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.

 

 

Ania Mastalerz

 
 PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIA MASTALERZ

PHOTO COURTESY OF ANIA MASTALERZ

 

User Researcher, Optimal Workshop

"...the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.."

Wellington, New Zealand

LinkedIn, where you can connect with me and chat about all things research
Mixed Methods, where you’ll find me writing and editing content on all things UX research

 

 
 

How did you get into user research? 

I’ve always wanted to work at the intersection of human behavior and technology. Straight out of University (where I studied Psychology), I started my career as a Questionnaire Designer at Statistics New Zealand where I worked on designing surveys for collecting national statistics.

At the time, we were going through a shift from paper to digital data collection, which gave me the opportunity to do a range of usability testing of online forms. The process of feeding basic human needs into complex systems really fascinated me, and I decided to seek out an opportunity to make research an integral part of my role, which is when Optimal Workshop came along.

What do you like most about it?

User research is revelatory on many levels. I enjoy continuously testing my own assumptions, often being wrong and learning from the process.

It teaches you to be humble and empathetic – two qualities I think we could all benefit from cultivating further.

I enjoy the challenge of finding common threads in people’s needs and looking at the different ways the technology we build can empower them.

How do you think content strategists could make better use of user research?

Once at a conference, I heard the phrase “Content first, because everything else is window dressing.” It didn’t sit well with me at first, but after some time I realized that the role of design and information architecture is to be invisible – to emphasize content without obstructing it.

For me, testing content is just as important as testing the visual design or information architecture of our website. A beautiful and seamless design doesn’t make for a great user experience. A great user experience is when someone can find the information they are looking for and walk away confidently knowing they understood it.

I love the idea of spending as much time designing the words we use as we do the visual and structural side. This article by Angela Colter does a great job of explaining the importance of content testing – and if there is one thing I think content strategy could learn from research, this is it.

You recently spoke on card sorting at the IA Summit here in Chicago. What are some new applications for card sorting that content strategists might use?

My talk focused on how something as familiar as an online card sort can have many different applications, outside of just information architecture. Some ideas that I think are particularly relevant for content strategists include:

1.   Understand brand voice and tone

Source a variety of adjectives that may describe your brand (Brand Deck is a great set). Ask your users to sort these into categories such as “[Your brand] is”, “[Your brand] is not” and “Does not apply”).

This will give you an understanding of how your users view your brand, and whether it aligns with how you want to be perceived.

2.   Crowdsourcing content ideas

This is an example we used when planning the UX New Zealand conference in 2016, but it can apply to any place that involves the creation of content, whether it’s an event or blog.

We sent out a closed card sort to our community asking them to group potential topics into groups that either interested them or didn’t. This helped us narrow down the focus of our event and select relevant speakers.

It was highly effective and helped us get a better understanding of our audience and their preferences, making sure we’re delivering content that is not only of a high quality, but also as relevant as possible.

3.   As an internal consultation tool

Closed card sorting is a great tool for quickly involving others in the decision making process, capturing the voice of a wider group without the need for face-to-face meetings.  You can use it with external or internal users or stakeholders to help answer questions like:

  • Where should we start?

  • What is the most important thing we should work on?

  • Where should this content live?

  • What are our desired project outcomes?

  • Where do we focus our efforts?

  • What needs the most work?


For more ideas on creative ways to use card sorting, you can check out my slides from IA Summit 2018 here.

Your IA Summit bio said you are inspired by the intersections between technology, design and human behavior. Can you give some examples of interesting findings you’ve seen? Or something that might surprise us about how people behave?

I’ve always been interested in information processing and how imperfect we are all when it comes to making sense of the world around us.

We all use shortcuts (aka heuristics) to help us make efficient judgements and decisions, and we’re all riddled with biases that we cannot control. To get an idea of just how many factors may be influencing our judgement at any time, I recommend checking out the Cognitive Bias Codex from Buster Benson.

I think it’s important to have an appreciation for how imperfect, irrational and unpredictable humans can be in navigating the world around them, and acknowledge that while design can help guide behavior, you can’t never truly design someone’s experience for them.

It’s an interesting challenge designing with cognitive limitations in mind, and it’s something worth paying attention in our own work too. Becoming more aware of our own intrinsic biases can help us a lot in reframing how we view problems and solutions in our work and daily life.

 

Corey Vilhauer

 
 Photo courtesy of COREY VILHAUER

Photo courtesy of COREY VILHAUER

 

User Experience Strategist, Blend Interactive

"I can say that the line between information architecture and content strategy is pretty thin and usually heavily blurred."

