Learn how to write the best copy possible to promote your design and incorporate sophisticated content strategy techniques in Copywriting for Designers.
HOW Design Live speaker Sara Wachter-Boettcher is an independent content strategist, writer, and editor based in Philadelphia. She’s the author of Content Everywhere from Rosenfeld Media; the editor in chief of A List Apart, a magazine about web content, culture, and code; and a contributor to the Pastry Box Project. When she’s not helping clients design systems for flexible, adaptable content, you’ll find her speaking at conferences like Confab, the Content Strategy Forum, Mobilism, Web Directions, UX Week, and Breaking Development.
Sara’s HOW Design Live presentation for interactive designers discussed content strategy, presenting presents solutions for the exhausting problem of web design gridlock. She shared how content strategy practices can help provide clarity and consistency in web design work and discussed how to use content conversations to strengthen working relationships with people from other teams and departments, and get everyone working toward the same goals.
Sara chatted with several interactive designers about her session at HOW Design Live Online, and it was so compelling that we just had to share it:
Collaboration, Content Strategy and Web Design: A Chat Session with Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Casey: Hello Sara, looking forward to the chat. Here’s my question: If I’m trying to move into doing more content strategy work, what advice do you have for making the transition?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Hi Casey! That’s great. I have been hearing from a lot of recruiters and managers lately looking to hire content strategists, and there aren’t enough out there yet. Getting into the field varies from person to person, depending on background. What do you do now?
Casey: I am a writer. I work for a trade magazine, but I want to make myself more marketable and expand out of the print business.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Hi Casey! That’s great. I know a lot of content strategists who came out of writing backgrounds (myself included). I’d suggest a few things:
- Get really comfortable asking questions about the content you are producing—particularly about the audience it’s for, what they are supposed to do with the information, what the business goal behind the article is, and even whether the format you’re writing in is the right way to accomplish that goal. The more comfortable you are with asking tough “why” and “who cares” questions, the stronger you’ll be at strategic work naturally.
- Take on some web work—any web work at first, but look for opportunities that get you writing content that’s not in traditional journalism forms. Writing web-based articles and blog posts can be great practice, but in content strategy, comfort with other kinds of content—like help guides, walkthroughs, user interface copy, landing pages, etc.—is really useful. This will get you involved in conversations around things like website structure and navigation, related information, metadata, taxonomy, etc…all skills that will widen your appeal as a content strategist.
- Meanwhile, I’d also try to take the lead a bit where you are, and see if you can do more of the editorial planning, calendaring out topics according to organizational goals. And, what can you start doing to measure success? Could you find new ways to track performance of print content, and use those results to inform future issues? Think about what you can do in your current role that would be desirable to future employers.
Jenna: Hi Sara! Thanks for chatting. I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance to watch your session yet, but I plan to right after this. I’m a content strategy professional/web editor/web designer as well. I work in a different city from most of my team, and I often find that keeping the lines of communication open can be a challenge. Do you have any recommendations for promoting more open communication between me and the rest of the team?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Hi Jenna! That’s a tough problem, but I think all of us who’ve worked remotely face it. I don’t think there are any easy answers, but I do think there are some things you can do. A lot of teams rely on asynchronous tools like Basecamp, which is great for collecting updates and for ensuring everyone is in the loop…but it is terrible for conversations.
I really like using Slack for group chats. It’s a newer app and it’s perfect for teams.What I’ve done before is used Slack for conversations, and then Basecamp (or whatever you’re already using) for documenting decisions.
Slack or a Google Hangout can be good for having a focused, but informal, session about a topic. I think that’s the key. You don’t need more “meetings”; what you need is a way to talk through problems. Using some of these more casual tools can create an environment where people pop on, ask questions, discuss, and decide together.
Casey: Thanks for the detailed response. Do I need to learn to code or other aspects of interactive design to be effective as a content strategist? Is it enough to study SEO, analytics and metadata?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I can’t code! I know decent HTML, which is very useful—but it’s just markup, and you can get comfortable with that in very little time. I also know how to look at and adjust CSS, but I don’t actually *know* CSS. Some content strategists I know are more technical than others, but many are not at all.
I think what’s important is having enough knowledge to have good conversations with people who do different things than you. Learn a little about a lot of things, but really dive deep into the areas of content you’re most passionate about. For me, that’s been a mix of editorial (style, message, consistency, etc.); structural (IA, taxonomy, metadata, modular content); and organization/people (what’s going to be viable within a specific organization, how to help people embrace change, etc.)
