Karl Fast is the Director of Information Architecture at Normative, a design innovation studio in Toronto. He specializes in design problems for a world with abundant information, cheap computation, and rich interaction. Karl has been working on internet-based problems and information architecture since 1994 and is a long-time contributor to the IA Summit. He has a PhD in human-information interaction, is a former professor of User Experience Design at Kent State University, and is a founding member of the Information Architecture Institute. He lives with his family in Minneapolis.
Kristina Halvorson is widely recognized as one of the most important voices in content strategy. She is the CEO of Brain Traffic, the coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web, and the founder of the Confab content strategy conferences.
Kristina’s work focuses on the complex processes, people, and policies that create the foundation for useful, usable content. She speaks regularly at companies and conferences about how our organizations can use content for sustainable business success.
IA Summit 2015 Main Conference Talk
Topic(s): content strategy and information architecture
Karl Fast and Kristina Halvorson in conversation. As the Information Architecture Summit visits content strategy’s spiritual home of Minneapolis, let’s look at how these disciplines compare, why they’re important and what they can teach each other.
Kristina Halvorson: Karl and I are going to introduce each other. This is Karl Fast, who I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting a couple of months ago, shortly after he returned to the Twin Cities. Karl is a longtime member of the IA community. As many of you know, this is his fourteenth consecutive summit.
Kristina: Karl helped build and expand the IA program at Kent State University and is now a recovering professor.
Kristina: He is on staff at Normative in Toronto, where he does all sorts of weird stuff and has no official title. This is Karl.
Karl Fast: This is Kristina. As many of you know, she wrote “Content Strategy for the Web”, the red book…
Kristina: Thank you.
[crosstalk and laughter]
Karl: Which is somewhat important for the lives of many of you, and co-founded Brain Traffic, the leading content strategy firm. Should I say “the”.
Kristina: Yeah, one of.
Karl: One of, and also runs ConFab, which is the big content strategy event. That is held here in the twin cities every year, right?
Kristina: In just a few weeks.
Karl: In just a few weeks.
Kristina: How much did you love Minneapolis? Enough to come back next month?
Kristina: No, actually, we’re sold out now. So, sorry dudes.
Audience Member 1: Contec.
Kristina: Contec? [laughs] I do contec. Do not make me contend a second time.
Karl: We wanted to talk a bit about a variety of things about information architecture and content strategy. I wanted to start with a question, because in 2009, I think it was, there was the Content Strategy Consortium.
That was a full-day workshop. It was at the summit. I had a student in the information architecture program at that time who came to the summit. It was his first time to the summit.
He came up to me that day and he said two things. The first was, “I feel like I really found a home here. I feel very comfortable here. This is my place.” Then I asked him of the Content Strategy Consortium, and he said, “It felt like a new field being born.”
That was what that day was. You were there. I was not in that session. I felt I really missed something important. I just want to tell how have things changed, evolved and grown in content strategy since that day.
Kristina: I’ll start just real quickly by saying that we started to find each other, content strategists via LinkedIn and Twitter in 2007, 2008, where we started stalking each other. The IA Summit kindly opened up this idea for consortium.
So I put forth this idea, simply thinking, “Oh, my god, maybe I can be in a room with other content strategists. This would be amazing.” We found 20 of them. Carryn MacGreen and I helped facilitate it.
It was extraordinary. It really was like being in a room with other people who did what I did. This idea of finding one’s tribe absolutely resonated. In fact, every year at Confab, that is one of the biggest pieces of feedback that we get.
“I have found my home. I have found my community. I have found my tribe.” Because, just like information architects did 10, 5 years ago, and frankly, as many of them still do, it can feel very isolating in an organization where the value of that discipline is just not recognized or understood.
Since that time, Content Strategy for the Web was published shortly thereafter. Other books followed very, very quickly on the heels of that. The conversation continued to grow.
Honestly, largely fueled by connections on Twitter. Really, that was where we found each other, and UX conferences, which in 2009, zero UX conferences, zero featured talks on content strategy, if you can believe it.
It started to pick up, people speaking on it. Now it’s an established field that often gets completed with content marketing, but that’s another talk. That people everywhere are fighting for the title, just like we did with IA. It still is a really exciting time.
Karl: How do you think the work has changed though, as well?
Kristina: That’s an interesting question. I definitely want to follow up, because the work that started in IA, really since the Polar Bear book was released. That gave definition and tools for the field.
