Tags: strategy

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Head’s role

I have a bittersweet feeling today. Danielle is moving on from Clearleft.

I used to get really down when people left. Over time I’ve learned not to take it as such a bad thing. I mean, of course it’s sad when someone moves on, but for them, it’s exciting. And I should be sharing in that excitement, not putting a damper on it.

Besides, people tend to stay at Clearleft for years and years—in the tech world, that’s unheard of. So it’s not really so terrible when they decide to head out to pastures new. They’ll always be Clearlefties. Just look at the lovely parting words from Harry, Paul, Ellen, and Ben:

Working at Clearleft was one of the best decisions I ever made. 6 years of some work that I’m most proud of, amongst some of the finest thinkers I’ve ever met.

(Side note: I’ve been thinking about starting a podcast where I chat to ex-Clearlefties. We could reflect on the past, look to the future, and generally just have a catch-up. Would that be self indulgent or interesting? Let me know what you think.)

So of course I’m going to miss working with Danielle, but as with other former ‘lefties, I’m genuinely excited to see what happens next for her. Clearleft has had an excellent three years of her time and now it’s another company’s turn.

In the spirit of “one door closes, another opens,” Danielle’s departure creates an opportunity for someone else. Fancy working at Clearleft? Well, we’re looking for a head of front-end development.

Do you remember back at the start of the year when we were hiring a front-end developer, and I wrote about writing job postings?

My first instinct was to look at other job ads and take my cue from them. But, let’s face it, most job ads are badly written, and prone to turning into laundry lists. So I decided to just write like I normally would. You know, like a human.

That worked out really well. We ended up hiring the ridiculously talented Trys Mudford. Success!

So I’ve taken the same approach with this job ad. I’ve tried to paint as clear and honest a picture as I can of what this role would entail. Like it says, there are three main parts to the job:

  • business support,
  • technical leadership, and
  • professional development.

Now, I could easily imagine someone reading the job description and thinking, “Nope! Not for me.” Let’s face it: There Will Be Meetings. And a whole lotta context switching:

Within the course of one day, you might go from thinking about thorny code problems to helping someone on your team with their career plans to figuring out how to land new business in a previously uncharted area of technology.

I can equally imagine someone reading that and thinking “Yes! This is what I’ve been waiting for.”

Oh, and in case you’re wondering why I’m not taking this role …well, in the short term, I will for a while, but I’d consider myself qualified for maybe one third to one half of the required tasks. Yes, I can handle the professional development side of things (in fact, I really, really enjoy that). I can handle some of the technical leadership stuff—if we’re talking about HTML, CSS, JavaScript, accessibility, and performance. But all of the back-of-the-front-end stuff—build tools, libraries, toolchains—is beyond me. And I think I’d be rubbish at the business support stuff, mostly because that doesn’t excite me much. But maybe it excites you! If so, you should apply.

I can picture a few scenarios where this role could be the ideal career move…

Suppose you’re a lead developer at a product company. You enjoy leading a team of devs, and you like setting the technical direction when it comes to the tools and techniques being used. But maybe you’re frustrated by always working on the same product with the same tech stack. The agency world, where every project is different, might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Or maybe you’re an accomplished and experienced front-end developer, freelancing and contracting for years. Perhaps you’re less enamoured with being so hands-on with the code all the time. Maybe you’ve realised that what you really enjoy is solving problems and evaluating techologies, and you’d be absolutely fine with having someone else take care of the implementation. Moving into a lead role like this might be the perfect way to make the best use of your time and have more impact with your decisions.

You get the idea. If any of this is sounding intriguing to you, you should definitely apply for the role. What do you have to lose?

Also, as it says in the job ad:

If you’re from a group that is under-represented in tech, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein

The second talk of the first day of An Event Apart Seattle is from Margot Bloomstein. She’ll be speaking about Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World. The talk description reads:

Mass media and our most cynical memes say we live in a post-fact era. So who can we trust—and how do our users invest their trust? Expert opinions are a thing of the past; we favor user reviews from “people like us” whether we’re planning a meal or prioritizing a newsfeed. But as our filter bubbles burst, consumers and citizens alike turn inward for the truth. By designing for empowerment, the smartest organizations meet them there.

