What do you get when you mix content designers, karaoke and controversial grammar? Answer: Confab 2018

Aimee (left) and Rhiannon enjoying some American cuisine!

A few weeks ago, two Deliveroo content designers, Aimee Quantrill and Rhiannon Jones, hopped on a flight to Minneapolis for a three-day content extravaganza courtesy of Confab.

Confab is the annual chance for content strategists, content designers, UX writers and anyone else from the world of content, to get together, take part in workshops, network, chat, laugh, eat cake, sing karaoke and hear fascinating talks from across the industry.

After 18 hours of flight-time, a lot of coffee and many, many American sweets, here are a few of the things that really resonated.

Words are the lowest-cost, lowest-risk way to design

“Thoughtful, consistent interface content is a core element of a well designed user experience”.

Biz Sanford from Shopify talked to a packed room about words and the design process. She spoke about how words are the lowest-cost, lowest-risk way to design — and a conversation is the simplest way to think about any user interaction. Designing with words first — even if it’s just a rough approximation of what the final content will be — makes designing a faster and simpler process, too.

Biz Sanford, Shopify, Copyright 2018

In particular, creating a content elements library, like the one above, makes it possible to design content-first, fast. A list of the common labels, modules and interactions, those building blocks that make up your app or interface, which you can pull from to quickly mock-up a screen or feature.

That means your team has a resource for designing with real content — without having to involve a content designer in the first instance. If your product design team is bigger than your content design team, that’s a really valuable thing!

Edge cases really matter

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s talk on ethical tech really highlighted the potentially damaging impact of designing and writing for a happy user on a ‘happy path’.

We always have a picture in our minds of the person using our product — that picture’s usually shaped by real insight, and genuinely represents the majority of users. It’s that person we spend most of our time designing for.

Edge cases crop up when someone uses your product in extreme or unexpected circumstances. It’s common practice to treat edge cases as a thought experiment, after designing for the core user. They’re the ‘what if’s of design.

What if the user receiving your flight confirmation email had just booked a trip to a family funeral? Would you still choose a party popper emoji for the subject line? What if the person using your electronic scale was recovering from an eating disorder? Would you send them a notification to say ‘try again next week’, after weighing in a few ounces heavier?

Edge cases rarely move the needle — by definition, they’re the minority. So without data to make a business case for deeper consideration, it’s easy to treat them as an afterthought.

But Sara’s talk demonstrated — with illuminating and shocking examples — that treating edge cases as an afterthought can have a hugely negative impact. Everything from using heteronormative pronouns for a user’s partner, to ambushing a user with images of a child they’ve lost simply to remind them that the image received ‘engagement’ in the past.

She ended by underlining the responsibility we all have to think about the ways our products exist in real people’s lives, and how our design and language choices affect everyone.

The hallowed halls

Organise for impact, not volume

Andrew Schmidt from Slack gave a fantastic talk on UX writing. In particular, his story of how the team evolved, organised and re-organised over time really resonated with us, mirroring the tactics we’ve implemented as we’ve grown the Content Design team at Deliveroo.

In the beginning they were a central team taking content requests from product managers and designers. They could all sit together, sharing thoughts and ideas and first drafts. But this meant they were brought in late, after most of the design decisions had been made — writing over placeholder copy rather than designing the visual experience and product communication hand-in-hand.

They later fully embedded in product teams. That’s great, for lots of reasons — you’re collaborating fully with product designers, managers and engineers. But soon the workload becomes overwhelming, especially if there are more product designers than writers.

So is there a third way? Well, Andrew described how the team have started to move away from being fully embedded, instead selecting high-impact projects to focus on — collaborating full-time with the rest of the project team — and pivoting away from lower priority, lower impact work that perhaps doesn’t need so much attention. This approach is still in its infancy, so he promised to update us at next year’s Confab on how it’s working for them. We’re looking forward to it!

Run interference and take the journey offline

Sarah Richards spoke about how the problem you’re trying to solve might not actually be the one you need to work on.

If the user is at a point in the journey where they’re angry, frustrated or stressed, your natural instinct as a content person is to help manage those emotions and expectations. But what if the pain point you’re trying to manage was preventable in the first place? Maybe it isn’t always a case of trying to make your users feel better or trying to get them back on the ‘happy path’, maybe it’s more about exploring what got them to this point in the first place — then managing that problem.

She used the example of someone who is frustrated at not getting the payments they were owed for over 12 months. They’re angry, stressed and highly agitated — all of which make it harder to turn the situation around. However, by mapping the journey back, you might be able to find a minor pain point that triggered this journey. Something like them not being able to find the claims form to get their regular payments. This small friction can develop into much bigger issues, so solving it can save a lot of time and pain for everyone.

She also spoke about how it isn’t alway the online experience that is the root cause either. It could be something offline that starts a user off along this bad path. This resonated a lot — we can get so blinkered when we work in the world of apps, and forget about the offline world. Mapping the journey both offline and then online means you’re much more likely to spot friction or issues early — and more likely to be able to solve for a much smaller problem.

Tone is a spectrum

Andy Welfle and Michael Metts gave a great workshop on unpacking voice and tone in user interfaces. In particular, how we can use voice and tone to make copy more understandable and more usable, as well as, where appropriate, add a little brand sparkle.

Andy’s description of how voice and tone work in product was particularly good. He first showed a sliding scale diagram — describing it as how traditional marketers and advertisers might think about tone. At the top, there are straplines and slogans, headings, packaging — these are areas with ‘lots’ of tone. In the middle, places where you might use ‘less’ tone — welcome emails, for example. At the bottom there are all those little places that ‘don’t have any tone at all’ — legal text or error messages.

But actually, tone isn’t a scale — some places don’t have more tone than others. It’s a spectrum. Each tonal value, each element of your voice, can scale up and down depending on context. Error messages might be particularly ‘supportive’ in tone, vs a success message, which might be more ‘motivational’. This is a valuable and simple way to demonstrate how tone functions — and really useful for communicating how tone works to non-writers, too.

Good practices equal great content

Marissa Phillips gave a brilliant presentation about building the content strategy team at Airbnb. The entire talk was incredible, and a big takeaway was how important best practices are for the team.

As a growing team moving at speed, we’re often working across multiple projects, with varying deadlines and very different user needs. We tend to try to fit our time around projects, but Marissa specifically mentioned that she encourages her team to have set days for projects, where you just work purely on that one feature or piece. That way you avoid context switching, and being fully immersed in a feature or piece of work means you can really dig into it and produce great content — while also feeling like you’re really achieving something and making progress.

Marissa also spoke about the power of ‘no, but…’. When you’re building a discipline or a team, saying no to new work is incredibly hard, because there’s always that fear that if you say no to work too many times, people will stop asking. Introducing the idea of ‘no, but…’ is a brilliant compromise. So it’s no longer an outright no. Instead, it’s ‘no, but… I have a template you can use’ or ‘no, but… I can provide guidelines and edit once it’s done’, providing a good content base, and making sure the team is approachable but not overloaded.

The oxford comma controversy is alive and well

Some presentations used it with abandon, others made a point of stating that the following presentation would contain no Oxford commas at all. It seems that, even though content people are pretty in tune with each other on most points, this controversy won’t be resolved anytime soon.

This is just a handful of things that we took away from Confab. It was incredible to chat about the opportunities and challenges we’re all dealing with in our content roles, and there are a huge amount of things we learnt at Confab that we’ll be trying out at Deliveroo to see how we can help grow our discipline and shape the way we create content. If you’re interested in being part of it all, we’re hiring — so feel free to get in touch!