This is more or less the transcript of a lightning talk I gave at the Seattle Information Architecture & User Experience Meetup on September 8, 2015. What you missed was a lot of bluer language and puns dropped in at the last minute. Let me see if I can recapture the flavor of the moment
The original title for this talk was “Bootlegging the Body Field”. This was the title I came up with last week, but it’s a little derivative of Jeff Eaton’s A List Apart riff and talk on structured content “The Battle for the Body Field”. Look that up instead, it’s awesome.
After a shower (yay, hygiene), I changed the title to “Bitchin’ Intent”, because first of all, the alliteration. Then, “Intent” gets to the core of the work we do. It’s about the needs and motivations of our audience, the goals and mission of the business with the problem, and our intent to reconcile the two.
Bitchin’ is just a great word that’s fallen out of use, but it’s evoking that feeling we get when we do good work.
Thinking back on the bitchin’ projects, I would give credit to the process and collaboration involved. But there’s consistently a secret ingredient threading these successful projects together, acting as the catalyst. That ingredient was — the rebel.
These determined subversives are on a mission to have their needs met, and if there’s obstacles in their way or a bridge out, they do the one thing they‘re talented at: jump it.
It’s that will to a greater purpose that guides us in our best work. They took risks for us. We should be actively looking for them. So how do you spot a rebel?
Rebels in the Wild
The people of Finland are pleasant and hospitable, but at the first sign of snow are utter bastards. They like to carve these trails that turn into cul de sacs and labyrinths to innocent pedestrians. Then they observe them and laugh at how these suckers start a journey they can never finish.
There’s ten key seconds in this video that caught my attention, and it was the interaction of these two men on a serpentine path.
The guy on the right is following the rules, but the guy on the left knows exactly where he’s going, as if he seems to say “If you think following the rules satisfies my goal, then you are sadly mistaken, and I categorize you, good sir, as a chump”. This man is a rebel, and will clearly beat anybody in a dash to the liquor store.
Meanwhile, in America… look at this rebel. This seems like a perfectly reasonable detour for this woman, even if the dog isn’t convinced. Lose the dog, honey, he’s holding you back.
Over time, we discover dozens if not hundreds of scofflaws observing what was built for them, noticing what was expected of them, and still voting with their feet. Design doesn’t stop this. If anything, it helps define it.
Governance doesn’t stop it, either. This park in Denver is losing a battle with the public, who clearly recommended a better sidewalk than the one provided.
Architects are good at expressing and defining the space inside buildings, not as much in between them. The best architects realize this, and allow for an iteration to capture these moments and make more informed decisions. They lay the sod, and let the walkers design the path.
This concept has a name: desire paths, and it’s been incorporated into the greatest architectural, cultural and civic feats of the modern age.
If you’ve been to any four-year institution, you’ve probably been part of a landscaping study and didn’t even know it. As the story goes, the first year of Disneyland had a lot more grass than it does today, and Chicago prides itself on the transportation study they conducted in 1959 which impacted their last half-century of urban planning. So this isn’t a new concept; some would even say it’s… well-worn.
These paths are built of smaller steps, and Jane Fulton Suri at IDEO published a book about ten years ago documenting what she called Thoughtless Acts. People unconsciously perform ultraordinary actions every day, from throwing a jacket over a chair, or placing something in the teeth when all hands are full. These “thoughtless acts” reveal the subtle behavior of people in a world not always perfectly tailored to their needs.
Finding Rebels in a Digital World
We’ve co-opted Desire Paths and Thoughtless Acts in our own product and software designs. There are people here old enough to remember that when Twitter launched, you got no features. It was all sod. Over time, rebels hacked the format to invent the hashtag and the retweet, and Twitter just paved those into the product.
We can always rest on best practices to get to a good experience, but we really should rely on those ultra-ordinary moments of rebels to inform us if we’ve missed a great experience.
For web site redesigns, pull data on the terms users typed into an internal search box and got back zero results. Rebels provide hints at content users wanted, but we never ever published. That’s just basic gap analysis. Make sure you have your own hypotheses together before you show this to a marketing team, or things will go sideways.
“Do we even sell meth?”