We must empower our audiences to earn their trust—not the other way around—and our tactical choices in content and design can fuel empowerment. Margot will walk you through examples from retail, publishing, government, and other industries to detail what you can do to meet unprecedented problems in information consumption. Learn how voice, volume, and vulnerability can inform your design and content strategy to earn the trust of your users. We’ll ask the tough questions: How do brands develop rapport when audiences let emotion cloud logic? Can you design around cultural predisposition to improve public safety? And how do voice and vulnerability go beyond buzzwords and into broader corporate strategy? Learn how these questions can drive design choices in organizations of any size and industry—and discover how your choices can empower users and rebuild our very sense of trust itself.

I’m sitting in the audience, trying to write down the gist of what she’s saying…

She begins by thanking us for joining her to confront some big problems. About ten years ago, A List Apart was the first publication to publish a piece of hers. It had excellent editors—Carolyn, Erin, and so on. The web was a lot smaller ten years ago. Our problems are bigger now. Our responsibilities are bigger now. But our opportunities are bigger now too.

Margot takes us back to 1961. The Twilight Zone aired an episode called The Mirror. We’re in South America where a stealthy band are working to take over the government. The rebels confront the leader. He shares a secret with them. He shows them a mirror that reveals his enemies. The revolution is successful. The rebels assume power. The rebel leader starts to use the same oppressive techniques as his predecessor. One day he says in his magic mirror the same group of friends that he worked with to assume power. Now they’re working to depose him, according to the mirror. He rounds them up and has them killed. One day he sees himself in the mirror. He smashes the mirror with his gun. He is incredibly angry. A priest walking past the door hears a commotion. The priest hears a gunshot. Entering the room, he sees the rebel leader dead on the ground with the gun in his hand.

We look to see ourselves. We look to see the truth. We hope the images coincide.

When our users see themselves, and then see the world around them, the images don’t coincide.

Internal truths trump external facts.

We used to place trust in brands. Now we’ve knocked them off the pedestal, or they’ve knocked themselves off the pedestal. They’ve been shady. Creeping inconsistencies. Departments of government are exhorting people not to trust external sources. It’s gaslighting. The blowback of gaslighting is broad. It effects us. An insidious scepticism—of journalism, of politics, of brands. This is our problem now.

To regain the trust of our audiences, we must empower them.

Why now? Maybe some of this does fall on our recent history. We punish politicians for flip-flopping and yet now Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump simply deny reality, completely contradicting their previous positions. The flip-flopping doesn’t matter. If you were a Trump supporter before, you continued to support him. No amount of information would cause you to change your mind.

Inconsistency erodes our ability to evaluate and trust. In some media circles, coached scepticism, false equivalency, and rampant air quotes all work to erode consensus. It offers us a cosy echo chamber. It’s comforting. It’s the journalism of affirmation. But our ability to evaluate information for ourselves suffers. Again, that’s gaslighting.

You can find media that bolsters your existing opinions. It’s a strange space that focuses more on hiding information, while claiming to be unbiased. It works to separate the listener, viewer, and reader from their own lived experiences. If you work in public services, this effects you.

Do we get comfortable in our faith, or confidentally test our beliefs through education?

Marketing relies on us re-evaluating our choices. Now we’ve turned away from the old arbiters of experts. We’ve moved from expertise to homophily—only listening to people like us. But people have recently become aware of their own filter bubbles. So people turn inward to narcissism. If you can’t trust anyone, you can only turn inward. But that’s when we see the effects of a poor information diet. We don’t know what objective journalism looks like any more. Our analytic skills are suffering as a result. Our ability to trust external sources of expertise suffers.

Inconsistency undermines trust—externally and internally. People turn inward and wonder if they can even trust their own perceptions any more. You might raise an eyebrow when a politician plays fast and loose with the truth, or a brand does something shady.

We look for consistency with our own perceptions. Does this fit with what I know? Does this make me feel good? Does this brand make me feel good about myself? It’s tied to identity. There’s a cycle of deliberation and validation. We’re validating against our own worldview. Referencing Jeffrey’s talk, Margot says that giving people time to slow down helps them evaluate and validate. But there’s a self-perpetuating cycle of belief and validation. Jamelle Bouie from Slate says:

We adopt facts based on our identities.

How we form our beliefs affects our reality more than what we already believe. Cultural predisposition is what give us our confirmation bias.

