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
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.