Agile development, lean UX … What about a Lean Content Manifesto?

What would a Lean Content Manifesto look like?

The digital world needs a Lean (or should that be Agile?) Content Manifesto. If you agree, get in touch!

Developer and UXers are ahead of us, and it’s working for them

Making software used to take longer, and be way more painful than it should. The wrong people were in control and devs ended up having to focus on the wrong stuff. It sucked. So a group of forward-thinking people who cared wrote the Agile Manifesto, which duly took over the world:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Meanwhile, UX work has a reputation for taking ages and being expensive. But lean UX is catching on. The Lean UX Manifesto is deliberately familiar:

We are developing a way to create digital experiences that are valued by our end users. Through this work, we hold in high regard the following:

  • Early customer validation over releasing products with unknown end-user value
  • Collaborative design over designing on an island
  • Solving user problems over designing the next “cool” feature
  • Measuring KPIs over undefined success metrics
  • Applying appropriate tools over following a rigid plan
  • Nimble design over heavy wireframes, comps or specs

As stated in the Agile Manifesto, “While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Working out what’s important and what it’s more important than, and then using that to tell the world what we’re all about, seems like a great idea to me. So, why isn’t there a Lean (or Agile) Content Manifesto yet? And who wants to make it happen?

By the way, this quote from Jim Highsmith’s history of the Agile Manifesto is truly lovely, and points us in a great direction

We all felt privileged to work with a group of people who held a set of compatible values, a set of values based on trust and respect for each other and promoting organizational models based on people, collaboration, and building the types of organizational communities in which we would want to work. At the core, I believe Agile Methodologists are really about “mushy” stuff—about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about “people as our most important asset” but actually “acts” as if people were the most important, and lose the word “asset”. So in the final analysis, the meteoric rise of interest in—and sometimes tremendous criticism of—Agile Methodologies is about the mushy stuff of values and culture.

Jim Highsmith’s history of the Agile Manifesto.

Notes on content strategy and UX overlap

I’ve started reusing an oldish notebook recently, and these two pages (ripped out of a hotel notepad) just dropped out of it. They date back to the week before I wrote Content strategy and UX are twins. This was the thinking that started me down that path, but it kind of got lost somewhere along the way. So here are the raw-form thoughts.

Yes, I have two distinct styles of handwriting. No, I only have one personality.

The two three two things you can do online:

  • consume information
  • interact with systems or people (including create).

i.e. absorb information passively, or exchange active input for output (calculated, social, buying things, whatever).

Content strategy is traditionally concerned with:

  1. consumption: making information easier to consume, and
  2. archiving the results of interaction.

UX is traditionally concerned with interaction as it happens.

BUT interactions need a lasting impression to be good experiences (if the shopping cart is great, but the stuff I bought never gets dispatched = fail).

AND consumption is a [user] experience.

AND interaction affects content.

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If we’ve developed professional specialities based on how passive or active the user is, we risk forgetting the way people slip between consumption and interaction. Do you go to Facebook to read, to interact, or both? It’s both a content experience and an interaction experience. This is why UX specialists and content strategists are twins – we’re working together on what, to users, is a single experience.

In cases where there’s an offline aspect as well – as with shopping online – even a perfect online experience counts for zilch if the offline experience sucks. The twins of UX and content strategy need a close sibling taking care of people in the real world, too.

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This post is 274 words long, with an average reading grade of 9.3.

The value of work, or Telling idiots how to do simple things

This is the first post I’m sharing from my “500 words” experiment earlier this year. I wrote the original version early on April 10th. I’ve since changed jobs.

What I do is pretty easy, really. Sometimes I say that my job is telling idiots how to do simple things, which is mean and wrong, but like all good self-depreciating lines contains a small but important truth.

“My job is <lie>telling idiots</lie>how to do <truthgrain>simple things</truthgrain>”

Everyone else in the office knows a whole lot of stuff that I don’t. I depend on them to do all that “other stuff” that isn’t my job, and which I can’t do. They’re not idiots, and I don’t tell them what to do.

What does feel true, to me at least, is the “simple things” bit. It feels like my work is pretty straightforward stuff, which means I’m a good match for the role I have. It feels like I’m just doing really obvious stuff that anyone could do. It’s difficult to imagine that other people rely on me to do that “other stuff” that isn’t their job, and which they can’t do.

Simple things are only simple because I know how to approach them. I struggle to see that, objectively, my job isn’t simple. I forget that most people couldn’t turn up and just start doing what I do. And then I end up believing the “idiots” bit, which is bad.

Simple things

I don’t make great things the likes of which the world has never seen before. I’m not labouring at the intersection of inspiration and genius. I’m doing shit like editing things and trying to structure a lot of information in a useful way. Even if what I do seems obvious to me, I’m “adding value” without changing the world.

Sometimes I add value (that’s the last time I use that cliché, I promise) by doing things that aren’t obvious to other people. I do stuff that they wouldn’t have thought of themselves. Hell, that’s why they pay me – because not everyone can do it. This carries the related but opposite risks of arrogance (“look at me improving your shit without even trying!”) and forgetting my own value (“no, don’t thank me; all I did was make some really simple changes”).

As far as this next point is concerned, it doesn’t actually matter whether I’m mentally magnifying or minimising what I bring to my team. What can happen next is that I fall into the trap of undervaluing the people by judging them on their ability to do my job. How weird is that? Oh, empathy, you elusive bitch.

