It doesn’t matter if all your work takes place in code or Figma, what you produce depends on content, and content depends on you. There are lots of small ways success is influenced over time by the ways we all collaborate with each other and anticipate the needs of different teams and users. Sarah Maxell Crosby from the digital experience experts at OHO Interactive to talk about what you should be thinking about when it comes to content strategy.
- Content strategy in UX design
- Content Strategy for Developers
- OHO Interactive Cocktail Book
- A UX Designer’s Guide to Content Strategy
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Well, hello everybody. And thanks for joining us on the drunken UX podcast. This is episode number 95. No, it’s not. It’s episode number 96. I’m forgetting how to count now that we’re getting up too high. I don’t know how I feel about that.
Uh either way, good or bad. We’re gonna be talking about constant strategy for developers and designers and we’re gonna be joined with, joined by rather not with a little with and by I guess either one of those words words Sarah Maxwell. Crosby is joining us this evening. I am your host, Michael Finnan,
your other other host erin. How you doing?
Like not as hot as you actually. Probably as hot as you in Kansas, this heat is normal. So it’s like, this is just par for the course. You’re like a dry heat. No, sir, no sir. You get
all the rain that has nowhere to go because our water table is super high and the water when it rains, it just sits on the ground. Yeah, Kansas is not nearly, it is not a dry heat. It is not a pleasant thing that people think
we we get like 1.5 months of summer, but it’s like hell’s front porch And that’s where we’re at right now. And I don’t have air conditioners because I’ve had to put resources towards other stuff because like 1.5 months out of the year, it’s like all right, we’ll
just deal with the earth told us this latitude was supposed to be cold.
I moved to upstate new york for the sweltering hot heat. That’s why I’m up here.
Well folks, if you are enjoying the drunken UX podcast, we would love to invite you to come chat with us over on twitter or facebook. You can find us slash drunken you X if you want to look first on instagram, it’s slash drunken UX podcast and you can always chat with us any time of day or night because I don’t sleep. If you come to discord, that’s drunken uX dot com slash discord. Aaron, let’s start with you. Mr I’m sweating in new york. What are you drinking?
I have a very boring drink of water because it is too hot to drink.
Anything else feels like a responsible option.
I I don’t want to like lie and say I’m taking something fancy so because
if you start slurring or tripping over words, it’s just heat delirium, it’s heatstroke,
Yeah, so we should that’s exactly, call, call an ambulance. Okay, got it. Uh I’m on the balcony. 14 Caribbean cask. I’ve been on a kick lately, I have a lot of like very low bottles on my bar right now. And so I’ve been finishing them off and like making space for something new. I don’t know what I’m gonna get yet, but I’m gonna go do some shopping for some things.
I haven’t tried yet or something. I haven’t had in a long time. I want to, I want to dress the bar up a little bit so we’ll see that coming to an episode near you in the near future. Uh Sarah, you had a glass, I don’t know if it was an orange juice or a special orange juice.
It is actually a tropical rum punch to go along with the steamy weather. So uh
actually I should have planned this out. Better. Dinner is somewhere between here and there for me. So I don’t get to eat until after the show. But we ordered a tropical smoothie cafe and now I’m thinking about that, I’m like that smoothie. I should have ordered that little earlier because that would have been the perfect, I could have mixed some vodka into it or some rum or something.
Like I really missed missed out on that. So that’s that one’s on me. Uh The voice you just heard obviously is Sarah Maxwell Crosby. She is the content and are a content the or a, I feel like a is probably the right answer because you probably have several at oh no,
actually the right now we are currently in the process interviewing for another content strategist who will probably eventually be a content and digital strategist, but right now yeah, there’s georgie Cohen who’s the Director of Digital Strategy and me and that’s we’re a team of two within the larger
Georgia is a friend of all uh as far as I’m concerned, so, so good people, if you’re looking for a job in digital or digital strategy, content strategy by the time we’re done with this episode, uh go check out, oh ho because they are good people and they do fantastic work out of their agency, so uh so I’ll re kick this off here.
So, Sarah Maxwell. Crosby is a content and digital strategist at OHO Interactive, she’s also previously the senior Associate Director of Digital Communication strategy at Dartmouth College Advancement Communications and she was the UX team lead and the first content strategist for Dartmouth web services. Sarah, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us. I’m sorry that it is hot and sweltering where you are, but thanks for
were a cool show. I know that was bad joke, I’m sorry uh I want I want to start real fast before we dive into this topic.
I want to talk for just a second about content strategy because I remember my God was this 2021 it was probably about 11 years ago Content strategy got really hot, it was the big thing that was, people were talking about Kristina Halvorson had put out her book, I think in oh eight or oh nine, Constant Strategy for the web and everybody was like, oh this is a neat way of thinking about all of this.
Um and so over the years now, you know, we have actually refined this thought process, this content strategy process. Um I want to ask you first and foremost like how did you get into whether you know you were you x originally at Dartmouth web services, you’ve evolved into this content digital strategist, what talk to us just about how that happened, I would just love to hear kind of that story, that path
Sure, it actually happened the other way around, I was the content strategist first and then ended up becoming UX Team lead from there. Um but I definitely did not have a straightforward path to content strategy, I had done a lot of different things over the years.
I studied art history, I wanted to be a costume designer, I worked in film production for a little bit, then I worked as a recruiter and then I worked as a writer for a few years and When I started my job as a content strategist, it was early 2013.
