Webstock 2012: design and craft

My single favourite quote of Webstock 2012 came courtesy of Scott Hanselman:

So many people who had great blogs now have mediocre tweets.

Given the immense volume of tweets and the beauty of shared notetaking, I now try to stay offline as much as possible at Webstock, so I can focus on the speaker and my pencilled notes. But over the last few days I’ve tried to boil down some of the themes I heard emerging to share here, in two posts. Today: design and craft. Tomorrow: find your happy place, strategic creativity, and One Big Idea.

Working with design/ers

One of the greatest revelations to me since coming to work at Boost has been working with designers. As someone who works primarily through words, I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of watching designers do their thing.

It’s also been humbling to find out how accidentally moronic I sometimes was as a client. Here’s a reenactment of a series of comments I once gave to a poor designer:

I really like what you’ve done – but could we maybe see it in blue instead of brown?

Oh, okay. Hmmmm. How about green?

Oh. Sure. Right. Look, I’m really sorry to keep doing this – but perhaps we could see it in pink?

It’s still not quite right – could you show me the brown version again?

Hey – the brown version’s great! Let’s go with that.

Yeah. I was that person. Now, of course, I realise that (a) designers will always be better at design than I am and (b) almost every variation of colour, placement and size has already been trialled before the best version is shown to the client – and if it wasn’t trialled, it’s probably because it was a bad idea.

So I was delighted by all the speakers who touched on how we can work better with design and the good folks who craft it.


Adam Lisagor

Adam Lisagor hit so many buttons for me on this topic. Here are some of the things I scribbled down (more here in the shared notes):

  • ‘Thank you for knowing what you wanted’ – the compliment for a dream client.
  • There’s a difference between opinions (just saying stuff because you’ve been invited to a meeting and hey – you get to share your opinion!) and people who are identify problems and want to find answers.
  • If you’re the spokesperson for a committee, speak with one voice: either distill the many voices to one piece of feedback, or at least take the names out.
  • As a designer, you have been chosen for your demonstrated taste. Sometimes, your client is paying you to correct them.
  • The phrase ‘treat me nicely, with trust and respect’ works for both sides.

Michael B Johnson from Pixar also had some doozies. Here he is on Giving Good Note (aka feedback):

  • Point out the problem
  • Offer a solution (to show you’ve thought this problem through) (not because you expect this solution to be used)
  • Give this at the time when it can still be used.

Johnson also invoked the rule of ‘Yes, And’ rather than ‘No, but’, and noted that great teams have great morale, which is needed in the face of constant criticism. I love that at Pixar, criticism takes the form of ‘plussing’ – it’s part of the company’s culture, and it’s essential to the way they create things.


Jared Spool

Finally, Jared Spool made a million interesting points, outlining five different breeds of design (Unintentional design, Self design, Genius design, Activity focused design, Experience focused design). The points that really stood out to me came out towards the end:

  • Every style has a purpose
  • Great designers know which style they’re using
  • Great designers use the same style throughout a project
  • Great teams ensure everyone uses the same style (and everyone understands that they’re doing this)
  • The more advanced the style, the more expensive this will be
  • The more advanced the style, the better the design.

Crafting experiences


Kathy Sierra

Webstock 2012 opened with a clarion call for making experiences from returning speaker Kathy Sierra. She gave the idea of “building engagement with users through social media” a robust bollocking, arguing that no matter how awesome your brand or product is, it’s the awesomeness your users feel about themselves that counts. I was interested in her ideas about aligning business goals with user goals, but found myself wanting more actual examples of where she sees this awesomeness happening.


Erin Kissane

I wasn’t in content strategist Erin Kissane’s presentation, but it sounds like adopting an attitude of craftsmanship (and allowing time for it) were big themes of her presentation. It seems Erin was asking how to bring the values of craft (mastery, human scale, excellence, satisfaction) to large scale system. I’m looking forward to watching her talk when it’s up on the Webstock site.


Ethan Marcotte

One of my favourite ever Webstock talks was Cal Henderson at Webstock 2008. I’ve always enjoyed the presenters who take you on a deep dive into the work they’ve  done, while teaching you more general lessons along the way. This spot for me was filled this year by responsive design guru Ethan Marcotte, talking about the Boston Globe redesign (if you’re too impatient for the video to go up, check out his blog post on this).

Ethan ran us through the opportunities and challenges of reshaping the bulging content of a newspaper into the slim lines of various desktop and mobile devices, and the ways that designers and developers might be able to change their usual working patterns to meet these (it sounded a lot like what I see in our teams that are using Scrum).


