Content Strategy, Mobile

New workshop on responsive web design

I received an email from a prospective client the other day that said:

“We recognize that responsive design should be the foundation of our thought processes for requirements gathering through design and development. This way of thinking is new to us; we would like an expert to educate our team on how to add responsive design into our process. I am looking for an on-site “workshop” that will provide our team with a basic education on responsive design, input on how we should evolve our design and development processes, what are the common pros/cons/pitfalls that can happen when you start responsive design, etc.”

I’ve received a lot of messages like this recently. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the majority of companies on the web are right now trying to figure out their mobile strategy and how best to implement responsive design. The challenges companies face go well beyond new design and development techniques — doing responsive design right also requires a new way of thinking about project goals, roles and responsibilities, review and approval processes, and, yes, content strategy. I believe that fitting responsive design into existing digital processes, teams, and infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing companies today.

I am thrilled to announce that Ethan Marcotte and I are launching a workshop offering to help companies solve just that problem. Together, we know a thing or two about responsive web design and content strategy for mobile. In a day or two, we’ll provide a foundation of what to do (and what not to do) that will set a responsive redesign up for success.

If you, or a company you love, needs help doing responsive design right, more information is available at Responsive Design Workshops. We’d love to hear from you.

Content Strategy, Mobile, Presentations

The Mobile Content Mandate

Putting together the pieces of this talk changed the whole way I think about mobile. I mean, sure, I knew mobile was important (I wrote a book about it!) But, let’s face it: I’m writing this on my laptop right now.

I’ve had a home internet connection for the past twenty years. I own three or four computers (and that doesn’t even count all the mobile devices I own.) As much as I love my mobile phone, it’s not the primary way I go online.

Mobile isn’t about making things slightly more convenient for people like me. Mobile is about the 2 to 3 billion people globally who will come online over the next decade for the first time, from their mobile phone. Mobile is what will erase the digital divide.

It’s easy to look at those numbers and think that the digital divide is a problem just in the developing world. But today, millions of Americans don’t have internet access at home. Applying for jobs, applying for school, managing personal finances, researching health conditions, accessing government services — all of these are increasingly difficult for people without an internet connection.

Think about how much you rely on the internet, how much pleasure and power it gives you, how much easier it makes your life. Think about the millions of Americans — the billions of people worldwide — who are about to come online for the first time on a mobile device. Let’s make mobile better for them.



Talk Description

You don’t get to decide which device people use to access the internet: they do. By 2015, more people will go online via mobile devices than on traditional computers. In the US today, one-third of people who browse the internet on their mobile phone say that’s the primary way they go online — half of teens and young adults say they rely on their phone for internet access. It’s time to stop avoiding the issue by saying “no one will ever want to do that on mobile.” Chances are, someone already wants to. In this session, Karen will discuss why you need to deliver content wherever your customer wants to consume it — and what the risks are when you don’t make content accessible to mobile users. Already convinced it’s important? She’ll also explain how to get started with your mobile content strategy, defining what you want to publish, what the relationship should be between your mobile and desktop site, and how your editorial workflow and content management tools need to evolve.


Back in the late 1980s, Digital Equipment Corporation, DEC, was the world’s second largest computer manufacturer, behind only the 500-pound gorilla of the industry, IBM. See, back in those days, if you wanted to use a computer, you first would have to clean out your basement. You would have to install this giant monolithic machine. You would have to hire this team of acolytes to run it for you. And if you wanted to use the computer, you would have to get in line behind all of the other people who have more important business tasks to do. You’d have to get in line with the people who are running payroll and calculating insurance premiums. You’d have to come in the middle of the night to run your job. Back in those days computing power was really expensive, it was really scarce, so it was reserved for only the most high-value of business tasks.

DEC made its mark on the field with what it called minicomputers. So instead of being the size of your basement they would be the size of a large refrigerator. So with the successful line of PDP minicomputers, DEC was able to bring the power of computing to people who had never had access to it before. They innovated this throughout the 60s and 70s before coming out with their wildly successful PDP-8. Look at this sexy bad ass right here. The PDP-8 was at the time the world’s most popular computer. What it meant was that people, say, in an engineering department or say, in an individual academic department, maybe even a theatre troupe might be able to buy one of these things and use it to run the lights for their shows. I have this fantastic photograph—it’s a super grainy black and white photo in a book that wouldn’t reproduce very well or I would show it to you, but it shows a picture of a farmer who has loaded one of these things onto the back of his tractor so that he can do computerized operations of his potato picking. Which is insane. But as far as I am concerned what that says, is the PDP-8 here is the world’s first mobile computer.

This is Ken Olsen. He’s their CEO. Look at how happy he is, doesn’t he look happy? Why wouldn’t he be happy? He is the CEO of the world’s second largest computer manufacturer. He has a track record of research and innovation. He has his finger on the pulse of the marketplace. He knows what it is that his customers want and are looking for. And he feels confident that there is no reason why anyone would need a computer in their home. I mean why would you want that? It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t square with anything that Ken Olsen knows about the computing industry and Ken knows a lot about the computing industry. This isn’t how people use computers. This isn’t why people use computers. He has done research and innovation and testing and this doesn’t make any sense.

I’m pretty sure that there is somebody in your organization that is saying “There is no reason why someone is going to need to do that on mobile.” I mean why would you do that on mobile? That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t square with anything you know about how people use mobile devices. It doesn’t make any sense as to how people use computers. There’s just no good reason why people would want to do that.

Let me take you ahead. It is 1988, DEC is the world’s second largest computer manufacturer. They have moved on from their wildly successful PDP line of mini-computers to their even more wildly successful of VAX mini-computers. I bet some of you are still running these things today. This is the VAX11. It is the first mini computer with a 32-bit architecture. They sold 400,000 of these things when they came out. These were the most popular computer DEC had ever made. They were also selling the VT125 integrated graphics terminal and this thing, this thing was the most powerful terminal on the market. They were selling this thing like hotcakes, not just to people who were buying their own mainframes but to people who were buying mainframes from every other manufacturer. This terminal was so great. It could do charts and graphs. It had custom fonts. It could show the text in reverse. Rainbows shoot out of these things.

Look how happy this guy is here. Doesn’t he look happy? Okay, you can’t actually tell how happy he is because of the big Magnum PI mustache but I can assure you that this guy is completely satisfied with his use of the VT125 integrated graphics terminal. DEC is at the top of their game. This is the peak of their business. They are selling more computers than they have ever sold before. They have successfully met demand. They have successfully innovated. These products, they know, are completely what the industry wants.

And they have no reason to believe that their entire industry is going to be destroyed by one of these cheap pieces of crap. I mean look at them. This is not the VAX11 32-bit mainframe architecture. This is a cassette tape. It stores its memory on a cassette tape. This is not the VT125 integrated graphics terminal. This is a black and white television set from Radio Shack. It’s only got the one dumb little rainbow on it. Rainbows don’t even shoot out of these things.

It’s 1988. DEC is the world’s second largest computer manufacturer. They are the second largest employer in the state of Massachusetts, behind only the state government. 1990, just two years later, they post their first quarterly loss and they start laying people off. 1991, the year after that, they post their first full year loss. They would lose money in five out of the next seven years. And in 1998, just a decade later, DEC is gone. Out of business. Acquired by the manufacturer of one of those cheap pieces of crap.

This has got to be some kind of crazy fluke, right? This has got to be something so unprecedented in the history of American business that there’s just no way that Ken Olsen could have ever anticipated that something like this could happen. I mean no one could ever imagine something like this happening. Right?

Wrong. In industry after industry, the new technologies that brought the big established companies to their knees, they weren’t better. They weren’t more advanced. They were actually worse. The new products were low end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. Almost.

Clayton Christiansen had a theory and he called it disruptive innovation. What this theory states is that disruption happens from the low end. New products come on the marketplace and even though they’re not better, even though they don’t work as well as their high-end predecessors, even though they are made of cheaper materials  and they are, pound for pound, more expensive in a sense for what you get, they do one thing and they do that one thing really well. They do that one thing better than anything else on the marketplace. They create an entirely new market for that technology, for people who could never have had access to it before. Because there are so many more of these people who now have access to this technology, eventually, the technology gets good enough, and it disrupts the market for the higher-end products. It wipes away their larger competitors.

And this has happened time and time again. Imagine it’s the 1930s or 40s, and you’ve invested in one of these gorgeous furniture radios. It’s a piece of craftsmanship. Rich, hand-tooled wood. It has rich resonant sound. You imagine that you’re going to gather the family around it in the evenings and you’re going to listen to music or radio programs. It’s something you’re going to lovingly maintain. You’re going to send it for repairs because you want it to be an heirloom that you will pass down to one of your children. Except, your teenager buys one of these cheap pieces of plastic so she can take it to the beach. Transistor radios weren’t better. They were cheap. They were plastic. The sound was tinny. You couldn’t tune them. But transistor radios created an entirely new market for access to radios. Teenagers in the 1950s and 60s, these were people who, previously, could never have had access to a radio, and the power for them of having music or sports programs of their very own, it made it worth it. It made it so worth it that they were willing to sacrifice sound quality. I mean, isn’t that the whole point of a radio? Isn’t that why you have a radio, is that it will sound good? Isn’t that the primary reason why you would choose to buy a radio? No. It’s not. For these teenagers, the power of having a radio of their very own was so meaningful that, eventually, within a decade or so, transistor radios got good enough that nobody needed to buy one of those big, bulky, furniture radios any more. The names of the people, the craftsmen, the companies that constructed those furniture radios, they’re lost to time. We don’t know who they are. The name of the company that made the first transistor radio? They were called Sony.

What about printers? Think about having an offset printer in your office. Doesn’t that sound great? Doesn’t everybody want to have an offset printer? Why, offset printers are better! You get a higher-quality printout at a lower cost. It’s more expensive to buy up front, but then, once you have the offset printer, you can produce a printout that works much better than anything else on the market. Isn’t that a great reason for you to have an offset printer? Well, apparently not, because all of you people went out and bought these cheap inkjet printers that made really crappy printouts. The ink is really expensive. The per-unit cost for these things is really high. The only value that you get out of that inkjet is that you can be like “MINE, MY PRINTER, IT’S MINE, YOU CAN’T USE IT. IT’S MINE.” You don’t want to walk down the hall and have to stand and talk to your co-workers while waiting in line to use the printer, and so you are willing to sacrifice printout quality, you are willing to pay more for a less-good printout, so that you can have a printer of your very own.

And, we’ve all seen this happen with photography, right? So, the market, everybody knew when digital technology, when digital film came on the marketplace, everybody knew that digital photography was going to disrupt the market for film. Okay? Everybody saw that coming. What people didn’t recognize was that digital photography was going to disrupt the market for cameras themselves. Nobody buys a point-and-shoot camera anymore. Why would you? You are willing to satisfice with the camera that you have with you all of the time, which is your mobile phone. Are the prints as good, are the images as good, does it work as well as a higher-end camera? No, probably not. But you’re willing to make do. Kodak is bankrupt. Instagram is worth a billion dollars. That is disruptive innovation.

So, you can kind of see where I’m going with this one, right? In the same way that DEC minicomputers disrupted the market for larger mainframes, and in the same way that personal computers disrupted the market for DEC minicomputers, today, we are witnessing the latest wave of disruptive innovation, and it is coming for the form of mobile devices that put the power of the internet into the hands of people who previously could not access it. And, like with all of these technology innovations and waves that have come before it, mobile will disrupt the market for personal computers. There will come a point at which no one will need to ask “Why would somebody want to do that on mobile?” It will simply be assumed that that’s how everybody wants to do it. And the people who will make that happen are the people who are adopting mobile devices to use as their primary way of accessing the internet because they do not have access to a personal computer.

The digital divide in this country is real. It is easy to assume that the digital divide is limited to people in the developing world. Millions of Americans do not have access to a personal computer at all. And, so, they are the ones who are adopting mobile devices at a fast clip.