It ended up tying together all of those previous jobs that didn’t seem to have much in common, I found that the things that I liked about each of those jobs all played into content strategy and when I was a writer, I had left behind a trail of filemaker databases in my wake because that was the database that I knew how to build at the time.
And I, so when I started in content strategy I realized that although I didn’t know the term before, it actually been practicing content strategy for a while because I kept trying to you know, organized the content better improve the workflows, make sure everyone was on the same page and that we were using consistent terms in plain language and that we were tracking everything and using data to inform our work.
And I have been doing that in these writer roles. And so when I started um when I joined web services I was like this is amazing, this is what I’ve been trying to do and all my previous jobs and now it’s like my full job um and I had been responsible, my last writing job was in the President’s office at Dartmouth and as part of that role had been responsible for editing a few websites including this large standalone history project site that we did that celebrated um decades of coeducation.
It was built to coincide with this anniversary and the school was doing all kinds of programming around it. And so I collaborated with the web services team to build that site to figure out how to structure the content and then I did all the content entry which included getting into the html because it was easier to get the formatting right that way and I got really comfortable with that.
And so then when they were looking to add a content strategist to the team, they asked me to apply and when I did join, we were right at the beginning of a big migration from omni update to triple seven and it included major changes. We weren’t just porting content over, we were completely changing the communication strategy, the information architecture.
We had a new design system and I joined right as they were starting to build the first four sites that were kind of the sample sites that we then used to kind of shop around and get everyone on board with this new approach. So I was just thrown right in and we started building out the first four sites and we launched them when they’ve been there for about a month. So, um just right into the event and that
trial by fire, right?
Yeah. I learned so much. It was really exciting to be doing something different after, you know, spending years writing letters and speeches and award citations and also this thing I found that put together all of the, you know, all the things that I had enjoyed in previous jobs.
Uh I wanna let’s let’s answer the initial question. And if if you’ve been listening to the show for a while back in. But God, I think it was season one, we had Jeff stevens on and we talked about content strategy a lot. spk_!: But content strategy can be kind of a hard like thing to get your mind sort of wrapped around in terms of like where it fits and what it means and what’s entailed um Sarah when like when you’re talking to somebody and let’s say, you know, you’re out in the event and you’re sitting there talking with some other professionals at other organizations and they say, what do you do? And you say, well, my content strategist and they say what now, what how do you define content strategy to people that are hearing that term for the first time?
So I think the simplest but most comprehensive definition that I have shared with people a lot is I make sure that you get the right content to the right people in the right place at the right time. And I don’t know if Kristina Halvorson a brain traffic if she invented that or if she’s um I know that she’s used it in a lot of her writing and I think it really nicely sums up sort of uh the different aspects of the work and how you’re really, you know, it’s not content writing.
It’s not content marketing, it’s really how is your business strategy enacted through your content and how are you making plans so that you can actually maintain it and do it well,
Kind of answering of the, you know, the 5W the what where when and how not necessarily the why I write the why sort of is answered in other places or no,
I think the why also is definitely a part of it because often what we’re trying to do is help people define and understand their goals. Um To me, content strategy really overlaps with you ex a lot because it’s a lot about you know, understanding the users and what their needs are and how do we how do we well, meeting our business goals also make sure that we’re meeting the user needs and so reiterating the why maybe not defining it but reiterating it.
Especially because you know when it comes to websites and their content, a lot of organizations can have a more internal perspective and they’re thinking more about what they need or what makes sense to them.
And so you’re often kind of like reminding them that the user doesn’t have the same knowledge or understanding our expectations and maybe not the same needs. And so if we focus on the why, you know, which is we’re trying to meet some need for the user so that they do what we want them to do. Um That ends up being a big part of it
when you talk with the organization. So oh ho is a digital agency, right? You you go into organizations and help them deploy new strategy from the marketing level to design UX um when when you roll into one of these organizations who lack this like you know, you are there to help them because they have realized they don’t have the things they need.
What problems do they generally find that deploying like effective content strategy? What does that solving for them in that, in that moment? In that challenge?
Yeah. So, you know, again, it’s the intersection of business goals and user needs and making sure that their website actually serves both those things and that it’s built to not only meet those needs, but also that they have the systems in place around it so they can keep supporting the website in an ongoing manner.
So a lot of times when people come to us for redesign, they have a lot of old content on their site, a lot of outdated content, they might not know everything that’s there. Um they might have a lot of content that’s not really brand aligned. It doesn’t represent them accurately or appropriately. They might have a lot of content that is, you know, not serving the needs of their primary audiences.
And then when they think about who their primary audiences are, they might not have the right content for them. Um so it’s really helping them identify kind of the gaps and the opportunities and how they got to this place in the first place and so what we can do differently so that they end up on a better path in the future,
would it be, would it be accurate to say that like an example of a page that might have come from uh an organization without a content strategy would be um, maybe like just a random article about something that doesn’t get any visits because no one’s interested in it and it’s actually serving a goal.
Yeah, I think when you’re talking about like news and story content, I think that what a lot of organizations struggle with is there were trying to move them from being reactive to being more proactive. So not just writing up a story because someone said, hey, I’m doing this thing. Will you write about it? But writing up a story because they know what their key brand messages are and their story aligns with that.
Um, a lot of communications groups are used to kind of just taking requests. You know, there they’re putting stories up there because people ask them to and when you start to define and said, well, if these are your goals and these are the messages that you need to be sending out to support those goals and then that helps provide a framework for how you decide what to write about, because you really don’t want to be putting your resources into something that’s not helping you reach your goals, right?