Judging my workmates on the wrong criteria like this can, if unchecked, lead to me thinking that I’m the smartest guy in the room. This is bad for my easily-inflated ego, bad for my motivation and bad for the way I behave. It’s also bad for the work I do. If I’m pretty sure that I’m the best one around, I’m not going try so hard to impress anyone else.

So I guess that the point of this is to remind myself to value other people in the right way, not the wrong way.

Or maybe it’s that I should get smarter, get better at things, and start doing work that doesn’t leave me kind of unimpressed with my own abilities. I’m not smart or skilled enough at anything yet, but that would be pretty damn cool.

But that sounds like effort, and maybe I don’t know what I want to be good at. Maybe because I don’t really appreciate what I’m already good at, this might be a rabbit hole without an end. Or a rabbit.

I’ll keep thinking.

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This is 594 words long, with an average reading grade of 7.3.

Content strategy and UX are twins

Update, 26 November: I just found the Notes on content strategy and UX overlap I made earlier this year when I started thinking about this sort of thing.

In a few weeks I’ll be at the inaugural UX NZ conference, co-presenting on teaching a corporate web team to value user experience. So you might wonder something like, “well, that sounds like fun, but what does a content strategist know about UX?”

I could dodge that question by saying that I don’t have to know anything about UX, because I’ll be presenting alongside Adam Kendall [link updated, 23 Oct] and he knows more than enough for the both of us. Frankly, that’s not a bad answer.

Adam and I worked together for the best part of a year. With the amount I learned from him it feels like it was a lot longer. One of the reasons we worked together so well, though, was because the way we go about our jobs is so similar. Content strategy work and user experience work share a great deal. I see them as twins.

We came from all over the place

I’ve never met a content strategist who doesn’t sound a bit like they stumbled into content strategy half by accident. Whether starting as a writer, or in marketing, or as a designer, content strategists are the sort of people who begin solving problems that connect to whatever they’ve been working on, and soon find themselves looking at the largest-scale content problems that their workplace could offer.

When Richard Ingram asked where content strategists come from he found that the six most common paths taken were via curatorial, editorial, managerial, technical, design and marketing jobs. That’s a wide field. He broke things down a lot more than that, too.

UX work, I believe, attracts people in a similar way. They’re people who keep asking questions, people who follow problems to their source. You might even have started working on separate solutions before you see the connections: Oh, this isn’t one design issue and one information architecture problem – these are two symptoms of poor UX.

I haven’t been able to find as thorough a breakdown for UX people as Richard’s research above, but The Muse’s blog post How I Got Into UX: 5 Pros Share Their Path is at least anecdotal evidence of something similar – a wide field populated by people who have come from all sorts of places, but who share a mindset.

Update, Jan 13, 2014: The research is in! The Neilson Norman Group surveyed around 1,000 UX people and found that “No matter your educational background, you can get into user experience”. Also, “there’s no single job title to aim for”. More: User Experience Career Advice.

It’s not coincidence that UX and CS both attract people with different skills and backgrounds. Our fields need a range of perspectives. A more homogenised group of people would be less able to tackle the problems that we solve.

We rely on empathy

It’s axiomatic that user experience work requires empathy. It’s possibly a little less obvious that empathy is as necessary for content strategists. Corey Vilhauer is as eloquent as anyone can be on this (here he is, a year ago, on how content strategy is actually “people strategy”), but he’s far from the only one beating this drum. [Link fixed, 1 Nov. Sorry, Corey!]

Jonathon Colman’s article about Facebook’s Design Officers’ Training Corps quotes a trainer:

“Our job is to listen. It’s to listen to complaints and then turn them into something better. That’s our core strength…”

Is Jonathon a content strategist, UX professional, designer, or something else? When his job is to listen and turn complaints into something better, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the empathy that he’s going to need to be successful. (But for the record, he’s a content strategist.)

Once you know that it’s not about what you want to make, but what your audience wants to do, your head’s in the right space. The funny thing about that space is how you’ll find UXers and content strategists bumping into one another.

Before we move on, open Kate Keifer-Lee’s wonderful post On Helping to read next. It brings these first two points of UX/CS overlap together nicely. You’re working in a field where you’ll never know everything, which requires empathy with your users and with your workmates. The next step is to help each other.

We’re not the only empathetic ones. We’re not the only ones who work well with others. We don’t have special superpowers disguised as strategic skills. The best web designers I know have taught me lessons in empathy, and any good manager knows that working toward a shared vision starts with understanding individuals. Sometimes our most empathetic move is simply supporting them.

Which leads to the next overlap…

We’re collaborators. We have to be

UX and CS people have the same fallback when we have something difficult to work on. “Let’s all get around a table and…”

Then, while everyone’s around that table, we UX and CS people are going to gently guide conversation and problem-solving in a particular way. What does our audience want? Who are we building this for? Adam and I talk about “bringing the user into the room”, which isn’t the most novel way of putting it, but describes an approach that we both developed, separately, in our (supposedly different) jobs.

So, what does a content strategist know about UX?

I know what it’s like to work in a field that requires more experience and knowledge than I could ever have. I know that we must begin with an understanding of the people we’re building things for. I know that I need other people to help build those things. I’m sold on collaboration and empathy being two of the most important things I can bring to work.

I won’t be the only content strategist at UX NZ. There are at least two others on the programme (this talk about creating an information experience looks particularly tasty), which is a great sign that we’re welcome in each other’s worlds. The closer we work together the better off the web will be.

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This post is 978 words long, with an average reading grade of 9.0.

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