Writing to be read… by a screen reader

Screen readers? What?

If you’ve heard anything about web accessibility, you’ve probably heard of screen readers – devices that allow blind or vision-disabled people to access websites by listening to a speech synthesizer or, in some cases, via a braille display. There are a number of different screen readers; this recent review of three popular screen readers is interesting – the comments in particular illustrate that “accessibility” is different for different users with different needs, an important thing to keep in mind.

If you’ve never seen a screen reader in use, by the way, there are some good videos out there. I like the one embedded below; using JAWS – one of the more popular screen readers – the narrator goes through the BBC website and shows you how it works. Pay particular attention to how the screen reader handles links and headings, and you’ll understand why we always say that you should use heading tags when your page has sections rather than just making the section title bold and why we always say that your links should be semantically meaningful rather than just saying “click here.”

WebAIM, a great source for web accessibility information in general, has an extensive overview of how screen readers work and how to design for them. One of the most important points they make is that, while sighted users tend to quickly scan the entire screen and focus on what stands out as looking important to them, screen readers present content in a linear fashion. (Another “what it’s like to use a screen reader” video I found mentions that in another context: if a student receives a lengthy email from an instructor, they  have to go through the entire email and remember what they have to do or respond to once they’re finished, or even literally take notes on the email as they listen – they can’t just scan the email or easily go back and forth between the email and the response they are composing.)

But I’m not a web designer. Should I care?

What does this mean for those of us who don’t design entire websites, but who do write and publish content on the web? Well, for one thing, a giant block of text is going to be a huge pain for someone using a screen reader. Since they can’t quickly scan to figure out what the most important points are, they are going to have to sit and listen to the entire block of text. It would be much easier for these users to break up your content into smaller portions, using heading tags to separate them.

You’re not breaking it up at random, of course – more than just controlling font size and weight (for sighted readers), heading tags describe how your content is structured. Think of how an outline works – you have section I, and below that sub-sections A, B, C – then section II, and so on. Headings work the same way. H1 is generally your title, then H2, then on down as far as H4 if your content is that complex – then back to another H2, and so on. Or, think about a book with sections and chapters – or even feature story in the newspaper, which may have a headline and multiple sections, each with its own smaller title or headline.

This post, for example, uses heading tags instead of just rambling on and on nonstop. Ta-da!

Great news: Structuring your content using these semantically meaningful, well-organized heading tags also makes it easier for sighted users to scan your page and quickly spot the content they are looking for.

Accessibility benefits everyone.

This is a recurring theme that you find once you start learning about accessibility: many of the measures you take to make your website usable for disabled users are actually usability improvements for most of your users. This is true of accessibility features in the offline world, too – the button that lets someone using a wheelchair open a door is also helpful for a non-disabled (I love the term “temporarily able-bodied“) person whose arms are full of packages.

"Accessible" painted on pavement
flickr: Jonathan Moore CC BY-NC 2.0

The thoughtful folks over at GOV.UK (run by the Government Digital Service, the group responsible for designing digital services for the UK government) recently published a great post, “How to create content that works well with screen readers.” They don’t offer a bulleted to-do list, but rather discuss how screen readers work and some of the potential implications for writers of web content. For example, it’s useful to think about how screen readers interpret acronyms. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this article concludes that writing content that works well for everyone will benefit screen reader users. Proofreading your content to make sure words are spelled correctly and using consistent standards for how you deploy acronyms and abbreviations, for example, will benefit everyone.

Of course, blind and vision-disabled users aren’t the only people with disabilities who use the web. People with color-blindness, deaf or hard-of-hearing people, people with limited fine motor control or who have difficulty using a mouse, and people with cognitive or memory disabilities can all have a better experience on the web if content is thoughtfully designed.

Captioning your videos will make them usable not only by deaf users but also by those who may want to watch your video in a public place but don’t have a pair of headphones handy. Plain language helps dyslexic users, those for whom English is a second language, and people who are in a hurry. And breaking up those intimidatingly huge blocks of text into more manageable chunks helps pretty much everybody. Making your web content accessible isn’t about providing “special” access to a few users – it’s about providing good access to ALL users, including those with disabilities, while remembering that for some users it means the difference between being able to access your content and being told “no, this content is not for you.” (Besides being a violation of the ADA, that’s just plain rude.)

Want to learn more?

If you find yourself intrigued by these issues, WebAIM’s Introduction to Web Accessibility is a great place to start. For IU-specific accessibility information and some great resources to help you create accessible content, visit Accessibility at IU. The UITS Assistive Technology & Accessibility Center, conveniently located in the Wells Library, has tremendous expertise in web accessibility and is available for consultations, trainings, and presentations.  And we in DUX are always happy to answer – or find an answer to – any specific questions you might have!