Um, and I think a lot of times this can happen both in central marketing communications groups, but also on a larger scale, if you’re a large organization that has a lot of editors contributing content, um, there’s often a focus on teach people the CMS, if there’s any training at all, you know, teach them how to use the CMS, but not how to prepare the content that you’re then published with that CMS and and sometimes, you know.
Content training is a is a nice to have, it’s an add on like we’ll give you access to the CMS and then if you want to you can come take this bonus class. And my big thing that I’ve been pushing for years is is trained on the content first, before you give them the keys to drive the car, make sure they’ve gone through driver’s ed.
You know, um we want to make sure that because if you’ve got hundreds of, you know, site editors, like a lot of universities do all of those people can be putting up content that is either going to hurt or help your brand and if you’re not teaching them, you know, what makes a good content, what makes accessible content, what the brand is. Um then they’re probably not going to be helping the brand
when we were when we all worked in higher ed that was around when or whether when we all as in Michael and I I used to work with them. Um, but uh there was that X. K. C. D. Thing with uh what university websites have and then what students want and it was like a Venn diagram and I always think whenever you think about content strategy, I always if you kind of squint your eyes a little bit and look at that, it’s, I think that content strategy might inform solving some of those problems, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s, it’s a lot about understanding your users and what they need and then how do you create and distribute the content that’s going to help them with that?
I always, I always think about how um the there’s a lot of organizational jargon that comes through in the university websites like bursar rather than payments or registrar rather than register for classes. Yeah, and and just like the university never thinks about it because it’s like, oh, this is who we are, the students can deal with it.
or there’s the sense that like, well because this office is responsible for this thing, they also have to be responsible for this content. Um but you know, if it’s really important top level content, what we call authoritative content, you know, maybe the bursar shouldn’t be writing that content, Maybe a writing professionals should be writing that content.
Um and so the difference between the subject matter experts that might contribute versus being responsible for producing the content is one of the governance issues that comes up a lot. So
it’s kind of crappy to have leadership, just assume that like anyone can write web content or that uh organization on campus, uh um you know, burster or registrar, whomever who already has a full plate of work doing their normal job now also has to shoo in shoehorn in like this additional labor to maintain this web content. And I know from having talked with some of the people who work there, they’re like, we don’t want to do this, right? Yes, we know the answers, but like we’re already busy,
right? Or even often if they are interested, if they do want to do it, it’s still other duties as assigned. You know, it’s something that they might have an hour or two a month to contribute to. Um not which is often not enough depending on what content we’re talking about.
Um And and some of it comes down to governance to this is something that I encountered sometimes when um when I was at web services and we really revamped our training and we did do content training before CMS training and I’d occasionally get a site editor that would say, I know, I remember the training, I know I’m supposed to do it this way, but my boss wants me to do it a different way.
So that’s when you get into sort of governance at the bigger level in terms of what is the content that we really can’t allow that to happen? What is the content that you really need? You know, if it’s key marketing content, then then marketers need to be responsible for the final presentation or you know, do we have support at the top level for, for this kind of governance?
Do we have um the president or the provost or the Dean um saying yes, You know what this content um marketing communications gets to decide how that’s presented. They’ll consult you, they’ll work with you on it because you’re the subject matter experts in that content. There’s a subject matter experts and how to present your information. So
would you say would you say that governance like web governance of content has Improved over the last 5, 10, 15, 20 years? I want to say that it has, but like, I haven’t worked in higher ed in a while.
I think I think it has, I think it’s the sort of thing that is kind of always evolving. Uh we talk about governance on sort of a spectrum from being fully centralized to fully distributed and higher ed. Most orders are somewhere in the middle and in my experience, the orders that are more centralized, Wish they were more distributed and the orders that were more more distributed, Wish they had more central control.
So I don’t know if anybody’s really satisfied and if anyone’s really nailed it as like, yes, or governance is perfect. But it’s something that you need to kind of keep talking about and keep iterating and keep, you know, tweaking it to make it work better and support your goals more
the, you know, one of the classic ways I think about like content strategy in terms of what is a sign that you lack it and your I’m trying to stay away from this notion of you’re doing bad, like I know a lot of places are they’re doing what they can, right? They’re doing, they’re trying to get by with what they’ve learned and sometimes you don’t realize what you don’t know until you start picking up on problems.
But the thing and Aaron, you kind of, you started hitting on this uh in that very first question you ask, and the first thing I thought of was when I see an F A Q page, that’s when I know something has gone a little awry.
And even there, there are significant brands out there who I know have got great people, you know, building those sites and working on their language and their messaging and all these things, but I see an F A Q page and it’s like, that’s where content goes to die, so, so to speak.
I know what you mean, because I’ve been there, but could you elaborate on that for the people who haven’t worked
on that? Like, thinking about stuff like uh when you are trying to learn about, let’s say a product and the F A Q pages, your frequently asked questions. Now, here’s the problem, I have yet to find an organization that populates stuff on an F A Q page because it is the most frequently things they get asked at any level.