Right now, in America, 20% of people don’t have internet access at all. That’s an interesting number, but it’s not nearly as interesting to me as the second number, which is that 35% of people, more than a third, don’t have internet connectivity at home. Think about all the things that you do on your personal computer, in the privacy of your own home, that you might not want the prying eyes of a boss or a co-worker or some stranger in the library watching you while you’re doing it. I don’t know what you’re thinking about, but I’m thinking about: Checking your bank statements. Maybe researching a personal medical condition. Applying for a new job. Heck, even shopping for Christmas presents. These are all things that we take for granted, that we can do from the power of a personal internet connection, in our homes, that we can do whatever we want with, whenever we want.

For more than a third of Americans, they don’t have that luxury. And, so these numbers look at all Americans. As you might imagine, the populations of people who are less likely to have internet connectivity at home, are much higher for groups that you might consider to be traditionally-disadvantaged. If you’re a black American, almost a third have no internet access at all, and a whopping 51%, more than half, don’t have a connection at home. Numbers are about the same for Hispanic Americans, about a third with no connectivity at all and about half without a connection at home.

If you’re a low-income American, you make less than $30k a year, nearly 40% have no internet access at all and almost 60% don’t have a broadband connection. Now, the problem here is, if you’re a low-income American and you’re struggling to put food on the table, pay the rent, put gas in the car, pay your insurance, the internet might seem like a far-off luxury. But low-income Americans without internet access are finding the tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach. 80% of Fortune 500 companies only advertise their job listings online. And, you might ask yourselves, “What percentage of universities allow potential low-income students to apply for school from their mobile device?”

For people who have a disability, 46% have no internet access at all, and again, almost 60% don’t have connectivity at home. Think of how much bigger your world would be if you had a disability, if you had a hearing loss or a motion disability or were blind, and could connect with a community and the resources and the services that are only available through the internet. For way too many of these people, the internet is cut off from them.

And, if you’re an American without a high school diploma, 57% have no internet access and a whopping 88% don’t have internet access at home. 88%! I mean, think about it. You don’t have a high school diploma, so that means you don’t have a job, so that means you don’t have any money, so that means you don’t have any internet. And that leaves… crystal meth! You guys laugh now. If I took your home internet connection away you would be stockpiling cold medicine in two weeks. You know, it would be like an episode of Breaking Bad in here.

Okay, so not everybody has internet at home. You want to know what everybody has? Everybody has a phone. Everybody has a phone. Mobile phone ownership in this country is not seen as a luxury. It is seen as a basic staple of human life. 91% of Americans have a mobile device. That number, I believe, you will see that tick up by small percentage points in the next few years, until it hits something like 95%, 97% penetration, and then, that will never go down for the rest of our lives. Mobile phone ownership in this country, right now, is a basic staple, not a luxury, the way that a landline used to be back in the day, or a television set is today. There is no sense that anyone out there will not have a phone.

Here’s what number is interesting: the number of people, the percentage of people who say that they have ever accessed the internet from a mobile device. That number has skyrocketed in the last four years, to what is now 63% of Americans who say that they have gone online using their phone. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why this is, right? It’s smartphones. Smartphones make it possible for people to use the internet on their phone, and so they go do that.

We are at a moment, an inflection point, where there is a gap between these two numbers, and it is tempting to look at these numbers and say “okay, well, that represents smartphone penetration.” But, in the same way that there was a point in history where some people had black and white television sets and other people had color television sets, it’s not that there was a market for black and white television sets. It wasn’t that there was a competition to see whether black and white television sets or color television sets would win out. Everybody realized that, as people replaced their television sets, they would get color TVs. As these people replace their feature phones, they will get smartphones. And, at a certain point, there will be no distinction between these two numbers. Everyone in the country will have a phone, and everyone’s phone will be a smartphone that they can use to access the internet.

And so, what that means is that we are seeing now and we will continue to see the rise of what I like to call The Mobile-Only User. So, the mobile-only user is the population of people who say that they rely on their mobile device for access. They say that they only or mostly go online using their phone. So, of that 63% of people who have ever gone online using their phones in the US today, 34% of them, more than a third, say that that’s the way they only or mostly use the internet. This is millions of people. Tens of millions of people. How many conversations have you had about how to provide a good experience for the users who are browsing on IE? How many conversations have you had about how to provide a good experience for the 2% of users who browse with Javascript turned off? How many conversations have you had about how to reach the population of people who will never, ever, see your website except through the window of their tiny, little mobile phone?

So right now, this number is 34% of people, who say that they only or mostly use their mobile device to access the internet. If you combine that number, that 34%, with the 11% of people who say that they use their mobile device at least half the time, you now have 45% of Americans saying that they use the internet on mobile at least half the time. When is this number going to be big enough for you to move? If it’s not half, when will it be?

So, going back to people who said that they only or mostly use the internet on mobile, as you might imagine, that population of people maps pretty neatly to the people who don’t have a broadband connection at home. So, 45% of low-income Americans say that they only or mostly use the internet on mobile. If education is a powerful tool for helping people to escape poverty, then connecting with these people on their mobile devices should be your top priority. Again, 45% of people with only a high school education say that they rely on their mobile devices for access. These are the people who you want to reach, and even if this isn’t high school students, it may be less-educated parents  who you most need to connect with on a device that they are comfortable with.

The number is 43% of black Americans—now, I’ve put an asterisk here simply because… This data comes from Pew Internet. They reported 43% of black Americans this year. Last year, they reported it was 51% of black Americans. That number did not go down. I think sometimes survey data gets a little wonky. I think this number is low, and I’m going to predict that when they come out with this number next year, it’s going to be a lot higher. I’m pretty sure that this number maps more closely to the 60% of Hispanic-Americans who say that they rely on their mobile device for access. You think that you are an equal-opportunity university that is making connections to students equally? You’re not, if you’re not connecting with them where they are. Which is mobile.

Beyond these populations of people who have been historically and traditionally disadvantaged. The kids these days and their phones, right? 50% of teens, 12 to 17, that’s your target right there, they say they only or mostly use the internet on mobile. Same deal with older teens: 50% again of young adults, 18 to 29, say that their mobile device is the primary way that they access the internet. If you aren’t reaching these students on the device that is most powerful, most personal, most intensely “theirs” you’re not reaching them.

Mobile was the final frontier in the access revolution. Mobile is what has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the internet for many people. Which is why it’s great we’re doing such a great job on mobile guys, right? No, sadly we are not.

44% of the Fortune 100—and I’ll let you do the math on that one yourself—44% say that they do not have a mobile website; this data also showed that only six companies, six companies in the Fortune 100 actually met all of Google’s best practice standards for mobile websites. Six of them are doing a good job according to Google on mobile. Same deal, 84% of consumer brands say they don’t have a mobile strategy in place at all. Presumably that’s why only 14% of them they say that they’re actually happy with the results that they’re seeing on mobile. The numbers are about the same for B2B brands; 80% of B2B brands don’t have a mobile strategy.  If I can hypothesize here, I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’m going to say these numbers are probably about the same for universities. I’m going to say 80% don’t even have a mobile strategy in place, much less a plan for how they’re going to get there.

So what does this mean? It means we provide experiences for people on mobile that are subpar. We tell them, Hey! Look at these nice, big tappable buttons here. Don’t they look great? Oh, snap, I’m sorry. You actually wanted to do something on our mobile website? You can’t actually do that. If you want to do something you’re going to have to tap on this link that says “go to the real website,” and then you’re going to have to pinch and zoom your way around this screen that was designed for a monitor that’s five times the size. It’s like trying to read the newspaper through a toilet paper tube.

Or we say, Hey! You want to buy some cigarettes? Cigarettes are delicious. You should totally try cigarettes. We’re going to make it super easy for you as an adult smoker to try some cigarettes by giving you nice, big Fisher Price buttons; it’s going to be super easy for you to fill out this form. Just sign up. It takes three taps and then we’re just going to start sending you cigarette marketing. Except I’m sorry, there’s the one thing, and it’s that cigarettes might kill you. We’re kind of mandated by law to tell you that. But we don’t really have to make that quite as easy for you, right?  Sure, okay, if you want to find the information about quitting smoking or the dangers of smoking you can squint and tap on that link and…yeah. You can read that, right? Sure. I think sending users to the desktop website to get valuable information about the fact that cigarettes will kill you is probably the best indication of what an organization values that I’ve ever seen.

Or have you ever tried to search for anything on Google on your phone? Of course you have. You type in what you want and then you see a link and it’s the story that you’re looking for, it’s the article you want. You tap on that link and go. What? How did I end up here? I don’t understand. That wasn’t the page I was looking for. Should I go back and tap on it again? Will it give me something different? What do I do now?  Do I go tapping around on this site looking for the content I wanted? Do I have to click the full site link? But then I’ll just wind up on the homepage of the desktop site. That’s not the article I wanted. Something that should take one tap from the search results in Google becomes a frustrating hunt and peck through two separate websites trying to find an article, a piece of content that you know exists, Google can see it, it’s there. And yet you can’t get it. We broke Google for these people.

Or we tell them: We’ve got awesome resources for you. If you’re a current student. If you’re a current student we’ve got library hours and what’s on the lunch menus and you can find out about the parking garages. But if you’re a prospective student, sorry. You might want to go swimming around on the desktop site for that.

With all of these interactions we are telling mobile only users that they are second class citizens. They don’t deserve access to the same content that everybody else gets access to. They don’t deserve access to a website where they can find what they are looking for, where they can search on Google and get access to it. We tell them that they should really be using the real website. I mean if they would just go to the real website where we wanted them to look then everything would be okay. But if they are relying on their mobile device to provide access to the internet, they are out of luck.

What are we gonna do? I gotta tell you I am extraordinarily sympathetic to these challenges. All of this rhetoric aside there is probably no one out there who is more sympathetic than I am to the difficulty that organizations face in figuring out how they are going to restructure their content, adapt their workflow, change their technology, in order to solve this problem. I say that because my entire job right now is spending all of my time talking to organizations wrestling with these problems. I know it’s hard. I don’t want anybody to walk out of here and say “Oh, Karen said we’ve got to rush out of here right now and throw something up on the mobile web.” No, hold on, because this is so hard. Because this will require changes to our content, to our processes, to our people, to our technology. I don’t want anybody rushing off without a plan in place. I don’t want anybody making fast moves without actually thinking through what they are going to do.

What I want everyone to put in place, is I want everybody to have a content strategy for mobile. And it’s super random how these things happen, some kind of weird coincidence, I just happen to have a book by that title, it came out last year and you can buy it from A Book Apart.

So I want to leave you with something you can do right now, in your schools, in your organizations, to help think about what your vision, your plan, your strategy is going to be on mobile. I’m going to talk through three things that I think you can do right now that you can get started.

So the first one,  is you need to understand what the content workflow is in your organization. Most organizations, I will come in and I will say Hey! What if we were to talk through the publishing process? Like what happens the moment somebody gets a  good idea, like “Let’s post something to the internet!” all the way through to the point where that gets published, all the way through when that gets taken off the web. And people laugh and they say, Oh, Karen, we don’t know when people can publish content to the internet. We have no idea what that publishing process is. I genuinely believe that universities have the most challenging problem with decentralized publishing, fragmented tools, and a real difficult time getting their arms around the organization. The challenges that you are facing, along with everybody else, is the risk is that you will treat mobile like it is yet another silo. That you will allow fragmentation to happen now not just on the website, but with individual groups going off and spinning off their own apps and publishing processes, and you will double or triple or exponentially increase the workload with it. I see this happen all the time.