We started out talking about content strategy for websites, for the simple reason that content was constantly getting the short shrift…shift. Short shift, shrift?
Audience: Short shrift.
Kristina: All right.
Karl: That’s a content strategist speaking.
Kristina: See, you just don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know.
I started talking about it. I often joked that we were a community born of shared rage, and that we were being always being called in at the 11th hour when things were falling apart. Because the posted notes, or the tech calender, or the design — nobody was ever thinking about the actual content that filled those buckets.
That is where the practice had been born in the early 2000s, and where we started to get attention, because in many ways, that was the immediate pain point that everyone could relate to, and then everyone can still relate to.
I think what Brain Traffic has found over the last couple of years is that there’s another side to content, which has more to do with the publishing, the planning, and the technical piece of it, which also, obviously, totally drives the success of that content.
That piece, especially the structured content piece, is very, very closely married to information architecture. In fact, I think what a lot of IAs do and I consider themselves owners of, for many, many years.
It’s been great to partner with folks who consider metadata schema and taxonomies their home. So, there is a cross-over. Sorry, I said to Karl before the end, I was like, “Let’s each try to keep our answers to three to four minutes.” We both were like, “Yes, that’s what we’ll do.” I know I’m already failing.
The two things that we’re getting called for more are we need structured content. Can you make structured content? Structured content is the magical thing that is going to save our organization and our technology.
Then the other piece is the governance piece. We need governance. We need content to be consistent. We need everybody to stick to the taxonomy. We need everybody to be clear on their roles. That are the two places where content strategists are strained to evolve, I think.
One of the things that I often have said, and that actually I’ve reached out to Lou Rosenfeld several times on is that there’s been points in the development of content strategy where I felt very strongly that we have a lot to learn from, the trials and tribulations that the IA and UX communities suffered through the early and mid 2000s.
Can you talk about that just a little bit?
Karl: Yeah, I can try. [laughs]
Kristina: You’ve been there 14 years.
Karl: I have. Although, you’ve got to understand, in that period, I was also doing the PhD thing. I feel myself as having an unusual position within the IA community, as I’m a bit of the outsider in some ways, because I haven’t been sitting there doing the work, sitting there wrestling with the taxonomies, and those kinds of things.
But I am here all the time. I talk to a lot of people in the professional community. I work with people. I’m married to an information architect, so I get that language all the time.
Really, I’ve always…Let’s just say, the university really didn’t want me to do that, didn’t feel that that was good, because you need to talk to other academics, but I find people in this room more interesting.
Kristina: How do you really feel about academics, Karl?
Karl: I feel they’re a lot more interesting. As that outsider, or kind of an outsider, I have a slightly different perspective. I hope that that’s useful. The way I think there’s been an interesting thing has been IA got caught up in a definitional, “What is our role? A little bit of navel gazing. A lot of stuff related specifically to interaction design.”
There’s certainly, as some of you know very well, there have been some frictions with those two communities over the years. But then we’ve got surprised by this idea of user experience.
User experience became, what I now just think of it, this unstoppable juggernaut. That is the word that everyone who does not do the work but needs the work done has attached themselves to. That’s the word that they get.
For me, the tipping point was a few years ago when Marissa Mayer was named the CEO of Yahoo. Their headlined in the “New York Times” read, “Marissa Mayer to improve user experience at Yahoo.”
I could not imagine that headline saying, “Marissa Mayer to improve information architecture at Yahoo.” Or usability at Yahoo.
That, for me, was, despite any misgivings I might have about user experience as a term, because I like information architecture. It’s a term that I personally identify with. Just as you personally identify with content strategy. That’s my home…
I was like, “I’ve got to buy into the whole UX thing, regardless here,” because that’s where the wedge in the conversation is. A lot of that evolution of IA in those periods had a lot to do with thinking of ourselves in relation to other fields and their growth, and their acceptance in the places where we’ve been trying to get traction, and get this work done.
Whether you’re outside as a consultant, or whether you’re internal to the organization and trying to figure out, “What is my title? What is my role? How do I convince the organization to get this thing done.
Kristina: That’s interesting, because there’s certainly in 2009, 2010, and even now, that started to happen in the content strategy community. “That’s not content strategy. This is content strategy. Why are you messing up that term. You’re confusing everything,” and around and around.