Say you’re skeptical of big pharma. You put the needs of your family above the advice of medical experts. You deny the efficacy of vaccination. The way to reach these people is not to meet them with anger and judgement. Instead, by working in the areas they already feel comfortable in—alternative medicine, say—we can reach them much more effictively. We need to meet a reluctant audience on their own terms. That empowers them. Empowerment reflects and rebuilds trust. If people are looking inward for information, we can meet them there.

Voice

The language a brand uses to express itself. You don’t want to alienate your audience. You need to bring your audience along with you. When a brand changes over time, it runs the risk of alienating its audience. But by using a consistent voice, and speaking with transparency, it empowers the audience.

A good example of this is Mailchimp. When Mailchimp first moved into the e-commerce space, they approached it from a point of humility. They wrote on the blog in a very personal vulnerable way, using plain language. The language didn’t ask more acclimation from their audience.

ClinicalTrials.gov does not have a cute monkey. Their legal disclaimer used to have reams of text. They took a step back to figure what they needed to provide in order to make the audience comfortable. They empowered their audience by writing clearly, avoiding the passive voice.

Volume

What is enough detail to allow a user to feel good about their choices? We used to think it was all about reducing information. For a lot of brands, that’s true. But America’s Test Kitchen is known for producing a lot of content. They’re known for it because their content focuses on empowering people. You’re getting enough content to do well. They try to engage people regardless of level of expertise. That’s the ultimate level of empathy—meeting people wherever they are. Success breeds confidence. That’s the ethos that underpins all their strategy.

Crutchfield Electronics also considers what the right amount of content is to allow people to succeed. By making sure that people feel good and confident about the content they’re receiving, Crutchfield Electronics are also making sure that people good and confident in their choices.

Gov.uk had to contend with where people were seeking information. The old version used to have information spread across multiple websites. People then looked elsewhere. Government Digital Services realised they were saying too much. They reduced the amount of content. Let government do what only government can do.

So how do you know when you have “enough” content? Whether you’re America’s Test Kitchen or Gov.uk. You have enough content when people feel empowered to move forward. Sometimes people need more content to think more. Sometimes people need less.

Vulnerability

How do we open up and support people in empowering themselves? Vulnerability can also mean letting people know how we’re doing, and how we’re going to change over time. That’s how we build a conversation with our audience.

Sometimes vulnerability can mean prototyping in public. Buzzfeed rolled out a newsletter by exposing their A/B testing in public. This wasn’t user-testing on the sidelines; it was front and centre. It was good material for their own blog.

When we ask people “what do you think?” we allow people to become evalangists of our products by making them an active part of the process. Mailchimp did this when they dogfooded their new e-commerce product. They used their own product and talked openly about it. There was a conversation between the company and the audience.

Cooks Illustrated will frequently revisit their old recommendations and acknowledge that things have changed. It’s admitting to a kind of falliability, but that’s not a form of weakness; it’s a form of strength.

If you use some of the recommendations on their site, Volkswagen ask “what are you looking for in a car?” rather than “what are you looking for in Volkswagen?” They’re building the confidence of their audience. That builds trust.

Buzzfeed also hosts opposing viewpoints. They have asides on articles called “Outside Your Bubble”. They bring in other voices so their audiences can have a more informed opinion.

A consistent and accessible voice, appropriate volume for the context, and humanising vulnerability together empowers users.

Margot says all that in the face of the question: do we live in a post-fact era? To which she says: when was the fact era?

Cynicism is a form of cowardice. It’s not a fruitful position. It doesn’t move us forward as designers, and it certainly doesn’t move us forward as a society. Cynics look at the world and say “it’s worse.” Designers look at the world and say “it could be better.”

Design won’t save the world—but it may make it more worth saving. Are we uniquely positioned to fix this problem? No. But that doesn’t free us from working hard to do our part.

Margot thinks we can design our way out of cynicism. And we need to. For ourselves, for our clients, and for our very society.

Content First

Because it takes two people to replace Eric Meyer, Kristina Halvorson has stepped into the breach at An Event Apart in Boston. At last week’s UX London, Dan described her as the patron saint of content strategy. Her talk is called Content First. She begins by listing a bunch of Twitter hashtags and pointing out the excellent A Feed Apart.