This is the
stuff we want you to Yeah,
I literally want to go to a place sometime and say, show me the list of who is frequently asking these things. Show me that because you’re implying it. You’re saying people are always asking this and the converse relationship is, if it is being frequently asked, then you need to do a better job, articulating that information at the higher levels of your site, nobody knows what’s in an F. A. Q. Right? You have to guess
what I have said before, is that the F. A. Q. Is like your kitchen junk drawer and we don’t want, you know, you’re right to be like a junk drawer, we want your site to be like Martha Stewart’s pantry, you open the doors and you know where everything is and everything just makes sense. Um And and exactly if you are getting this question a lot, then go back to the page that should be answering that question and make sure it does.
I think, you know, I’ve given that the Y F. A. Q. S are not good for user experience. Um Talk, you know, dozens of times over the years, the different stakeholders who think that they love F. A. Q. S. Um I think one of the things that potentially complicates it is when you’re talking about someone scanning a page, you know, scanning a page, using your eyes going down the page um in english, at least when you put things in a question format, the keywords are not at the beginning, you get the question at the beginning?
Like what, where how and the keywords are somewhere in the middle of the page and it makes it harder to stand down and find it. But something that’s come up recently that I think is going to complicate the idea that we should never have F A Q. S is voice user interface. And the fact that they love questions. So there’s now kind of a search benefit to having a question and answer format on your site.
So let’s get into this idea of okay, so Content, Wait No, you know what I do want to ask one more question because this was one of the questions I had very early, like when I said go back to 2010, that that era when you think about content strategy. Um and this is just a way I like to think about it and challenge people in terms of uh you know how they silo it.
If somebody comes up to you Sarah and says, isn’t content strategy just marketing, what what does that mean to you in terms of how you would answer? She’s shaking her head. She is not happy I asked that question. But people will people do ask that question. That is something that when they think about, Well it’s messaging, right? That’s marketing. How how do you explain that to them?
Um So messaging is a part of it but it’s not just messaging its its governance, its structure. It’s um you know how are you going to answer the business problems? And some of those might be marketing problems but some might also be user experience problems you know user that is not necessarily being marketed to but is trying to you know, a complete a task.
Um So it’s really about how do you decide what the right thing is to build to begin with And then how do you also set it up so that you’re keeping that website healthy and effective and over time. And so some aspects of it might be marketing but it’s not content marketing. You know when you’re talking about content marketing that’s more producing content for the purpose of pulling in leeds um which can you know be tied into S. E. O.
Which can be tied into content strategy but they’re not the same thing. And I think part of what contributes to the confusion is the use of the term content strategist and job descriptions that actually have nothing to do with content strategy. It’s become kind of a trendy term. And if you look on like linkedin jobs for content strategist rolls, the vast majority are not actually dealing with systems and processes and you know, plans.
The vast majority are basically like copywriters or content marketers. Um So it’s it’s um unfortunate and it’s something that like you know Kristina Halvorson talks about all the time, the difference between them and getting really frustrated when people kind of just smush them together because they are really different different goals. Different types of practice.
Is it? Like artificial intelligence is rarely artificial intelligence? It’s
algorithms, there’s something
you should be looking at it. Yeah okay so now that I’ve asked that question gotten that out of the way. So understanding that it is sort of a very different thing. And while I always have this conversation about web in general that web is very much an I. T. Thing but it’s also very much a marketing thing.
Like it is both and neither and deserves a role kind of sitting apart somewhat and being you know it needs to be answerable and responsible to both but also autonomous to a degree where do you see like content strategy sitting in an organization silo and in its stack is it a marketing thing like from a where the person sits or do you advocate for something else entirely?
So personally I’ve been the content strategist in a web services team that was in I. T. And then I’ve been you know director of digital strategy in a communications group. And for me personally I prefer to sit in I. T.
Um partially just because of the understanding um of the web and its needs that I found with my colleagues in it versus my colleagues in communication that that um a lot of them most of their work was still very print focused and so um my front end developer and I we were kind of the odd man out a lot of the time in just terms of our understanding of of websites and how they work and what’s important.
I think it really depends on the organization and you know, there are some organizations that have content strategists in lots of different places, some very lucky organizations that get more than one um and they have them, you know, sometimes embedded at the school level if it’s university.
Um and I think part of the sort of discussion about content strategy that’s been going on for several years now within the field is also the types of content strategy and front end content strategy versus back end content strategy and um content strategy that’s more focused on editorial versus content strategy that might be more focused on data and structure. And so I think even within content strategy, different content strategy roles might make sense in different places
with that. Let’s start getting into uh the meat and potatoes of this. So a lot of folks will be listening to this episode, they are a designer of some kind, maybe it’s a UX design or uX developer, maybe they’re heavy in the Ui maybe they are front end engineer. The thing is right, content strategy is empowered by the work we do and we can both help it along and hinder it in a lot of ways.
And so I’m thinking about a project that we are literally undertaking right now at work where we’re redesigning a site and one of the first things I did was go through all of our camps and break down all of the different like and just use a very simple one, a blog post and it’s like okay, what do I need to build to support what they want to do and how they want to do it? Mhm.
If I’m a UX designer and I’m walking into a new project and let’s say, you know, and not to like put Ohio on spot, let’s say Ohio is helping an organization, You know, they’re doing a complete redesign and rebranding and new marketing effort like this company, they haven’t touched their web site in 10 years and so they’re like, we’re gonna start over from ground zero.
You have carte blanche. We have a UX designer though. What what can that UX designer do during the planning process. Um and the reconstruction process to help support the work of content strategist wants to do? Like what should they be thinking about?
