that we had the backing of our bosses and they had the backing of certain ministers. So we were often able to win those arguments.

How did I deal with it? Making government content understandable for the people they serve is a good thing to do with your life I think, so I had a strong sense of purpose. We had a great team, so that helped a lot when things got tough. And finally I think you have to take a long view when you're trying to change things. It doesn't happen in two minutes. 

What do you like most about what you do?

I get to go into organizations and help managers and teams do things differently. I see them go from spending all their time and energy just trying to keep a poor website from getting worse to seeing them empowered, knowing what they're going to do and knowing how they're going to do it. And then I watch them (and sometimes help them) deliver. For me that's a great buzz.

Where do you see content design going in the next few years? 

I think we'll do a lot more writing for voice. It won't be too long before we stop thinking about web 'pages' (a convention carried over from the print era) and think about how to have effective digital conversations with users (which is more like the pre-print era and will demand a different approach to content creation). I also think we'll be increasingly thinking about content for IoT - so user journeys will be about moving through physical spaces as well as digital spaces. And I think content design will become increasingly recognized as a discipline internationally.

 

Tracy Playle

 
Photo courtesy of TRACY PLAYLE

Photo courtesy of TRACY PLAYLE

 

CEO and Chief Content Strategist, Pickle Jar Communications Ltd

"I’m quite a creative and visual person, but I’m also very analytical and favor evidence-based decisions. Content strategy brings those together for me. I get to work with both my head and my heart."

Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom

Pickle Jar Communications
Content Ed

 

 
 

 

How did you get into the content strategy field?   

In a way I accidentally fell into content strategy. I was doing it without realizing that there was a label for what I was doing until I started to read a lot of blog posts and emerging literature, around 8 or so years ago.

In the 2000s I was working in a whole range of communication roles for the University of Warwick, one of the leading universities here in the UK. Those roles included working on websites (intranet, external facing website and building a department website for a newly acquired department of the University), mostly in content creation and editing roles. I was also managing other forms of communication including video production (I served as Head of Research-TV, a broadcast PR service for a couple of years), PR activity and events, then morphing into more work in social media. The thing common to all of those roles and experiences was content and content management, including the co-ordination of a whole load of people and other moving parts to make that content happen.

While I was at the University of Warwick, the web team built and launched a custom blogging platform for the whole community to use (the first university in the UK to do so), and a colleague was really doing some great and waaaaaay ahead of its time work in podcasting too. Plus our online content editors took it upon themselves to really embrace and explore emerging social media (this was in the early 2000s, so it was all very new). I was therefore exposed to a world in which experimental forms of content creation and exploring new ideas in content ownership were really encouraged. And the work we were doing at Research-TV was really about the power of storytelling.

In 2007 I decided to set up my own consultancy and so over the next few years I morphed into a content strategist by spending my life advising people on how to use content effectively online – but mostly on third party platforms initially instead of their own websites because everybody wanted to explore emerging channels so that’s where the money was to get myself started and established. Plus the social media side of things and the destabilizing power of that excited me.

What made you decide to specialize in content strategy for education? 

This was by accident rather than design, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Since I was working in an education institution before, that’s really the world that I knew and therefore where my contacts and potential market was for being able to do this. So, that was what made me decide to focus my efforts there, but the reason that I’ve stayed committed to that sector is probably the better answer…

The education sector is a funny beast. Everyone thinks they know it because they went to school and perhaps to university. But there’s so much that you don’t know about it until you work in it. And that’s what I love about it. The breadth of work, the world-changing research, the conflict of trying to retain a consistent brand and keep everyone happy while working in a sector that protects academic freedom and therefore has an interesting relationship with freedom of speech. And, of course, it’s a sector that truly changes lives.

You’re constantly challenged in the education sector to offer value for money since we work a lot with taxpayers’ money and constant financial pressure. Add on to that constant policy changes and the whims of politicians and, again, you never quite know what direction it’s going to turn. So it never gets dull or repetitive.

When it comes to justifying the decisions that you make through evidence-based approaches and audience research, you’re frequently reminded that you’re often working with academics who will really scrutinize and question the validity of your methodology or reliability of your testing sample or approach. So that really keeps us on our toes to ensure that our research approaches to inform content strategy and content design are pretty robust and the best they can be. That’s an area of work that we’ve developed a lot in the last few years.

