Sara Wachter-Boettcher talks about structuring content, and – more importantly – how to help people and organizations create and manage it.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher runs Rare Union, a Philly-based content strategy and user experience consultancy. She is the author of Content Everywhere (2012, Rosenfeld Media) and the co-author, with Eric Meyer, of Design for Real Life (2016, A Book Apart). Her latest book is Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech (W.W. Norton, 2017).
Here’s the video version of our conversation:
This current version is not a word-for-word transcript, just my raw notes from my first listen-through of our conversation.
1:00 Sara’s path from journalism to agency where she was first “web writer” – they already had SEO people, design people – she was first to organize content there – working across departments and discplines – natural progression
first IDed herself as “content strategist” somewhere between the time she read Rachel Lovinger’s Philosopy of Data and Kristina Halvorson’s The Discipline of Content Strategy around 2008 – a bit of a time lag between when she did the work and when IDed as a CS
4:00 more on her transition – journalism->CS – tech side: never considered herself a techie – a natural ability to get basic understanding of DBes, workflows, etc.
6:10 – how deep on tech – knows HTML – can mess up CSS, but really at strategic consulting level, so not too much on implementation
7:30 – getting writers to think differently about content creation
8:50 Content Everywhere published 5 years ago this month – crux = need our content to go a lot of different places – APIs, mobile, etc. – one set of content that can go many places – responsive design is important – need cleanly structured, well-organized content
10:30 how hard it is to repurpose a “page” of content into other uses – product, blog, white papers – responsive design patterns,
12:15 – transition to this new medium – Karen McGrane on blobs vs. chunks
takes time from blobs to chunks – often driven by new CMS – often tough, lots of old possible chunks embedded in those old blobs – lots of asking, “why does that chunk actually matter?” teaser eg call to action so it needs compelling message – often find that orgs have design pattern that don’t necessarily mean anything – have a teaser but is content communicating anything important? and then what does it look like how is structured
16:45 – working with/helping writers – paired writing, templates, guidance and tools and nudges in authoring interface itself – as well as overall authoring workflow, order of operations, etc. in complex systems
18:30 authoring experience, help them – maybe link to or embed good example – validation (char limits, eg 100-300 or 200-250?), until recently this wasn’t a job.
20:30 AI form validation? probably better to focus on human/organizational stuff – basic improvements in tooling can go a long way
21:30 “We have not fixed content problems because content problems are fundamentally people problems.”
22:00 behaviorl change at org level and ind level – big long term shift – look for viable improvements now – don’t bite off more than you can chew –
23:00 being strategic about how much to do and when
25:20 – not a huge amount of implementation – break change down to make it – esp. showing people how their existing skills set fit in new environment
26:45 – “my perfect system” of structured content wrecked by real life – can say they wrecked it, dammit! or revisit with them & reiterate intent – let go of perfection
28:45 – agile vs structured content eg – a “false tension” any kind of publishing system will have consistency around types of content and ensuing patterns (how-tos, tip sheet, checklists, etc) – agile works well when in process of figuring out what’s actually important to your users – improve models over time – but also lots of efficiency to be gained by not having a blank slate every time a content creator sits down to create – use existing
32:00 – Q: content structure libraries?
Polaris ? Shopify has good stuff. some internal examples in orgs she has worked with – another example, say org has 15 different content similar content types, each of which has a short description – can that just be one block that works across
34:00 amuse yourself watching me try to put a question together
34:45 friend at Vox who works on their CMS – SB Nation “community” relationships with authors – combo of support, UX, product management – anecdote about pulling people to new system so effectively that users didn’t even notice when prior version was silently removed
37:00 new CS role in organizations – her friend at Vox is now a director-level content strategist – she had demonstrated how valuable that role was, so company elevated it – connection point between tool users, people using it,
39:40 – dealing with bias, encouraging inclusion – “We’ve got all of these users who we like to think we understand, but we actually don’t know that much about. They’re going through almost anything you can imagine, and they’re trying to access your content or your tools in almost any scenario you can imagine. We really don’t know when somebody might be using our product and how diverse those people are. It really speaks to the need to have content that’s going to work for people who are using almost any kind of device, and people who are in a hurry and need to be able to skim, and also making sure that we’re designing things that are inclusive to people and that they work across all kinds of abilities and backgrounds, and that we’re thinking about a really broad range of people in the decisions that we’re making.”