Going mobile

Once upon a time, I didn't know anything about mobile and thought I should keep it that way. Turns out that was a window into greater compassion for all the clients I work with who struggle to keep up with the latest trends in web design.

Around this time of year back in 2011 I was working with Jeff Eaton, preparing to speak at Duo Consulting’s WebContent conference, the theme of which was “Going Mobile.” I recall Eaton saying to me “This would be a lot easier if either of us knew anything about mobile.”

Truth was, mobile intimidated me. I liked the desktop web. I understood the desktop web. I’d made a career out of being an expert on how the desktop web should work, and I didn’t want to learn a whole new way of doing business. “Leave that for the next generation,” I thought to myself. “Mobile’s not for me.”

Eaton was valiantly trying to explain to me how a CMS could support multi-channel publishing via an API, and I just wasn’t getting it. He used metaphors (“imagine the API is a straw sucking out the content”) and probably even resorted to hand puppets acting out a short play. I felt dumb, frustrated, out of my league.

And I had a flash of insight, one that transformed how I approach my work:

If I feel so clueless talking about content on mobile, think how everyone else must feel.

See, I get this stuff. I have never done anything else! I’ve been a practicing information architect and content strategist for going on 20 years. I have a graduate degree in technical communication and HCI. I’ve worked with every major CMS out there, led projects for dozens of publishers. I grok how content works online at an almost cellular level.

I don’t say that to talk myself up—just the opposite. I was struggling to understand something that intimidated me, something I knew was important to my work, and I was scared.

And I felt compassion. Compassion for everyone out there, struggling with the same challenges on mobile. That flash of insight connected me with genuine empathy for all the people, all the businesses that have to understand and adapt and make decisions about how to move onto this new platform.

They’re scared. They’re afraid of making a wrong decision. They’re worried that they’ll waste money and time, developing a solution that customers don’t want. They’re overwhelmed by too much information, too many competing perspectives. How is mobile different from the desktop? Are apps the answer? Is responsive design just a fad? Back the wrong horse, and risk an embarrassing, public failure.

Our clients, our co-workers, our bosses and stakeholders: they are sick of the internet. The pace of change doesn’t stop. They don’t know who to trust to help them make the right decision. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and so few obvious right answers.

Have a little compassion. Be nice to them. They have a hard job.

As a result of this flash of compassion, I am doing the best work of my life. My motivation to write and speak and consult on content strategy for mobile comes from a deeper place, inspired by a genuine desire to make a hard problem easier for other people to understand. I know what it feels like to be scared and to be afraid of getting it wrong, and that empathy informs how I engage with my clients and the community.

If I can understand it, they can too.

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