You know, we talk about this at work a lot kind of where does content strategy fit in when you’re talking about a web redesign and I think ideally the content strategist is involved throughout the entire project because there’s different aspects of content strategy that are relevant to different points in the project timeline that are relevant for different roles on the project team.
So we might have different content strategy deliverables that make sense at different points in the project, but content strategy as a practice is happening throughout the entire process and so with the U. X. Um the way that we do it at a ho we start with the Discovery and Strategy phase and from there we move into U X.
Um and we have content strategy deliverables that are part of Discovery and then we have content strategy deliverables that come after us, but in between I’m working with the UX designer um in our case, UX designers are doing the site maps and they also designed the templates and often taxonomy and what we’ll do though is they’ll ask for my input if they have a question.
We do frequent kind of internal sharing of our work so we can see like, okay, this is what I’m thinking so far and taking feedback, you know, not only for me as the content strategist, but also from other people on the team, the front end and back end dev’s and project manager.
And so we take a pretty collaborative approach that gets all the different parts of the team together on a fairly consistent basis so that, you know, uh nobody’s ever surprised by the work that’s been done to date because we’re all kind of informed and involved along the way, being able to share your work and ask questions and take feedback is helpful on both sides.
So, um, often when I’m working on a strategy, I’ll ping a UX designer on the project and say, hey, I was thinking about this. Does this make sense? Is this what you were thinking when you designed the template this way
you use the word site map a couple minutes ago and then I a which is information architecture, which is literally sort of the scaffolding of how data will be laid out on the site. Aren’t those the same thing?
Not really. I think site map could be considered part of I a a is information architecture. So in terms of, you know, a site map is certainly part of the information architecture. How are the pages, you know, set up in your site? How do they relate to each other? But also on a page level? On a template level. What, what is sort of the priority or the, the hierarchy of a page and what pieces you have?
You know, we do a lot of, um, we really do component based design. So we’ll have templates and then we’ll have reusable components across templates most of the time. So it’s a lot of, you know, which, which templates on which components are needed on any given template. And is there a hierarchy there or is it flexible? And it depends on the template, depends on the project. Um, so I personally see a site map as a section of a subset of ia, but not the whole thing.
Uh and I I throw that out just as kind of a softball ish kind of question. But it is one of those, like that’s one of those elements that gets in the U. S. And content strategy where a lot of times information architecture in a lot of people’s minds is very limited to just what is the topography of the website, Right? But nothing deeper. Like not inter page stuff. Not like, okay, so how are we going to categorize and organize blog posts?
What are the words we want to use to convey that like, that gets into a lot of that information architecture piece. But it’s that’s much more detailed and granular. But in a lot a lot of folks say we have the site map and that’s an easy thing to confuse and it’s understandable why that happens. But I think it’s important to kind of outline a little bit of that distinction if I am a UX designer uX developer and uh, oh ho is coming in to help us.
And I’m like, thank God we have needed an extra team in here because there’s way too much going on for, you know, my little team or whatever, what questions would you want them to ask you like from that start, like you’re sitting down to start this project and go over things that what is it that you would want them to know and want them to be enquiring about to help, that that process goes smoothly.
I think usually it’s actually the other way around where I’m asking them a lot of questions because I want to understand how they’ve been doing things, what’s been working for them, what hasn’t been, what are their pain points, um what their resources are like in terms of, you know, supporting the site on an ongoing basis.
We don’t we don’t want to build something that um they can’t maintain, we don’t wanna build something that um you know, uses some fancy functionality that it turns out they don’t really need. So it’s a lot of it is, I start with questions I asked, you know, hundreds of questions during a project, trying to understand um the way that they’re working now and where they would like to be in a lot of my job is helping figure out how we close that gap,
let’s shift gears just a hair then. Um because the other side of this is then what the actual developers, what a front end engineer, front end designer um can do while they are coding stuff to support content strategy efforts. What is it that you look for them in terms of like the function and role that they will serve in the project you’re doing.
Like how can they step in because a lot of folks will say, well I’m just the developer, you give me a ticket. I’m just gonna write, I’m, I’m going to build the thing, which can work depending on your workflow, but it can also be very like I, I find it as a front end developer, I am constantly asking the question of why, why am I building this thing?
Why am I doing this piece of code? Because I’m always trying to think about how it’s going to be asked to bend it later. Right? Like requirements change. You know, sometimes my favorite thing is just, you know, trying to anticipate, Well the design had a headline, 60 characters long and it was only one line and I know that the first thing, you know, marketing is going to do is want to put up a page.
It has 110 characters and two lines. What does that do to the design? So I’m trying to think about that, What is it that content that developers can do during that process to make sure that content strategy is empowered to reach their goals. That’s a big question. I know, but we’ll grind it down here.
Um Yeah, well, I think, you know, first of all what you were saying, asking why is absolutely key, making sure they’re clear on the intention of the design and how it, how it’s supposed to be used by real editors who are almost universally not developers. Um, so understanding what it’s supposed to do and thinking about, Okay, well, if I build it this way, will it be achievable for those people to then have it do that?
Um And I think shared documentation is really important here. We use a form of documentation in Ohio that is created by U X, but then reviewed by strategy, product, project management deV and QA we can all way in and ask questions and work towards sort of a shared understanding so that we all agree on what we’re building, what the purpose and the functionality of it all is.