Oops, We Did It Again: Enduring Web Design Mistakes from NN/g

Recently the Nielsen/Norman Group (NN/g) posted a piece on Top Ten Enduring Web-Design Mistakes. They’ve been identifying top mistakes in web design since 1996. This year’s report finds many of the same problems that have been persistent over time.

original image linked via URL
dribbble.com | 404 Page Not Found | Pinterest: Ducan Nguyen (link to original by clicking on image)

I’ve picked a few from the list to highlight in brief, but I recommend you take a few minutes & have a look at the full article. What’s interesting to me is that although this is a list about design problems, at its most basic level it’s a list of content problems: where is the content, what words do we use for labels, repetitive content, siloed content, circuitious content.

  • Unexpected Locations for Content

    “When the site structure doesn’t match the users’ mental models of how information should be organized, people are unable to locate what they need.”
    I think libraries have been having this conversation on and off for some time. Where does it make sense for us to integrate search or design elements that are commonly experienced in the commercial web? If we can’t, or don’t feel we should, how do we build bridges and provide the necessary information and context?

  • Competing Links and Categories

    “When users can’t clearly distinguish between similar navigational categories or links, they struggle to find the right path to content… If multiple sections or pages could address a specific information need, users must explore each or make their best guess.”
    This is why Anne & I send so many polite little notes about small tweaks we’ve made to page titles, and why we encourage you to search within our own site as you are creating new content to see what content already exists & to be able to write unique and informational page/news/event titles.

  • Islands of Information

    “Some sites offer small bits of information scattered around the site, with little or no connection between them. When users find one such island of information without links to other related information, they have no reason to think that another area of the site offers supplementary material… Consider why information is scattered throughout the site, consolidate it as appropriate, and pick the best spot for it.”
    We’ve made great strides toward this kind of positive consolidation since we migrated to Drupal in 2014 – we migrated approximately 8500 pages and right now we have about 900 basic pages (plus resources, news/exhibits/events items, subject posts, user profile pages, etc). Across all our content types I estimate that we have approximately 2500 ‘objects’ right now, so that means we’ve made good progress toward pruning and updating our site.

  • Repetitive Links

    “Even if users can determine the right site location for their information needs, they can still be stymied by unexpected or lengthy workflows. Users should get closer to the information goal as they click through pages. Teams sometimes build pages in isolation and do not consider the route to the content they’ve created.”
    The example used in the article was of the NYC.gov site: “Users were frustrated when they selected a link labeled Find a Firehouse only to have to select the differently spelled Find a fire house link on the next page.” Oof. Yes, we do this too, and we are ever on the lookout for this sort of thing. And let’s not even talk about how many clicks it can take to finally get to the full text.

That’s it for now, folks! TGIF and all that stuff. Until next time …

Microcopy Matters!

Can one word change user experience on your website, for better or worse? YES. Think about the labels you experience on websites – and in the non-web world – every day. Most of them are just a word or two, and yet you rely on those words to give you confidence that you know what is going to happen if you take a particular action.

A real world example that has been bugging me for years: The gas station closest to my house has instructions on the gas pumps. After you swipe your credit card, it says to “push start.” THERE IS NO “START.” NOWHERE is there anything that says “START.” There is, however, a button that says “PUSH.” Sure, I can figure out that I’m supposed to push that button, but why on earth not use the word that actually matches up to what you’re looking for? What if someone who isn’t fluent in English tries to use the gas pump? Or, for that matter, a nit-picky word-nerd? Insert “banging head against wall” emoji here. (The more you learn about UX, the more stuff like this drives you crazy… it ain’t pretty, folks.) A good rule of thumb, by the way, is to use a label that relates to “what’s going to happen if you take this action” as opposed to “the method by which you take the action” – “submit request” is a much better label for a button on your website than “click.” (If your user is submitting a request, that is.)

Windows 95 "Start" menu including "Shut Down" option
Just try explaining this to my mom.

And speaking of “start,” did anyone else attempt to do tech support for less computer-literate coworkers or relatives in the days of Windows 95? “Okay, now to shut down your computer, click the Start button.” WHO COMES UP WITH THIS? THIS DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE! “To stop the thing, click on the thing that starts the thing.” WHAT. And then, when Microsoft did away with the “Start” label and just offered a round buttony thing that does all the things, everyone still called it a “start button” and then they complained when it went away in later versions of Windows – but that’s another story.