Kristina started out as a Copy Writer and morphed into being a Web Writer. For a long time, there was no such role as Content Strategist. That meant that the Web Writer was divorced from the rest of the team. Everyone was talking about user experience but nobody was talking about the content. We’ve got user flows, mental models, eventually the site map. At this point, everyone’s happy. Then someone looks at the schedule. Copy writing (usually lumped in with SEO) is allocated a couple of weeks at most. They call in the Copy Writer, show the diagrams and functional specs and say, off you go! Now you’ve got two weeks (tops) to figure out the content requirements and deliver the content. How did we allow this to happen?

Content isn’t a three-step create, revise and approve process. It’s much more complex than that. And it’s never done.

Kristina quotes the origin of the phrase information architecture. Then Tufte came along. Designers took it upon themselves to craft information that was understandable and digestable. Then the web came along. To begin with, it was treated as a visual medium. Jesse James Garrett changed the emphasis to user experience. But where is content in Jesse’s diagram? It’s on the second level. Then it disappears. We were approaching content on the same level as functional specs; a feature than can be ticked off a list. But content is a living, breathing thing that evolves over time. Once you put it online, you are required to feed it and take care of it.

Content is almost always the last thing to be considered and the last thing to be deliverd. This is the Content Delay Syndrome. In Kelly’s book, she says Accept it. Plan for it. Charge for it. Kristina thinks that sucks. Content Strategy is a better way.

Content can be text, graphics, video and audio. Kristina mostly works with text.

Strategy is often seen as what we’re going to do. But most people conflate tactics with strategy. Strategy is actually about answering all those good journalistic questions, why are we doing this?, who is this for?, what do we have to work with?

Here’s the homepage for Quicken. First thing you see is the happy guy. Then you see four red boxes for four different products. Then you see price points; a consideration to be sure, but this is your financial well-being we’re talking about. This probably all looked great in a wireframe. The content got poured in to the layout at the end.

Mint has an awesome content strategy even though they don’t have much content. The content is focused on you.

Plan. Create. Publish. Govern.

Governance is important. The Swiffer “live” YouTube channel has been left to rot. People still leave comments but the last curator login was nine months ago.

Right now, the mind set is launch and leave it. But content is cyclical. It needs a process.

Audit. Analysis. Strategy.

  • Auditing content is usually thought of as cataloguing pages. That’s a quantitative audit. It tells you where? and how much? Qualitative audits are more useful by telling you how useful content is. There’s also specialised auditing such as dealing with metadata.
  • Analysis is one of the most important things that a content strategist can do but it’s also often overlooked. Don’t just jump into action. You might think you don’t have the time or budget for this part; invest in it. You need to consider brand and messaging, the channels you will be using to deliver content, user research… Kristina is aware that most people don’t have the budget for all of this but you can still start introducing it a little at a time. There’s a whole bucket of other stuff to consider; technical infrastructure, internal politics, stakeholder swoop’n’poop.
  • Finally you can put a strategy together. This is where the content strategist really takes ownership of the content. That’s often the problem with content, right? Nobody takes ownership of it. Maybe it’ll be the information architect, maybe it’ll be the user experience designer. The important thing is that someone is in charge of it. Always consider what will happen when the content is out there. Don’t launch a blog, for example, unless you’re willing to invest time in it.

The page stack symbol in IA diagrams will kick your ass. As far as the information architect is concerned, this is where the magic happens.

The page template, usually filled with lorem ipsum, is a useful tool but it only shows you structure. It doesn’t answer any questions about what your users need.

Page tables are a new tool. They identify structure, but also the details and, importantly, the implications. It also poses questions, who is in charge of this?, how will this be accomplished? This is dirty work but someone has to do it. Of course, if you have 1200 pages, you won’t build page tables for each one but you should build a page table for pages with specific objectives and specific user needs.

Content inventory involves mapping out what you’ve got and what you’re going to need. This is usually a spreadsheet.

This is all something we can do. Imagine having this instead of lorem ipsum …lorem ipsum must die!

Why do this? Think about why people go online. They want content. Support your users in their quest.

How can you start? The reality is probably that you can’t just hire a content strategist tomorrow. But you can change your mindset. When we talk about user experience, content is missing from the discussion. Let’s change that.