Last week I was happy to have the opportunity to take in this energetic, insightful keynote by Harper Reed, currently Senior Director of Software Development at PayPal and sometime CTO for Obama for America and Threadless.com (best T-Shirts ever!). It’s MSFW (mostly-safe-for-work) [F-bomb alert], but hey! our CIO invited him so I think IU employees at least are A-OK.
Enjoy this talk on Big Data, Product Design, UX & Being Only A Little Creepy. I’m pretty confident the hour will zip by.
ER&L is in its 11th year, and over that time has drawn an increasingly wide range of library attendees, from public, academic and special libraries, and from an array of job roles: electronic resources acquisitions & management folks, certainly, but also other technical services staff as well as public services librarians of all sorts including reference, collections, technology and user experience.
Designing for Digital started as a response to the growing interest in user experience programming at the ER&L conference and has now been an event in its own right for three years.
These are great conferences, with an excellent balance between focused programming and just enough new/different stuff to let you expand and explore a little bit; and the numbers are much more manageable than the larger conferences like ALA, so it allows for great connection-making with other like-minded folks. They also do some scholarship programs, so if this is something of interest put it on your radar for next year. Can I also mention the amazing wifi, coffee and snacks … just sayin’.
One very cool thing I’d like to highlight is that all of the keynote sessions for both conferences were livestreamed and are now archived and freely available at the conference schedule sites (or you can find the links in my posts below). All of the keynote talks were by industry leaders and each was really worthwhile for some new info and inspiration: Dawna Ballard, S. Craig Watkins, Jesse James Garrett (!), Michelle Ha Tucker (formerly of IDEO). Have a look!
Content matters, a lot. People read or don’t read our web sites based on how we structure and present the content. Let’s write so they read it.
“If you build it they will come” only works for ball fields in the movies. General rejection of this approach to library service or application development – go to the users, talk with them, build to bridge gaps and enhance strengths.
Productive collaborations across libraries are going to be key in building the kind of services and tools our users need in the future, at the scale at which they’ll need them.
I wrote up some observations on the content of each conference on my own blog, so feel free to have a look at those posts for more info:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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!)
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:
Those Minnesotans, man. They know how to throw a party extremely useful professional conference.
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.
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!
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.
"Betty Crocker is our cake sponsor. That's not even a joke. Every conference should have a cake sponsor." #ConfabMN 😀
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.
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.
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.
"To make something not suck, just remove frustration," per @jmspool. "But to make it delightful? That's something you add in." #confabmn
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:
"Unstructured content is like an unstructured dog. Hard to make sense of, and probably dead". #confabmn
I recently attended the LITA National Forum in St. Louis, and found that my experience was much better because of Twitter. I’m a fairly shy person when it comes to chatting with people I don’t know, but introducing myself to someone I’ve been following on Twitter for a while seems easier. I’ve also been an active tweeter during virtual conferences, and find that restores some of the one-on-one networking/discussion possibilities that one might otherwise miss from an in-person gathering. Not everyone finds that the “twitterverse” adds a useful extra dimension to conferences, but I thought I’d share some helpful tips for those who think they might like to try it.
A bit of nomenclature for newbies: A hashtag is a short string of characters (a tag) preceded by the hash mark (#), appended to or included in individual tweets and used to track a particular topic, meme, event, etc. (Twitter’s version of metadata.) Ideally, conference organizers will declare an official hashtag well in advance of the event. For example, the LITA National Forum is #litaforum and the 2011 ALA National Conference was #ala11. Most Twitter apps will allow you to search for a specific hashtag and either save the search to quickly redo it (e.g. Seesmic), set up a column to follow the hashtag continuously (Tweetdeck), or some other means of tracking. Mashable has a pretty good introductory article about hashtags, and here’s a more specific article about how to “follow” them.