Category: Uncategorized

Cobbling meaning and conversation

The internet is really a vast sea of information, where each URL, each blog post, each highlight, is a lonely island in the ocean. I’m most interested in how we can improve the way we create and document connections among disparate bits of information, such as news pieces, long-form articles, blog posts, comments, photographs, highlights, and tweets. I’m most interested in how all these things taken together, with annotation, can create new meaning, and start new conversations. No good tools exist for this yet. We have text files, Evernote files, Simplenote files, but those are inaccessible to others, hidden away in the ether an on our hard drives. We can collect these items on blogs, though our current tools make it difficult to annotate in a meaningful, semantic, public way. Comment threading is just a start, but not suited to this larger purpose. I see this as the an important challenge the internet needs to solve.

On Interface Design is Copywriting

In his post, Interface Design is Copywriting, Joshua Porter says:

I humbly submit that there is no single element more important to your interface than the copywriting. There is nothing that makes or breaks a positive experience more than the simple set of words that you choose to communicate with. In a world in which we have to simplify as much as possible, nothing matters more than the small vocabulary you end up with in your final work.

Amen to that.

ALA 332: Designing Fun and Web Governance

Designing Fun by Debra Levin Gelman

How do you define fun on the web? Fun means different things to different people. Debra Levin Gelman says that to create fun, we need to allow users to create, play, and explore. Learn how to help your client define fun, rank its importance on their site, and user test it to create a delightful experience, regardless of whether you’re designing for suits and ties or the sandbox crowd. Read Designing Fun by Debra Levin Gelman.

Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change

Shipping is easy, making real change is hard. To do meaningful web work, we need to educate clients on how their websites influence their business and the legal, regulatory, brand, and financial risks they face without strong web governance. Learn why web governance is important to us as web professionals and how to influence your clients to think carefully about how to align their websites to their business strategy. Read
Web Governance: Becoming an Agent of Change by Jonathan Kahn.

Great service during downtime: 37Signals

Yesterday morning, while writing blurbs and snapshots for the upcoming issue of A List Apart, I needed to look up a fact in Basecamp. (We’ve used Basecamp, 37Signals’ project management application, to manage each issue as long as I can remember.) Typically, uptime is fantastic. Uptime is so good, that when I experienced a blip yesterday, I assumed my internet connection was experiencing difficulty.

A quick Twitter search revealed I was not alone; Basecamp was indeed down. I tweeted the fact that the downtime was unusual. Note that my tweet is statement, sans @reply to 37Signals. Within nine minutes, I received an @reply from 37Signals’ twitter account, with an apology for the downtime and a link I could follow to keep up on the situation. They took the extra step to search Twitter for mentions about the problem and took the extra effort to reply my mention of the downtime. High five!

Things will go wrong. It’s what you do when thing go wrong—how you handle it—that sets your customer service apart from your competitors.

They fixed the problem within an hour. Shortly after, I received another personal @reply from 37Signals to let me know all was well and to apologize for the inconvenience:

So. Nicely. Done.

Cory Doctorow on Writing

To prepare for writing a book on autism, Steve Silberman asked 23 writers for their best writing advice. I especially love what Cory Doctorow had to say:

Cory Doctorow
Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

  1. Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.
    Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
  2. Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
  3. Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.
  4. Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

Message Matters: Margot Bloomstein Confab 2011

Here are my notes from Margot Bloomstein‘s talk at Confab, 2011.

First we need to step back and look at the strategy part of Content Strategy. Content Strategy is a broad practice. That said, it’s important to understand what a message architecture is, the value it offers, how to sell it, and how to create one. 

First things first. You must ask yourself:

  • What do we need to communicate?
  • Why are we doing this?

These are critical questions to ask. If we don’t know why, or what we need to communicate, how will you know if you have succeeded?

Before the content audit, before you establish the CEO’s new blog, you need to establish your message architecture. Message architecture is the bacon in the project.

What’s a message architecture?

A message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals that reflect a common vocabulary. It’s the qualities you want to convey, not the points that you need to make. It’s made up of concrete, shared terminology, not abstract concepts. Words are valuable, but meaningless without context and priority. 

How to create a message architecture

Start with a card sorting exercise. Card sorting:

  • Engages people in a tangible, hands-on way
  • Encourages debate and conversation
  • Identifies points of disagreement
  • Prevents seagulling (swoopin’ and poopin’)
  • Forces prioritization
  • Encourages ownership and investment

The ideal number of participants is four-seven stakeholders.

Step one


  • Who we are
  • Who we’d like to be
  • Who we’re not

Set up each category as a column heading, by laying them on the table.

Divvy up cards among participants so that everyone gets to play. Each card has one adjective. Examples are: formal, fun, broad, simple, premium, professional, serious, traditional, cheeky, etc. As you ask participants to use their cards to describe “who we are,” watch for hesitation. Ask participants to tell you more about how they made decisions. 

Step two

Now that we have who we are, we need to look at who we’d like to be. Have participants move cards to the “who we’d like to be” column. Remove the remaining cards form the table. 

Step three

Now it’s time to prioritize each element under the “who’d we like to be column.” We’re prioritizing these ideals as goals to help to tell the story of our aspirations. 

What group is most important to communicate? What’s second-most important? These are the terms that describe our brand. Content Strategy is partly psychology, in that you often need to ask, “tell me more about that, what do you mean,” etc. Through this process, we help the client to own their own brand and help them to commit to it. The client needs to be invested in the transition to the new website. This process helps them to embrace it. We do it this way because words are cheaper than comps. Mood boards, etc. are expensive. 

How can you justify this activity? The money that your design team will save in early rounds of creative revisions helps the message architecture process to pay for itself. 

An example:’s message architecture:


  • Witty and fun
  • Young without being childish

Customer oriented and responsive

  • Approachable, friendly
  • Championing and empowering


  • Accessible’s use of language, typography, and design all reflect their message architecture. You can also see it in their Twitter stream. Use those 140 characters to maintain your brand, too. Their message architecture also comes through in the language they use in customer email.

These terms are different from brand values and vision statements. In brand values, there are no priorities. Vision statements can be inspiring, but they aren’t useful for creating a message architecture. 

So where to from here? Head straight to the content audit. Measure content quality against the aspirational attributes in the message architecture. 

When people say, “We need our CEO to blog!” “We need the Twitters,” you can go back to the message architecture to analyze how new tactics measure up against it. As the design process is continuing, and someone decides that the site has got to be aqua, if aqua doesn’t match the message architecture, then aqua has no place on your site.

Prioritize your features against these high-level communication goals. Apply the message architecture to editorial style guidelines to determine diction, sentence structure, formality, etc. 

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.