• Death to Lorem Ipsum & Other Adventures in Content

    In May 2008, Kristina Halvorson, Founder of Brain Traffic spoke at Adaptive Path’s Queens of Content event. Her presentation “Content Strategy: The Mania, the Myth, the Method” shed light on current perceptions of content strategy in user experience, and provided great fodder for further exploration.

    I was particularly intrigued by what Kristina had to say, because while I agreed with the overarching message, I felt compelled to debate some of the finer points. So we did.

    The result is a conversation that starts with content basics and closes with a bold challenge. Along the way you’ll read about standard-bearers, the infamous “seat at the strategy table,” why lorem ipsum should be DOA, 3 things every UX project lead needs to consider, typing monkeys, and hear wisdom from Winston Churchill.


    I feel sorry for the poor, poor words that no one wants to take responsibility for. And I feel especially sorry for site users who end up with a terrible experience because, after all the money was spent on UX strategy and interface design, the content still ended up sucking. — Kristina Halvorson

    In May 2008, Kristina Halvorson from Brain Traffic spoke at Adaptive Path’s Queens of Content event. Her presentation “Content Strategy: The Mania, the Myth, the Method” shed light on current perceptions of content strategy in user experience, and provided great fodder for further exploration. I was particularly intrigued by what Kristina had to say, because while I agreed with the overarching message, I felt compelled to debate some of the finer points.

    Kristina agreed to push the thinking further with a discussion about content, UX teams, and how the relationships can be strengthened to create experiences and projects that really sing. The resulting conversation start with content basics and closes with a bold challenge.

    Kate Rutter [KR]: Hi, Kristina. Let’s start with what you ended with in your talk at Adaptive Path. This was my takeaway: user experience teams hold the charter to deliver great experiences, but bringing in “content” at the end-game undercuts the positive experiences that are delivered. It’s as if the movie poster is great, the trailer is thrilling, but when it comes to opening night, everyone is looking around asking “where’s the film?” How can we work together to change this?

    Kristina Halvorson [KH]: To begin, let’s reframe this a bit. I think the point here is that, by waiting until the UX process is essentially finished to start really talking about the content, we’re not allocating appropriate time and resources for what can ultimately make or break the planned/designed “positive experience.”

    KR: How do you define or describe “content”?

    KH: Content includes the text, graphics, video, and audio that make up an interactive experience. Now, I’ll say right off that bat that the majority of content we’re asked to gather, write, and edit at Brain Traffic is text. This sounds simple enough, until you stop to consider that the required content for nearly every interactive experience includes not just headlines and articles but also help and support text, interface copy, product or service descriptions, menu nomenclature, text links, metadata, image captions, error messages, alt tags — you get the idea. Once you start to add up all the writing requirements for any interactive project, it can get really overwhelming, really fast.

    KR: Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff. I’ve heard you say that content is everyone’s concern. But as we all know, when everyone is responsible, it often turns out that no one is responsible. And it sounds like many UE initiatives suffer from this problem.

    So what roles are appropriate for being the standard-bearers for content? Who are these people and what skills do they need?

    KH: First and foremost, all parties focused specifically on delivering the content — content strategists, Web editors, Web writers, and content QA folks — absolutely, positively must share the end goal of a superior user experience. This is a huge paradigm shift for most writers, who are used to writing about what WE do, how WE can help you, what WE have to offer. Yeah, well, nobody cares. All the user cares about is, of course, “What’s in it for ME? What can you do for ME? How can you help ME? What do you have to offer ME?”

    So, at the highest level, these “standard-bearers” must understand the importance of UXD and be well-versed in the language, methodology, and documentation that accompanies the process.

    At a more tactical level, here’s who these people are:

    Content strategist: Responsible for helping to define the content — what it is, what it says, where it will come from, and how it will sound/read. I think another critically important role, here, is that the content strategist is responsible for monitoring what’s being suggested or requested — it’s not as though the content is just sitting in a drawer somewhere, waiting to be pulled out at the last minute. Do we have the necessary time and resources to produce what’s being proposed?

    Web editor: For larger projects, this person is responsible for providing editorial oversight to the Web writing team. Ideally, this role is held by the client. However, I don’t know many companies who have figured out exactly how to define (and empower) the Web editor role.

    Web writer: Responsible for creating clear, concise, compelling text that helps readers gather information or complete a task. The best Web writers write like they talk, not like a brochure. Must also never, ever complain about writing metadata, reviewing error messages, or updating content inventories. (That last bit disqualifies most ad copywriters.)