Look at an example here: Comcast. Comcast has a page on the desktop called Understanding Your Bill. Comcast realized Oh! People are looking at our website on mobile, we should develop a mobile website! So presumably there is not enough room on mobile, so mobile users instead of “understanding their bills” now just “understand their bills.” And so what they did was they cleaned up their text. They took two long flabby paragraphs on the desktop and they tightened it up to one short succinct sentence. They made the mobile website easier to use, easier to read, easier to navigate. The mobile website is better. But if the mobile website is better, why isn’t that just the website? Why are they maintaining two separate versions of this content so that now they have to update them both every time there is a change? You can tell that this is happening. The mobile website was last updated July of 2011. The desktop was last updated March of 2012. They forked their website into separate desktop and mobile versions. So now that means that every time they want to make a change, edit something, fix a typo, they have to do it in two separate places. There’s no way that’s going to be sustainable. And, so, understanding what the publishing workflow is, understanding what roles and responsibilities are involved in content, particularly means understanding what are the challenges of mobile.

And, my job here, if I leave you with anything, is to say “It’s not a strategy if you can’t maintain it.” The enthusiasm that people often have for leaping in, saying “Oh, let’s make a mobile app!” is often offset by the fact that they are simply not prepared to maintain that content and maintain that app or mobile website or whatever it is, over time. And, understanding that people are already operating with shoestring budgets and limited teams, my job here is to say, anything that you put in place needs to be something that you can manage and maintain over the long term.

So, the second thing that you can do, starting now, to build a content strategy for mobile, you could write better. Yeah. You could do what Comcast did and actually clean up some of the text and make it easier to read. One of my least favorite, one of my pet peeves on the internet, is all of these little tropes that are like “Here’s 4 tips for writing mobile website text.” “Here’s How to Write for Mobile, Top 10 Tips.” “Here’s How to Write Content for Mobile Sites”—illustrated by a picture of a man using his laptop outside. I think this one best sums up my opinion on this whole “Here’s how you write for mobile websites” theme.

And, the root all of this is based in this notion that mobile users are always rushed and distracted and they can’t concentrate long enough to pay attention to anything so they can actually read the website. It’s a myth. The idea that mobile users won’t focus, can’t concentrate, aren’t willing to read something, it’s not true.

See, there’s no such thing as “How to write for mobile.” There’s just good writing. And the same principles that these articles are telling you about tips to write for mobile, those are the exact same tips we gave to people to tell them how to write for the web, and they are the exact same tips that we have been telling people for decades about how to write good, professional communication. See, your users have always been rushed and distracted and more focused on their own needs than what you want to say. And so the same principles about writing short sentences, putting the most important ideas up front, breaking up the text with headings and bullet points, all of those principles, they work just as well on mobile as they do on every other platform. And if you have content that is good, that’s valuable, that’s well-written, you don’t need to change it just because it’s going to be read on a different-sized screen.

American Cancer Society asked themselves these questions as they were thinking about what their mobile strategy should be. Should they edit their content down and deliver only a subset of what they offer? Should they shorten their articles to the fun-sized candy bar version? Should they focus on the needs of the on-the-go cancer patient? Nope. American Cancer Society, when they looked at the data, found the people who were more likely to be looking at their data on a mobile device, showed that those populations of mobile-only users matched up pretty neatly with the populations of people who were less-likely to get the preventive care and cancer screenings they needed to catch cancer in time. And so, they concluded that they had a life-saving imperative to get all of their content on mobile. All of it. And you know what? They did. This website is, I think, a beautiful example of how it is possible to take something that is a fairly complex website—it has multiple categories, it has multiple levels of hierarchy, the sections are fairly complex, this is serious content, it requires a certain level of engagement—and to make all of that available, on a mobile device, without removing or changing a single word. The mobile website is browsable, it is readable, it is navigable. I might even go so far as to say the mobile website is better. It provides a more focused reading experience to guide somebody who is wrestling with a cancer diagnosis for themselves or for a family member. It allows them to actually deeply and fully engage with that reading experience in a way that they can’t do on the desktop.

There’s no reason to take good content and edit it down to some shorter form just because you think that’s all a mobile user would read. Frankly, I think it would be disrespectful to these people to say “Oh, you don’t get the same information about cancer because you have a different device.” Instead, I think we should take a lesson from David Balcom, who is the director of digital for the American Cancer Society where he says, “It’s not that this was designed and written for mobile. It’s just good content.” So, if you have good content, you should feel confident that you can deliver it regardless of device or platform. Good content transcends platform.

And, if you don’t have good content, here’s your chance to clean it up. The opportunity for you, now, to say “let’s go in and edit our content; let’s clean it up; let’s make sure it’s adding value.” If mobile is the catalyst that will allow you to do this, and if it helps you in your negotiations with various stakeholders and various special interests to go up to them and wave a tiny little smartphone screen in their face and be like “Oh no, so tiny, can’t possibly fit all your crappy content on there. Must clean it up.” If that facilitates those conversations, then by all means, be my guest. Use mobile as the catalyst that will help you do that. But you’re not just cleaning up your content for mobile users, you’re cleaning it up to provide a better experience for everyone.

And so, what this implies, then, is that you do have to do something different with your content for mobile, okay? I don’t want to leave you with the impression that you can just take everything that you have and just kind of shove it on a smaller screen. No. It is likely that you will need to put more structure into that content, to make it appropriate for mobile devices. You will have to take your flabby, gloppy blobs of content in which you have one big blob of stuff that’s all mixed in with presentation formatting and whatnot, and provide additional structures that will be appropriate to appear on different devices.

I teach at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and they came to me to talk about mobile strategy. They said that one of the primary challenges that they were facing is that they had a desktop website, they had a mobile app, and they had just purchased these new digital signs that they were going to put up all over campus. They came to me and said “Karen, we need a way where we can manage and maintain all of our content in one place and publish that content to these three very different form factors.” And I was like, “Ummm. Have you thought about treating the digital signage like it’s just a completely different separate siloed workflow?” And they were like “Ain’t nobody got time for that! What are you talking about, Karen? That’s the whole reason we’re talking to you! We need one way that we can manage and maintain all of this content in one place and send it to our desktop website, our mobile app, and these new digital signs.” Three very different form factors. This is not some kind of crazy, futuristic dystopia that these people are living in. This is happening right now, today.

And so, the content that they are publishing to these digital signs, it is, in one sense, the same content that is going to the desktop. But, in another sense, it is not. It is differently-structured content that needs, they need to have different structures, different sizes of the content, different ways of guiding people to use it, because the digital signage form factor is completely different from the desktop form factor.

And what this means, when you start looking at it, is you realize, Okay, I’m looking at my desktop website and saying “How do I think about restructuring this content for other platforms, whether that platform is a mobile website, a mobile app, a digital sign, whatever, Google Glass, whatever the next big thing will be?” Some of the questions you’re going to have to ask are things like “Is this content any good? Do I want to keep it?” Should I, if I’m thinking like, okay, I have my desktop website and I have my digital signs, which content am I going to send where? The ethos is that you should send all of the same stuff between desktop and mobile, but there may be scenarios, I mean, I live in the real world, where I’ve got a client who says “No, I only want to send a subset of that content to my digital signage. How do I do that?”

So, if I have one long page on the desktop, am I going to want to break that down into smaller pages? So, if you’re thinking, like in this Amazon example here, okay, Amazon desktop page, super long, I don’t want to send that one page to a mobile device. I want to break that into four or five shorter pages. Okay, great, well that’s cool. I’ll just break it up at these headings, here. So, Product Features, From the Manufacturer, Product Description, great, those will all be separate, smaller subpages on mobile.

So, let’s say I’m coming here and I want to know how much this camera weighs, because I’m going to have to carry it around all day. I want to know how heavy is it? Which one of these sections am I going to find that information in? I don’t know! Product Features, From the Manufacturer, Product Description, none of those labels is sufficiently descriptive enough to answer that question for me. I have no idea what to tap on in order to find that answer.

Well, that’s cool because hey, there’s this whole big long navigation summary here. Surely that information will communicate to me which one of those sections I should tap on. When you look at those three lines of summary that’s under each one of those links, you discover something: there’s actually no new information communicated on that page at all. All they do is repeat, over and over and over again, the name of the product and how many megapixels it has. The only unique content on that page is “Make memories and share joy.” Is it going to work, then, to have this desktop content? Am I going to be able to provide fallbacks for some of this stuff, like, what happens if my desktop content simply won’t work on my digital signage or in my mobile app. Now, what am I going to do?

So, I gave this talk awhile back at a company, and I kind of walked through all of these challenges that they would be facing as they tried to restructure their content for mobile, and a woman in the audience raised her hand and she said “Well, we’re going to use responsive web design.” And I’m like, “Responsive web design won’t fix your content problem.” Responsive design isn’t going to answer any of these questions that you have about how you want to structure your content differently so that it’s appropriate for the mobile device, the mobile app, the in-store kiosk, the digital signage, the Google Glass. It’s not going to answer any of these questions for you about what you need to do to create different structures and different sizes of content.

So, as Kristina mentioned, I led the redesign of the New York Times a few years back. One of the things you learn from working with publishers is that they cut a standard set of image sizes, so for every image that they are producing, their production team goes in and they cut the same exact image crops for every single one. You, as a designer, do not get to go in and be like “You know, on this page, I think what would really work well isa a 400×300 image and on this page, I’ve decided that a 200×300 image would fit just nicely.” They’re like “These are the sizes that we cut. We cut these sizes. You pick one of these sizes and you make it work.” I worked on the redesign of People Magazine’s mobile web and mobile apps this past year, and one of the things we learned from that process: People cuts nine different sizes of image crops. One of the things we learned is that People didn’t have a large enough size for mobile. We wanted one big image that would fill the entire screen of a Retina display iPhone, and the biggest image crop that they cut wasn’t big enough. And so we went to the production team, and we were like “Hey, could you cut us a bigger image size?” And they laughed and they laughed and they said no and we made do with the image sizes that we had.

So, if you can wrap your head around that. If you can wrap your head around the idea that, back in 2005, we came with a set of image sizes for the New York Times, and the New York Times is using those image sizes today as they make the leap to mobile. They’re using the exact same crop sizes. Did we design those crop sizes for mobile? No, not at all. In fact, those devices didn’t even exist yet. Would I possibly have cut different sizes if I knew then what I know now? Eh, sure, probably. But the fact that, by creating a flexible system of image sizes, they were able to make the leap to mobile without having to create a whole bunch of new content or new image sizes for mobile, if you can kind of wrap your head around the fact that that’s possible in that context, then you can wrap your head around the fact that that’s true for other things.

Like, say, headlines. One of the things that amuses me most about mobile is the number of publications that truncate their headlines. I mean, Daily Beast here, it’s like, you have to imagine the editorial discussions that they’re having. They’re like, “Well, we can’t possibly allocate enough room so that somebody can read the entire headline, because that might take away from our ability to have a giant glob of white space in the middle of the page, which is really important to us.”  NPR, NPR, my go-to example of how you do structured content right, even NPR truncates their headlines on their mobile app. The Guardian has an entire Tumblr that is dedicated to celebrating the work of the tireless men and women who shorten headlines so they’ll fit on your phone. This doesn’t make any sense, guys, okay? You look at this and it’s like, why would you ever, as a publication, truncate your headlines? Do you not understand what business you are in? You are in the business of having people read headlines, decide that they want to read the story, and then tapping on that link to go read it. That’s it. That’s your whole business model right there, and you’re kind of like, “Oh, right, we can’t possibly allocate enough space so that somebody can read the entire thing. That would be lunacy!” So that’s one solution. Just allocate enough room for it. You want to know what another solution is? Why don’t you cut another version of the headline? Why don’t you cut two different forms of that? Have a short form and a long form so that then you can send different versions to different platforms as needed.