Jennifer Brook

Craft took centre stage in Jennifer Brook’s presentation about publishing and the iPad, where I was more captivated of her stories of teaching herself to bind her own books than I was by her story of working on the New York Times iPad app. I’ve squirreled away her recommendation of Designing Calm Technology for later reading.


Those were my first two themes. Tomorrow I’ll cover off finding your happy place, strategic creativity and One Big Idea.

Writing for the Web – same as it ever was?

I’m currently writing new copy for the Boost website, which will be relaunching soonish with an updated look and a lot of new information. This has got me thinking about what’s changed about writing for the web in the 5 years that I’ve been doing this, and what’s stayed the same.

[NB: This post follows on nicely from last week’s advice on launching with great content]

Let’s start with what’s stayed that same. You still can’t go wrong with the long/short rules:

  • long page titles
  • long headings
  • long link text
  • short paragraphs
  • short sentences.

Other rules that have become good practice include:

  • the disciplined use of numbered and bulleted lists to break up long pieces of text
  • following the inverted pyramid style
  • delivering one idea per paragraph
  • strategic use of keywords in page titles, summaries and headings (without turning into a SEO-crazed keyword monster)
  • using the F-shape to stack the most important phrases in headings and the beginnings of paragraphs
  • writing tightly, avoiding padding and the passive voice.

Some things I think we’ve become a bit more relaxed about. We now trust people to scroll, and fret less about page length and getting content “above the fold” – a concept in itself becoming less and less relevant as the devices people use to view websites proliferate. (I have to include here my favourite text on scrolling.)

I’ve always had a bit of a bee-in-the-bonnet about link text. Thankfully, the days of ‘Click here’ seem to have passed, and people are writing link text that indicates where you’re going to be taken when you click. Generally, I prefer to be told/shown (and tell/show people) whether the link they’re about to click will keep them within the site they’re currently on, send them off to another site, or (pet peeve) trigger a PDF to start downloading.

Much as I love the Guardian‘s website, I’m often caught out by the behaviour of their links, which sometimes take you to another article, sometimes take you to an external site, and sometimes trigger a canned search. In the example below, ‘Internet Explorer’ triggers a search, ‘high-profile vulnerabilities’ is a link to another Guardian article, and ‘Responding’ and ‘an online petition’ go to two different external sites.

Screenshot of text including hyperlinks in an article on the Guardian website

Links in a Guardian article: internal page, canned search, external sites

You can help people with the way you write your link text – see the WC3 guidelines on link text. Or perhaps you’ll read Nicholas Carr’s latest book The Shallows, where he argues that “the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources”, and be inspired to corral the hyperlinks that are normally sprinkled through your text at the end of the page, as Laura Miller did on Salon.

Then again. I often feel like a hypocrite when laying down the law for link text in a blog post. Blog posts, obviously, thrive on links, and often when putting a post together you use your link text in a slightly crafty way: linking to something incongruous to make a little joke, piling up a sentence full of evidence for your argument by pointing to different pages with each word. Blog posts are – along with other forms of conversational writing driven by social media tools – part of the changes to classical/corporate web writing that I’ll come to at the end of this article.

Another rule that’s stood the test of time: avoid jargon and use of acronyms (the TLA is a recurring cause of WTF on the Internet). Don’t use a fancy word if a simple one will do. That said, I’m a fan of the New York Times‘ look-up feature: if you double click on a word, a small question mark appears, and then when you click on the question mark, a definition from the American Heritage Dictionary appears in a pop-up box. Sure, it’s a bit of an insider’s trick, but it’s simple and unobtrusive. Plus, they report back on the words that stump people the most.

New York Times article with the look-up box open

I think the moral of this blog post is that good practice has generally stayed the same when you’re writing for a website, particularly a corporate or government site. But with the introduction of social media, things have changed.

Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking: these new channels demanded new ways of talking with readers, rather than telling them stuff.  And they introduced new challenges for people who write for the web. As Wellington web writing guru Rachel McAlpine observed in a recent blog post:

Yes, it’s true: some communication professionals are still unfamiliar with the working principles of content management systems, search engines, and accessibility. Some profess ignorance or horror when you mention Twitter, Facebook, or even blogging. They still haven’t noticed the C in ICT, or the technical in technical communicators. They barely know what the phrase social media refers to.

This is understandable if retirement is close. But tragically, some of these communication nuns are young, really young—in their twenties. Can you believe it?

