What Are Words For? Erika Hall: Confab 2011

Here are my notes from Erika Hall’s talk from Confab, 2011.

Erika Hall cofounded Mule Design with Mike Monteiro.

We’re going to talk about the importance of working together across disciplines. We’re going to look at ways to think critically about content online. Everyone in this room wants to do the best work possible and we need to do that together. To do that, we need to be more intentional, critical, and effective, which creates a nifty acronym: ICE.

This talk is three-quarters manifesto / a call to arms, and 25% tools.

Erika has been working on the internet since 1995. She was there in 1998; they cared about it back in 1998. Things have changed a lot since 1998, as evidenced by Kindle, Twitter, and iPads. To be able to make things work in the future, we need to work together.

Let Go / Take Charge / Work Together

We’re highly critical, we’re fiercely loyal, we hug clients to have them do the right thing.

Content Strategy’s attractive baggage

  • The first piece of baggage is that content is text. Content isn’t just text.
  • The second piece of baggage is that anyone can write.
  • The third piece of baggage is that the web is a publication.

Any complex, worthwhile endeavor requires workflow.

Content creation = benign, pink sludge.

Don’t get mired in the benign, pink goo. Get specific! Content creation is:

  • Writing
  • Composing
  • Illustrating
  • Filming
  • Commenting
  • Curation
  • Editing

Consider the term content consumption. Remember, no pink goo! Get specific! Content consumption is:

  • Reading
  • Viewing
  • Watching
  • Listening

Be specific:
— William Strunk

Button text are words of power. They are design choices. Be mindful of them.

The writer’s tool = a Bic for $3.99
The designer’s tool = Adobe Creative Suite for $1,299.95

Sometimes people over-identify the person with the tool. Anyone who works with words should get the respect they deserve. Expect them to be involved in the research, in the business objectives.

People rarely read word for word. They scan.

—Jakob Nielsen

This is often translated to: people don’t read on the web, which is translated to words don’t have value.

The Idiocracy (2006)

A design is superior if we can communicate without words. You cannot use an icon to express something conceptually complex. You need words. We have to get back to the place where we understand that words have value and power. Everyone loves books and publishing. There’s a visceral attachment to books. Publishing has a certain sense of finality, you bind those thoughts and send them away. They’re not shareable.

Content Strategy is interconnected and complex, and we don’t even have all the words to describe this ecosystem (oops, bad word) yet.

Online text is not final—it’s easy to change it. You need to have a set of guiding principles in line with your business goals to help you with those changes.

You know the old writing tip, murder your darlings. But consider this in terms of murdering your long-held beliefs about publishing and the status quo. Businesses want people to make things for free, but they can’t get that happening unless they understand certain things about human nature.

There’s something puzzling and difficult about a large organization that prevents it from making great content. Great content and great experience are made by small teams, it seems, for example, Mailchimp.

Content strategists are alone in the wasteland! Myth busted: everyone has to fight to help people understand their value. Suck it up, content buttercup! Things are tough all over.

No other part of a UX project necessarily involves the implementation of long-term organizational practices.

—Erin Kissane

We have to think about all the ways that an organization must change when we change content. It’s been said that content is a thing that we have to tend, to nurture, to mind. Content is not this pink goo, it’s not something we need to tend, or massage like Kobe beef.

Taking charge

How do we identify and articulate our value so that we’re not at the mercy of all these extraneous forces? Consider Don Draper. (If you don’t know Mad Men, I have nothing to say to you.) Don Draper is a storyteller. He finds the value in the product or service and helps the organization to understand it. You have to find the kernel of value. We say this to clients all the time: “We see things that you’re doing that are great, but you’re doing a crap job of explaining it.” We need to find the story in each organization.

Consider the Disney org chart from 1943. Walt is at the top and the story is next in line. Everyone reports to the story, and then to Walt. Without business goals you’re shooting randomly around the fleeing stage coach.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity:

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

—George Orwell

Working together

Everything starts from WHY? Why are we doing this? We need to understand why we’re doing something at the very highest level. Why are we doing this at all? That will help us to answer every other question.

  • Purpose: what is the goal?
  • Process: how is it done? Once you know the why, then you can identify the process.
  • Problems: what are the problems? What’s going to get in our way?
  • Practice: what do you bring to it?

Meet the meerkat

The meerkat lives in Africa. Everyone has seen the Lion King, right? Meerkats display altruistic behavior. At all times, there is one meerkat scanning the horizon for danger. BE THE MEERKAT.

Scan the horizon; SCOPE CREEP!

Scan the horizon: WAFFLING decision makers. Projects are just a series of decisions. Be clear on who’s doing what. That helps people to make decisions.

Scan the horizon: STRATEGY SHIFT

If the strategy changes, Stop working. Whatever you’ve got won’t work, because you have no clarity. Do not produce anything unless you know what your goals are.

Common pitfalls

  1. Poorly defined goals.
  2. Lack of process (who’s doing what).
  3. Subjectivity (not being clear on why you’re doing what you’re doing).
  4. If the why is to make the CEO happy, then you’re on the wrong project.

You’re part of a system. Get the principles right.

Strategy is leadership: Don Draper. Peggy Olson. Be them.

What content means and who should be handling that comes from the why.

5/12/11: Update
Here are Erika’s thoughts on her preso and her slides.

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