Landon: Hey Sara. You talk about having priorities so you know what’s important when you start a web design project. What led you to start thinking this way? How did you go about changing the way you approached your projects?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Hi Landon! Well, you work with enough projects that are missing priorities and you start to see the problem 🙂
What I found was that we’d end up in round-and-round design discussions about the size of this or the prominence of that or the fact that this other thing hadn’t been included, and that those conversations were happening really late.
So we’d be trying to appease 326 different stakeholders by moving icons around and adding more stuff to the homepage. Which wasn’t pleasant 🙂
But just sitting down with people and saying, “what’s most important” is hard—you get a LOT of answers. So I found that the way that you can better get at importance is through activities. Get people to rally around sticky notes, index cards, etc. and give them a time limit, and suddenly they’re making the tough choices.
And when you do that, you’re moving those arguments and “we-have-to-appease-so-and-so’ conversations upstream from design. They might still be a pain, but they aren’t derailing the whole project and forcing a ton of rework.
Ultimately, you can’t make people all agree all the time, and you can’t make projects painless, but you can improve things a ton by getting those conversations to be expressed early, in rough models, rather than late, when you’re tearing up polished work.
Jenna: I try to back up all of the analysis I gather on content strategy with hard data, and that usually helps motivate the rest of the team to improve their content strategy implementation. But I find that when I advise the team to take certain measures to improve the quality of their content strategy, many of them fizzle out after a couple of weeks and stop following my advice. How can I motivate the team follows the marketing plans and content strategies I put together so that we’re all working toward the same goal?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: This is a great question, Jenna. I’ve struggled with this for years. I think it’s really a matter of framing your work so it feels like THEIRS, not just yours.
When people see it as “advice,” it becomes easy to ignore. What you want are habits. And people develop good habits because…they do something habitually. So your goal is to make the things you want part of their habits.
I think that the best way to make things more habitual is to create strategies and plans with more people involved, not fewer. It’s easy to say, oh, we need to limit this to just the senior team and then the rest of the staff will implement, but if people don’t feel like they are part of the process of deciding, it’s really easy for them to (often unintentionally) thwart you. I’d spend some time looking at co-creation techniques, which are all about getting big messy groups to create things together.
Jenna: Thank you so much! It’s a relief to talk to someone who encounters the same problems I do on a regular basis. On a different note, what are your favorite tools for improving content strategy (in terms of analysis, SEO, etc.)?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I’m a big believer in regularly going to your audience and talking with them. I love qualitative conversations. Sure, a few conversations will not tell you definitively what everyone wants or thinks, but they WILL open your eyes up to viewpoints and needs and ideas you’d never considered. I think that we don’t do that nearly enough as an industry.
And—let me just bang the collaboration drum one more time here—I really think that workshops/collaborative sessions/co-creation techniques are essential. I say this because I have worked with a bunch of big brands and universities and foundations and ecommerce sites…and across the board, the #1 barrier to great content is that the plan is not sustainable and implementable internally.
Jenna: Great advice! In what media do you generally talk to your audience? Surveys, social media?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: It depends, but I think it’s ideal when you can get some broad-but-shallow feedback, like in a survey or over a Twitter chat with fans, and then deepen your knowledge with some actual interviews.
I recently did that—a short survey sent over Twitter/FB, which asked a few questions and asked if the respondent would be interested in a 30-minute 1:1 phone call. About half of them were. So I picked some people who gave interesting, nuanced survey responses, called them, and let them talk. We learned so much.
Landon: You mention a few project issues here. What has been the biggest hurdle working in the digital realm in how have you overcome it?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I think I started to address this in one of my other answers, but I will try to do it real justice here. I think the hardest thing is change. Organizational change. Adapting to digital has been, and continues to be, very challenging for a ton of organizations. And even for tech companies—because change is still happening, very fast. People want hard and fast answers, they want solutions, they want black and white. And there’s so little of that in digital, because we don’t know what will happen in the future.
We have ideas and guesses—like, yes, there will be more and more mobile devices, and we’ll see more wearable tech items, and people will do more and more stuff online. Great. But specifically what it will look like in 3 years or 5 years? I would not suggest you tie yourself to any one vision of the future.