    KR: How do these roles scale across big teams in mega-corps, and small UX teams of one?

    For mega-corp teams, I like to see teams of Web editors and their armies of Web writers working to preserve the quality and relevance of their online content around the clock.

    For UX teams of one, a Web writer with killer organizational skills and a healthy appreciation of Excel would be a great partner.

    KR: So here’s the $100,000 question: what do teams that don’t have any writers do? Who makes the words?

    KH: Does. Not. Compute. Okay, well, my first suggestion is that these teams GET a writer. They need to be crystal clear with the client up front that the words are a critically important driver in the success of the end user experience, and therefore a writer is a critically important player in the beginning. Period.

    (This is also a fabulous opportunity to vet clients who insist they’re going to do all the writing themselves. Early involvement might help them figure out sooner rather than later that they don’t in fact have the time or expertise to deliver. And this will save the typical crash-and-burn projects run into when it actually comes time to get the content into production.)

    If for whatever reason there is no possible way to get a writer involved early on, then I’d propose that the person doing the UXD takes a good ol’ fashioned stab at the writing required for wireframes and design. At the very least, I think folks might be shocked to find out how often content isn’t even required where they’re “making space” for it.

    Let’s go back to the role of the content strategist. What value do these folks provide to the team and to the resulting product?

    KH: First, they ask real questions about the real content. What do we have? What will we need? Where is it? Can we do it with the time, budget, and people we have? This simple contribution can save entire projects from derailing in the “creative” phase.

    Second, they help the client (or business units, or subject matter experts (SMEs), or any key stakeholder who’s involved with the project) begin to process thoughts and feelings about content. For some reason, discussions around content often quickly turn into group therapy sessions. Everyone has opinions. Everyone has ideas. Everyone thinks they’re a writer (don’t get me started on this). A content strategist can help set expectations around everything from why old content is getting killed to how long people will have to review and revise the new content once it starts coming in from the Web writers.

    Third, they own the words. From day one, they’re thinking about how the words will support the UX strategy, how much or how little text is required, how it should sound, who’s going to care about it (or not). I’m not sure how to place a value on this, except to say that a beautifully crafted user experience can come crashing down if the text is overwritten, unclear, off-brand, navel-gazing — you get my point.

    KR: Ouch. Let’s shift focus a bit. Everybody in design is talking about “getting a seat” at the glorious strategy table. But in your talk, you talk about just getting content strategy included at the start of new projects. That seems totally reasonable, yet I know it doesn’t always happen. Why doesn’t this happen?

    From a UX perspective, I think we’re often driven by our clients to deliver designs — or, at least, structure — as quickly as possible. Dealing with copy slows that down.

    Also: I’ve heard the argument that “lorem ipsum” is effective in wireframing or design because it helps people focus on the actual layout, or color scheme, or whatever. What kills me here is that we’re talking about creating a user experience that will (whether we like it or not) be DRIVEN by words. The entire structure of the page or app flow is FOR THE WORDS.

    Frankly, I also think most strategists see writers as part of the creative process. This made sense in the traditional advertising or marketing communications model. However, now words are key building blocks in every interactive experience, no matter how few or how many are required. Not having someone at the table who’s willing to own that responsibility from day one simply doesn’t make sense.

    KR: So what does this early inclusion look like?

    Seriously, just invite the content strategist — or, in smaller teams, the Web writer — to the early meetings. That’s it. It’s an easy, no-brainer first step. That person will immediately start to identify what’s required to get the writing done right, and won’t be left staring down the barrel of the Project Manager’s gun in eight to 12 weeks.

    As a side note: I think it’s interesting that you call it the “glorious strategy table.” It implies that content people have been longingly wishing for “a seat” for the past 10 years. I don’t think that’s the case at all. In fact, I think we’ve been wishing that someone else would come up with the tools we need to get our jobs done effectively and on time. And that’s clearly not going to happen.

    Nor do I think it should happen. I think that’s our job. What I’m proposing, here, is that content strategists, editors, and writers need to be responsible for creating and refining those tools. The days of being the dude who sits around with an art director, cooking up The Next Big Idea are over. Web writers need to understand IA documentation, sit through usability labs, revere user research, demand site metrics and analysis — you get the point.

    KR: What are the business implications of not including content-reps up front? The costs, the obstacles, the issues?

    Oh, where do I begin. Delayed start to the writing process, since Web content documentation needs to be agreed-upon, standardized, and built out. More delays, because suddenly gathering up the content becomes a messy, time-consuming, overwhelming task. Dozens of unplanned revisions as more and more content keeps being requested or remembered. Incredible, unavoidable scope creep. Tensions and frustrations because no one has the time (or the power) to slow down and make sure everything is consistent, relevant, clear. And, of course, the end result of crappy content that none of your customers care about.