Then Erin Kissane wrote a book called “The Elements of Content Strategy”. One of the things that she said was, “Content strategy is a big tent.” I have found that over the years, more and more of the community has really expanded to say, “You know what? There are different areas where we need to strategically consider the content.”
This is the blog post I was saying I needed to write for eight months, and landed on this in my own head. I think that there are three areas in which we talk about content strategy. Maybe the same is true for information design, user experience, even the cross-overs within information architecture and content strategy.
That is content strategy for user experience, which is where we’ve started. I’ve got two content strategists up in the front row, so I keep going, “Right? Can you nod or shake your heads?” Richard’s doing this. I’m not sure what that means.
Kristina: Content strategy in website, and beginning now, in digital product design, sort of. Content strategy for content management, which is more structured content taxonomy, making sure that the content can go.
Then content strategy in the enterprise, which frankly for me is more identifying and sustaining a publishing framework that has a focus on the end user experience, and improving that, and ensuring the business goals are always considered.
That in my mind are the three areas where people have been gravitating and of doing the work. I think I said this in the book. I don’t care ultimately what you call it. If the term content strategy is gone in 10 years, I don’t care as long as the work is getting done.
Karl: I would call that, to me, that’s the IA perspective about…there’s a label that gets attached to it. While I personally have strong feelings about that label, the label that I like, ultimately what matters is the label that the user likes.
Kristina: I think that’s the same within your organization, right, or you clients?
Karl: Yup. The label that seems to have won in the big picture here right now is user experience. Because you see that with capital UX, but you also see it lowercase user experience as well.
As a phrase, you read an article in The New Yorker talking about something. They’re not talking about what we do at all, but the phrase “The user experience,” or “this has a good user experience.” All kinds of people…right?
Kristina: …content strategy too, for sure.
Karl: We’re, to some extent, writing on the the coattails of that, to large extent. However, we also view ourselves, we have a more nuance view. It’s a wedge into that conversation.
Kristina: That is fantastic. With Kerry McGrane wrote a book called “Content Strategy for Mobile.” That idea of having a practice, or a benefit, or identifying a need and using that specific thing as a wedge into a larger conversation, I think is very relevant there because she essentially positioned mobile, and digital, and proliferation of devices. What you need for that is structured content, right?
Kristina: Which the IA has been talking about for 15 years, 20 years. The TechComm community has been talking about it since the ’80s. But here is a question. Here’s a question I have for you, though.
As the IA community is continued to evolve and navigate these different names, and terminologies, and identities, and finding a home in user experience and so on, do you feel like what has benefited the community the most of practitioners…
I guess there’s two, there’s the core community practitioners, then there are the people who are talking about it and helping to shape the conversation, which this can be a crossover.
Do you find that the community has benefited more from identifying and talking about the problems that happen when you don’t do it appropriately, or invest on it, or skimp on it? Versus the opportunities and benefits that really solid, good, thorough IA and all the weapons and tools that you bring to it can help organizations realize? Does that make senses?
Karl: Yeah, and I think I understand your question. But I’m going to answer it in a very odd way.
Kristina: That shocks me.
Karl: Yes, I’m sure. One of things that struck me as we’re talking here is when I think about coming to the IA summit compared to other kinds of things, there’s an interesting way in which this is just like going to some academic conferences and talking to academics, in that a lot of people I know here are deeply philosophical I think about the practice.
We like to talk about abstractions, and conceptualize things, and draw relationships to those things. When we get hung up on the label, another way to do that is to say, “OK, look. There is the label that the user understands. But how do we break this down, so let’s stop talking top-down. Let’s go bottom-up.”
There are different concepts that we use that are really central. When I started my Master’s in Library and Information Science, you take a class. Many of you have gone through this class. It is the “Foundations of Library and Information Science.”
Class number two is, “What is Information?” You walk in with this certain idea of what information is, I know it is basically this, you come up with some definition, and it is not data, and it is not knowledge, but they are related in these ways. The professor sits there, and says, “I am going to unhorse from your certainty, and by the end of this class, you will have no clue what information is.”
People sometimes, and this actually happened to me, the program where I was in, the classroom was down the hall from the grad club. We finished class, we walked down and had a drink. On the way down, a guy said, “I cannot believe this, I am in a graduate program, and the professor has just told me that the central concept in the field is — he doesn’t know what it is.”
What am I doing here? My argument back to him was, if you talk to a biologist, and you say “What is life?” they can give you a pad answer. But, if you say, no, no, what is “Life?” They will say, “Well, that is the question that drives Biology.”