It’s also a sector that people see as being stable (the fundamental model of schools and universities hasn’t really changed a great deal in a thousand years or so) and yet there are so many potential threats emerging through new technologies and modes of thinking and working that could completely revolutionize the sector in years to come. That really excites me.

It’s a sector with incredible stories to tell, but a complexity of vast organizational structures and mini empires. Information needs to connect in complex ways and there are so many areas of the education sector “business” where the discipline of content strategy, content design, content operations and systems design can really make vast improvements not just to how we communicate, but also to how efficient we are as institutions. We have a public responsibility to embrace that but this sector is only just getting started.

Congratulations on speaking at Confab this year! Your talk about workshops sounds exciting! Could you give us an example of a workshop that wasn’t going well and what you did to turn things around?

Thank you. I’m excited to be back. The Confab crowd is my professional family and I learn so much from being there, so it’s always an honor to be invited back as a speaker.

I think there’s something that you can learn from every workshop. Even if the activity that you planned didn’t quite go as you intended it to, or the discussion session went off on a weird tangent, the insights that you gather from those “failures” tell you a lot about the organization. The people component of content strategy is probably the most important part of it, so workshops that go in weird directions tell you a lot about: 

·      What people really care about even if it’s not the thing that you asked them about. That gives you clues for how to bring them onside with your ideas further down the line.

·      How they work together. If they’re awful at team work, or someone dominates a session too much, then that will tell you something about how to manage the rest of the project or how to adjust your approach later on to give everyone else a voice.

·      Their levels of knowledge and understanding. If a workshop activity fails because they don’t really understand what’s being asked of them, then that also tells you a lot about how you’ll need to present things to them later.

One example though…

I ran a workshop once to gather insights from a large number of people in a marketing and communications team. The project was to assess the institution’s digital engagement strategy and approach and provide some recommendations for them. Now, normally when I run such sessions the folk in the room are super engaged. This one took me by surprise.

We were conducting a “start, stop, more, less” activity where I get them to work in small groups and move between different discussion stations with a timed number of minutes at each station. They rotate around the room, each building on other groups’ comments. At each station there is a single topic, and they must jot down what they think their organization should start, do more of, stop, or do less of in relation to that topic.

So, with this particular group, they were fine during the exercise itself, but afterwards we pulled everyone together as one large group to assess and understand all the comments and analyze them. As we worked around each discussion station, there was a group of staff who had peeled off and were just doing their own thing, giggling, talking about their personal lives, chatting over other people and just not engaging in the analysis at all. It was quite disruptive. So, at each station I would make sure to address a question specifically at that group. Or I clocked which comments were theirs by recognizing their handwriting and would pick on those comments to discuss, so they had to contribute. But it was really hard work and I’ve never experienced such a disengaged bunch.

In reality though, they were able to disengage because the group of people in the room was so large that it gave them a degree of invisibility. I normally know how many people to expect in a session, and had agreed to have 12 with that client. On the day, about 30 people turned up! So, even when you know how many you’re going to have, always be prepared to adjust and adapt your activities to allow for different group sizes. Being able to think on your feet and adapt to what is going on in the room is probably the most important skill for facilitating workshops. 

It also told me a lot about the levels of engagement that staff actually had with digital engagement, and their interest in it. So among our recommendations we were also then able to reflect on that and suggest ways to get them more engaged across the board. See… no bad experience is a useless experience. It all tells you something that you probably need to know.

You’ve spoken at conferences all over the world. Are there any significant differences you’ve noticed in audiences or approaches to content? 

There’s a huge risk here of making big generalizations and playing to stereotypes. But I’ve definitely delivered talks and run workshops in cultures where the norm is to really get involved and to ask questions throughout. Then I’ve worked in other cultures where the norm is actually to sit and politely listen and to pay serious attention. I remember delivering a session once in a Nordic country where I really thought I was totally bombing as they sat stony-faced the whole way through. Then when we broke for coffee they were all coming up to me to tell me how great it was and ask questions. A totally different vibe. I’ve delivered sessions in that country quite a few times now, so I’m always prepared mentally for it now. But it really threw me to begin with.