On a more local note, a few years ago our department did a little bit of lightweight user testing on some website labels we were considering. We were about to roll out new-and-improved subject pages that would include lists of databases, and we were trying to decide what to call a short list of databases that were the most generally useful within a subject. Start here? Best bets? Core databases? Research starters? Be like Google and call it “I’m feeling lucky”?

I personally thought “best bets” would be a great label. Short, snappy, suggests that you might want to try these first if you’re floundering, without necessarily tying them to a particular point within the research process (you might also find them useful when you’re in the middle of things). Boy, was I wrong. Thank goodness our user testing involved asking some international students, because “best bets” was all but meaningless to many of them. Idiom, people! Plus, who wants to be gambling if they’re using a library website, anyway? (We ended up using “Start here.”)

On a slight tangent: What even is a “database”? What do you call those things? Subscription electronic resources? Library research tools? I’ve heard students call them “specialized search engines” which is technically not accurate, but understanding how our users think about things helps us use friendlier language sometimes. The same brief user interviews that saved us from “best bets” told us that the word “resources,” within the context of a library website, more or less made sense to people. I’ve never been confident that any label we can come up with for those things will make sense to everyone… but you gotta use something. (If you work on a library website, and you’ve come up with a great label that works well for your users, let me know, eh?)

And don’t get me started on “Useful Links.” The day I retire, I’m gonna go through and change all those labels to “Useless Clicky Things,” which is just about as meaningful.   …Okay, I’m not. But I’m sure gonna think about it.

More recently, as we were about to go live with a totally redesigned search box that was much more prominent on the Libraries’ home page, we had a long conversation about how to label it. We wanted something welcoming, something that would put the search box in context so you feel like you know how to use it. We thought about “What are you searching for in the library?” Well, there’s a saying that “only librarians like to search – everyone else wants to FIND.” (You know it’s true!) And we didn’t want to set a tone of “you’re going to be searching… and searching… and searching.” Eventually, and after some discussion of the relative merits of “what do you want to find” versus “what would you like to find,” we went with “What would you like to find at the library today?” And we also put “Search…” in the box for those who might be looking for that particular word out of habit.

Search box on the Libraries' website

Which brings me to a fascinating article I just read. The very smart folks who run the GOV.UK website found that pages with buttons labeled “Start now” often ended up with users going around in circles rather than clicking the “start now” button. They observed this behavior in the lab when running tests, and then reviewed usage stats to find out whether the same thing happened “in the wild.” It did, so they set about testing different labeling options, using A/B testing to weigh several options and see which performed best. You can read about their testing methods, and the results they ended up with, in “A/Bsolutely fabulous testing” on the “Inside GOV.UK” blog.

There are so many other examples of this kind of thing. Have you ever seen a confirmation dialog box pop up and been completely uncertain about which option you actually want? (“Do you really want to cancel?” with your choices being “YES” and “CANCEL” is a sad but true example.) Beth Aitman, who’s also in the UK – those wonderful UK word-nerds! – wrote a great article about how to write a confirmation dialog.

This stuff – tiny little bits of text that make a big difference – is called “microcopy.” And it matters. It’s more than just labels and buttons; think about link text – what people click on to go somewhere else. Do they know where they’re going? Does the link make sense to them? What about somebody using a screen reader to access your page – do things make sense to them? Iain Broome (another Brit, it appears!) has a fantastic piece on “How to write good hyperlinks” which I highly, highly recommend. In fact, Broome’s article will help you think through the process of writing other things on the web, not just hyperlinks – that is, if you want to write things that are accessible and understandable to your users. I hope you do.

So yes, I may sometimes spend twenty minutes deciding on the absolute best word for a particular purpose. And I may fuss at you more than you may think is warranted if you have a link that says “click here” on your web page. But this stuff matters. Microcopy is the difference between “Please come in; we’re so happy to see you!” versus “This is a door.” Choosing the right words for your website, especially in places that are crucial decision points for your users, can be the difference between “this sucks!” and “success!”

Creating the Right Title for a Web Page

Choosing the right title is a crucial factor in helping people find and understand the content you create on the website. This applies to all content on the Libraries’ website including:

  • basic pages
  • subject posts
  • subject concentrations
  • news and events
  • PDF files

The title is used in several ways, particularly for generating the URL and for determining how your content will appear in search results (both within the Libraries’ website and in external search engines like Google).

