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.