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.

Your Website is a Verb: Some follow-up resources

My thanks to the wonderful folks at Confab Central for the opportunity to present my lightning talk “Your Website is a Verb: Persuading Librarians to Let Go.” For anyone who might be interested in looking into the topic a little further, here are a few readings I’ve found particularly enlightening.

Confabber Hilary Marsh has some slides on Content Strategy for Library Websites which help outline the specific problems we face in this environment.

Amanda Costello’s Confab 2013 presentation “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.: Working with Faculty & the Web” was important in shaping my thoughts about working with librarians, who are a lot like teaching faculty; I’ve used several of her tips with success.

Aaron Schmidt maintains (correctly, I believe) that Library Websites Should Be Smaller. And in “Give Them What They Want,” he also looks at what might happen if the library website disappeared (noooooooo!) and what that tells us about our users’ needs. The latter article is more relevant to public library sites than to academic/research libraries, but it’s a useful perspective nonetheless.

Rebecca Blakiston at the University of Arizona has a very good article on Developing a Content Strategy for an Academic Library Website. If you’re not affiliated with a library that subscribes to the journal this is published in, see if you can get it via Interlibrary Loan or something. (IU folks, you should be able to access the article.)

I mentioned briefly (heck, everything was brief, that’s the whole point of a lightning talk) that one of the special problems libraries face is our plethora of subscription-based vendor-provided resources, with their dizzying multitude of different interfaces and options. This strays beyond content strategy a bit, but this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed talks about discovery tools – one of the big guns we drag out in an attempt to tackle this problem. It also features IU’s own assessment librarian (go Andrew!). As Researchers Turn to Google, Libraries Navigate the Messy World of Discovery Tools.

Finally, I keep coming back to good old Ranganathan and his Five Laws of Library Science – especially “Save the time of the reader.” Claire Rasmussen wrote a fantastic post on the Brain Traffic blog a couple of years ago that literally had me bouncing up and down in my seat with how nicely it ties together the basic principles of librarianship and those of content strategy. Plus, best title ever: Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists.

disorderly, overstuffed bookstore shelves
how not to do it! photo credit – flickr/ jessica

You can find the slides from my lightning talk at https://iu.box.com/webverb.

Update: Slides are also available on Slideshare – http://www.slideshare.net/annehaines/your-website-is-a-verb-persuading-librarians-to-let-go

Your Website is a Verb: Persuading Librarians to Let Go

Loyal readers of this blog (hi Mom!) will recall that last year I attended an amazing content strategy conference, Confab. I was very pleased to be given the opportunity to attend again this year – and in fact, thanks to a Professional Development Grant from the IU Bloomington Professional Staff Council, this time around I get to include a full-day workshop the day before the conference proper. So excited!

So when the Confab organizers sent out a call for lightning talk proposals – five-minute talks, using twenty slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds – I decided to throw my hat in the ring. Lo and behold, when I was on vacation last week – I was in the middle of the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, of all places, when I happened to check my email – I got the amazing news that my proposal had been accepted. (The Johnny Cash Museum is very very cool, by the way. Highly recommended.) I’ll be presenting along with six other content strategists on May 8th – here’s the list of topics, and here’s the proposal I submitted (the rule was that it had to be three sentences):

Your Website is a Verb: Persuading Librarians to Let Go

In a large academic research library, “KEEP ALL OF THE THINGS” is a legitimate part of our mission. While that’s a useful mission when it comes to books, it spells disaster for a website, something that became both painfully clear and critically important to address during a recent CMS migration. I’ll talk about persuading librarians – a tough crowd – to let go of some of their content in the interest of providing an active and engaging experience for their users, and I promise not to invoke that song from “Frozen” in the process.

I’m super excited, a little terrified (last year every presenter at Confab was amazing, so they have high standards), and really looking forward to hearing what the other presenters have to say!

Image-ine That: Writing good “alt text” for images on the web

As the Libraries prepare to move into our new Drupal-powered website, we are also preparing to think differently about how we use images. The new site, in keeping with current trends on the Web, will be somewhat more image-heavy than the old one. Working with our colleagues in the Advancement Office, we plan to offer guidance to help content creators find and select images that will convey the tone and “brand” our website needs to communicate while being both pleasing and informative for people using the site.

Once you’ve chosen an image, you will want to consider providing “alt text” – a text alternative to the image, stored in a metadata field along with the image (any content management system, including our new Drupal system, provides for this to be entered when the image is uploaded or edited). This text is used by people who use a screen reader to “see” the site for them, and may also be useful for people on a low-bandwidth connection (perhaps in a rural area or a developing country) or even people who are browsing via mobile device who may have images turned off to save on data charges or speed up the time it takes to load web pages. Like most design techniques that can be implemented to improve web accessibility, adding alt text benefits more users than just those with disabilities!

