Electricity, Connection, and Content in the Southland

Southern California is a hard place to create community. So when an organization starts to do it successfully, we should take notice.

Innovate Pasadena Connect Week 2015On Monday, Oct. 19, Innovate Pasadena launches Connect Week 2015, a series of events about design, technology, science, and business. Innovate Pasadena is a nonprofit organization that organizes weekly meetups about these topics, and this is the second year that they have expanded their efforts into a weeklong series. Through these and other events, Innovate Pasadena has been successful at nurturing a community of entrepreneurship and enterprise. And a key to the organization’s success is keeping it local.

In sprawling Los Angeles county, with its legendary traffic and strained public transportation system, geography is our biggest challenge to meeting and exchanging ideas. Sometimes it’s just too hard to journey across town from Pasadena to attend a meetup in Santa Monica. That’s why the Northeast Los Angeles UX Meetup group exists.

Content Strategy Southern California ambitiously aims to reach the content and design community from Santa Barbara to San Diego. But geography is not friendly. We know we have to plan events in Santa Barbara, Irvine, and San Diego, and we are looking at organizing meetups in these locations in the coming year. While many local tech and design hubs exist — Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena — the content community in the southland is scattered throughout these areas. ESRI, a company that regularly employs content strategists, is located as far east as Redlands. Depending on traffic, getting to Redlands can be a three-hour drive from Venice Beach.

Despite the distances, we continue to try to unite the content and design professionals of southern California. On October 21, we will even hold our own event as part of Innovate Pasadena Connect Week 2015. In Transforming User Experience Design with Content Strategy, three content strategy experts will speak about how careful attention to content helps produce better customer experiences. And these three experts are traveling to Pasadena from mid-city Los Angeles, Glendale, and Eagle Rock.

In a recent piece in the New York Times (“Why Can’t We Stop Talking about New York in the Late 1970s,” Oct. 10, 2015), novelist and memoirist Edmund White writes about the community that cities help create. “Face-to-face encounters are essential to a city’s vitality,” White writes, “even among people who aren’t sure of each other’s names, for the exchange of ideas and to generate a sense of electricity.”

White continues by noting that, in New York in the 1970s, “creative people of all sorts could meet without plans, could give each other tips or discuss burgeoning theories or markets or movements.”

It sounds as if New York in the ’70s might have been similar to the meetup culture we’re trying to create today. We meet to discuss theories, markets, movements, strategies. We meet to get the benefits of connection. White calls it “a sense of electricity” — we can call it community.

What do you think we should call it? Let’s talk about it. When should we meet?

Content First and Always: More Highlights from the Content Strategy Innovation Summit

When Content Strategy Innovation Summit attendees returned to downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 11 for the meeting’s second day, they were treated to a spirited defense of designing with content first. The content strategy and marketing sessions throughout the rest of the day focused on progress in academia, healthcare, and content marketing.

Stephanie Hay speaks about content-first design.
Heck yeah! Stephanie Hay advocates for the content-first approach to design.

Content-First Design
By Stephanie Hay
Director, Content at Capital One

Hay has been making inroads at financial services company Capital One and in the content strategy community as a whole by making the case for designing digital experiences with content first. Hay calls this approach “content iterative design,” and she explains that it’s the lowest risk way to create new digital products and features. Many of the iterations can be done collaboratively and inexpensively in tools such as Google docs or Microsoft Word.

Hay draws inspiration for content-first approaches from the world of gaming, where experiences such as registration and onboarding are often done in a conversational, fun way. With a few reasonable adjustments, why shouldn’t the same approach work for financial services?

Like game designers, content creators need to “nail the story first” – understand “what the hero really needs to win,” or, in user-experience speak, what the customer needs to accomplish. Getting the hero/customer there depends on clear, conversational copy first, before sophisticated visual designs or interactions.

“Design [write] for discovery” is Hay’s next piece of advice. As we lead customers to the next step of success, allow them to discover what they need to do as part of the process. Don’t overwhelm them with instructions. The design and content should guide them along almost effortlessly.

Hay and her team of content strategists use this content-first approach with product owners and technology partners, and the effort helps them create minimum viable products quickly. Hay cites other benefits: faster approvals, rapid testing, smooth product launches, and a higher level of engagement in content and design across the organization. In other words, Hay has almost everyone doing content-first design.

Many Speakers, One Voice: Using Strategic Governance to Unify Digital Content in a Multi-Contributor Enterprise
By Stacia Jesner
Director of Digital Content Strategy, Johns Hopkins Medicine
and Aaron Watkins
Senior Director of Internet Strategy and Digital Content Marketing, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Hundreds of content creators contribute to the hundreds of web sites of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Jesner and Watkins shared their story of gently bringing these diverse contributors into alignment on a unified digital platform.

Like Keith McCluskey of Harvard Law School, Jesner and Watkins face the problems of content governance in academia, where everyone is an expert and the publish/perish mindset has a heavy influence on content creation. As Jesner and Watkins explained, they were able to tap into their organization’s unique culture of kindness and care to open the door for successful content governance.

Jesner and Watkins outlined the four steps of their multi-year approach:

  1. Adapt to the culture:
    Early on, Jesner and Watkins realized that talking about core governance tools such as standards and guidelines would be met with resistance. They reframed the conversation as educators.
  2. Embrace the role of educator:
    They spoke to educator-leaders as peers, tapping into the learning culture to start conversations about consistency and innovation.
  3. Be the voice of the customer:
    After establishing trust in their audience, Jesner and Watkins began talking about customer goals and brought data from interviews, focus groups, and Foresee surveys to the table.
  4. Turn leaders into followers:
    Jesner and Watkins established a pattern of success and shared postive metrics such as improved search rankings and better patient/customer experiences. Now they count some of those experts as their advocates.