Slate just announced that they have started cutting two separate versions of their headlines: one shorter form that was sixty, seventy characters, that they could use on mobile and use in things like Twitter. They said they got 100% increase in clickthrough on having those shorter forms in contexts when they were appropriate. Gawker also recently mandated that all of their headlines had to be fewer than 70 characters because they were running into this exact same problem. Now, I’m not that draconian. I say “Hey, why don’t you just cut two forms?” Have a short form that is appropriate for the context in which you need a space constraint, and then, on the desktop or in your email subject lines, you can have a longer form to take advantage of the capabilities of that medium. Think about your content like this is a system. A system of reusable pieces, is what’s going to help you survive the leap to other platforms. Same thing is true for things like summaries.

So, Blockbuster, here, you might not know what the goal of this page is for Blockbuster, but I will tell you. The goal of the page is that you will read the description of a movie and decide whether or not you want to rent it. Except, Blockbuster was like, “Oh, we can’t possibly allocate enough space for you to read the entire description of a movie at once, because look at all the other stuff we want you to do on this page. So, we’re going to give you three lines of text here on the desktop. We’ll give you two lines on mobile. And then, if you want to actually read the full description of the movie, you can click or tap to see more.” Except, sometimes, when you do that, you get like four more words. Blockbuster is bankrupt. They just announced that they’re closing all of their stores. You know why? Digital native business Netflix.

So, Netflix. Netflix is on literally every device known to mankind. Netflix is on something like 400 unique device types. You can watch Netflix on your phone, on your tablet, on your computer, on your TV, on your game box, you can watch it on your toaster. Netflix handled this problem in a different way. They write a short form of the description and they write a long form of the description, and they use those versions every single place they need to appear. They can go to their designers and say  “Hey, you pick whether you have enough room to use the short form or the long form or not, and you use that wherever you can, and you never truncate the description.” That’s how a digital business thinks about this. They say: How can we think about creating flexible sizes of this content that we can use in a bunch of different places?

And that, we’re going to need that, because the challenges of mobile mean, or the challenges of getting our content onto all these different devices mean, that we’re just going to need new structures, new sizes of things. I’m pretty sure that there’s somebody at Verizon who knows the difference between Backup Assistant, Backup Assistant Plus and Backup Assistant SM. I do not. So, if my job here, today, is that I want to back up my phone, I have to do this frustrating tap and back out and tap and back out. I’ve got to look at each page of content, read it, figure out if it’s what I want. If it’s not what I want, I’ve got to back up and start over. Jared Spool calls this “pogo-sticking” and he says it’s a sign that the website isn’t very well-designed, because users don’t have enough context to know what they’re going to get when they tap.

So, Comcast, faced with a similar problem, writes a short little navigation summary that explains to people what they’re going to get when they tap. So, if my job here, today, is that I want to change my PIN, could I figure out that that lives under Accounts and Identification? Yeah, sure, probably, but the fact that they wrote a little summary that has the magic keyword PIN in it makes me feel 100% confident that I know what I’m going to get when I tap.

Thing is, these little summaries, they don’t write themselves. You can’t just take the first hundred words of your body text and cram it in there and go “Well, that’ll explain to people what they’re going to get.” No. The first hundred words of your body text wasn’t designed to be used that way. Doesn’t have the right trigger words in it. You’re going to need to create additional structures of content, additional structures of text. But, I don’t want you to sit here, listening to me and think “Oh, Karen’s saying, now I’ve got to go out and write special headlines for mobile and iPhone and tablet and Twitter and I’ve got to have a whole bunch of different little navigation summaries that will live in my mobile app.” No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying don’t create content for a specific context. I’m not saying go out and make an iPhone headline and a Twitter headline and an iOS summary and an Android summary and an Xbox summary. That way lies madness. In the same way that a publisher might think about creating a flexible set of different sizes of images that they can use in a variety of contexts, and that those sizes would be basically okay, would work essentially all right, as they make the leap to other platforms, that, too, can work for text. You might do a survey of all the places that your content needs to appear, and try to develop a flexible set of reusable sizes that will give you the best chance of meeting the needs of what you need to do across the whole web.

Let me leave you with this. You don’t get to decide what device somebody uses to access the internet. They get to decide that. It’s our mission, it is our responsibility, to provide a great experience to them, whatever platform or device or screen size or input mechanism they choose to use to go online. And, for so many people today, mobile-only usage is real. These people, whether it’s because they have no other way to go online or whether it’s their preferred device to use, they are increasingly choosing their mobile device as the primary way that they go online. If you want to reach students, teens 12-17, if you want to reach black or Hispanic Americans, if you want to reach low-income Americans or Americans whose parents only have a high school education, those people are predominantly and increasingly relying on their mobile devices for access. You don’t get to tell those people “Oh, well, why don’t you go to our real website, the one we care about, the one we put all our work into?” You don’t get to decide that for them. They get to decide what device they use to go online.

And what this means, what’s so exciting about this, is that this disruption, this disruption is what’s going to make mobile great. These people, these people who are relying on their mobile devices for access, they are the ones that are going to usher in this great new wave of innovation on mobile. And we get to help them get there. See, if the history of disruptive technologies lets you know anything, it’s that eventually, mobile’s going to get good enough. It’s going to get so good that nobody’s ever going to ask the question “Why would somebody want to apply for college on their mobile phone?” It will be assumed that that is something you can do, because the mobile experience will be great.

And, the thing is, the mobile experience is going to be great in its own way. It’s not going to be competing with the desktop to say “Oh, well, the desktop does this better so it should work like the desktop.” No, it’s going to redefine what good experiences are. And they won’t be the same as the desktop. They’ll be better. And, we’re the ones who are going to help them get there.

So that, that’s what is so exciting about this, is that we have a chance, right now, to do mobile right. I believe that, for many of us, this will be the last great wave of technology innovation that we see in our careers. This is going to be a decade, two-decade long wave that sweeps away the way we’ve always done things, and allows us to usher in an entirely new way of doing things. We have a chance, right now, to clean up our crappy, outdated, useless content. We have a chance, right now, to fix our workflow, to fix our publishing processes, to more clearly define roles and responsibilities within our organization. We have a chance, right now, to fix our underlying technology, to stop band-aiding along with tools that just don’t work the way they are supposed to. We have a chance, right now, to do mobile right. Do it right, right from the start, and that, that, I think, is the opportunity. I know this is hard. I mean, I know you can just look at mobile and see it as this terrible, frightening thing. Or, you can see it as a huge opportunity, a big chance, to really do things right. And I hope you all take it. Thank you.


I’m not ashamed of my fetish for mainframes and you shouldn’t be either. Brochures from @computerhistory: Selling the Computer Revolution

We love it when we can find examples of prominent people who failed to see the obvious in their lines of endeavor. Ken Olsen

More on the rise and fall of DEC and more gorgeous photos of vintage computers. DEC Timeline

Christensen calls low-end products “disruptive technologies” because they disrupt progress toward better performance. The New Yorker: When Giants Fail

A new set of consumers gets access to a product or service previously only accessible to those with money or skill.
Disruptive Innovation

Transistor radios disrupted the market for furniture radios even though the sound quality was much worse. Jealous of her transistor radio

Kodak fell victim to disruptive technology. It was not just film but the camera itself was swept away. Kodak fell victim to disruptive innovation

In 2007 Christensen said the probability of success for the iPhone was limited because it wasn’t truly disruptive. Clayton Christensen’s Innovation Brain

The digital divide is real: differences in access exist across demographic groups and income levels. Pew Internet Digital Differences

Chelsea Clinton tackles the digital divide. Most minority students do not have the internet at home. America’s Dangerous Tech Gap

Customers lost in disruption are unprofitable, so big companies are happy to lose them. The Truth About Disruption

iPhone is the most revolutionary thing to happen to the blind for the last ten years says @AustinSeraphin:  My First Week with iPhone

Think less about the digital divide, and more about digital fluency. Smartphones help bridge the gap. There is no Digital Divide

Mobile internet access in 2009: Pew Internet Online Access in a Multiplatform World
And mobile access in 2013: Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

34% of current mobile internet users mostly go online using their phone. That’s 21% of all mobile phone owners. 11% of mobile internet users say they use their phone and other devices equally. Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

63% of mobile phone owners say they use their phone to access the internet—74% of Black Americans, 68% of Hispanic Americans, and 85% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet on a smartphone: Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

Black, Hispanic, low-income, and high-school-educated Americans are more likely to be mobile-only users. Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

50% of teen smartphone owners aged 12-17 and 50% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet mostly on their mobile phone.
Pew Internet Teens and Tech 2013
Pew Internet Cell Internet Use 2013

44 of the Fortune 100 don’t have a mobile website AT ALL. Only 6 comply with Google’s mobile SEO requirements. Search Engine Land

Google reports that only 21% of large advertisers have a mobile-optimized website. The Time for Mobile is Now

Only 16% of brands have a mobile strategy, so it’s no surprise that only 14% are happy with the results. Brands Struggle in Mobile

80% of B2B media companies take an ad hoc approach to mobile, only 33% have a mobile-optimized site. Biz Sector Cautious About Mobile

People without internet access are finding the basic tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach. Urban Poor Fear Being Left Behind

People start a task on one device and complete it on another. Declare the end of the separate mobile website. Windows on the Web

The challenge for most organizations in the long run will be maintaining variations of duplicate content. A Separate Mobile Website? No Forking Way

Celebrating the tireless men and women who shorten headlines so they’ll fit on your phone. Guardian Truncation Team

Take a long hard look at itty bitty microcontent with @eaton: Planning Reusable Microcopy


I Suck! And So Do You!

Programming note: This talk has been nominated as Best Conference Talk of 2013 in the .net Magazine Awards. If you like it, please vote for it here.

This was not a talk I ever expected to transcribe and post here.

Dare Conference in September 2013 was a wonderful, meaningful event. It benefited from its intimate space and warm, friendly community. In a space like that, this was a talk I really wanted to share. The videos from the event were posted and I encourage you to go watch them (and give a donation, if you are so inclined.)

Corey Caitlin came up to me at an event recently and said “I wanted to thank you because a talk of yours really changed my life.” And I thought, “Yeah, yeah, adaptive content, I should really just start a religion.” When she said “Dare Conference” it was like a record scratch. “You actually watched that?” This talk is pretty personal, and the idea that it might help other people genuinely means a lot to me. Her comment gave me the courage to send the video of my talk off for transcription.

Dare Conference is back for more, and I hope you will consider participating—I cannot recommend this event highly enough.

I don’t normally include the slides along with these transcripts, but there are a few places where my commentary really needs the associated visuals.

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Hi, I’m Karen McGrane. And I’m better than you.

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No, what are you laughing at me for? I’m the one standing on here on stage, right? Like, can’t you tell that makes me better than you? I mean, I wrote a hit play! I had a fantastically successful book come out this year.

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I have more Twitter followers than you do.

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My enviable Klout score entitles me to fantastic perks on things like McDonald’s and Lean Cuisine.

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TripIt tells me that I am number one, I am in first place for number of days spent on the road this year. I am beating you in a competition that you didn’t even know you were playing!

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I think that all of these external measures of what it makes for a life well lived, I mean I think that this kind of stuff really is a marker of how I am better than you.

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So where I come from, Minnesota, the author Garrison Keillor, he writes about the fictional town of Lake Woebegon. It’s a place where all the women are strong, all of the men are good looking and all of the children are above average. This term has actually been formed into a phrase called the Lake Woebegon Effect.

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What it means is that we have this deep-seated need to believe that we are better than other people. We have this deep-seated need to assume that we are above average, that we are more talented, more qualified. That in order to deal with our own insecurities, we have to put ourselves above other people.

And, you know, I have to confess to you guys, like, I don’t really think I’m better than you. In fact, the only thing I’m actually better at than you is telling myself that I suck.

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And at this I am fantastic, okay? I swear to god, this is like my finest skill in life, telling myself that I’m not good enough. And you might think, well, god, Karen, these skills that you have—having really deep-seated insecurities about whether or not you’re good enough, and then projecting that out onto other people by having to believe that you’re better than them and putting them down so that you feel better about yourself, like, what good are those skills going to do you in the modern world? And in fact, you might not think that this would qualify me for many jobs, but in fact, these skills are perfect if you want to get a job in consulting.