First came blogging. For the first time, we were told that a personal voice – one that came from an actual identifiable individual – was important. More informal, sometimes opinionated, sometimes playful; the blogs you return to over and over again are the ones where you are intrigued either by the quality of the content or the quality of the writing.

Then came Facebook and Twitter. These demanded something else again. Timeliness became a new consideration: you have minutes to respond to a tweet. Brevity is obviously even more of a concern than it was with classical web writing, but then again, a number of newbies who I’ve shown Twitter to over the past few years have been surprised to see that “it’s not all in text-speak”. A real voice is even more essential than with blogging. When I started writing for the web, I would never have envisaged I’d be publishing things like this as part of my job:

National Library tweet

Talking to people about digital collections on Twitter

As someone who enjoys writing, these new outlets were something of a blessing. Learning to write for the web had had made my style leaner, but it was verging on the anorexic. As Madeleine Schwartz noted in a recent post on the New Yorker books blog, writing about the Yahoo! Style Guide

What room does this leave for actual writing? Stylistic flourishes do not appear to be the book’s main concern. Instead, most advice is directed at generating more page views. All the guidelines have a hypothetical reader in mind—a reader who is constantly in a hurry, would never “jump hurdles” to find a piece of information, and must be roped in at all costs.

Writing for blogs and Twitter let me play again. Sure, the basics still apply. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and unnecessary verbiage won’t do you any favours. But you can’t learn this kind of writing from style guides, just like you can’t grow a personality from self-help books. The people who write for you on the web – scratch that, the people who speak for you on the web – are now found in your web team, your call centre, your development teams.

What interests me is when the two types of writing get mashed together. When you stream your tweets to your homepage, does one kind of writing make the other seem incongruous? Is your corporate site as fun to read as your Facebook page? Should it be? What do you think?

7 steps to launching with great web content

Content. It’s the red-headed stepchild of any website project. The thing that 9 times out of 10 blows the time-line out of the water. The task that only ever seems to get bigger, not smaller. Why is this?

Perhaps it’s because content development is often spread over a number of people, none of whom have it as their highest priority. Or perhaps the job is dropped on just one person, who does it on top of their regular duties. Perhaps it’s because content writing often sits outside the design and development process, or perhaps it’s because design and development both have clear and familiar processes, and these aren’t as well established for content writing, editing and loading.

Whatever the reason, there are some things you can do to get your content into line. Based on our experience, here are 7 steps and a couple of bonus pointers, designed to help you with your content project.

1. Get a content wrangler

Employ, assign or beg someone to take on the lead content role. They will:

  • carry out the content audit, and use this to manage the development of content
  • own the style guide, and make any style decisions
  • create content templates, and train writers to use them
  • decide when pieces of content are ‘finished’
  • handle translations (if required)
  • manage any sign-off procedure.

It may be that this person writes and edits all the content as well. It may just be that this person is you. In which case – congratulations! Having one person in charge of all the content is the ideal situation (even if it means you’ll be frantically typing for the entire duration of the project).

If you can’t achieve that, having a single content wrangler who is recognised as being in charge of all content-related decisions, and who has the authority to set deadlines for the provision of content, is the next best way of ensuring content is completed on time.

‘Content strategist’ is another word for content wrangler. A List Apart published a great series of articles on content strategy; some of my favourites:

The Discipline of Content Strategy by Kristina Halvorson

The Cure for Content-Delay Syndrome by Pepi Ronalds

The Case for Content Strategy by Margot Bloomstein

2. Get a style guide

The point of a style guide is to improve the consistency of your content. They can be a godsend when you’re dealing with a group of writers.

There are a plethora of books out there that you can buy, and I’ve found that people are often happy to share their style guides. If you work in a larger organisation, there may already be a style guide for print publications which you can adapt for the web.

If you’re having to start from scratch, some points to cover:

  • the tone you’re trying to achieve, and the audience you’re writing for
  • formats for dates and times, phone numbers, addresses
  • conventions for how you refer to your organisation
  • conventions for the use of acronyms, abbreviations, and industry or sector specific jargon
  • conventions for link text
  • examples of good page titles, subheadings, image and table captions
  • decisions on moot words (e-mail or E-mail or email? web site or website? home page or homepage?).

If your writers are unfamiliar with writing for the web, I’d suggest running up a workshop to introduce them to the main concepts and differences from writing for print. This has the bonus of bringing everyone together and ensuring a shared understanding of the content development process.

Something to bear in mind: style guides need regular updating to stay relevant. How about setting up an annual date with yours, just to make sure it’s in good shape?