At first glance it may seem like a simple thing to input a few words describing your image. But like all web content (and yes, alt text is content!), it’s worth taking a moment to think about how to create this text so that it will be as useful as possible. Think first about what you are trying to convey with your image. What information does a sighted person gain from it? What is the image’s purpose? As WebAIM explains in an excellent article about appropriate use of alt text, context is super-important here. What purpose does the image serve in the context of the rest of your page? A picture of cute kittens may be simply decorative, or it may be used to describe the stages of kitten development. In the former case, you may not need to provide alt text since the image is not contributing to the intellectual content of the page. In the latter, your alt text may read something like “Two-week-old kittens whose ears have not quite begun to stand up.”

Three kittens illustrate the point about using kitten pictures.
In this case, a kitten is just a kitten.
Credit: Mathias Erhart/flickr

There are some special cases when you may change your alt text depending on context, and 4 Syllables has outlined several of them. For example, what if your image has a caption? And what do you do differently if your image is actually a map?

4 Syllables has also created a great decision tree for use in developing alt text. Note that in some cases they recommend using blank alt text (alt=””), but at IU, we do expect alt text for ALL images.

decision tree - see 4 Syllables article linked above for full description
credit: 4 Syllables

Like all things related to user experience, a little thoughtfulness goes a long way when creating alt text. Take a moment to consider who’s using your content and what they’re trying to gain from it, and the effort will pay off in web content that is more accessible, more usable, more useful – in short, better for everyone!

Confab 2013: Outside the Comfort Zone and Loving It

panorama of Confab room pre-keynote

I recently had the opportunity to attend Confab, a conference devoted to learning about content strategy. Since this wasn’t a library conference, or even a higher ed conference, I knew I’d be outside my comfort zone a bit – and indeed I was. Among the 611 attendees there were a few librarians/library folks and a small contingent of higher ed people but the fellow attendees I spoke with came from all over the map, representing everything from government and non-profit agencies to companies like Whirlpool and Wal-Mart, as well as quite a few independent consultants and contractors. Compared to the demographic at a library conference, the crowd was somewhat younger and slightly (but only slightly) geekier, with a gender balance not too different from the library world – decidedly more women than men.

Trays of cake pops at the Confab reception
I am not kidding about the cake.

I may have been outside my comfort zone, but I was quickly made to feel right at home. Now in its third year, Confab has developed a reputation for being well-run and for great food, particularly cake – Betty Crocker is one of the conference sponsors! – and it exceeded my expectations on both counts. (Let’s just say that if someone talks about the “Confab Four” they are probably referring to the weight they gained, not a mop-topped quartet of Liverpudlian content strategists. Nobody will ever go hungry at Confab, that’s for SURE.) This is a conference organized by user experience professionals, and they have clearly given careful thought to the user experience of the conference itself – from the beautifully-designed program booklet to the reliable Wi-Fi bandwidth, from clear (and even witty) signage to helpful and friendly volunteers, the organizers obviously wanted us to be able to use our mental and emotional energy for learning and connecting rather than for dealing with confusion or frustration.

Sign reading "Don't Freak Out - Additional Bathrooms Upstairs"
Helpful and witty signage.

The Confab program included lots of interesting-sounding sessions, and at times I found it difficult to choose – but all the sessions I attended turned out to be quite good and gave me something to think about. Not only that, but over the two full days, not one presenter stood there and just read me their slides, and they were quality slides too – in two days I spotted only one typo on one slide. That’s pretty amazing.

While it wasn’t necessarily a new-agey, touchy-feely conference, neither was Confab a technical conference. Like the field of content strategy itself, its focus was on that slightly-nebulous intersection of communication and technology. As such, there were some assumptions made about attendees’ technical knowledge – for example that we understood the basics of web publishing and using a content management system, and were somewhat familiar with social media (the Twitter stream for Confab was quite active and provided a useful backchannel throughout the conference) and current online culture. It was also assumed, correctly, that most attendees were word-nerds and that wordplay would be an effective way to get one’s point across. Probably the best (worst) (no, best) example of this wordplay was when closing keynoter Paul Ford used the example of an apple pie contest, with complex and extensive rules for what constitutes “apple pie” (can it include bacon?) and the specific roles of everyone and everything involved (apple farmers, bakers, judges, ice cream), as a metaphor for web content governance – and foisted upon us the term “pierarchy.” Yeah. It was that kind of a thing.

Kristina Halvorson delivering the opening keynote
Kristina Halvorson drops some content strategy learning on us. Yes, that’s a giant CONFAB of light on the stage.