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I genuinely believe that the ability to be anxious about your skills and desperately maintain this facade of perfection, meanwhile secretly questioning the merits of your continued existence—I mean, that’s client services in a nut shell. And, you know, this guy? Hates himself.

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And so I think this is really sort of at the heart of the push-pull of client services where on the one hand we’re constantly having to go out into the world, particularly in the digital space and be like, “You’re wrong!” “You don’t know what you’re doing!” “Your ideas are bad” “You’re making mistakes.” “You shouldn’t do it this way!” and at the same time it’s like, “But, you like me, right?” “You think my ideas are good, you want to believe me and trust me?” You have to go out into the world and be like, “But I’m smarter than you! I’m better than you! I have better ideas, my ideas are right and you have to listen to me.” But also, “I’m still desperately seeking validation from these people whose opinions I don’t really respect.”

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I call this The Loop.

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So The Loop is where you only believe that you are worthy if you get it right. The Loop is where you only believe that your value to the world is that you have the right ideas. And the problem is that you can’t live with that insecurity in yourself. You can’t live by constantly judging yourself that way all the time. So you project it out on to other people. You’re kind of like, “oh god get this off of me, I can’t take this anymore!” I’m going to judge you and you’re not going to be good enough. I’m going to blame you and you’re doing it wrong. And so instead of judging yourself all the time you start judging other people. Instead of validating yourself you look for validation from other people.

The problem with The Loop is that it always comes back to haunt you. It always comes back around. The Loop is a no win situation.

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You will never be able to be right enough. You will never be able to get the validation from the external world that you need. And paradoxically, the only way out of The Loop is by going inside and instead realizing that the solution is by being kinder to yourself, is by having compassion for yourself in the same way that you would want to have compassion for other people.

This is a really famous quote, I think that a lot of people who are active in social media have seen this. “The reason that we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everybody else’s highlights reel.”

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And, you know, Facebook, Instagram, all of these social channels, it’s like we finally now have a broadcast medium for The Loop.

And I think if you were to look at my life over the last year, if you saw only my highlights reel, you would say, you’d be like, Wow. You know, I published an awesome book, it was very well received, people seemed to like it. My career has totally taken off as a result. I’m doing better work and more interesting work than before. I’ve travelled all over the world, I’ve gotten to meet amazing and interesting people and from the outside, my last year, it looked fantastic.

On the inside, though, I had some spectacular project failures. I had one two-week period where literally $500,000 of sure-thing business all evaporated like that. You know, these were projects that weren’t competitive, I had clients calling me up and saying yes, we love you, we want to work with you, money that I had counted on and it was just gone. And there was nothing I could do about it. I turned around and had to talk to the team of people that I had been working with literally for years and say, “Hey. I can’t do this anymore.” Like, I don’t have the work coming in to keep you busy. I actually don’t really even want to go on doing this. It’s like, I want to do something different with my life right now, and I ended my relationships with my team. Very amicably, but it was a hard loss for me to have to say I’m not going to be able to keep these people employed anymore. And in the middle of all of this I went through the kind of relationship disaster that I think would bring pretty much anybody to their knees.

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It’s the kind of thing that looks funny when you describe it like this, but it wasn’t funny.

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There’s no good way for someone to cheat on their girlfriend with her best friend. But having lived through it I can tell you that there are things that could be done to steer the ship toward more awful or less awful and in this situation it seemed like phasers were clearly set on more awful. And it was one of the most profoundly dehumanizing experiences of my life, to realize that the two people who I loved and trusted and spent the most time with literally didn’t care enough about me, or have enough respect for me at all, to have empathy for what I might be going through, or even to tell me the truth. And so as noted vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown might say,

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Brené Brown: “This led to a little breakdown. Which actually looked more like this. Um, and it did. It led to, I call it a breakdown, my therapist calls it a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening sounds better than a breakdown, but I assure you it was a breakdown.”

I had a little breakdown. I’m not even going to give you the courtesy of trying to put it into a small font. This was an all caps, full-fledged breakdown.

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Brené, as I’m sure you know, she describes her breakdown in this talk as something that emerged from her insights about the intellectual crisis of her research, and what it actually meant to have a life well-lived. I had a completely humiliating breakdown perpetuated by one of like, the oldest stories in the book, the Love Triangle. And, you know, literally, I didn’t do anything for months. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. People had to come over to my house in order to make sure that I was eating. I think that you guys are really going to enjoy my next book called, Heartbreak and Betrayal: The Secrets to Weight Loss. And, you know, standing up here on stage like this, there is no more true statement than the one that is going to come out of my mouth right now. Which is, I really question whether I should talk to you about this. Or, as Brené would say:

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Brené Brown: “I had a slide that said breakdown. At what point did I think that was a good idea?”

See, this is too personal, right? This is like, too shameful. It’s too humiliating to talk about. I mean, even at an event where people really want you to tell your story, for me to stand up here and acknowledge, yeah, this particularly painful and humiliating thing happened to me. I even sat there looking at my slides last night going “Well, you know, there’s still time to snip this whole center bit out.” Like, I don’t really need to talk about this.

But the thing is for me to stand up here and acknowledge that this happened and how badly it affected me. For me to pretend that this didn’t happen, for me to pretend that everything that I’m talking about in this talk didn’t come as a direct result of having a breakdown, in a sense that’s just getting sucked back into The Loop. It’s just again, me trying to pretend that everything is okay, I have a great facade that makes everything look good and all of these insights that I have are things that I just kind of figured out without having to go through the fire.

And, you know, what it really came down to is that if I didn’t stand up here and admit to this, then you’re going to know that I’m human. I mean, how am I going to keep pretending that I’m better than you if you know that I’m like, an actual human being?

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And so I’m actually really proud of everything that has happened to me over the last year, pretty much as a result of this and, you know it’s like, it’s one of these things where I took a look at the situation and I said I have a choice here. This is the kind of thing that could make my life worse or it’s the kind of thing that could make my life better. And I picked better.

And so really everything that I’m here talking about today comes as a direct result of things that I have learned as a result of kind of going through this. I talked a little bit about this last year in a piece that I wrote for A List Apart and the good people there were kind enough to let me publish it.

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I talked a little bit about how a personal crisis had really affected my work and how I got pushed to a place where I simply couldn’t judge myself. I simply I had to just stand up and do because I didn’t have the energy to obsess over whether I was good enough. It was essentially like The Loop collapsed around me.

As a result of publishing this, one of the nicest things that has happened to me is how many people then felt like it was okay to reach out to me and talk about their own struggles. Their own crisis. Their own vulnerability. And it all of a sudden, it was like I walked through a door where by being willing to admit to my own struggles and my own vulnerability, somehow I left the Muggles who were trying to pretend that everything was great behind, and I moved into a world where all of a sudden it was okay to talk to me. And so people felt more comfortable sharing what they were going through, thanking me for having the courage to speak up for it.

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And what really kind of broke my heart was how many people said that they were struggling. And they were afraid to talk about it. They didn’t feel like they could share it. They felt like people would, if people knew that they were going through something like a divorce or an illness that was affecting their work, that they didn’t feel like that was something that they could talk about. And you know what I realized, what comes through so clearly when you start thinking about this, is that everybody’s got something. I mean everyone. We are all just doing the best we can. We are all just kind of trying to hide the fact that we’re struggling.

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We’re all kind of trying to put out this great-looking highlights reel, but on the inside we all know that we’re not perfect. We have messy lives in which we’re really struggling to keep it together and that, that is what brings us together. Like, it is that experience of acknowledging when things aren’t right, when we feel weak, that’s what makes us human. I mean that’s what you would say to somebody, right? Like if they were, if they’d made a mistake, if something had gone wrong. You know, you’d give them a hug and you’d say, well, that’s only human.

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And so that, that willingness to be vulnerable, that willingness to be imperfect, if that is the very thing that actually makes us a part of the broader community, then that’s the compassion that we have to give to ourselves. It is that compassion that you would be willing to extend to a friend or someone in need, that in fact is the exact thing that you have to be willing to give to yourself.

You know, I feel like I so desperately want there to be some kind of manual for what it means to be a human being.

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You know, some instructions for, it’s like, well if you just do these things, then you’ll get it right. I can just remember even as a child wanting to look at lists of dos and don’ts to say: Okay well, do it this way and don’t do it that way. And there is just a never-ending source of life hacks, of instructions about how you’re supposed to wash your bowl out and you know, write 750 words before breakfast. Don’t use your iPhone as an alarm clock and get to inbox zero and you should get more sleep and you should really call your mother.

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And for all of these instructions about what it takes to do it right, then there’s somebody right there to jump on you, they’re like, no, sorry, you’re doing it wrong.

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You’re doing it wrong. Could you think of a better meme for our time than someone pointing and laughing at you and being like, “Nah, you’re doing it wrong.” And then on top of that, you know, and for all of our efforts to do it right, for all of the laughing and pointing that we get from people when we’re doing it wrong, then there’s always someone there to say, you know what you’re actually really sucking at is taking feedback. You know, you should actually get really a lot better at taking negative feedback because you know, negative feedback is super important and you know, why aren’t you good at that?

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And after all of this we tell ourselves, why are you being so hard on yourself?

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Let me give you an example here of my process for how I write a talk. So when I sit down to write a talk, my expectations are usually, you know they usually start ratcheting up, to where I’m like okay, so, I’m going to get a standing ovation, and then they’re going to turn it into a TED Talk, and a child is going to be conceived during my talk and then they’re going to name it after me.

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And so, you know I just start getting wound up. But at the same time, all of my anxiety is also getting ratcheted up, where I’m like, okay, but nobody’s going to laugh at the right places, and then they’re going to laugh at the wrong places, and then no one’s going to cry, and then it’s going to become painfully obvious that I’m just no Barry White.

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And so, as my expectations and my anxiety like sort of ratchet up in sequence I reach this magical point that I call: The Fuck-It Point.

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It happens every time I write a talk. I’ve even wanted to explain this in the past where it’s like, okay, what happens at the fuck it point? And it’s literally the point where I put my expectations aside, I ratchet my anxiety back down, and I say, “You know what? This can just be okay.”

I think my career as a motivational speaker is getting off to an excellent start here with my talk called I Suck and So Do You and the theme of Aim for Okay-ness. The thing is, I realized that when I hit the fuck-it point I am not actually aiming for okay-ness. When I hit the fuck-it point, the thing is that I get to the point where I stop focusing on all of this external validation, all of the signs that somebody else is going to give me that the talk is good enough, and I allow myself simply to focus on doing what I do best. Which is writing a good talk. I allow myself to get to the point where it’s like, this just has to be good by my standards. It doesn’t matter if I get a standing ovation at the end of it as long as I let myself think it’s good. You have permission to think that you’re good enough.

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And I think that is the thing that none of us are very good at giving to ourselves. We are never good at allowing ourselves to say, You know what? You’re okay. You’re doing a good enough job. It’s okay if you’re not constantly striving. It’s okay if you’re not constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough. It’s okay if you just let yourself say, “You know what, I actually think I might be pretty good!” You have permission to be kind to yourself.

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You have permission to look around and say—the kindness, the friendliness, the compassion, the warmth that I would extend to a friend or a colleague who is struggling, the desire that I would have to try to comfort them or put my arms around them and give them what they need? You can extend that to yourself. And in fact, that right there? That is the only thing that will actually allow you to move past your feelings of judgment and defensiveness and fear and actually get to a place where you can extend that true compassion to other people.

Recently I was in Malmö Sweden and I was going to meet a colleague there, he came over from Copenhagen and he said let’s meet at the train station. So he sent me a text and he’s like, I’ll meet you at the main entrance of the train station.