Page URL:

Drupal automatically uses your page title to create the URL, omitting any punctuation included in the title and inserting hyphens between words. For example:

You will notice that if the page title is very long, the URL is also very long. For frequently-cited pages (for example, if the URL will be used as part of a publicity campaign, or if it is likely to be given over the phone), we recommend using a short page title, so the URL will be short as well. If that’s not possible, DRS can create an alternative URL upon request. For example, the Herman B Wells Library has the URL http://libraries.indiana.edu/wells.

If multiple items have the same title, Drupal will automatically append numbers so that the URL is unique. For example, we currently have the following on our site:

If you create a new item (page, concentration, etc.) and notice that Drupal has appended a number to your URL, you should reconsider your title!

When a URL is changed, Drupal automatically creates a redirect so that if a user has a link or bookmark to the old URL, they will be sent directly to the new one. In the Wells example above, the URL http://libraries.indiana.edu/herman-b-wells-library will still work. So don’t hesitate to edit your page title.

(NOTE: If you change your title and then change it back to the original, you will create an “infinite loop” in which the site redirects to the old title, then back to the new one, which redirects to the old one, and so on. If you are logged into the site, you will see an error message to this effect. Users who are not logged in will get an “access denied” error. If this happens, contact DRS – libweb@indiana.edu – and we can fix it.)

If you have an item for which the auto-generated URL has a number at the end, and you’ve determined that there is no longer another page with the same title – if the other page(s) have been deleted – DRS can edit the URL to remove the number upon request. A redirect will be created so that anyone who has the numbered URL linked or bookmarked won’t be left behind.

Search Results:

Title is a critical element in helping your users understand their search results and find the content that will be most helpful to them. This is especially important for subject concentrations, which do not include any descriptive summary within search results:

screenshot of website search results for "history"

“European History” gives the user a clue as to whether this link will be useful to them or not; the ones just titled “History” are a mystery until one actually clicks on them. Similarly, a concentration title of “Food” would suggest that this might be where you can find information about food availability in the libraries; “Food Studies” is much more descriptive. (Although search results are labeled with their content type, e.g. “Basic Page” or “Concentration,” these may go unnoticed or may not be meaningful to some users.)

Your title should give some context for your content. When users find your page via search, they do not have the additional context of your subject guide or division landing page to help them understand what they are looking at – they won’t know what department, unit, or subject your content refers to, so they may think it pertains to the Libraries as a whole. What does your content specifically pertain to? What is the page about? Who is it intended for?

“How to Find Science E-books” – NOT “E-books”

“Upcoming Events in the Wells Library” – NOT “Library Events”

“Contact the Discovery & Research Services Dept” – NOT “Contact Us”

Note: Titles that are too long may be truncated in search results, so keep your titles reasonably concise and put the most important keywords early in the title if possible. A maximum of 65 characters is a good goal. Subject concentration titles should be shorter – aim for four or five words at most if possible.

Additional Reading:

“Introducing Your Content: Page Titles and Headings” – Rick Allen http://meetcontent.com/blog/introducing-content-page-titles-headings/

This is an excellent, thorough overview of things to think about when creating page titles, with a higher ed focus and some helpful examples.

 

Our thoughts on web governance: ACRL TechConnect post

Following last year’s launch of the Libraries’ new Drupal website, we in Discovery & Research Services have continued to clean up migrated site content, provide guidance and support for creation and management of existing content,  and plan for the future. Recently the three of us – Courtney McDonald, Rachael Cohen, and myself – spent some time talking about our website, and academic library websites in general, and discovered we had some thoughts about what those websites should be like and how they should be managed.

Sharing is caring, as they say, so we wrote up our thoughts – collaborative writing can actually work, if you have the right collaborators! – and the resulting paper has been published on the ACRL TechConnect blog. It’s something of a position paper, a bit of a manifesto, somewhere between a scope statement and a strategy. We’d love to hear any responses that you might have! You can read it here – From Consensus to Expertise: Rethinking Library Web Governance.

(By the by, if you find web governance and that sort of thing interesting, you might also enjoy the slides & notes from my recent presentation at Confab Higher Ed – “Cleaning up after a messy website migration: How to start fresh when you can’t start over.” Shameless self-promotion, sure, but I promise it’s relevant! And it will give you a bit of context/background on how “From Consensus to Expertise” came to be. And, you might also like the IU Digital Library Brown Bag presentation that Courtney and I gave earlier this fall – also web governance-related: “Content Strategy as a Model of Web Stewardship.”)

ACRL TechConnect logo

Content Strategy as a Model of Web Stewardship

brown bag with Steve Jobs' photo on it
Steve Jobs Ultra-Geek Lunch Bag | Photo Giddy on flickr

Heads up! Two-thirds of DRS – that would be Courtney McDonald and Anne Haines – will be presenting a short talk in the IU Libraries’ Digital Library Brown Bag series, coming up Wednesday, September 9th at noon (Eastern Daylight Time).