Early the first morning, Confab mastermind Kristina Halvorson‘s opening keynote set the tone by running down the top ten things content strategists always hear from clients; the murmurs of recognition throughout the room demonstrated that even though we may work in very different organizations with very different projects and clients, we all face many of the same issues – for example, “we have too much content.” This is equally terrifying (I was hoping maybe somebody somewhere had the answers to everything? Sigh) and reassuring.

Jared Spool’s Day 2 keynote, “Experiencing Delightful Content,” was – if I had to choose – the highlight of the conference for me. (I say this with some reluctance, as there were multiple highlights and really the conference was more than the sum of its parts – it’s almost impossible to single out any one presentation without the context it gained from the other talks and the zeitgeist of the conference as a whole.) Spool talked about what it takes to make your web content go beyond “usable” to providing an experience of delight for your users. You can make your content “not suck,” he pointed out, but simply removing frustrations isn’t enough.

Making content delightful requires dancing at the convergence of a number of different aspects of user experience, as seen in this slide:

"Delightful Content Design" surrounded by its components
slide from Jared Spool’s keynote; photo by @editoriaLife

Many of the sessions I attended – including Corey Vilhauer’s “Empathy: Content Strategy’s Hidden Deliverable,” Amanda Costello’s “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.: Creating Content with Experts and Specialists,” and Jonathan Kahn’s “Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change” – focused strongly on the “soft skills” of communication with users and content creators, project management, and change management. As Vilhauer noted, “content strategy is made of people!” Since a significant part of my job involves herding cats working with content creators throughout the Libraries, these sessions were tremendously helpful to me. Working with people is a huge part of the “strategy” in content strategy! In many ways these themes were what set the tone for the entire conference, as we were encouraged to listen, to become change agents, and to ask “why” at every turn. Katie Del Angel sums it up nicely in her blog post, “The Touchy-Feely Side of Content Strategy: #ConfabFeelings.”

Every session I attended, in fact, was helpful to me – but I was grateful for the Twitter backchannel, which allowed me to peek into some of the sessions I did not attend. Sometimes I got great nuggets though I probably missed out on some of the context within which they were presented, like this one re: the importance of structured content:

Watch this blog for future posts with more specifics about some of the sessions I attended, as I have time to write them up. (And feel free to fire up the official Confab Minneapolis 2013 playlist on Rdio as you read. It’s pretty cool.)

You can find slides from many of the Confab presentations on Slideshare.

Homepage Content Strategy

Georgy Cohen recently wrote an article on Meet Content about developing a strategy for content on a homepage. It is often argued that a homepage isn’t as important today because of how a user accesses content. While this may be true for some websites, it is definitely a myth regarding academic library homepages.  A well-built academic library homepage creates a positive brand statement and efficiently guides the user towards the needed content through consistent “information scent”.  I think the following academic library homepages are noteworthy and are examples of well-organized content.

Harvard Libraries: This recently redesigned homepage put the search tool front and center, but also provides descriptions of library jargon and academic sources. Initially I didn’t know what HOLLIS was but beneath the search box a quick description described the resource. I was also drawn to the red icons in the right resources sidebar. This breaks up the text and draws attention to popular services.

Ithaca College Library: This homepage is one of my favorites because it is simple and efficient. This site only uses one drop down menu, while the rest of the toolbar resembles a mobile layout design, with key content, like books and articles, in large text. I was able to find the link to JSTOR in seconds.

Marygrove College Library: This homepage is one of the few academic libraries that efficiently uses drop down menus. There are also only three columns of text which cuts down on unnecessary front page content which can often be distracting from the main toolbar.

Northeastern University Libraries: This homepage also has a toolbar with numerous drop-down menus, but each item in the drop-down is paired with a one sentence description. This is most useful for the new library user or those unfamiliar with library jargon.

Web Content Strategy for Libraries

I didn’t go to ALA Annual this year, but if I had, I would probably have tried to go to the LITA preconference about web content strategy. As we look towards our upcoming website redesign/migration, we are actively thinking about our content and how best to present it for our users. Those of you who attended my Writing for the Web presentation at the Libraries’ In-House Institute, or who read my blog post summarizing that presentation, are familiar with Kristina Halvorson’s definition of content strategy:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

The ALA preconference sounds like it was a good introduction to content strategy as it applies to organizations and websites like ours, and to how it should be implemented from the very beginning of the design/redesign process. Presenters Christopher Evjy and Nina McHale have posted their slides, and they are worth at least a quick look:

Opening slide of Web Content Strategy slideshow
This image will take you to the slideshow

As always, I am interested in any feedback, questions, opinions, or chocolate! (Just checking to see if you were paying attention, there.)