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And I was like, “Great, okay!” Except then I got into the train station and I realized that virtually every door looked the exact same. And so I’m like wandering around the train station, ratcheting up my feelings of anxiety and, and my feeling is basically like “Oh my god, I suck, I’m terrible, like I don’t know where I’m supposed to meet him and I’m going to be late and he’s going to be annoyed with me and he’s going to be angry with me that I wasted his valuable time, he came all the way over here to see me.” And this is The Loop, right? So it’s like I can’t keep this on myself. So as I’m racing through the train station trying to find the right door I find myself rehearsing this little speech that I’m going to give him. Like, “Well, I didn’t know which door was the main entrance and you should have been more clear about where that was and I’m really sorry but you can’t possibly blame me for this because, you know, really, it was kind of your fault.” And then I just stopped myself and I’m like, “Why would I do that? Why?

This is kind of a tour of what it’s like inside my brain. Why, why would I do that to him? Why would I do that to myself? He’s not mad at me. He’s not sitting there tapping his foot anxiously wondering why it’s taking me two or three minutes longer to find him in the train station. Why would I set our relationship off on such a negative note by blaming him for something that he’s not even doing?

And so it’s like you start to peel that loop back, and realize that the solution here isn’t for me to keep judging myself either. The root of that problem is that I’m beating myself up about: “Oh, I should have done a better job of figuring out where the main entrance was, or I should have asked him to be more clear, or I should have been more clear about where I wanted to meet him.” No! The solution there is that I just start being kinder to myself. I say: “You’re in a foreign city, you don’t know where you’re going, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay.” It’s okay to just acknowledge that maybe you were lost or confused, but you can be nice to yourself about it.

And so, you see this sense that we bring to all of our human relationships—and I guarantee that we bring it to our work—which is that we are defensive, we are fearful, we don’t trust ourselves, we want to be right, but we’re afraid maybe we’re not. We are anxious about our recommendations and you know, you just see people, and they’re getting tense, and so they start projecting.

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And they start putting that onto other people. They start blaming other people. They start assuming that other people have negative intentions or belief systems that they simply don’t have. And that defensiveness is what actually prevents people from being able to have the compassion that they need to do great work. You can’t feel compassion if you feel defensive.

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If your barriers are up, you know? If your hackles are up, if you’re protecting yourself against a slew of imagined insults and a fear-based system of belief, you’re never going to be able to feel the kind of compassion that you need to feel in order to actually see the kind of change that you want to see in the world.

Back when I first started at Razorfish, and they had this tag line which said Everything that can be digital will be which I thought was a beautiful expression of the kind of work that we do and why it’s so important. That yes, right, everything in the world that can be digital eventually will be, and we’re the people who are going to help us get there. So I found that very inspiring.

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And this tag line was in support of a positioning that they called Digital Change Management which I thought was a load of crap. It seemed fake and management consulting-y. It’s like, Digital Change Management, what is that? That’s not a thing. We don’t “manage digital change,” we make websites. We make websites. That is our job. We make websites, somebody calls us up, they say we need a website, we build them a website. We try to build them the best website that we possibly can. That is what we do is make websites.

So over the years, as I’ve been doing this, I have come to realize that everything we do is change management.

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Everything we do is not about making a website or making a mobile app, or figuring out the content management system, or, you know, any of the other specific, tangible project-based things that we do. I mean those things are important, don’t get me wrong, but the real work that all of us are doing, the hard, difficult work is in helping organizations adapt to digital change. It’s helping these companies figure out how they are going to make decisions differently, how their products are going to change, how their relationships with their customers are going to change, and really how their jobs are going to change.

I love this quote from Douglas Coupland. He says, “21st Century life is karaoke. A never-ending attempt to maintain dignity while a jumble of data uncontrollably blips across the screen.”

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The people that we work with are trying to maintain their dignity. The people that we work with, our clients, our stakeholders, our co-workers. They are sick of the internet. They are sick of the pace of digital change. They are sick of having to make decisions about things that they don’t fully understand. They are sick of having to constantly jump at the next new thing and they are sick of the fact that every time that someone comes in to tell them here’s what’s going on, it’s like: Why haven’t you built a mobile website yet? How come you don’t understand how important this CMS is? Why don’t you get responsive design? We’re judging them because we’re defensive and we’re making them feel stupid rather than helping them actually understand what digital change means.

Change management means having compassion for the people that we work with.

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And again, we’re never going to be able to feel that kind of compassion for them, we’re never going to be able see the pace of digital change from their perspective, and we’re never going to be able to sort of guide them through the process of this long-term generational shift, we’re never going to be able to help them make those decisions, if we don’t feel genuine compassion for what they’re going through.

And instead so much of our energy as a discipline is caught up in being defensive. It is caught up in being fearful that we don’t feel valid. That we don’t feel like the work that we do is necessarily worthy. That even amongst our own community, we have people saying, UX is bullshit. It’s not a real job title.

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And why do we really need front-end developers? We’ll just have web designers do it.

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And content strategy? Does that even really exist? I don’t think it does.

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And our fear about our own ability to validate our own work comes across then in our defensiveness when we talk to our clients or when we talk to our stakeholders. And we are so caught up in being anxious about whether our own work actually has meaning that we’re forgetting about the fact that our job is to get past our own defensiveness, give ourselves the validation that we need so that we can help guide them through the transitions that they’re going through.

When you look at the kind of skills that people have, I think it’s helpful to divide them into Technical Skills, which are: Are you a good designer? Are you a good developer? Are you a good researcher? External Skills which are: Skills in managing, persuading, coaching, guiding other people. And then Internal Skills which are: Skills essentially in being kind to yourself and helping to validate your own work. Helping to calm yourself down, helping to make you feel good in situations where you might be nervous.

So people who work in the kind of space that we work in, in the design, development, digital space, tend to be very good on the technical skills. They tend to rate themselves very high. It’s like if you’re a developer, yeah, I’m an awesome developer, I’m great at being a developer. And they rank themselves lower on external and internal skills. So you think to yourself: I might, I kind of have some people skills but man, I suck at telling myself I’m doing a good job. I’m terrible at being kind to myself.

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And so when faced with a crisis, when faced with a problem, what people do when they don’t know what to do is they go to what they’re good at. So they say, great, I’m an awesome designer and so when I feel afraid, when my ideas aren’t getting traction, when I don’t think that I’m getting the trust or the respect that I need, I’m going to go my technical skills. I’m going to hit those technical skills as hard as possible. I’m going to be right. I’m going to be more right than you. I’m going to explain to you again how my ideas are right and your ideas are wrong and I’m going to be more right than you and my god, you’re going to listen to me because I know what I’m talking about because I am an expert in this technical space. But the problem is, maxing out on your technical skills there isn’t going to solve the problem. Those are exactly the situations where instead of beating your strong suit, you need to build up your weak suit.

People in these kind of areas they would do much better to do exactly what you guys are doing here, which is focus on building their external skills, managing and persuading and coaching other people. And even more so, working on building their internal skills. Working on building the ability to tell themselves, Hey, you know what? If my ideas aren’t getting traction here, I’m still worthwhile. My ideas are still right. I don’t have to beat somebody over the head with it. Instead I’m going to tell myself that. I’m going to tell myself that I’m right, and then I’m going to figure out how do I coach other people to figure it out.

People who are leaders, people who are executives, people who are sales people, people who are managers tend to rate themselves much more highly on external and internal skills and they tend to rate themselves much lower on technical skills.

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And it makes sense, right? I mean, you would think: What’s going to make me a great CEO? Is it being the best designer in the world? Is it being the best developer in the world? What’s going to make me the fantastic salesperson? Is maxing out my technical capabilities? No. In fact these people, they know they’re not the best at what they do. They know they’re not the best writer in the world, but it’s okay, because they’ve chosen to invest more in other dimensions. They’ve chosen to say: Hey, if I spend more time building my external skills and if I spend more time building my internal skills, I’m going to have a greater effect on the world.

And so, so often these kind of things, they get derided as being “soft skills.” I think particularly to somebody who’s focused on their technical capabilities, it’s easy to sort of, pooh-pooh that stuff and be like: Ah, that’s just that hand-wavy, fluffy, namby-pamby soft skills kind of thing. They’re not. They are in fact the most important skills that people can build.

And so, when looking at the kind of things that you all are here to learn how to do and to give yourselves, I want to caution against saying the point of this, the point of standing up here, sharing our stories, writing the confessional blog posts, talking about the fact that: yes we all feel vulnerable, yes we all feel shame. The point isn’t for us to take our shame and run around with it like a cape and show everybody, like, “Look! Shame! We all have it!” The point of it isn’t to look around and try to find that kind of external validation from the people here.

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All that is, is The Loop, okay? All that is is getting back into a sense that: I am looking for other people to validate me. I want my shame validated and I want everybody to clap me on the back saying: Oh it’s great that you feel vulnerable. The point of this isn’t to get external validation for that. The point of this, the point of being here, of talking to other people, of sharing these kind of stories and hearing other people share these stories is for you to recognize that you’re not alone. It’s for you to build your skills in giving yourself that kind of internal validation.

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It’s for you to recognize that it is okay for you to give yourself the same love and compassion that you would want extended to anybody here, and to recognize that it is only through giving yourself that kind of support and that caring that you will be able to give it to the people who need it the most, who are your friends, your colleagues, your co-workers, your loved ones, anybody who is struggling with the change of human life.

Let me leave you with this, it’s a quote from Marianne Williamson, she says,

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Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about you shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine like children do. We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So I hope that you, here, over the next couple of days will understand that it is your right and your responsibility to shine. You guys are awesome. Thank you.

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IA Summit Closing Plenary

I’m about as proud of this talk as I am of anything I’ve done in recent memory. I hope you’ll read and/or listen to it.


The full transcript and audio track, thanks to UIE, is available on the IA Summit website.

Transcript for IA Summit Closing Plenary


The slides (and the audio as well) are on Slideshare.


References I tweeted out during the talk.

The Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” ran from 1958-63, via @paleofuture:

A disturbing trend in UX books, from @a2slbailey: no mention of information architecture.

Two photos of St. Peter’s Square: one taken two years before the iPhone was released, and one today.

Where no UX professional has gone before: Developer experience and the UX of APIs.

Application programming Interfaces (APIs) are the life blood of the modern web.

Why I don’t wireframe much, from @Cennydd:

How do you communicate a complex content model? You use wireframes. (And a spreadsheet.)!searchin/contentstrategy/wireframe/contentstrategy/la9UTEW84AE/Tc824ZEKvEIJ

You care about structured content for multi-channel publishing, buy Content Everywhere by @sara_ann_marie.

Content strategists AND designers are our friends, but Edward Tufte is right about IA:

Apparently user-centered design isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

If you’re considering graduate school, check out the MFA in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts:

We need to change business, not become it, said @Cennydd at IA Summit 2011.

Maxing out on technical skills doesn’t get you as far as developing soft skills.

Competent jerks, lovable fools, and the formation of social networks, from Harvard Business Review:

It’s the reward system, stupid. On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B:

Cognitive empathy means you can see someone’s perspective. Compassion means you’re moved to help.

We’ve a long way to go in developing empathy towards our clients, says @Mike_FTW in a video you must watch:

Here’s how we work. Somebody calls up with a project; we do some stuff; and the money follows.

We killed our supply chain for new digital talent.

Content Strategy, Mobile

State of the mobile web — sources

These are my favorite data points about how we’re using the mobile web today. I get asked for these sources a lot, so I’ve aggregated them all here.

91% of American adults own a mobile phone.

56% of American adults are now smartphone owners—79% of Americans 18-24, 81% aged 25-34, and 69% aged 35-44 own a smartphone.

63% of mobile phone owners say they use their phone to access the internet—74% of Black Americans, 68% of Hispanic Americans, and 85% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet on a smartphone:

34% of current mobile internet users mostly go online using their phone. That’s 21% of all mobile phone owners. 11% of mobile internet users say they use their phone and other devices equally.

