Just over a year ago I announced an open call for speakers for the first Dare Conference with the strapline, “let’s be brave together.” It was about taking risks, being vulnerable, and becoming an agent of change. I wanted speakers to share their vulnerability on stage instead of presenting the tidy success stories you normally see at conferences. I called it the “hard part” of digital work. My note on the submission form said, “tell us how you failed.” Reading that now, I cringe.
We try to implement governance to make our content strategies stick, and it doesn’t work. Writers don’t follow our voice guidelines, marketers ignore our message architectures, developers create apps without considering content. We’re doing great content strategy work, so why isn’t it taking hold in our organizations? We’re trying to leapfrog over the hard part: changing culture. Governance can sustain culture but it can’t change it—and the change we need is broader than content strategy, incorporating practices we know little about. Content strategy is just one piece of digital transformation.
We’ve come a long way from the early days of the web, when “real” business people would pat us on the head and say things like, “your digital toy is nice, but my customers will never use it,” and we’d believe them. They were responsible adults with business degrees, while we were just messing around, right?
I was invited to speak about content strategy at the Association of Publishing Agencies “Digital Breakfast” event, held at Channel 4 television in London on 5 April. The APA is a professional association for the customer publishing industry. Here’s a video of my talk, “What Web Content Strategy Means for Publishers”.
Here’s a video of my 5-minute lightning UX presentation on why content strategy is a big deal for user experience professionals.
The video is captioned, and here’s the transcript:
My name’s Jonathan Kahn. I’d like to talk about why content strategy is a big deal for user experience professionals.
So content strategy, you’ve heard about it, right? Everyone’s talking about it, have you got a content strategy? So, why is it so hot? It’s been around for as long as the web’s been around, it’s not really anything new, it’s part of user experience. Why the big deal? So I think the reason it’s such a big deal is we’ve been talking for a long time about stuff like information architecture, usability, UX, research, all this different stuff. They’re disciplines that people have grown and talked about for ages.
If you think about content and content strategy, it hasn’t really happened. We’ve only just recently been starting to talk about it, to write books about it, to have conferences about it. So I think we’ve been ignoring content and all of its complexities and hoping that it will go away, and that’s kinda caused a bit of a crisis.
So I think content strategy is the moment when you realise that you need to do some more thinking. If you think about all the complexities associated with planning and creating and governing and editing content, they raise all these questions that most organisations aren’t really very well placed to answer.
So think about the organisation you’re working with as a UX professional. They need to cover 4 components in order to really have a content strategy and be able to deal with content properly. And two of them concern content itself, which are substance, which is things like a messaging architecture, what are our key messages, and style guides, and structure which talks about the way that people navigate that stuff, classifications, you know, classic IA stuff. And then people components which include workflow, in real life which human beings are going to do what when, with all the content, and governance, which talks about decision-making processes, how do we set policies, how do we have ownership, standards, that type of thing. And the problem that we have as people who come from the IA background, speaking for myself, is that we’ve really focused on the structure piece only, and ignored all the other ones, which makes a lot of what we do kind of like a fantasy that may never actually get implemented.
So I think content strategy is an appropriate context to discuss some deeper business issues that are broader than any particular product or project that you’re working on right now, it’s an appropriate place to talk about bigger stuff. It doesn’t necessarily have all the answers, you can’t kinda go to the book and say right, content strategy, what’s the answer to this problem. But it think it has some really good questions, and that’s how we should think of it, it’s a way in, some things it’s OK to ask that come raise some bigger stuff. I think as UX designers, we are helping our organisations move through a time of great change, right, you know, the web revolution like the industrial revolution. And we’re all trying to help our clients or organisations deal with some big scary words, like these. Product strategy, corporate governance, metrics, or ethics. And I think content touches all of these things, so we can talk about these things in the context of content. So just to take ethics for an example.
What type of persuasion techniques are we using as an organisation, you know, are we straightforward with people, are we upfront, are we transparent, or do we use unethical marketing tricks for example, like Harry’s documented, and I know he’s going to talk more about that later, the dark patterns like this. Everyone in this room would like our organisations to not do any of this stuff, and I think content strategy is a great way to talk about why we need to have an ethical stance, and what bad things will happen if we do unethical things.
So if you think about your design context you might think of an oil tanker heading the wrong way, as if the web never happened. And in that context how on earth can we change some of the things I’ve been talking about, like how the organisation deals with content. I think the answer is, we have to become content strategy advocates, that’s what I’m asking you to do today, become an advocate. Which means you’re the person who’s bringing up these issues, and saying this is a problem, we need to deal with this problem. So the way to do that is to become, sorry, to thrash early. If you can get everyone in the room as early as possible and bring this up, on whatever level you can, and say, this is a problem, are we dealing with this, if not let’s create a plan to deal with it. I think that’s the way to start to turn that oil tanker around, because it can be done, it just takes a long time. So if you’d to learn more about content strategy I have a shameless plug for you this evening, which is I’m helping to organise a conference here in London in September about content strategy, keynoted by Gerry McGovern and Karen McGrane, which will be really good so I hope to see you there. And that’s why I think content strategy is a big deal for UX professionals. Thank you.
Here’s a video of my presentation to the Geneva Web Group as part of the first content strategy meetup in Geneva, Switzerland:
You know that content strategy is crucial to your organization’s mission: content is a critical business asset that’s central to user experience. But there’s a problem: your organization still thinks it’s 1999. How do you turn around the oil tanker? Learn how to shift the conversation from fear and denial towards positive and realistic change, by becoming a content strategy advocate.
And here are the slides:
Most wireframes are works of fantasy: more aspiration than design solution. Fantasy wireframes lead to broken experiences, unmet goals, and angry stakeholders. But content strategy can help. Learn how UX professionals can use content strategy to design user experiences that work in real life, not just in a pretty wireframe.