If you talk to a physicist, and you say, “What is matter? Or energy? Or, time? Or, space?” They will say, “We really don’t know. We thought, we knew, sort of, and then, Einstein comes along, and says, time and space, actually, they are the same thing. We have this thing called, ‘Space-time.'”
When I think about information architecture, I think about, what are some of the fundamental concepts like information, we talk about experience, we talk about interaction. With content strategy, one of the great things that has happened is, you’ve introduced a word that we never had before.
A really important concept, and that concept is government. What is that? We can give you an answer, but what we do is, we constantly try to wrestle with those questions. It’s the wrestling with that, and trying to come to a deeper understanding over time, that I think is having a big impact on shaping the field.
When I come here, these are all the conversations that people are having. I’ve heard some talks the other day, like Marsha Haverty was talking about understanding embodied cognition. Going down and questioning those kinds of concepts that drive us forward. Wrestling with it, as opposed to saying, “Well, I read a book, I know what cognition is, I know what understanding is.”
Coming up with that bottom up set of concepts, and how they relate to each other, and how they evolve. I like the spirit of this community, in terms of how we keep trying to do that, rather than saying, “Let’s get the answer.”
Kristina: Mm-Hmm. Yeah. I would agree that the content strategy community absolutely shares that. I was saying that to the Brain Traffic team the other day, that I think content strategy is entrepreneurialship, did I say that right? Entrepreneurship.
I am constantly asking you guys, “Am I saying these words correctly?” You are never satisfied. You never are just like, “Oh, I got it. I figured it out.” I think, it’s the same thing. Things are changing so quickly, that there is that innate curiosity.
I often say, “You can’t be a content strategist without being super curious.”That said, this idea of wrestling with the concepts, and the idea of, “What is information?” Or, “What are we architecting?” By the way, I want to encourage you guys to go, and read Joe Gollner’s work, G-O-L-L-N-E-R.
He is a kind of content strategist by trade, he calls himself a content philosopher. He has some brilliant ideas and insight about the relationship between data, information, knowledge, and content. I really encourage you to go check that out.
What has happened, I have found in, running ConFab has been a great testing ground for what’s important to people who care about content and content strategy. What we hear over and over is, I am tired of talking about this, I know it’s important, I need to know how to do it.
I need to know what the tools and methods are, I need an idea about how to sell it in to my organization or client. I need to know how to evolve it, and grow it over time, and these are the questions that we continue to get asked.
Now, having said that too, what’s cool is the community continues to evolve, and grow. You guys have this, too, right? How many people, it’s your first time here? Oh my God! Did you guys look around, look how awesome that is.
But I think that because of this core community of people who’ve been coming for so long, we forget and the stuff becomes so central to our identity and our day-to-day, we forget that there are a ton of people who are just learning about IA and the tools that make it go.
We take it for granted. “Surely everybody knows this stuff. This is what I live and breathe every day.” But that idea — that there are pragmatic, useful tools that can help us start doing the work is critical. I think that the idea is, once people have become masters at that, you find that there’s more stuff to think about, more stuff to do. Then what is the place that we give them to go?
Karl: There’s a strong, I think, analogy to religion here, if I can.
Kristina: Karl, it is so early.
Karl: Oh, a lot of people at church. I know, but if you go to church, there is a deep question about “What is God?” But at the end of the day, you just need to say, “I’m going to wrestle with that to some extent, but I need to have faith,” and that is what I need to do to be a believer.”
You have to sit down and say, “There’s some element of wrestling with this kind of stuff, but there’s an element where I just have to take it on faith and I have to do something, and act in that particular way.”
Where I was talking about some of those concepts, you were saying…I’m like, “You need to wrestle with these concepts. We need to figure out. Sometimes we need to add new concepts like governance, and keep wrestling with that, but there comes a transition where you have to get the work done and you have to have a reasonable, acceptable thing.” You cannot get hung up on all that. You’ll drive yourself into the ground and the whole field will get stuck.
Kristina: For sure. I think that it’s a matter of ensuring that there are ways in which we can continue the conversation as we practice without devaluing the practice. I was saying to Karl, the first time I went to the ISO, it was in 2009, and somebody used the phrase, “Wire-framing monkeys.” “Wire-frames have been commoditized. Everybody can do wire-frames.”