Sioux Falls, SD

Eating Elephant
Black Marks on Wood Pulp

 

 
 

What are 3 resources that help you keep up with current thinking on content strategy? 

Other than some obvious ones (@halvorson, A List Apart, etc.) I think the following three things are cool.

Rian van der Merwe's Elezea is pretty great, and includes a nice little periodic newsletter.

The Content Insight twitter is a good twitter for collecting and reposting interesting content-related things.

I am part of a cozy little Slack channel of close friends who are also content strategists, which I say not because it's open for anyone to join, but because the best resources out there are going to be your friends and people you meet. I've strengthened everything in my daily work by listening and asking questions of people I've met in the industry. We're all each other's resources, so it's important we ask - and freely share.


Describe a typical workday (if there isn’t a “typical” day, just choose an example):

As most people will say, there is no typical workday. But here are some of the things I'll do, depending on the project.

Discovery: Traveling to a client and meeting with stakeholders in order to map out a future site. Interviewing potential site users on the phone and synthesizing their comments. Reading documents. Helping client stakeholders negotiate a sea of potential pitfalls.

Creating: Wireframes, personas, journey maps. Presentations. Jokes about professional wrestling.

Managing: Organizing resources for complex migrations. Site maps and content models. Playlists for each decade of modern music, because I apparently know how to have a super cool time.

For Blend: Writing occasional blog posts. Finding speakers for our Now What? Conference. Speaking at conferences.

How did you become a content strategist?

I was an advertising copywriter working at an agency that wasn't as web-forward as I'd like. So on one hand, I tried to affect change within my organization, while on the other I searched for a new industry that would allow me to pair the web with my background in writing. I talked to Deane Barker about it, and he hired me to build a content strategy practice at Blend.

We did a lot of learning together - the biggest thing being that I found I was no longer excited about the writing part of the web anymore. I found that I really loved content modeling and organizing and creating usable systems that words could live in.

Some people call it information architecture. Working at a smaller organization, I can say that the line between information architecture and content strategy is pretty thin and usually heavily blurred. 

Corey, what led you to specialize in content strategy for small businesses? What unique content strategy challenges does that present?

Simply, we are a smaller organization, and we don't always work with companies that have gigantic budgets or organizational needs. The unique challenges we're presented often land in the sticky DMZ of intent and budget.

Everyone wants all of the things. I'm often put into the position where I have to explain that high-level testing and hundreds of interviews and all of the things that come as second nature in all of those corporate case studies aren't possible when you have a team of two in the marketing department. Our eyes are bigger than our plate, and we don't have the team to back it up (or get it rolling in the first place).

What do you wish most clients understood about content strategy?

That content strategy isn't a thing. It's a process.

Content strategy - especially discovery and planning - feels like a project deliverable (one that can often be overlooked in favor of more time spent on flashy gadget integration). But it's not a deliverable. It's a thing we need to bake into our existing organizations. It's organizational change, not documentation.

Describe a recent project and how you solved a problem or met a challenge.

 We're currently tackling a somewhat complicated migration project that involves a CMS forklift (essentially, lifting a major site and replacing the CMS without actually changing the design or content). The difficulty, we've found, is not in the actual project, but in organizing resources for the actual migration.
 
We often find the expectation of a content migration project is far from the reality of it - migration is not an easy process, and only small portions of it can be automated. This means a combination of scripts and tools to bring most of the content in, and a team of people who can tackle the automated content and bring it up to the speed.

Our challenge - and this is the challenge for any new site, really - is to balance the tasks of the job with the people working on it. Those most familiar with the CMS are tasked with some of the slower, more complicated content. Those who aren't familiar can use a tool we created to compare old and new content for consistency. It's content triage, really.

How do you see content strategy evolving or changing in the next few years?

I think we still struggle with how to implement content strategy principles long after the initial recommendations have been made. There are some great people talking about content operations - how to organize your team, how to allocate resources, how to strategically prioritize web needs in the face of an already busy marketing and web staff - but it isn't given the same attention as more visible topics like content marketing or user testing.

I see this becoming an area that becomes much more vocal as we further flesh out how CMS and content strategy fit together.

What is the best content strategy advice you’ve ever gotten?

Not so much "advice" as a demand ... when Deane Barker said to me, "I want you to speak at a conference by next year." It forced me to focus on a topic and get acquainted with some of the best minds in the industry.

What would you advise someone who wants to get into this field? 

Take a few weeks, if possible, and help someone perform quality assurance or user assurance testing on a CMS implementation. You will learn more about how content works within a system than you'll get from studying anyone's wireframes or content model, and you will be more disciplined in making realistic strategic decisions. No more blue-sky craziness. Instead: editor-centric content.