Blacks, Hispanics, low-income Americans, less-educated Americans, and young adults are more likely to be mobile-only users.

50% of teen smartphone owners aged 12-17 and 50% of young adults aged 18-29 say they use the internet mostly on their mobile phone.

Amazon, Wikipedia, and Facebook all see about 20% of their traffic from mobile-only users, according to comScore.

46% of shoppers reported they exclusively use their mobile device to conduct pre-purchase research for local products and services.

77% of mobile searches take place at home or work, only 17% on-the-go, according to Google.

90% of people start a task on one device, then complete it on another, according to Google. It’s especially high in  categories like retail (67%), financial services (46%), and travel (43%).

86% of mobile internet users (and 92% of mobile internet users aged 13-24) say they use their mobile devices while watching television.

44 of the Fortune 100 don’t have a mobile website AT ALL. Only 6 comply with Google’s mobile SEO requirements.

Google reports that only 21% of large advertisers have a mobile-optimized website.

Only 16% of consumer brands have a mobile strategy, so it’s no surprise that only 14% are happy with the results.

80% of B2B media companies take an ad hoc approach to mobile, only 33% have a mobile-optimized site.

McKinsey estimates that 2 to 3 billion people will come online globally through the mobile internet over the next decade, generating annual economic impact of $3.7 trillion to $10.8 trillion globally by 2025.

More from me

Don’t just take my word for it, take my word for it in these publications:

Don’t Let Paper Paradigms Drive Your Digital Strategy, Harvard Business Review

The rise of the mobile only user, Harvard Business Review

The alternative is nothing, A List Apart

Windows on the web, A List Apart

Your content, now mobile, A List Apart

Uncle Sam wants you (to optimize your content for mobile), A List Apart

Buy my book! Content Strategy for Mobile

Content Strategy, Drupal, Mobile, Presentations

Drupalcon Keynote

I gave a keynote at Drupalcon Portland, and here is the video, my slides, and my speaking notes, which I formatted using the convenient WYSIWYG toolbar at the top of my editing blob. My talk starts around minute 24 of the video.

I owe a lot of my success to Drupal. Let me be clear, I’ve  never installed Drupal, I don’t know my Drupal username, if I find myself on the command line it means something has gone terribly wrong. I’m not a Drupal developer. But understanding Drupal—how it thinks about content, how users interact with it—has deeply informed and inspired a lot of my thinking around the future of content. I wouldn’t be where I am today without this community. I’m not just saying this to flatter you. I’m really humbled and grateful and super excited to talk with you about the future of content today.

It’s impossible to talk about the future of content without talking about where it all got started, which was print. Print was awesome. You put the words on the paper and they stayed there. You didn’t have to worry about it changing and keeping it updated all the time. We know how print works, the techniques and cues that we use to communicate meaning, and everyone understands them at a glance.

But then we had to go and invent the web. Which, I think we’ll all admit has been totally worth it, but man is it a pain in the ass. I’m a huge computer history buff, and the web just turned 20, and reading about what happened at CERN drives home the point that the very foundation of the web: hypertext markup language and the uniform resource locator, were created for the explicit purpose of allowing anyone, anywhere, to publish documents that can be instantly updated and accessible globally. And when you take a step back from the work we do everyday to appreciate  how transformational that is in the history of communication, 20 years just isn’t even close to enough time to adapt to that monumental change. We opened Pandora’s box.

The desktop web was just the start. For the last 20 years we’ve been able to imagine that a web page is just a glorified print document.

But now the explosion of people accessing the web through mobile devices has forced us to come to terms with the ways that the web is different. Our shared hallucination that we have control over layout and presentation, that most users on the desktop had essentially the same screen size, the same input devices—that’s gone.

Now we have to adapt our content for smartphones and tablets. We don’t have the luxury of making assumptions about the user’s device type, screen size, or input device anymore. And that, more than anything, gets to the real transformation that we’re making in content. And it’s not going to stop! I’m not a futurist, I’m not here to predict what will capture the public’s imagination next. But I do know, whatever platform comes next, we’re going to have to get our content onto it.

Maybe it’s smart TV. The thought of publishing your content to a TV screen really drives home the fallacy of assuming we know anything about the user’s screen size or input device. It also starts to suggest some of the limitations of trying to handle this on the front-end. Expecting the exact same content, the exact same page, to serve a smartphone and a smart TV screen might prove limiting. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m also saying this might be the point where we have to consider back-end alternatives.

I guarantee we’re going to have to think differently about content when we finally have speech-based interfaces, like in-car audio systems. It’s easy to mock audio interfaces, to laugh at Siri’s mistakes. You know what else didn’t work quite right for a long time? Touchscreens. Remember how crappy touchscreens used to be? You’d go to the ATM and you’d have to angle your finger just right to try and make it read the button press. And then one day, touchscreens worked. They worked perfectly. And it changed everything about our industry and the way we interact with these machines, in ways we haven’t even comprehended yet. I don’t know when it will happen: 5 years? 15 years? 50 years? But at some point we’re going to make audio interfaces work, and they’re going to transform human society.

And our content has to be ready to go there. Think about something as simple as the difference between the emphasis tag and the italics tag. Developers ask, what’s the point of trying to parse out when to use italics and when to use emphasis, when every major browser since the dawn of time has rendered emphasis as italics? Not in an audio interface, they don’t. One conveys styling, one conveys meaning. So, if we have that problem of separating what something looks like from what it means at the level of the most basic, fundamental tag, think about all the other issues we’re going to have getting content ready for audio interfaces—and how much better off we’ll be if we start making our content future-friendly now. It should also drive home the fact that the problem of future-friendly content and the problem of accessibility are the same problem, and doing the right thing now for accessibility will help make a better experience for everyone in the long run.

Maybe the future is Google Glass! I don’t think so, I think Google Glass will be the Segway of mobile. But it does speak to the problem of getting our content onto incredibly diverse form factors. Google released their UI specs for Google Glass specifying the HTML templates they want you to use—if you designed your content around your presentation, will it be appropriate for their presentation?

Maybe you’ve heard the next big thing is watches. This isn’t a real product, it’s an artist’s rendition, but both Apple and Samsung are rumored to be developing watches. Maybe you don’t want to read a long document on your watch screen, but maybe a combination of an accessible wrist touchscreen and a wireless audio interface would work really well, If you have content that’s structured to support both reading and listening. Watches are tiny, maybe they’re not the next big thing, maybe it’s…

Stadium scoreboards! Get your content where everyone can see it! I put this in here as a joke, just to contrast the size of the watch with the size of the scoreboard, and then I turned around and I had a client tell me that one of their biggest problems right now is…

Digital signage. A university I’m working with told me they’d just purchased a bunch of digital screens they want to put up all over campus, and they need a way to manage and publish content to them. I asked “Are you just going to treat them like a separate workflow and manage the publishing process manually?” And they said “No way! We don’t have time for that! We need a way to publish events listings and campus alerts automatically to the website , our mobile app, and the digital signage.” They need a way to manage content in one place and have it publish to three very different platforms automatically, and they need to do this right now, today. This isn’t some crazy futuristic dystopia, this is real.

Maybe you’ll want the same thing some day in your home. Seems like whenever we talk about the future, we talk about the internet refrigerator, as if not being able to check email or Twitter during the 30 seconds it takes to grab a Diet Coke is the biggest problem we face as a civilization. But what about if your entire cooktop was a giant iPad screen? Would your text, video, recipes be ready to go there? What about the problem that I do think is one of the biggest challenges facing us as a society, which is…

What happens when toaster printers become reality? Will your content be adaptable enough to appear on delicious toast? These are the problems we are here to solve together.

Today, our content already has to live on many different devices and form factors and screen sizes. Tomorrow, there will be even more new devices, some we haven’t even dreamed up yet.

This isn’t just a front-end problem. It’s a CMS problem. I want to be careful about how I say this, because people get religious, but responsive design is just one technique in our arsenal for how to survive this zombie apocalypse of new devices and form factors. The future of content means changing the way CMS works. We need both front-end and back-end solutions.

True separation of content from form

Because future-friendly content requires true separation of content from presentation. We have to support too many different outputs for content to assume that we can couple content with presentation. Do you have any idea what a huge shift this is in the way we think about content? For most of human history, it was impossible to produce a document without considering meaning and appearance together. All of our semantic cues as to priority, weight, relationships in content come through visual styling. But now we need new tools, new processes to achieve that.

It’s easy to think when I say “separate content from presentation” I mean “get your HTML out of my content,” like “get your chocolate out of my peanut butter.” That’s a part of it, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg.

When Dan Jacobson, the API guy from Netflix and formerly NPR says “The future of content management systems is in their ability to capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way,” it’s really tempting to reduce that to a problem with markup, to think that we can solve the problem just by getting rid of rich text editors.

Personally, I talk all the time about the limitations of what I call blobs, of giving content creators a big bucket into which they can dump whatever they want, style their content with tools that work “just like Microsoft Word,” add tables and custom bullets and make the text purple Comic Sans and float it to the right. Blobs are limiting, because all of this formatting, all of this meaning doesn’t translate when you try to take it to another platform.

I’ve gotten the reputation of being the president of the WYSIWYG Haters Club, which is true, and if you don’t buy into my rationale here today…

I’m going have to continue my graffiti crime spree. People assume I must be some kind of markdown evangelist. The problem isn’t the toolbar. Truth is, I don’t care if users make headings and bulleted lists with a toolbar or markdown codes. The problem with WYSIWYG is that we are allowing content creators to treat the web like it’s print.

Where do you think WYSIWYG came from?

It came from XEROX. Xerox PARC. Because they invented the laser printer. Think about that for a moment. Before the laser printer, Xerox machines could only make copies of an existing document. They invented a way that you could print out anything you wanted. But they needed a way for you to actually create that document. They didn’t invent the laser printer because they figured out WYSIWYG. They invented the graphical user interface and the concept of “what you see is what you get” because they invented the laser printer.

The laser printer was arguably the most important component of the desktop publishing revolution, and a lot of work went into ensuring that the bitmap rendering and printer drivers were in sync. The tools for content creation and the tools for content output were tightly coupled. You can directly peg the adoption of graphical interfaces and thus the personal computing revolution to the demand for laser printers.

Guess what. The web’s not a laser printer. The problem with WYSIWYG isn’t that we have a toolbar on the top of the screen. The problem is that we are using an antiquated metaphor from the desktop publishing era to communicate to content creators what it means to publish on the web. That model was okay — like training wheels — when all we had was the desktop. But now it’s the future.

Chunks of content get remixed on the fly. Different content chunks appear on different pages, on different platforms. Which chunks appear where is subject to a complex set of metadata-driven business rules. The job of the content creator in this environment is changing, needs to change. Our job is to build new tools, new interfaces, new metaphors that help them understand that. This is tough fight. It’s a battle. It’s a war.

It’s a war of blobs versus chunks: sloppy blobs of where there’s no distinction between content and form versus clean, flexible, presentation-independent chunks. But this war isn’t about markup. It’s about mental models. It’s a fight between the old, outdated processes and metaphors of content publishing derived from print versus the new approaches we have to start inventing now if we’re going to survive the future. This is why I’m so excited to talk to you all. You guys are Chunk Army. It is time to go to war against the blobs.

Here’s our battle plan, Team Chunk:

  • Content has to be structured. No more relying on a giant field that says “content goes here.” We have to work with content owners to model their content types and define the structures needed to deliver content, especially if it’s going to different platforms.
  • Find ways to communicate meaning that’s encoded in visual styles. Presentation and formatting has to be replaced with semantic metadata.
  • Authors need to be able to maintain all the content objects and metadata associated with a content type in one package, not attached to individual pages. Then, those objects must be able to be targeted by platform.
  • All of this means we have to create a different kind of author experience, a new user experience for content creators.