3. Carry out a content audit

The content audit is probably the most tedious and most important part of your website project. After all, the whole point of this project is (or at least, it should be) to communicate with some people, and your content is how you do that. It comes wrapped in design and sits on top of technology, but at the end of the day, it’s the words that really matter.

A content audit for a website update has three stages. The first stage is a page by page analysis of all the existing content on your site. I usually find it easiest to do this in a spreadsheet. Each page gets a row, with columns for page title, URL, description, status (keep/edit/delete) and notes.

Content audit spreadshee

Content audit: the inventory stage

If you’re super-keen on details, you can

  • include each news item and event
  • note all external links and whether they’re still working
  • keep a separate worksheet for all downloadable documents on the site (where they’re linked from, what format they’re in, what date they were written).

The next stage is to add in the new content you want to develop for the site.  This is also a good stage to start assigning pages to writers, if you’re working with a team of people.

Content audit with new pages and writers assigned

Content audit with new pages to be written and writers assigned

The final stage is where you turn the content audit into a tracking tool. Use it to record where the content is in the development process (started, drafted, copy-edited, sent for sign-off, signed off) whether the page is being translated and where it is in that process, and anything that’s blocking progress.

Using content audit as tracking tool

Using the content audit as a tracking tool

To be honest, this is usually the point where my spreadsheet sprouts a rainbow of colours, with a complicated key. You’re welcome to be more restrained, but sometimes, when you’re in the depths of the content mire, turning all the completed pages sunshine yellow can be a small but valuable psychological pick-me-up.

4. Get to grips with social media

While you’re auditing the content on your site, why not run a quick check over your social media presences? Have a look at:

  • where you have accounts (Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, delicious, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, MySpace, Bebo – you’ll be amazed how these things proliferate)
  • when you last posted or updated
  • whether you’ve become an active/valued part of the community
  • whether these presences are doing what you hoped they would
  • how you might want to incorporate these presences into your website.

If you haven’t set yourself up on any social media sites of services yet, this is a good time to think how this might complement your website.

5. Prioritise your content

Technically, this should happen between stages 2 and 3 in the content audit.

Once you’ve identified all the pages you need to update or create, prioritise them ruthlessly. What do you really need to launch with? What’s nice to have? What’s the most important new content you need to add? This is the way I usually approach prioritisation:

  1. existing content that requires updating to move over to the new site is first priority
  2. high-value new content is the second priority
  3. existing content that will benefit from cleaning up is third priority
  4. nice-to-have new content comes last.

6. Set up some templates

Templates that show writers how pages should be structured are very helpful. At the simplest level, they might lay out the essential elements for the page (title, summary, body copy, examples of how links should be written). Instructions on how to indicate heading and subheading levels are often useful, if people aren’t using set styles.

For an example of a highly structured content template, see Erin Kissane’s article on A List Apart.

7. Get ready to be interrupted

While you’re working away diligently, filling pout templates with your well-prioritised content, new items will creep in. Often this happens as part of the wireframing process,  but sometimes it doesn’t occur until the technical build is underway. This is when you need to start providing pieces of content that are often small but urgent, things like the ‘remind me of my password’ screen, the ‘your form has been submitted’ screen, the ‘there are no results for your search terms’ page.

This is often off-the-cuff writing, and consistency will be improved if only one person provides this content.

Bonus: Common hiccups and stumbling blocks

Translation often causes a bump at the end of the writing process. If you’re working with an external company or translator, talk to them about the size of your project, and ask them how long they think it will take them to turn a given number of words around. Check whether they have recommendations on how you should provide your content, and incorporate this into your templates if necessary. Decide whether you will provide content in one batch or stagger it. Finally, hold off translating navigation elements for as long as possible, as these often change during the design and usability testing process.

Load your content at the end of the development process. Trying to load content into a site that’s still under development can often cause irritation and delays as developers and content loaders inadvertently get under each other’s feet. If you can, wait until the site is has been tested and the bugs worked out. You might feel like you’re losing time, but a concentrated push a week before launch is the most efficient way of getting all the content into a site.

Two tiny points that will save you grief when it comes to content loading. If writers are working in Word, discourage them from making hyperlinks in the document: instead, tell them to place the link text, followed by the desired URL, inside square brackets. And tell people to never, ever embed images in a document: set up a folder where images can be saved, and use a naming convention.

Thanks for reading!

Thanks for sticking around all the way to the end of this post. Next week, we’ll be posting about the actual writing of the content, asking whether anything has changed in the past few years.