“No, but the pharmacies of your stores sell ingredients that can make meth, so they want to know if you’re compliant with federal regulations”
“Are we sure that people aren’t searching for free meth?”
“Positive. It’s free downloads; the searches were in the music section”
“Good. Because that would be bad.”
That’s a gross generalization of marketers. In reality, we need them for something else — their ingenious ultra-ordinary behaviors to create content workarounds to solve business problems. One one hand, marketers are frustratingly reactive, tactical and in the weeds. On the other hand, we absolutely need the data of rebels who are reactive, tactical and in the weeds. How they handle something like an event goes a little like this:
“We fill out the form for the event, and approve and publish the Event Page and it goes on the events index and the home page. Oh, not up top though. We can’t add images or video to feed the carousel, so that doesn’t qualify for a carousel. The calendar application there doesn’t handle media.”
“So people find it somewhere on the home page?”
“Not usually. That’s why we write out everything we couldn’t publish into Mailchimp, link to a video of the event if it exists, and push it to our subscriber base, pointing to the Event Page to RSVP.”
“Because the CMS is a wet bag of cats.”
This is a good time to talk about authors.
They’re users, too — and therefore rebels. Just not the sexy kind. Content creators are coming up with elaborate workarounds to fulfill ever-shifting goals, and doing ultra-ordinary things in light of the working conditions. Undertrained, overworked, outgunned, on a mission with little chance of success. Cramped quarters. Get the metaphor?
We’ve been given just one big field to do a lot of things. We’ve built something that takes in every edge case (hello, omega, emoticon and freeform HTML buttons) not because we wanted to be flexible, but because we never bothered to figure out what they really needed.
And now, if authors aren’t wearing enough hats, we expect them to be a database admin. I mean, from a systems standpoint we’re all creating data. It just shouldn’t feel like that’s what they’re really doing.
“The future of content means changing the way the CMS works. We need both front-end and back-end solutions.”
— Karen McGrane declared this in 2013.
Since then, we’ve made some strides with the CMS, but if you don’t know all of the plug-ins, you’re never going to get what you need out of the box. Planning and designing the author experience takes time and work. Up to now, it didn’t seem like it was worth the effort.
Broken experiences lead to broken processes
Developers and designers have gotten into the habit of making content creators carry the water for what was built, and when the chips were down, threw the proverbial Porkins under the X-wing because he missed the exhaust shaft.
Knowing code is fundamental to understanding how something works and debugging a problem, but it shouldn’t be instrumental to the job of authoring information or telling stories. Now content creators are going where there’s better author experiences, getting their own accounts, and before long, if the crappy CMS isn’t fixed, it’s just abandoned.
How do we find the way out?
We’re in the age of adaptive and responsive content. Tomorrow, it’s chips in heads — how do we design around that? If you keep your content separate from the presentation, you stand a chance.
Maybe you can’t re-platform right now. Here’s how we can start fixing the process with the CMS at hand:
Get out of the way of your story.
Let’s spot these places where content is unstructured and kludged together. Sometimes those are patterns of workarounds that are screaming to be structured. Why all of the inline markup for something so simple?
Modeling to Desire Paths
Then let’s use that as clues to easier ways to publish discreet and usable packages, further broken into chunks for better CMS fields, ready for the future. Meanwhile, the design and development teams can work delivering the user experience with a better knowledge of which of parts are emphasized, removed, reused or modified.
That way, we can model from the rebel insights to inform the back end, meet user desires on the front end and stand a better chance at delivering the right thing to the right person on the right channel at the right time.
I’ve left you with these mantras to tape under your monitor. Let me know how they work.
In the meantime, I’ll leave a buckets of links to augment this piece and give a shout-out to things that inspired me while writing it. Eat up these talks on structured content from Karen McGrane and Jeff Eaton (@karenmcgrane and @eaton), CMS guidelines and author experience from Eileen Webb (@webmeadow). For more inspiration, find links to “Thoughtless Acts” as well as Flickr and Reddit communities solely devoted to desire paths.
What we do is a redemptive practice. We undo more than we do. All we can hope is to leave a place better than we found it; as a result, we help the world (and in turn ourselves) become more bitchin’. That’s my wish for you.
Walk home safe tonight! Or don’t. I’m fine either way!