I think also developers, if they can really understand if they’re asking why and they understand what the intention is, they might have a better way to build something that we didn’t think of. So um you know, if we’re trying to make it so editors can do x and we had planned it this way, but you happen to know that if we do it this way, that’s actually gonna be more flexible and easier for them, then. Fantastic. We want to hear that, you know,
mm Getting let’s get a little more specific on that now. So let’s ask, I am the developer and I’m running our content management system or CMS. Mhm. Thinking about like building out a content architecture, what is it there, you know, Because we think about, lets, you know, if we use WordPress for instance, and and we’re needing to build out custom post types and things like that, to support the messaging, to support the timing um you know.
So I’ve got to be thinking about things like well I need to support, you know, a post state most likely uh I need to support, you know, a headline field, but is that headline field, you know, length limited or you know, how should it display different things? What goes into planning and working between a CMS administrator or front end engineer and how you explain, like, here’s what we need out of the CMS, like what should people be on the lookout for their
Yeah, I think um definitely, you know, understanding the intention because that’s going to help inform things like what kind of field it is or whether or not the fields required um understanding how how would this be used, what’s the purpose and what’s the skill level of the people who be actually using the system so that so the editing editing experience is also useful, you know.
There’s that layer of user experience to and that’s I think a layer of user experience that debs have a lot of influence over when I was at Dartmouth web services, we’re building this content repository uh that would allow bidirectional content sharing across hundreds of sites with hundreds of editors. And so the editing interface was a hugely important part of that process because we had, you know, with hundreds of editors.
You have a wide range of skill levels and it needed to work for all of them. So there was a great deal of collaboration between everyone on our team really. Um so me the director, the developers on what is that experience like and how do we make it work and choices that they make in terms of how they build the system, affect how usable the system actually is for those editors
thinking about in terms of what and this could be developer related, but it can also fall into the previous topic on like you X and things like that. Um What pitfalls and challenges do you see like what mistakes do you see people make and whether that is like before engaging in content strategy.
So things that like you realize they’ve been doing that you need to change in order to move forward or and or mistakes that maybe our happen that happened during the process, whether that’s through assumptions or people trying to get ahead of things. What kind of avoidable challenges get mixed up in this process that could be avoided just by you know, sitting down and talking or you know, coordinating those things or thinking ahead a little bit.
What what have you ran into or or had to help people fix?
Mm That’s a good question. I think sometimes the quickest fix or the way that makes most sense to developer is not necessarily the way that’s going to make sense to the end user of the system. So I think when we’ve run into problems in the past it’s it’s been the, you know, well the ticket says do X. And as a developer, I know that this is the fastest easiest way to do as um and uh you know, without sort of stopping and thinking about okay.
But his ex actually going to work next year and the year after that. And is it going to work for, you know, these people who might need it to do A B and C. Not just a. Um So I think, I think sometimes speed, even though we’re all pressed for time and we’re all, you know, doing so many projects at once. Sometimes speed gets in the way of of success.
triangle, right? You can have it fast, good or cheap. So you gotta pick to
the thing the thing that I have the problem that I’ve run into before and I’m not going to name any names here. But it is because a university life cycle or sorry, university calendar has specific dates that are effectively immovable. Um That can also often create time pressures uh that maybe are a bit arbitrary and like inappropriate Like this project needs to be done in two weeks.
But really it’s like a four week project. And so now you have to make all these concessions because it has to happen before uh commencement or whatever. Yeah, before, you know, enrollment day starts,
right? And it probably should take six months. But you know, it’s april and they’re asking you now. Yeah, exactly. I think sometimes too if it’s if you’re responding to what the client is asking for, not what the client needs.
So and I see this happening like lesson redesigns but more in um in kind of like the one off requests or support requests that I remember dealing with when we were in web services where you know someone sends in a support ticket and they say well we need to add this to the website and if you just take it at face value and do exactly what they say.
It might not actually be serving their needs and it might not be doing what they want because you know sometimes they’ve sort of arrived at their own conclusion. Um but if we stop, step back and say why and you know, what are you trying to achieve here? Um and get a few more questions in about the sort of broader context, there might be a better solution that they’re not aware of that actually does what they need better.
But sometimes opening up the can of worms ends up making things better for everyone because you realize it might point out, you know, an opportunity that you realize, oh wait, it’s not just this one site that needs it actually all our sites would benefit from this and it it’s worth taking a little bit more time to make all the sights better.
I’m a big big fan of having a buffer between the client customer or you know, requesting ou on campus and the ticketing system and the buffer can be either a process or procedure or it can be a human. Um It can be anything, but I have not ever had good experiences when the stakeholders are writing tickets directly because of that thing you just mentioned, it always leads to a bad time.
Yeah. And sometimes too, there might be more going on behind the scenes that the client isn’t aware of, so if they, you know, ask for X to happen and they don’t know that X, y and Z are actually coming down the road and it’s gonna be even better for them.
Um That’s I think, you know, and again, it ties into what you were saying about calendars and expediency and this need to have this right now and trying to sort of paint the bigger picture and say, well, if you can if you can hold off a little bit longer or maybe here’s a temporary fix that we can do with what you currently have, Maybe, you know, maybe you don’t need a new component for this.
Maybe we can achieve this at least in the short term with one of your existing components, which is again, where sometimes sometimes what appears to be a development requests could actually be solved through some content strategy help. And you can, you know, your content strategist can save the developers sometime um by saying actually if you use this this way, maybe they don’t need to do coat a whole new thing for you?