When it comes to thoughts about content, then I think it’s fair to say that content strategy is a more developed discipline in Western countries. In my sector, we see some good expertise emerging in the UK, the USA and Canada particularly – and there are definitely some leading voices from Australia too - but some of what we see elsewhere in the world isn’t quite so well developed.

The importance of more emotive storytelling varies across the world too. I was recently at lunch with a university fundraising professional in Hong Kong and she was telling me that storytelling isn’t such a big thing for them – yet! They tend to rely more on factual content.

Attitudes from the audience themselves to authorship can vary too. But, honestly, I tend to find that these differences are hard to pin down to specific countries or cultures. They’re more down to individual personalities and value systems rather than their country of birth. It’s why as a content strategist when I’m working with segments and personas, unless we’re dealing with immigration information, currency or language variations, I actually don’t find personas designed to represent a particular national “identity” very helpful at all.

Did being a competitive swimmer in your teens teach you anything that you use in your business life? 

I wish I had a compelling answer to this question, but it’s not something I’ve ever really reflected on before. So, let’s reflect on it now: 

·      It definitely taught me a lot about time management. As a competitive swimmer, you’re in the pool every day doing long training sessions. Having to fit that in around school work was tough going. I’d regularly be sat at competitions at the weekend doing my homework on poolside while waiting for a race.

·      It should have taught me a lot about the positive impact that exercise has on your intellectual capacity. But I think I was probably too young to understand that at the time. But I was a straight-A student, and I’m convinced part of that was because I invested a lot of time in my physical health, not just my work. I’ve started to embrace that more in recent years, but I’ve had too many years of my working life where I’ve let my health fall by the wayside.

·      One of the really nice things about swimming is that you have to learn how to be part of a team while also really also knowing how to perform as an individual. I think that’s really important in content strategy work too. Knowing what your individual strengths are in order to see how you contribute to the overall team, but also knowing that you can work in isolation.

·      I don’t know whether this came from swimming, or just my personality in general, but I know the value of really believing that you can push yourself just that little bit further. Sport is a beautiful way of showing yourself that you can always improve, always make small tweaks or big step changes to something that you do in order to be better. I put a lot of pressure on my team now to dig deep and find that in themselves. They find it really unnerving sometimes – I push them to improve by getting myself out of their way, rather than holding their hand. I can’t win the race for them, but they have always found something in themselves and achieve so much in such a short space of time. Content strategy is an endurance relay, not an individual sprint. Goodness, that sounds corny, doesn't it?

I loved your content strategy maturity framework (for Gather Content). One of your questions was, Do people working in content strategy in your organization really actually know what they’re doing? Are they shining lights in the world of content strategy or do they barely know their CMS from their CRM?

What would you advise if the answers are no? 

The Content Strategy Maturity Framework is actually the structure for a whole study that I’ve developed to help organizations assess how they’re performing across multiple themes that add up to great content operations. I have a scoring system behind it too, and assess organizations to see where improvements can be  made. There are 10 parts to it, and for each of the 10 parts I have 10 measures of assessment.

If an organization is low-scoring and those answers are “no” to questions like the ones you identify, then firstly I’d suggest that they don’t beat themselves up for that. Content strategy is still hugely embryonic, and the term “content operations” isn’t really uttered as much as it should be just yet.

That said, with 10 parts to the study, and all of them quite different, there will always be some areas performing better than others and therefore something to celebrate and something to improve.

So, I like to sit with representatives from an organization and lay out the 10 pillars of high performing content operations on cards in front of them and do a card sort activity with them to work out how they all impact on each other, what ones they’re actually doing really well, and then select two or three for priority improvement.

They all have a knock-on effect to each other, so by starting with a few, you’ll probably quickly also have a positive impact on others.

When I’m commissioned to do it as a full study, I can also prioritize for them and give them clear steps.

What excites and/or fulfills you most about what you do? 

Nice question. My work excites me on two levels primarily:

-       The fact that I work in a sector that genuinely changes lives (the education sector) and my role is often to help organizations be able to create the kind of content that inspires curiosity and enthusiasm for learning and research environments.

-       The fact that I work in a field that blends the creative with the scientific. I’m quite a creative and visual person, but I’m also very analytical and favor evidence-based decisions. Content strategy brings those together for me. I get to work with both my head and my heart.  

 

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.