So, what happens is that organizations and people want answers, but it’s murky. So they find something that sounds certain, and cling to that. When instead, what we really need is adaptation—constant adaptation. It’s a huge perspective shift for a lot of people to think not just, “oh, my job is changing for the web,” but that “my job is changing now and is never going to stop changing ever.”
So THAT is my biggest hurdle: helping people come to terms with change so that the big, sparkly strategies they want to enact actually stay relevant and sustainable.
Jenna: What trends do you anticipate will emerge in the coming year in terms of content strategy and design? What should I be looking for?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I think we’re seeing a lot of good work in mobile now—a lot of great design patterns emerging that really deal with content well. At first, everyone was just getting rid of content on mobile (which didn’t solve the problem) or just kinda letting the page scroll on forever without really thinking about the content. Now we’re seeing designs on the Z axis (think: layers, dimensions) that allow content to be revealed or hidden; we’re seeing smart layout techniques in responsive design, like flexbox; we’re seeing smart uses of typography to emphasize messages.
So as that happens, I think that what we need to do is really look at, how do we embrace these new design patterns? How do we create content in structured, organized ways that it can fit into mobile experiences?
Landon: That makes perfect sense. And it seems like “organizational change” takes on a different meaning. At my company, we’ve had a particular position open on and off for a couple years. Someone will fill it and leave six months later, which is incredibly destructive to the workflow. Do you have any advice on how the other members of the team can continue in the midst of all the change?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Is there a reason that this keeps happening? I’m wondering if the overall workflow has a problem that needs to be addressed that is keeping people from being successful in this position.
I’m also thinking that it might help to get people together and identify where the current workflow is working well and not working well. Everyone knows there are issues, it sounds like, but trying to really pinpoint where the breakdowns are can be super helpful to identifying how to fix it. I’d start documenting it on a big whiteboard and having people talk through where they have questions, where things tend to go off the rails, etc.
Jenna: In my position, I’m responsible for a lot of diverse tasks in addition to content management (as I’m sure you are), and I’m concerned that it’s spreading me too thin to dedicate enough focus to an overarching content strategy. What do you do to stay organized and focused on the larger goal?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Yep, there’s never enough time. I do think there’s often a big gap between strategy and day-to-day, and it’s hard to keep your eye on the one when the other takes over. So the key is really bridging that gap between big picture and details.
One thing that you can do in order to do that is to spend some time documenting the overall strategy, and then identifying subgoals and initiatives the fit into that strategy. So, break the strategy down into pieces that can then become projects. And give yourself a schedule for coming back to the big picture and assessing progress—like a quarterly governance check-in.
I’m also a fan of roadmaps. Take the vision, and then ID a few key initiatives that would help bring that vision to life, and what resources/next steps they need. Prioritize them, spread them out over the year, and use that as a guide.
Jenna: That’s a wonderful approach. I’ll try to implement a workflow like that more! I do a bit of web design as well. Do you think it’s more important to design a site around the content, or is it better to ensure the site’s functionality and then integrate the content into the design?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I don’t think you can be sure what the right functionality even is unless you know what you’re trying to communicate. It doesn’t necessarily mean you need all the content up front. But it means you need to know what you’re trying to communicate, what’s important, what people need to DO with the content. Otherwise, how can you make choices about navigation or CTA or forms or fields?
And, if you have a clear idea of messaging and voice—in my talk, I reference an activity for this—it can also make design a lot easier. Because you’re not designing with guidance that says “I like blue” and “make it pop,” but “we want to emphasize credibility and experience, while still projecting openness and a casual feel.”
Jenna: Good point. If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get started in web design & content management?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: I started out in journalism, then got into copywriting, then web writing for an agency doing a lot of web projects, and then started asking a lot of questions and pushing to get invited to meetings sooner and all that. That led into building a content strategy practice at my agency, which grew into a foundational part of how we approached all our projects. When I left there, in 2011, I had a team of strategists and writers. I’ve been a consultant since then!And….I’ve got to run at the top of the hour, so I’m about to post the last question I can answer 🙂
Casey: How do you know when a content strategy you’ve consulted on or put into place has been really successful? How do you define/measure success in this line of work?
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: So much of my consulting work is about making people feel confident and capable of living out their strategies. So a lot of the success comes from me hearing, months after I am done, that things are feeling and running better internally, and that some of the ongoing challenges are getting worked out. In my work, because I am consulting more than I am “doing,” I don’t often have things like analytics numbers to point at.
If you want more about the project I just mentioned, slides are here.
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