Uh that loops me around in the exact same question I asked about you X which is what what questions do you want developers to be asking? The content strategist when you’re sitting down and doing these projects?
I think at least the way that I practice content strategy where a lot of it ties into governance and user experience for editors, how is this meant to be used? And will people be able to use it? And what might be holding people back from being able to do this successfully? You know, do we have the right pieces here? Did these labels, are these labels going to make sense to the site editor? Do we need to add help? Text?
Um thinking about that experience and understanding, you know, what can I do as a developer that’s going to help that end product. And um I think probably because in web services we were supporting hundreds of sight editors um and as the content strategist and uX team leader, I was involved with training, so I had a lot of direct contact with them.
I’m always thinking about, well, okay, you know, what’s Susan in the english department going to think when she sees this and is it going to work and is she going to be able to do her job easily and not have to put in a support ticket? Because we’ve made it too complicated.
Do you find that when you’re in charge of the content strategy, like do you define strategic goals for a period of time? Would say a year or five years or something? And then whenever content comes in, do you sort of like put it against the razor of which strategic goals is this, is this contributing to?
Definitely? That’s that’s a key part of it is understanding, you know, what your goals are and what your key messages are and you know, what, what content is supporting each of those and if you have content that’s not supporting any of them, why is it there? Yeah, and that comes through a lot, especially when we talk about storytelling, um and you know, occasionally there are going to be stories that that don’t necessarily support any of those.
But you have to publish them for sort of political, organizational reasons, but as much as possible, you know, making sure that your content, whether it’s stories or whether it’s, you know, content on landing pages, that it is telling the right story, that it’s giving the right message and that it aligns with what the university is trying to do.
And I think where content strategy ends up having the biggest impact in the way that we do it at OHO, is that because it tends to come after the wire frames are confirmed often, what I’m trying to do in the content strategy is reiterate how the wire frames are based on the overall project strategy and give some really good actionable advice and then how to make the best use of those wire frames.
How to make sure that when you actually go in there and start adding content to your site and then over time as you continue to add or hopefully remove content, I’m a big fan of removing content that you don’t need any more.
Yes. Uh then then making sure that, you know, you’re really taking advantage when I work on mostly dribble sites. And one thing I’ve seen a lot when um an organization first moved into triple is that they’re often not taking full advantage of what the opportunities are in trouble and so they’re not using, you know, um they’re not using paragraphs or different components, they’re not using reusable content types.
They’re just kind of um they’ve got the one body text where they’re putting everything and that’s it. And you know, they say, oh well we’ve been in trouble for a year or two years now and it’s like you have, but you’re really not um leveraging it the way that you can you’re not taking full advantage. And so right, you know, we build them wire frames that are more component base that provides sort of more flexibility and control in terms of layout and give that, you know, control to cite editors and then in the content strategy.
I’m trying to kind of then build on that design and say, okay, given that you have these components, how do you use them? And what are, you know, what are the different cases or different goals that you might use different sets for and what are the different things you need to take into consideration when you’re preparing your content, you know?
So that I think often people are starting their content in, you know, a google doc or a word doc and they type a lot of words and um a part of a big part of what I end up doing is is trying to get people to think in chunks instead of just a text based documents and thinking, you know from the beginning when you’re creating your content about what your options are and what different ways you can express that content and then creating content that fits those pieces?
It’s difficult especially in higher ed where I mean especially from faculty and for people who have written contributed to journals where you want to have a lot of like fleshy content and on the web, it’s the opposite, like brevity is the most important importance. And so it’s a completely different paradigm for how you’re writing and like what is prioritized and emphasized,
I have a question for you, you kind of danced around this a little bit in your opinion. Should the wire frames come before or after. The content strategy is at least roughed out,
Like should the wire frames be
informed by content strategy or vice versa?
Both, it’s a loop, it’s the site getting its tail. You know, you need to have some sense of content strategy going into the wire frames, so you’re what you’re creating makes sense for the content that they’ll eventually publish with it and then it comes back to that with, okay, now you’ve got these wire frames, how do you actually use them? So it’s like
you’re an iterative process, kind of bouncing back and forth and like building them up as you’re going along. Okay,
That’s where I think you’ll hear folks use that word agile, right? A lot. Agile is all about cycles. And everybody will tell you we do agile, it’s just a little different, right? Everybody modifies actual to meet their needs. But the idea is that you’re constantly moving, you’re constantly learning iterating and so that you’re not trying to get to the finished thing immediately.
You’ll do some wire framing, you’ll talk to some people, you’ll do some testing, then you’ll refine those things and then you’ll reach a point where design will start based on that, but you may still also iterate, the wire frames won’t necessarily lock in. This can be very frustrating for designers and developers certainly, but it is sort of the nature of the process and over time, the wire frames while they may not lock in, they do finally sort of, you know, they do become concrete, you know
in that way and so you do move forward. It’s not like the whole paradigm will shift underneath you, so to speak.
I just want to add that. I think that’s why collaboration is so important because it, even though, you know, you might have specialists working on a project that they’re not working sort of in their own little silo and then going, here you go, I did my piece.
Now, you do your piece. You know, that it needs to be um really collaborative and so that there are no sort of surprises when it gets to, you know, you’re age of the project that you have been informed and consulted throughout. And so you’re all kind of working as a team throughout the project.
Mm Let’s end on this. I’m a developer, I’m a designer, I’m somebody who cares very much about making sure our messaging meshes with the things I’m building and I want to help out anywhere I can what kind of tools should I be on the lookout for? Should I be learning or reaching out to or if I know we’re bringing somebody in to help with this.