    Okay, so is there a checklist of items that every project leader needs to think about to ensure that content is included at the start of a project?

    KH: Yep.

    1. Assign a content audit. Even if it’s a brand-new interactive experience, there’s relevant content somewhere that’s being (or has been) developed. Find out what it is, where it lives, and who owns it. And document it.

    2. Figure out who will create and own the content inventory. This is the master list (or lists) of all content requirements for the project. Sometimes separate inventories are created for text, video, audio, and images. It’s a working document that can be sketched out early in the process and refined as you go.

    3. Figure out who will be included in the content review process. These folks should likely be included in early discussions, whether or not their input and feedback will be incorporated. At the very least, they don’t feel ignored or sidelined.

    KR: I think that UX designers and content strategists have responsibilities to each other to make the resulting experiences really sing.

    How can teams work more effectively together? Is there distrust of each other? If so, where does this come from and how can it be addressed?

    KH: On one side of the coin, sure, I think that UE practitioners don’t think writers GET IT. In response, I would gently propose that you might be working with the wrong writers.

    To illustrate: someone recently said to me, “I just think it takes a really special person to manage writers.” I was totally offended, but then I realized that he was talking about writers-as-creatives. And, for better or worse, that’s not how I think of myself. I’m a creative problem-solver. In fact, when I’m interviewing potential writers at Brain Traffic, I usually tell them pretty straight-up that, if you’re serious about being a Web writer, please, leave your “art” at home. We have a job to do: help people get in, get out, and get on with their lives.

    On the other side, I will say that when I first described Brain Traffic’s business model to a renowned UX guru, he squinted at me and said, “Really? Just a bunch of people typing words on keyboards?” Then he did this imitation of a typing monkey. So, clearly there’s some education that needs to happen about what’s actually, really involved in creating smart, useful content.

    KR: In addition to being open-minded, not imitating monkeys and becoming educated about the process, what are three bold steps that UE practitioners can take to ensure the success of the content in UX initiatives?

    KH: 1. Demand the early and ongoing involvement of a content strategist or Web writer.

    2. Don’t dismiss the tactical questions regarding content — “how, who, where, when” — during the strategic process.

    3. Renounce “lorem ipsum,” now and always.

    KR: Dang. Life without lorem ipsum. It’s a bold challenge, but I’ll take you up on that! Let’s wrap up with the “What’s In It For Me” question: what are the benefits that come from thinking strategically about content matters?

    KH: I’ll answer with another dead-white-man quote: Winston Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” I wonder how often, after a super fabulous UX strategy is delivered, three to six months down the road we can’t bear to look at what actually ended up launching, due in large part to the terrible writing that ended up getting published.

    By thinking strategically about the content from the start — the actual building blocks of your user experience — you’re far more likely to identify and remove obstacles to success.

    Find the content. Find the right writers. Set and manage reviewer expectations. Provide editorial oversight. And then kick some content ASS.

    I’m all for that! Kristina, thanks for taking the time for this conversation, and for sharing your fantastic content strategy insights. It’s been a pleasure!

    Kristina Halvorson has been writing for the Web since 1997. As president of Brain Traffic, Kristina leads teams of expert IAs, content strategists, and Web writers to create smart, relevant content for real people with real needs. She is a passionate advocate for content strategy, the “hidden discipline” that lives between information architecture, web writing, and the build process. She so totally does not type like a monkey. Follow Kristina on Twitter @halvorson.

    Kate Rutter is a senior practitioner at Adaptive Path. During her ten plus years in the web industry, she’s honed her talent for bringing companies and customers closer together through smart strategies and inventive design. She actively embraces the term “specialized generalist.” She has recently made a commitment to never use lorem ipsum again.

    There is 1 thought on this idea

    1. Kate Rutter

      Julie H. is a seasoned UX consultant, and she sent these comments along via email, and I think they add to the conversation:

      I completely agree about importance of content to be considered early on, produced early on and iterated, along with the design work; and the importance of preparing the clients for review responsibilities. Copywriters are core members of UX teams I’ve managed and copy is a key deliverable. Copy briefs would include nomenclature, page, button, link, help, error, alt tag text and I’ve needed copywriters to understand SEO and, at the beginning of a project, to work out which organizational legacy nomenclature doesn’t work for users and what opportunities we, as a UX team, have to change it.

      Thanks for the insights, Julie!

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