Design & Content: Better Together

In the digital design space, the rise to prominence of visual design began with the 1993 release of Mosaic browser, the forming of the W3C the following year, and the development of CSS and other visual technologies. Around the same time, Donald Norman coined the term “user experience”, and a new approach to interaction design became the next big leap in the evolution of the digital experience. As UX comes into its own, we’ve witnessed the ascendancy of content strategy, a third pillar of effective and engaging digital communication. With this in mind, the pioneers at Republic of Quality and Marshjr took it upon themselves to launch an ambitious event designed to highlight the critical influence of and relationship between these three practices in a world of growing digital complexity.

The Design and Content Conference was conceived in order to empower design and content professionals to team up and learn from industry leaders about how to craft digital experiences and tell stories that shape the future of the web. The conference, held in Vancouver, BC at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts from Aug. 5–7, was attended by roughly 400 people from across North America, and featured a day of workshops and two days of talks. This article focuses on the latter. The broader themes of the conference centered on cultivating user empathy without either guessing or assuming their needs, or overly relying on data to dictate design — it’s about creating experiences for (whole) humans.

Event co-host Steve Fisher, founder and experience architect at The Republic of Quality, opened Thursday’s talks by reminding us that digital solutions should always address identifiable problems and that our audiences are real people (not just personas). A project’s vision should be grounded in collectively determined design principles in alignment to measurable, high-level goals. Steve challenged us to let go of personal defense mechanisms that interfere with the creative process.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher, editor in chief of A List Apart, lead an emotionally charged session in which she shared from personal experience to show how people’s histories and related emotional triggers can affect their use of digital experiences in unpredictable ways. In challenging us to “rethink normal” and “make every decision an act of kindness,” she reminded us to set aside ego and assumptions and to make space for real people to exist:

  • Don’t force false categories/segments
  • Don’t forget who’s in charge
  • Don’t overstep your purpose in a user’s life
  • Exercise clear intentions and compassionate communication
  • Ask users what they want and why — accept nuance in their replies
  • Let users define themselves — and adjust to their needs instead of asking them to fit ours

Malory O’Conner, of Habanero Consulting Group, focused on the challenges and triumphs of agile content delivery. She explained how intelligent team building and conscious, ongoing development coupled with nimble planning and open communication can help prepare both professionals and organizations to develop the complex digital solutions of the future.

Malory referred to the impact of introducing dimensionality (layers of personalized data) to the customer journey and to adopting a service design mentality. A champion of process, she advocated for engaging content strategy early in the project lifecycle and working with clients to build their knowledge of the discipline.

James White, the rogue artist and designer behind Signalnoise Studio, captured the imagination of the crowd as he shared his inspiring personal history of creative work. James talked about chasing your creative path, building your personal body of work, the value of supportive friends, and never forgetting the artist inside. His advice to each of us was to:

  • Know your worth
  • Be careful how much you bite off
  • Strike while the iron is hot
  • Take a shot

Kathy Wagner, founding partner of Content Strategy Inc., talked about mapping user-focused content to customer journeys in the service of more effective digital experiences. She broke down the different aspects of content at a high (conceptual) level:

  • Purpose (e.g. to inspire, educate, entertain, persuade, inform)
  • Topics (i.e. subjects)
  • Types (i.e. classifications and structures) and formats (i.e. display rules)
  • Messages (e.g. emotional or intellectual)
  • Triggers (e.g. instigating actions)
  • Channels

Kathy explained that each of these aspects were to be considered and shaped in relation to a persona and the phases of its journey through an experience, including related pain points, touch points, mindsets, and decisions. She noted that, while digital experiences are becoming increasingly personalized and complex, we need to continue to identify common truths that apply to users with shared contexts.

Haig Armen, founder of Lift Studios, discussed the merging of hardware and software to create networked objects or “meta products.” He explored approaches that the Maker Movement is taking to combine digital and physical design that will power the Internet of Things and the next generation of user experiences, including:

  • Moving beyond interfaces
  • Treating data as raw material
  • Understanding information as data with meaning
  • Seeing privacy as a design principle
  • Making to think, thinking to make (tinkering)

Tizzy Asher, senior content strategist at Expedia, provided the success criteria for content patterns to stand out in a noisy world. She discussed the changing context of personas and a move toward faster, more personalized conversations with users:

  • Listen for cues (what)
  • Infer carefully (what)
  • Integrate for next time (how)
  • Be consistent
  • Don’t shout

Tizzy explained that the way we plan, create and govern content through the medium of omni-channel/device storytelling needs to evolve in order to effectively engage people (make connections). The key is to identify the user’s context and present them with relevant content to meet their needs. Context should shape a messaging strategy across an experience and set a foundation for consistent design patterns.