Structured content

You guys know how structured content works. I know Drupal isn’t a blob CMS. The challenge is breaking out of the page-based mindset to figure out the right level of granularity so different content structures can adapt to different platforms.

Here’s an example from Amazon. Now, Amazon already has a pretty well-structured content model for their products, that’s not their problem. The problem is figuring out whether the existing content structures will support new platforms, and what to do if they won’t work. Even just looking between the desktop and the smartphone form factor you see the questions that arise:

  • Not every object from the desktop should be used on every platform. How do we decide what to keep and what to exclude? If we exclude it on one platform, does that mean it should be excluded from others? If not, how do we target content by platform?
  • If you handle this transformation on the front-end, there must be a one-to-one mapping between a page on the desktop and a page on mobile. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. The page is a container, and how much you should put in that container might vary by platform. Amazon decided to break a long product page into a series of shorter pages on smartphones.
  • That means that text that was previously used as headings on the desktop are now used as navigation links. The headings Product Features, From The Manufacturer, and Product Description aren’t sufficiently differentiated. If I have a question about the product, I can’t tell from those three options which one to tap on to get the answer.
  • Same thing with the body text that gets truncated for the teaser. Each summary just repeats the product name and the zoom and megapixel features listed in the title over and over. They don’t convey any new information and they don’t tell me what I’m going to get when I tap. Pretty much every word on this screen is wasted.
  • Cross-platform images is a whole nightmare unto itself I’m not even going to talk about.
  • What happens with giant tables, giant infographics, Flash videos, content in hover states?

I gave a talk recently where I outlined these challenges and a woman raised her hand and said “We’re going to use responsive design.”

Responsive design is not gonna fix your content problem! Responsive design doesn’t answer these questions for you. Another way to put that is, whether your solution is client side, server side, or a combination, you still have to make the underlying choices about how content is structured.

Semantic metadata

The second problem we have to solve is figuring out how to replace presentation and styling information that describe what something should look like with semantic metadata that describes what something means. LIke everything else I’m telling you, this isn’t a technology problem, it’s a human problem. We’re going against centuries of history where people relied on visual cues to communicate meaning. We have to replace styling choices with something more adaptive so that the author’s intent can make the leap to different platforms.

Back in the 1980s TV Guide was the most popular magazine in America. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Americans don’t read. If TV Guide had thought of themselves as a just a magazine , they might have been okay with just publishing program descriptions on paper. In print, data like the program name, genre, length, network, even the actors was encoded solely through visual styling, making text bold or all caps. But if all that data were locked up in Quark files with only visual cues to tell you what it meant, it doesn’t have any value. TV Guide realized they weren’t in the magazine publishing business, they were in the content publishing business. So way back in the 1980s they built a green screen mainframe application to capture all of this content with appropriate semantic metadata, which means that their content has stood the test of time. If you see a program description on your cable box or your TIVO or your iPhone for a show that originally aired the 1980s, it’s the exact same content that was published in the magazine decades ago.

The Guardian faced a similar challenge when they launched these things called Topic Pages. All the content that matches a particular taxonomy term or proper noun, like Tony Blair, gets automatically aggregated. They’re great for SEO. When they first launched these pages, they had a prominent box for Top Story. Problem was, they realized they had no way of knowing whether one story was more important than another. When the content from the print edition hit the CMS, there was no priority metadata attached to it. For this output, they decided to handle it by asking their editors to do more work. The editorial team had to manually assign a priority rating to to each story, 1 to 5.

Thing is, they have a ton of information about editorial priority. It’s all conveyed through the layout of the print edition. You can discern editorial judgement at a glance by looking at this page, picking up on cues like the size and styling of the headlines, the number of columns and column inches dedicated to the story, the size of the image, the layout and placement on the page. When it came time for them to publish an iPad app, they did something different. They wrote an algorithm to read the layout of the print edition, derive editorial priority metadata, and then use that data to determine hierarchy and placement of stories in the iPad app.

I want to be clear— I do not think the future is artificial intelligence backed Dreamweaver, where content authors can apply whatever styling they want and then robots will figure out semantic metadata on the backend. Newspapers have a clearly defined visual language and hierarchy, so it’s possible to make inferences about meaning from styling; small business owners or government employees sometimes make random styling choices for their websites that can’t be accurately parsed. I tell this story to just to illustrate what it means to make the leap across platforms, and how we can’t rely on styling decisions made for one platform to communicate meaning on a different platform.

I love these two quotes: “Metadata is the new art direction” and “Metadata is a love note to the future.” The first reminds us that the approach we used in print, where an art director made layout choices for every page, has to be replaced by a new, dynamic approach that works for the web. The second tells us that the effort we put into adding metadata to our content today is what will give us a head start when we need to get it onto a new platform in the future.

Content packages

Third problem we need to figure out is how to support content authors who will need to create and manage content chunks that will be dynamically published to different platforms. Authors must stop thinking about making web pages and start thinking about managing content packages. They need interfaces that allow them to create and maintain the content elements associated with a particular content type in one place.

NPR “COPE: Create Once Publish Everywhere” gets talked about in regards to their API strategy, but I like to use it as an example of a content package.

Each “article” content type has all these different elements associated with it. It has a headline and body text, but it also has an audio file, it has two different sizes of teasers, it’s got multiple images.

The content producer gets a single interface to create and manage all those content objects in one place. Each individual platform can make its own choices about which content elements to display. Too often, we have content that is attached to particular pages, like a marketing headline and product tout that “lives” only on a landing page. Content can’t live on pages anymore. Instead, we need to manage content packages.

Author experience

This is the kind of author experience we need to create: one that encourages content creators to add the appropriate structure, use semantic metadata rather than visual styling, and manage packages of content elements that can be dynamically published to multiple different places.

I know what you’re thinking: content creators hate all this! They beg for a blob with a WYSIWYG on it, they want it to work just like Microsoft Word. You’re trying to do right by your users by giving them what they say they want. Thing is, UX doesn’t work that way.

All these people are driving buggies, and we’re building cars. When you ask them what they want, they say they want it to work they way they’re familiar with, they want faster horses. This is a quote popularly attributed to Henry Ford, he didn’t actually say it, and I don’t care. It gets quoted frequently because it captures the challenge  we face getting people to adapt to new technology. We have to give them what they need, not what they say they want. We have to give them new tools, a new mental model, of how publishing works on the web.

You know who else had to change their mental model based on how the web works? Graphic designers.  Classically trained print designers had to radically change their tools, their process, and most important, their underlying values system to adapt to the web. I have watched them succeed. They gave up pixel-perfect layouts in favor of embracing the fluid, flexible nature of the web. If graphic designers can do it, content creators can too. But we have to help them. We have to stop building them faster horses, and instead embrace the multi-device future.

And this brings me to the subject of: In-place editing. You guys didn’t think you were going to get through the entire talk without me mentioning this, right? I want to preface this by saying I’m not categorically opposed to this as an editing interface. There are specific albeit limited scenarios where this can benefit content creators. But it’s not a usability panacea.

The problem is, at the very moment when we need a new metaphor, a new mental model to convey to users that their content will appear in a variety of different contexts, you’re encouraging them — forcing them — to imagine that the “real” version of their content is the desktop website. I’m delighted that you’ve made the Drupal admin interface responsive, but allowing users to do in-place editing from a mobile phone is not the solution to this problem.

I can tell just by looking at it that in-place editing was an idea ginned up by someone in marketing as a way to make Drupal seem easy to use. Which isn’t the same as actually being easy to use. I’m sure it looks great in sales demos, but when your shiny new feature has its collision with the real world, you’re going to discover it doesn’t necessarily solve usability problems. In some cases it’s going to make them worse. It will make the author experience even more confusing, particularly for users who need to understand the underlying content structure and metadata.

The future of Drupal UX

So, if that’s not the solution, then what is? If there’s one thing I am thoroughly convinced of, from all the work I have done in this space, it’s that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to content management. There is no perfect author experience that will work for every content model, every company’s workflow. And that means that the future of Drupal UX…

Is you. You were hoping I was going to say robots, right? No, you are the ones making decisions about how your content creators interact with the admin interface you create. You are the ones making choices about the content model and metadata. And you are the ones who will invent the future.

This isn’t a problem that gets solved in Drupal Core. There’s a lot of great work being done to make the framework better, but the real magic is in the decisions that you make about how to customize the interface and workflow for content creators. Drupal gives you unparalleled flexibility. It’s your job to use your power wisely.

The theme of this conference is “building bridges, connecting communities” which is why you invite someone like me from an outside community like content strategy and user experience to give a keynote. There’s maybe some fear that I’m going to use my time like an hour-long informercial for my discipline, and lecture you about how you need to hire UX people.

I’m going to do just the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, many of you would benefit from partnering with UX and content strategy people, they’re great, but I’m here to help you help yourselves. I’m here because I want to show you the bridge TO my communities, if you want to take advantage of what we can offer you.

You are a content strategist. I guarantee you are doing content modeling, even if you don’t call it that. Maybe you should. Maybe you could charge more money for it. The content strategy community has lots of people from the content management space participating. They have all kinds of resources that can help you get better at structuring content and planning the content lifecycle. If you want advice on getting better at doing this work, they will welcome you.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book Content Everywhere and Ann Rockley’s book Managing Enterprise Content are two indispensable resources for people trying to solve the problems I’m talking about. If you wanted to buy my book Content Strategy for Mobile that would be very nice of you but I promised no informercial

You are an information architect. You are making decisions about categories, taxonomy, navigation, and labeling on your projects. There are lots of resources out there to help you do a better job at that.

Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s book Information Architecture is a classic in the field. Donna Maurer’s book on Card Sorting is a short, straightforward book that will teach you a simple research technique to figure out the right categories and labeling for your interfaces. You can do this. It is not time consuming or expensive, and it will make a better author experience.

The information architecture community wants to reach out to people like you. Lou Rosenfeld, the author of the seminal book on the subject and the publisher of most of the other books I’m sharing here — his stature in the IA community, he’s like our Dries — threw down a challenge to the IA community recently that we need to focus on the 95% of people who don’t call themselves information architects. That’s you.

You are a UX designer. You are, right now, designing the interfaces that people have to use to do their jobs. I don’t necessarily mean that you’re an amazing visual designer or interaction designer for the front-end. (Or maybe you are. I don’t know your life.) But I do know that the choices that you make in how the Drupal admin interface works means you design user experiences. You design the experience for the most important user, the content author.

You actually have two things that make you incredibly powerful as a UX designer. My user experience peers all wish they had what you have. First, you have access to real users. They’re your clients and co-workers! They’re the people you work with! That may not always be the case, but I would assume the average Drupal developer gets way more time with the  people who will be using the system you create than the average UX designer does. Which leads me to number two, Drupal is a powerful prototyping tool. I have seen it in action. You can create real, functional interfaces, possibly even working with real content, in less time than I can make a wireframe.

So start teaching yourself how to be a better UX designer. Learn the techniques that make interfaces easy to use. Learn how to prototype and test and iterate. The world needs you to have these skills. They’re not just for my community to have. I’m going to tell you a little secret. I’m convinced that some really innovative ideas for how to model and manage future-friendly content are going to come from the Drupal community. You have a fantastic platform to build on, you just need to frame the right problems.

Let me leave you with this.

The web isn’t print. We’ve got millennia of history creating print documents where there’s no distinction between content and form, and only about 20 years of web publishing experience. This is a Gutenberg level transition we’re going through here.

The tools, interfaces, and processes we use to create content must evolve. We can’t rely on print-based metaphors that tie our content to pages anymore, whether those are sheets in our laser printer or web pages on our desktop. Our content can and will live on lots of different platforms, and it’s our job to help content creators understand how that works.

This community is so well positioned to tackle this problem. You have a powerful, flexible framework. You have an innovative community of people. And you have access to real users so you can prototype and test new interfaces. You are designing the user experience for the content creators. Start thinking like a UX designer, start thinking like a content strategist, and invent the future.