I was so deeply offended by that, ’cause I couldn’t do good wire-frames and I felt like it would really improve my abilities and my context in which I was working as a content strategist to understand how to do those things.
This is I think what I really appreciate about the content strategy. Let me say this. We’re talking about the content strategy community and the information architecture community. How many content strategists are in the room?
There’s no divide, not really. It’s like this. In many ways we’re just talking about the label and we’re talking about the field, and how the field has understood.
Rahel Bailey had a fantastic quote very early on that she showed this slide and it was like business analyst, information architect. Editor. User experience designer. Taxonomist. She said, “I’ve gone by all these titles and I did content strategy.” I want to be clear about that.
Now, I completely forgot the direction I was going in with that…
Karl: But we’re all in the same sort of space over here. We’re not here and here. We’re not worlds apart.
Kristina: No. Oh, that’s what I was going to say. We can’t be, and the idea of battling over…there is a thing where if you’re working on a thing where there’s a content strategist and an information architecture.
Those two people have to get together and talk about, “OK, we’re going to be side by side through the research and discovery phase, and then we’re going to continue to collaborate over time with the designer and with the tech person, but we need to understand who’s responsible for what deliverable or who at the end of the day gets the say in how we’re going to move forward.”
That’s just division of roles. That’s where our relationship comes in, for example. But what I was going to say is that what I love about content strategy and where I feel a real opportunity is is that in many ways the content strategist, if you have that title, your role is to go around within a project team or within an organization, ’cause all that stuff comes in and shapes the content.
That person’s job in many ways is to connect the dots. We’re connecting the dots between the important work that a IA practitioner is doing and between whatever…the user experience lead and the visual designer and the tech team. In many ways you have to know a little bit about a lot of things. But that’s what I think is really cool about the field.
Karl: A comment that was made to me last year at the summit, because we’re talking a lot about the internal change and the evolution within the fields and the way we do things and how we see ourselves.
I was talking with someone last year and he made a little comment that has stuck with me quite a bit over the last 12 months. Which was, he just said, “You know what we are, regardless of whether you’re a content strategist or IA or you call yourself a user experience designer or whatever, we are the change management people of the 21st century.” That is ultimately what we’re here.
Kristina: God, yes. Yes. Clap for that. Everybody clap for that. [laughs]
Karl: I have tended to tended to think about what we do in terms of the future and in terms of our role in society is to design the future and the world we want to live in. I think of it very broad terms. But you’ve been doing stuff with Brain Traffic and you’ve got your company. You’re doing the practice day to day. You’re down in that.
Talk to us about that idea of the change management aspect of your work and how that has evolved or grown and some of the things that go on with that.
Kristina: That’s funny, because I don’t know how many times that comes up. Everybody wants sessions or they want to talk about…the number one question that I get asked at conferences is “How can I convince my boss or my client that this is important?” That’s change management. I think that…what was the question?
Karl: When it comes to your work. We talked about evolution starting in, say, 2009 and growth for here.
Kristina: Oh, how has it changed.
Karl: That has changed a lot. Has it gotten easier?
Kristina: We’re in a unique position at Brain Traffic, where when we switched over, and I will speak just from our perspective. We were a copywriting firm. We were a web-copywriting firm. There was six of us and that’s what we did very successfully from 2003 through to 2007.
It was early in 2008 that I was like, “You know what we should do? We should be a content strategy firm. I know this much about content strategy and most of it has to do with how mad I am at my clients and how I think that they should do things better.
Karl: [laughs] That’s healthy.
Kristina: Oh yeah. Much of my career has been fueled by rage.
Kristina: In fact, I said that my next book is going to be called “What Is Wrong with You People?”
Audience Member 2: Cool.
Karl: I’ll write “What is Right with You People?” and then…
Kristina: I am not sure which one of those people are going to like that.
Karl: I don’t know.
Kristina: I think that in that sense we did have to sell it in. We had to say, “We know that you’ve been coming to us for writing, but this filling in the blanks, filling in the Laurn Ibsen, is no longer working for us. We’re tired and we’re angry. We want to introduce this thing called content strategy to you and talk about how we might be this.”
People were like, “So that’s strategies, like consulting? Forget it.” We lost every single one of our clients. Every single one of them. I’m not kidding you. Those were dark, dark days. [laughs] We were scrambling doing Web-writing in some different areas and trying to sell that over there. Then time went on, whatever.