Content strategy guru and Managing Partner of Bond Art + Science Karen McGrane closed out Thursday’s sessions firing on all cylinders. She deftly addressed the supposed controversy de jure around adaptive vs. responsive design, bringing the weight of her experience to bear in tearing apart the superficial arguments of lesser mortals while championing the W3C’s “One Web” approach in addition to the now established “COPE” philosophy.

Karen explained the importance of starting with a responsive foundation and then building adaptive content layers on top of it as a form of progressive enhancement. She discussed how leveraging adaptive content based on targeting to device type is, in reality, rarely necessary, and how tailoring structured content according to context can provide the greatest value when done correctly.

Dana Chisnell, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design and now of the United States Digital Service, started her talk with an official disclaimer and went on to reference terrorism, war, and economic chaos in the first 30 seconds. She took shots at former U.S. President George W. Bush and current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for good measure.

In exploring the design of election ballots, she pointed out that democracy is a design problem and that design affects world peace. Dana spoke about her work in the fields of healthcare, immigration, and veterans’ affairs, and the unique design challenges posed by their audiences. She commended the UK government on its efforts to standardize public digital service delivery through a “Government as a Platform” approach.

Eileen Webb, director of strategy at webmeadow Consulting, expressed the need to introduce content guidelines directly into the CMS, attached to content elements and types where authors and administrators might actually read and implement them. Eileen discussed how to name and organize fields, how to write contextual help text to assist authors, and how to communicate the information needed for ongoing support of structured content, information architecture, and design. She called for a collaborative approach to developing these guidelines between designers and developers, marketing and content, QA and customer service.

Author and creative evangelist Denise Jacobs gave a rousing presentation encouraging everyone to develop their emotional intelligence. As F.E.A.R. (False Evidence Appearing Real / F*ck Everything And Run) is the enemy of creativity, we must identify and banish our inner critics by applying a range of mental and physical practices. Rather than being our own worst enemies, Denise encouraged us to channel negative energies into productive experiences that result in a whole that is more than the sum of their parts.

Rebekah Cancino, director of content strategy at Sitewire, challenged us to prepare for the more complex experiences of the future by being vulnerable in our communication and cross-discipline collaboration (actually doing the work, not just talking about it). She shared from her experiences studying successful teams over the last two years to present practical techniques to bridge silos, increase productivity, and deliver better project outcomes.

Parker McLean, digital producer at Skyrocket, explored accessible user experiences and the opportunities we all have (because, whether we know it or not, we’re all designing for people with low/limited vision) to fold accessibility into the rich and rewarding UX strategies we craft. Parker used a range of real-world examples to illustrate bad habits (“f*ck ALT text”) to avoid and techniques for building an emotional arc for users less able to absorb visual design. He challenged us to start with content that can stand on its own and then add visual layers as progressive enhancement.

Samantha Warren, now design lead at Adobe, discussed the reality that organizational problems are design/content problems and that our job is to design experiences WITH people, rather than FOR them. She discussed the importance of adapting to the culture and tools our client organizations and the need to be flexible, fast, and persistent in our work and that the best tools are those we know well and can access quickly. Samantha showed us how to use design thinking as an asset to win battles to facilitate change, encourage innovation, and foster a design culture in our offices.

Usability guru Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering, explored the problem of relying on data too heavily to guide experience design efforts. Often data lacks context and is unable to effectively signal user intent. It must be qualified and analyzed through a broader lens. Jared described design as a process where we finely tune our gut intuition to create a great user experience and the need to balance this process with intelligent approaches to data.

Jared recommended a scientific approach in which we start with a hypothesis and then make observations (what) and inferences (why) to inform our design decisions (how). By tracking the right metrics and approach, the process becomes cyclical, as research turns inferences into observations. Jared concluded by reminding us that “satisfactory” is a low bar and that, in digital experiences, everything is content.

Looking back, the Design and Content Conference was a unique meeting of the minds, where we were lucky enough to have leading figures from across a range of design and content disciplines share from their experience and remind us that design and content aren’t solo sports, but the joint foundation of a new and exciting age of digital experiences.

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