Content Strategy as a Model of Web Stewardship: Content strategy is an emerging area of expertise related to user experience design work, defined as “planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” This session will provide a brief overview of content strategy concepts and describe how a well-articulated content strategy can enable a better user experience through thinking holistically and strategically about web content — in other words, in stewardship. We’ll also present a brief case study of how, through implementing these tools and processes, our small department was empowered to stop simply chasing web pages around and instead invest our efforts into crafting a user-centric, sustainable web presence for the IUB Libraries (http://libraries.indiana.edu).

So if you’re curious about content strategy, the Libraries’ website, making websites more user-centric, or how many cute kittens and puppies we found a home for in our slide deck, either come to Hazelbaker Hall in the Wells Library (E159, behind the reference desk in the Scholars’ Commons) or tune in online at http://connect.iu.edu/diglib.

The presentation will be archived if you can’t make it next week. If you do attend, either on-site or online, plan to share your thoughts and questions on Twitter using the hashtag #dlbb. We look forward to seeing some of you!

Later this semester the other one-third of DRS, Rachael Cohen, will be speaking about our library catalog and user-centered design approach – watch for that in November, and check out the full fall semester DLBB series schedule.

 

Confab Central 2015: Less Content, Better Managed and other takeaways

Confab Central 2015 is a wrap! I was very pleased to be able to attend this absolutely fantastic conference for the third year running.

I can’t say enough good things about Confab. The organizers are fantastic, attending to every little detail and making sure attendees’ needs are met; the speakers are smart, generous with their knowledge, and entertaining (yes, entertaining – did you know that the brain holds more new knowledge if you clean it out periodically with a good laugh? SCIENTIFIC FACT*) and the attendees are friendly, interesting, and all-around great folks to spend some time with.

I met and hung out with people who came from the east coast, the west coast, and everywhere in between as well as more far-flung places like Belgium, Switzerland, and Facebookistan. (Seriously, I met a bunch of Facebook employees this time around and you know what? Facebook hires some smart, cool people!) One of the really useful things about this conference for me is getting out of the “higher ed bubble” a little bit. I love working in higher ed, but we have a lot to learn from our colleagues out there in the world of brands and industry. I suspect they learn something from us, as well.

Confab program, name badge, and other swag
umm, that name badge says “speaker” … yikes!

This year was a little different for me as it was my first time attending with the word “SPEAKER” on my badge. Presenting a session at Confab was a pretty great experience; the audience is SO ENGAGED, which makes it delightful to share thoughts and ideas with them. (If you’re interested, I’ve included readings & resources – including a link to my slides – in my follow-up blog post.)  I learned a lot from preparing the talk as well as from delivering it, which makes it a success in my book. Since my name and bio were in the conference program, I was tracked down by a handful of IU alumni who were excited to meet a fellow Hoosier content strategist; that was also a delight!

So, some specific takeaways from this year’s Confab:

  1. Over and over, multiple speakers stressed the importance of editing, weeding, reducing, decluttering your web content. At the macro level, in his workshop on “Top Tasks and Self-Service: Creating better customer experiences online,” Gerry McGovern gave some startling examples of websites that reduced their content and saw increased usage and/or higher user success rates (defined as “the users were easily able to complete the tasks that were important to them”). For example, Columbia College launched a new site in 2014 which had 944 pages compared to 36,000 on their old site – a 97% reduction!!! – and they saw a resulting 82% increase in inquiries per month (a highly favorable outcome given that a major goal of their site is to attract prospective students). In his workshop, McGovern outlined a methodology for identifying your users’ “top tasks” and designing so that these tasks can be accomplished more quickly and easily. His closing keynote was a condensed version of the “top tasks” argument, minus the detailed methodology for getting it done; it was very pointed, very funny, and well worth viewing. (Note, the first few minutes of the talk are omitted – most of the best stuff is here though. Also, if the video doesn’t display in your browser, see kb.iu.edu/d/bdny for help.)Other talks with a similar focus included Matthew Grocki’s “Reducing Digital Clutter: How to clean up the back of your house” and Marcia Riefer Johnston’s “Write Tight(er): Get to the point and save millions,” which used the example of web content that requires translation – at a measurable cost per word – to make a case for the importance of editing out every unnecessary word. From top tasks to tiny words, other sessions also touched on this theme and certainly left me with the sense that this is a universal struggle for web content wranglers. Less content, better managed, using better metrics! That’s an excellent goal.
  2. And speaking of metrics, the importance of data in making decisions and taking action was also a theme. Content strategy as a discipline draws heavily from user experience (UX) in its emphasis on testing and design iteration, but many content strategists come from marketing or journalism backgrounds and haven’t necessarily studied UX in any formal way, so learning about how to make good data-driven decisions is new for some of us and important for all of us. Again, Gerry McGovern’s workshop included a lot of this including some specific methodologies for gathering and understanding user data. Deborah Carver and Kate Pennell gave a great presentation, “Humans make search happen: Behavioral data to debunk SEO’s sullied reputation,” which not only talked about how to look at search data to understand users’ behavior but also managed to make it lively and entertaining. Kim Marques shared her ideas for “Delivering Your Content Strategy: Effective Documentation and Deliverables” to help us get that data across to the people who need to see them. And the need for numbers came up in a bunch of other sessions as well. In short, we may think we know what our users want, but unless we see what they are actually doing – in other words, gather data on their behavior, know how to understand it, and do something about it – we’re just whistling in the dark.
  3. And finally, collaboration – working together to identify and solve problems – was a huge, important theme this year. From Jonathon Colman’s stunning opening keynote, which posited that we must solve our big problems together or not at all (seriously, take the time to watch this talk, or at least read the transcript – it was the highlight of the conference for me) to Rebekah Cancino’s great talk on “Next-level collaboration: The future of content and design” to, if I may be so bold, my own talk which offered up good old-fashioned reference interview techniques as a way to collaborate with clients and stakeholders via structured communication – over and over it became clear that we are all in this together and need to figure out how to work together. Our workflows and processes are by necessity (to quote Rebekah Cancino) “overlapping, iterative, messy.” This means we need new ways of working together to get things done. As content strategists, as people who make the web happen, we are engaged in nothing short of changing how people are able to communicate with one another. That’s pretty mind-blowing. Yes, we’re all working in our own domains – brands, non-profits, higher ed, what have you – and we’re all working on our own projects, but unless we break through those silos and work together, we are all struggling alone.

Big stuff, huh? Yeah. But cake helps. And good humor. And the willingness to share knowledge. All of which are available in surplus at Confab Central. Not to mention that the main stage had an actual space rocket and a backdrop of twinkling stars. (For a conference attended primarily by word-nerds, the visual design throughout Confab is – yes, I’m going to go there – out of this world!) Oh, and did I mention that Anne Lamott gave Friday morning’s keynote? She claims not to know what content strategists do, but she said “it sounds like what you people do sort of resembles wrestling drug-addicted cows” and proceeded to talk to us as writers, so I think she pretty much got it.

I closed out my conference by joining up with an international gang of wild and crazy content strategists who set forth to have dinner at Sea Salt, a great seafood shack overlooking Minnehaha Falls – definitely a true Minnesota experience. We made all the nerd jokes and laughed A LOT. Learning, laughter, and great food – what more could you possibly ask of a conference? YAY CONFAB.

group of people standing in front of a waterfall
happy content strategists

______

*note: scientific fact not guaranteed factual

See also my posts about previous Confabs.

“If She Knew What She Wants”: Resources & follow-up

Many thanks to all who attended my talk, “If She Knew What She Wants: Librarian mind-reading tricks for fun and profit,” at Confab Central! It was a lot of fun (and learning!) putting together the talk, and terrifying but fun actually delivering it. Confab audiences are the BEST.

I’m also grateful to the friends and colleagues who were instrumental in helping me think through issues, track down resources, and put together the talk. I’m lucky to know and work with so many smart, helpful people. You all know who you are, and I owe you cookies.

And a BIG thank you to the amazing folks at Confab Events, for putting on this ridiculously well-managed and delightful conference every year. Without the stuff I’ve learned at Confab, this talk wouldn’t have existed, and I daresay the entire trajectory of my career would look different and much less interesting.

You can find my slides on Slideshare.  (You can also view a version of my slides on Haiku Deck, where the image credits are more legible.)

For Further Reading:

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” The Atlantic, Aug. 20, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/08/tolstoy-is-the-tolstoy-of-the-zulus/278789/ (This essay is the source of the quote “The best way to placate a difficult man is to ask him to teach you something.”)

Cohen, Georgy. “Content Strategy as Problem Solving.” Meet Content, Dec. 17, 2013. http://meetcontent.com/blog/content-strategy-as-problem-solving/ (Great article about the importance of identifying problems before coming up with solutions.)