I started speaking at a bunch of conferences really banging the drum. The Brain Traffic name got out there. Then people started calling us and asking for content strategy, and that was a watershed moment for Brain Traffic. What they wanted was content audits. They wanted messaging architecture.
They wanted, “We have a global site map, and we’re realizing that the deeper down we dig we don’t know what to do.” I will also say that 90 percent of those projects were rescue missions. We were being called in at the 11th hour when I will also say almost all the budget had been spent to fix things.
Now again we’re in a unique position in that we get a bunch of info leads. I would say that 50 percent of those are for the user-experience piece of content strategy. 25 percent of them are “We need structured content. How can you help us?”
The other 25 percent are, “I have a company of 100,000 people and 50 million different locations. How can I get them all to create content that makes sense together?”
We didn’t get those last two for years. The idea that structure content has become such a focus for so many organizations and also that people are understanding and realizing what governance means, which for me is production, like content production or editorial production. That’s what has really changed for us.
I also want to say I realize I’m throwing out a bunch of resources. Lisa Welchman is really the one that introduced the term “Web governance.” She has an amazing book that has finally, after years, come out of me waiting [laughs] for it. Not years of waiting for her, just for the book, called “Managing Chaos.” Rosenfeld Media published it.
It has changed my life, so that book is all about governance, structuring governance, and so on. Do we want to take questions?
Kristina: I think that we’ve been chatting for about a half an hour, and we’re going for another half hour. Right?
Karl: All right. We have someone with a microphone who will come around. Oh, yeah. Lou right off the bat here. Very good.
Kristina: Ladies and gentlemen…
Lou: Thanks for the plug by the way. It’s on sale today, Managing Chaos, but anyway.
Kristina: Actually do I get my plug later? We talked about that.
Lou: I know. I know. Just listening to the two of you, I know you both so well so I’m not surprised that there wasn’t friction. I was thinking, “Well, this is really Kumbaya and all that.” Then I started to think, “Well, what would the friction be between the fields?”
I’m not trying to make controversy where there isn’t, but we’ve certainly seen this before to some degree with, let’s say, interaction design and IA. Why are we getting along so well, or are you really just covering up some deep, dark, dirty secrets that we don’t know about?
Kristina: The rage I feel towards the IA?
Lou: Rage, right. What is your rage?
Kristina: Content strategy was born at the IA Summit. There is a reason we work hand-in-hand. There is a reason that we are so excited about and supportive of each other’s work. That is that we are trying to deliver content in a way that is meaningful to our user and to our audience. That’s what we want.
We want to help whoever needs to communicate or whoever requires information, problem-solving, entertainment, or whatever. We want to connect those things and create meaning. Again, I don’t care what you call it. We just want to get the work done.
If I need to bring somebody in and they’re like, “Can you give us an information architect for blah, blah, blah?” so what if I call in somebody that identifies as a content strategist? Content strategists, do you care? Anybody? You can come tell me later in secret.
Kristina: We share the same values. We share the same goal. I don’t know. I hear from people who email, and they’re these very emotional emails. “I’ve been fighting for the title of content strategist in my organization for a year and a half. I finally have the business card, and here’s a picture of it. I’m so excited” or whatever, which is great.
Again, I think that those folks are moving from cocky-brainer to content strategist. There is more of a value I think now within organizations, which is amazing of an information architect or a user-experience designer. I don’t know. Do you hate content strategists?
Karl: I look at it in terms of what I’m deeply interested in. To be honest, I’m not deeply interested in content strategy. It’s not work that I personally want to do.
Karl: What I am interested in is how content strategy, information architecture, interaction design, this whole grand enterprise of all these people who are clustered over here and not over here and over there, et cetera, or all here and the big impact that we are having.
When I started at Kent State, I get to my office. I’m like, “Oh, who has the office that’s next to me?” The one person next to me is Dave Robbins, the inter-faculty member who helped build the UX program there. The person next to me on the other side is the public relations and marketing person.
Now pause for a moment on that. This is in the School of Library and Information Science at a publicly funded university, and we have a full-time marketing and public relations person? The weird thing is nobody thought that was weird.
Kristina: I don’t think that’s weird.
Karl: If I said, “We need a full-time student-experience designer, they can’t even think that that’s weird because they have no idea what that means.
Karl: In 1920 or 1930 or 1970 or 1990, the idea of a full-time public relations and marketing person in that school, that was weird. That was inconceivable. At best, that was at the university level.