Content Strategy in the Center of Marketing and UX

Contently slide about content strategy
In content marketing, a content strategy is at the intersection of what a brand wants, what customers are interested in, and market opportunities.

Throughout the summit, a number of speakers focused on content strategy in content marketing, the art and science of getting branded content onto consumers’ screens. Representatives from companies such as Twitter, Tenet Partners, the Economist, and Contently spoke about the unique content and data challenges in this field.

Because my focus is UX content strategy, many of these sessions are not immediately applicable to my work. But this Contently slide rang a bell. It places content strategy at the center of business goals, audience interests, and market opportunities. For UX content strategy, we can draw a similar Venn diagram that places content strategy at the center of business goals, user needs, and product development.

I’ve also seen a Venn diagram that places content strategy in the center of visual design, interaction design, and technology. In all versions, content strategy remains in the center. In both marketing and UX content, the content strategist looks in all directions, bridges teams and gaps, and makes sure the entire effort keeps moving forward.

Using Strategy to Create Successful Digital Products

Book Review:
UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want

By Jaime Levy

O’Reilly Media, 312 pages

UX-Strategy-How-To-Devise-Products-People-WantIn the preface to UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want, Jaime Levy suggests who should read her book: entrepreneurs, product managers, and designers. But other members of creative product teams, such as marketers, content strategists, and copywriters, will get valuable insights from this book. When an urgent “copy-to-the-rescue” project comes across a writer’s desk (or “visual-design-to-the-rescue” for designers), such a project is often a frantic attempt to fix major flaws in the product and the UX strategy work that may or may not have been done. This book helps outline what that strategy work should be.

Levy has been practicing UX strategy since 2007, about a year before the term first appeared in print. Today she runs her own agency in Los Angeles and teaches at University of Southern California, and she has funneled much of her teaching skills into this book. She presents a step-by-step approach to coming up with, testing, and designing a successful digital product – that is, a product that consumers want. And, as she describes with examples such as Airbnb, Waze, and Uber, if consumers want the product, then some worthwhile disruption is probably occurring and some money is being made.

Well before that happy day occurs, however, UX strategy needs to happen.

Interestingly, the term UX strategy arose at about the same time as content strategy. Discussion continues about whether the terms are precise or appropriate for either practice. Levy herself engages the debate by asking UX strategists such as Holly North and Peter Merholz, “What does UX strategy mean to you? Is it a bogus job title?”

It’s evident that UX strategy is not bogus for Levy. “UX strategy is the process that should be started first,” Levy writes, “before the design or development of a digital product begins. It’s the vision of a solution that needs to be validated with real potential customers to prove that it’s desired in the marketplace. Although UX design encompasses numerous details such as visual design, content messaging, and how easy it is for a user to accomplish a task, UX strategy is the ‘Big Picture.’”

To arrive at that Big-Picture vision, Levy explains, entrepreneurial product teams can focus on four tenets of UX strategy.

  • Business Strategy – what the company is; “why the company exists”
  • Value Innovation – when the company aligns something new at the right price point and with the right utility
  • Validated User Research – making sure that the customers you’re targeting see the value and can use your product
  • Killer UX Design – innovative design that reaches beyond established patterns

The list above admittedly oversimplifies these terms. To get a more complete understanding of how these tenets inform each other and the shape of digital products, read Levy’s book. Her description of these tenets is one of the book’s highlights. Her insights and examples throughout these pages are engaging, sometimes surprising, and stimulating for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Levy’s own intelligence and spirit come through when she’s explaining her UX strategy framework, and part of that spirit is her sense of humor. To help clarify what UX strategy should be, she publishes her own top 10 list of things that are not UX strategies. My two favorite things that are not UX strategies:

  1. A creative permutation of trending buzzwords that were just used by another startup that raised financing (for instance, peer to-peer sharing economies).
  1. A laundry list of features!

Levy also puts her humor to incisive use when encouraging teams to replace the customer journey map with an ecommerce funnel matrix. The funnel matrix she proposes is faster to create and tracks more closely to the product’s performance once it’s been released. Journey maps have a tendency of being ignored after they’re created, or worse: “The posters are then hung or stored somewhere in the office to hopefully influence employees on their way to the bathroom.”

Levy’s humor is based on insight and behavior that she and many others in the design community have witnessed. Who hasn’t been in a situation where certain design tools and approaches are overused, despite their ineffectiveness? Brainstorming sessions, anyone? North Star? Oh yes, Levy mentions that in her top 10 list.

Levy has a considerable store of UX strategy experience, and she freely shares many of her own work examples. Even when the outcomes are not exactly positive, such as her confirming for a Hollywood executive that his ecommerce idea will not work, we get to see the process of considering new ideas, testing them, and possibly turning them into worthwhile products. Levy has refined her process into a UX Strategy Toolkit, which she makes available with the book. Entrepreneurial teams can use Levy’s templates to research, test, build, and refine their own products.

Perhaps giving out the UX Strategy Toolkit is not, after all, a great favor. To really use this resource and take full advantage of the framework, a product team will have to undertake an exceptional amount of work, collaborate intensely, and be prepared to iterate and pivot quickly.

UX strategy is difficult, unpredictable work. Levy’s framework tries to provide the path to happy innovation and disruption, but there are still hundreds of steps to take along the way. “As a UX strategist,” Levy writes, “I am paid to help my clients face dilemmas and chase dreams.” With this book, Levy shares her experience and her process for how the chase can end in success.


UX Strategy Launch Party
On July 17 at 6 p.m. at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, Jaime Levy will be on hand for a launch party for UX Strategy: How to Devise Innovative Digital Products That People Want. Levy will be answering questions and signing copies of her book. More information is available on Eventbrite.