Dervin, Brenda and Patricia Dewdney. “Neutral Questioning: A New Approach to the Reference Interview.” RQ, Vol. 25 No. 4, 506-513, Summer 1986. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25827718 (Pioneers the concept of neutral questioning, also called sense-making questions.)

Dewdney, Patricia and Gillian Michell. “Oranges and Peaches: Understanding Communication Accidents in the Reference Interview.” RQ, Vol. 35 No. 4, 520-523, 526-536, Summer 1996. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20862995 (Useful study of listening gone wrong and what we can learn from that.)

Portigal, Steve. Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights. Brooklyn: Rosenfeld Media, 2013. (Mainly about conducting research with end users, but has some fantastic insights – particularly in Chapter 6, “How to Ask Questions.”)

Rach, Melissa. “Stakeholder Interviews: Engage the Octopus.” Brain Traffic blog, July 26, 2012. http://blog.braintraffic.com/2012/07/stakeholder-interviews-engage-the-octopus/ (Brief but good piece about the role of stakeholder interviews in the content strategy discovery process.)

Rasmussen, Claire. “Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists.” Brain Traffic blog, June 7, 2012. http://blog.braintraffic.com/2012/06/do-it-like-a-librarian-ranganathan-for-content-strategists/ (Not about the reference interview, specifically, but some interesting points about the intersection of content strategy & librarianship in general.)

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, Kirsti Nilsen, and Marie L. Radford. Conducting the Reference Interview: A How-to-Do-It Manual for Librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman, 2009. (A thorough introduction to reference interview techniques and strategies.)

Taylor, Robert S. “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.” College & Research Libraries, Vol. 29 No. 3, 178-194, May 1968 (Reprinted, Vol. 76 No. 3, 2015). http://crl.acrl.org/content/76/3/251.abstract (Classic analysis of the reference interview.)

Young, Indi. “A New Way to Listen.” A List Apart, No. 414, Feb. 17, 2015. http://alistapart.com/article/a-new-way-to-listen (A great little article about how good listening builds empathy. I tried to get her book, Practical Empathy, but it’s so new that no library would ILL it – it’s high on my reading list!)

Transformations: Migrating to a New Model of Web Stewardship – For Further Reading

IOLUG conference logoCourtney Greene McDonald, Rachael Cohen, and I were pleased to give a panel presentation at today’s Indiana Online Users Group (IOLUG) fall conference. Our session description:

Transformations: Migrating to a New Model of Web Stewardship

Do you ever feel that although you are charged with running your website, it might actually be running you? We understand. Come and hear the epic tale of how the IU Bloomington Libraries migrated over 8000 pages from a decade-old locally-developed content management system to a shiny new Drupal-powered site by partnering with outside consultants — and, along the way, learned a few things about strategy and governance that are broadly applicable to web redesign or migration projects, small or large.

This session will describe how a small department discovered the secret to making a better web experience for our users lay in thinking holistically and strategically about our web content — in other words, in stewardship. No longer just chasing pages around, we were freed to invest our efforts into crafting a user-centric, sustainable web presence.

Attendees will walk away with new ideas and concrete strategies for prioritizing the end-user’s experience through emphasizing consistency and reducing clutter; introducing library staff to a new way of thinking strategically about web content (content strategy); and providing a more seamless discovery experience.

Many thanks to those who attended!  As promised, we’d like to share a few additional readings for those who may be interested in diving a little deeper. And we are happy to answer any additional questions that may arise after the fact – comment on this post, or use the “Contact Us” link above.

FOR FURTHER READING:

Casey, Meghan. “Content Strategy Can Save Us All from Slobdom.” Brain Traffic. 4 Aug. 2011.

Cohen, Georgy. “Structured Content: An Overview.” Meet Content. 27 Mar. 2012.

Halvorson, Kristina, and Melissa Rach. Content Strategy for the Web. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2012.

Kissane, Erin. The Elements of Content Strategy. New York: A Book Apart, 2011.

Kurt, Lisa. “Responsive web design and libraries.” ACRL TechConnect Blog. Oct 4. 2012.

McDonald, Courtney Greene. Putting the User First: 30 Strategies for Transforming Library Services. ACRL, an imprint of the American Library Association, 2014.

Rasmussen, Claire. “Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists.” Brain Traffic. 7 June 2012.

Schmidt, Aaron and Amanda Etches. Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience at Your Library. Chicago: ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association, 2014.

Schmidt, Aaron. “Library Websites Should Be Smaller.” Walking Paper. 14 Mar. 2011.

United States Department of Health and Human Services. “User Experience Basics.” Usability.gov. Feb 19. 2014.

Weave: Journal of Library User Experience. [a new peer-reviewed open access journal focusing on topics related to user experience in libraries … check it out!]