You know, what what are tools I should learn so that I can integrate with the work they’re going to bring in whether that’s because we we started, you know, this whole conversation off by kind of talking about the how how constant strategy helps with the how what when where why conversation, you know, whether that’s calendars, organization systems uh like content management systems for content um things like that.
What what kind of tools should I be and whether that’s uh general classes of things or specific tools that you just find very helpful, what would you suggest to folks
honestly every content. So I just I know uses a ton of spreadsheets so uh that you know, I think tools um I think because we’re always trying to organized large complex amounts of information and there are different ways to do it, but um you know, if there’s a lot of different factors then being able to put things into columns and rows can can help, it’s another way to look at things that comes off the page.
Um and then of course you can get into pivot tables and stuff and this is where you know, you can get into the data side of content strategy. I’m always interested in things like okay if we’ve identified these key brand messages and we’re creating content based on these brand messages, then going back to that completing the cycle where you know the editorial planning cycle where we don’t just plan, create, publish, distribute, collect data.
We then close the circle by using that data and form the next planning session. Um and so being able to look at things like okay, we’ve been using, you know, these tags in our story taxonomy? How do the tags if we were to take our data from google analytics and look at our engagement data on the stories and then split it up by taxonomy like where are the patterns, what what is really working for people?
What’s not working for people or you know, we identified these three key messages and It turns out that 90% of our stories about two of them were kind of neglecting one of the messages, what can we do about that?
So I think um well you know, content is often about the words, I think a lot of content strategists take a really can can take kind of a nerdy data approach to thinking about the words beyond that I actually don’t necessarily have any tools to recommend because I think, you know it’s always about goals before tools and so as long as you’re in agreement or in alignment on what you’re trying to do.
Then there could be any number of tools that work that help you get to that spot to that goal point, you know,
any last think just golden nugget, what would you what would you tell that aspiring developer designer like what’s the one thing you want them to know about content strategy that they may not realize
um that you know, it can be helpful for you and vice versa and getting to know your content strategist and um asking them questions and answering their questions can really pay off, you know I have learned so much from developers and in my first content strategy role at Dartmouth, I was really lucky to work with developers who took the time to explain things to me.
Like if I found a bug when I was putting content to a site and I told them they would just say okay thanks, we’ve got it, they would start looking at the code right then and show me and explain what they were doing.
Where they were looking why they were looking there and I learned so much from that and then over time it helped them to because instead of just bringing them bugs I could also bring them possible reasons for the bugs because I understood the system better and I understood um you know what some of the potential problems might be, it gave me a much better understanding of how to build websites beyond the words.
And um I’m really grateful for that and that collaboration was fantastic and it’s it’s part of what I love about the web and building websites is that it’s it’s not just writing, you know I did years of just writing and instead being able to collaborate with other creative people is really rewarding for me.
A collaboration is also kind of what brings us back together for things like our new favorite catch phrase which is kind design, kind design doesn’t just involve the people you build for, it can include the people you build with um and making sure that, you know, yeah, you’re you’re helping out and lending that hand because when we all understand these concepts better, it makes us all better at our jobs.
It makes us all, you know it we intermingle much easier and and solve problems much better. Well our work here is almost done. I’m gonna give you one second, get yourself a drink of water, sit back, take a breath and we’ll be right back
sarah, thank you so much for taking your time this evening. I hope after this you go find like a nice cold part of your refrigerator to stick your head into to alleviate some of that Vermont heat. That notorious Vermont heat. Uh but I want to take one second and give you the microphone. Uh tell everybody where they can find you what you got going on or anything at all else that you want them to know about.
Sure you can find me on linkedin or I’m on twitter at choice of pies. And um one thing you should know is that, you know, as as Michael mentioned, I work at OHO Interactive, it’s a web and digital marketing company specializing in higher ed. But we also do work in other verticals like nonprofits and health care and we are hiring, we have a lot of open positions right now. So please go to Soho dot com. It’s O H O dot com and check out our job listings because it’s a great place to work and we’d love to have you.
I just speaking to that when I worked at the university previously we did work with a hoe and they were great so seconding that
well as a client twice before I joined the team. So I really enjoyed working with. Oh ho
I’ve never collaborated with a hoe but I know plenty of the people who were there that you and I both know a whole bunch of people. I will vouch for the people. So that’s that’s something
I think I
it. Yeah it’s got stickers all over it. But
this is yes, that’s going back a while. That’s one of the Yes.
Yeah. I think this is from maybe a PS you elements or one of those maybe hide web. Remember which 1?
I have a few
of them though.
I’ve got the
full set of soho ah the cards against humanity. Higher edition. That
colleges against insanity. Yes. I ran off
screen to grab mine.
That’s awesome. After you check out choice of pies which is an excellent twitter name. Uh You should come and see us at twitter and facebook dot com. So I struck a new X. Or instagram dot com. So I struck a new X. Podcast and come talk with us at dot com slash discord.
Just remember that just because you may be a designer because you may be a developer. The work you do does not stop at the code you commit and or or the designs that you save. Um the content part of the work we do is incredibly important because the sites we build are made for people. People come to us to consume whether it’s our products are information or learn about us. And so that work you do is very important to empowering that message. And how well it comes across depends entirely on whether or not you keep your personas close, but your users closer. Bye bye