“Writing for the Web” posts on this blog: https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/redux/tag/writing-for-the-web/

Confab Central 2014: Big Thoughts on Digital Governance

sign reading "Welcome to Confab Central"Following last year’s most excellent experience at Confab, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend again this year (now rebranded as “Confab Central,” as Confab Events has expanded to offer events for several specific audiences) but was a little nervous that it wouldn’t be as good an experience the second time around. I needn’t have worried. While there were perhaps fewer presentations that blew my mind, every session I attended was solid and gave me something to think about, and there was a great mix of inspiration, big-picture strategic thinking, and hands-on tactical ideas to bring home via one’s to-do list – as well as networking opportunities with hundreds of very smart, very friendly content strategists.

Thanks to a Professional Development Grant from the IU Bloomington Professional Staff Council, this year I was able to attend one of the optional full-day workshops presented the day before the conference proper began. These workshops ran from 9:00-5:00 with a lunch break (during which, thanks to aforementioned networking opportunities, the learning did not stop) – so it really was a full day of filling up my brain with new ideas and big thoughts. I knew I should’ve emptied out some of those memorized 1970s song lyrics ahead of time in order to make some extra brain space.

My workshop was “Doing the Right Thing: Web Governance for Your Organization,” presented by Lisa Welchman. As we’ve been so focused here on planning the launch of the Libraries’ new website, I’ve had many thoughts about governance at that level – who should be responsible for what content (things like library services, “About the Libraries,” the home page, etc. often require input from multiple sources, but someone has to be the final arbiter of what gets published), how CMS training should be managed, whether at least some content needs to be approved prior to publication, whether anyone other than the content creator/owner should have the authority to delete content if for example it turns out to be duplicative or is so outdated as to be less than confidence-inspiring, and so on. These are all nuts-and-bolts, tactical questions – and as it turned out, Ms. Welchman’s workshop focused on much more big-picture, strategic issues.

Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t useful. I learned a TON, and thinking about the big questions of governance at the organizational level definitely helps me to understand how the local/tactical issues should be approached. I may not have the authority to say “okay, you associate deans, go into a room and don’t come out until you’ve outlined a digital strategy for the Libraries” – but thinking strategically is useful for anyone at any level, I believe.

As Welchman began describing what she meant by “governance,” I realized that here in the Libraries, this structure is incredibly large and complicated. We’re talking not just about the content creators, editors, coders, etc. who make the Libraries’ website happen – but also about other digital presences (social media, LibGuides, digital collections, this blog), and about responsibilities that fall under the purview of Library Technologies Core Services, UITS, etc. all the way up to the Vice President for IT. The Libraries’ digital strategy and policies are governed both by the Libraries’ mission and overall strategic plan and by larger University-wide strategies and policies. Our governance structure is also influenced by people and groups outside of IU, such as the consultants with whom we contracted to help migrate our website and even those responsible for outside services we use. (As an example, some social media services make it difficult to change the name of an account, so if you want to change your branding from “Herman B Wells Library” to “IUB Libraries” it can be tricky.)

Clearly, we’re not talking about a “web team” of half a dozen people who could sit down in a room together!

So I didn’t come away from this workshop with a to-do list of actionable ideas, but with a better understanding of some strategic concepts:

  • Governance as the mechanism by which strategy is implemented
  • The difference between standards (guidelines for getting work done) and policy, which is set at a much higher level of the organization (“if you break it someone might get sued”)
  • Lisa Welchman: “I don’t believe in ‘best practices.’ I believe in stuff that works.” You should learn about best practices, but then adhere only to the ones that actually make sense for your work.
  • The difference between policy authorship and policy stewardship – oftentimes the part of an organization that is really good at writing policy is different from the part that is really good at managing existing policy.
  • Best ways to communicate standards to your community – this is something that is very applicable to my day-to-day work managing web content that is created by dozens of authors. When you create a new “best practice” you need to communicate the standard for it, provide a deadline for compliance, and then measure compliance in a structured manner.

I’ll continue to review my notes from this workshop and from the rest of Confab Central – watch for future blog posts featuring more of my 2014 takeaways.

Besides the snacks, that is. Once again, Confab did not disappoint in the food department – they take really good care of us there! One of my takeaways may have been a few pounds, due to deliciousness like this in between sessions:

menu for afternoon snack at Confab Central, featuring local cheeses

Those Minnesotans, man. They know how to throw a party extremely useful professional conference.

As a side note, Lisa Welchman’s book, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, is due out from Rosenfeld Media in the near future. It should be worth a look.