This is the grand enterprise that we are all invested in, trying to get to the point where we’re like, “Wow, we wish we were in the ‘Mad Men’ era. We wish that as a field, we had gotten to that point.”
We’re still a long ways from being that successful and having that kind of impact, where everyone assumes, you’re starting a new business today. Right? Are you going to have a marketing department? Yes. Are you going to have people who do this? Well, maybe.
It’s more likely today. But in 30 years from now, we want that, or hopefully sooner, we want that answer to be, of course.
Kristina: I realize now we don’t have until 11, we only have till 10:45. I’ll hit this real quickly.
I have a client right now, they do help content for a huge credit card company. That’s what they do, they manage the help and technical content.
Their new VP of customer experience is, it’s like, they have a new VP, and that VP title, it’s new, is customer experience. He’s like all about improving the customer experience.
The tech com team or the help content team is like, “You know what would improve the customer experience? Is fixing the damn help content. Because people hate the content and so why don’t you give us some money to help fix the content.”
No. That’s not how people think about customer experience. Customer experience typically sits in marketing, and they’re thinking about how they can improve the customer experience bringing those people on.
In many ways, user experience people that we can go and say, “Here are the values that we operate under. Here are the problems that we can solve.” This is all stuff that feeds into and is integral with the customer experience. But they don’t get that yet. Customer experience is still sort of this floaty term that sounds really cool.
I think that being able to bring those two terms together will help everybody in the UX community.
Karl: Yeah, and friction, I think, is really an interesting phrase that you use, Lou. Because friction, I tend to think of as, well, we’re fighting, and you get this sense of, like, well, who’s going to come out on top? right? Who’s going to win this?
But I think friction is useful in another way, and this is the way that it’s useful, in terms of “What are we really doing? What are the concepts? How do we do this? What are the best way to do this?” We’re all working on that together and that kind of friction is necessary and valuable. It can be really healthy.
But when it’s fighting, “We’re going to dominate, we’re going to win.” That’s when it’s a problem.
I haven’t seen that right now, and so that’s sort of my answer to that question.
Kristina: Yeah. All right. Another question.
Audience Member 3: First, I’m a student from Dr. Fast, and I wanted to say thank you. I graduated from Kent State.
But as I’m working in the field now, I find it very difficult when I go to apply for a job. What title do I use? Because depending on the job, I have to cater, “Am I a content strategist? Am I user experience designer? Am I an information architect…?” At one point, I put all of them on and then I realized it was too long.
What suggestions do you have in terms of defining ourselves?
Kristina: Whatever job you’re applying for, list that. Like, you’ve got an electronic resume, just change it. I’m not kidding. I mean, that’s, I came up from editorial, marketing, sales, PR, and I would basically just, whatever job I was applying for, if I was qualified and I could do the work, I’d put that title on there. Right?
Now, having said that, how I self-identify with my work is not as important. I know for some people it’s very important and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that. But if you’re looking for work, you know.
Karl: There’s too elements there. One is, what is my identity, myself, that I am constructing for myself, and then what is the identity that I need to present to the world in various contexts and situations? I think you need to be conscious of those two.
In some cases, like when you’re applying for different types of jobs or you’re explaining yourself within an organization, you need to think about, what is the identity that I’m going to project out and construct. Think of that construction as an active and deliberate process.
Kristina: That is so much better than what I said.
Karl: I’m thinking a lot about identity, because I was a professor and there’s something about being a professor that society is…like, if you meet the president, even if you never voted for the president, that particular person…
Kristina: What is happening?
Karl: If, they’re like, that’s a role.
Kristina: Is that like a hint? I don’t understand.
Karl: There’s a role and identity that goes along with that, and professor or something, society foists it upon you.
I’ve been in this process of like sort of unhorsing myself from that identity and trying to think about a new one, and my new role at normative as it evolves.
I’ve been really consciously aware about that idea of that distinction between my own identity for myself and deliberately constructing and thinking about that in relation to the other people around me and how that will help me facilitate the work I’m trying to achieve.
Kristina: Yeah. Does that help?
Audience Member 3: Yeah.
OK, we’ve got five minutes.
Joy: Hi, I’m Joy. Working for Delta Airlines right now. I heard about a conversation about how IA and user experience…
Kristina: Can you hold the mic up close to…?
Joy: Can you hear me better now?
Kristina: Yeah, much better, thank you.
Joy: Yes, the relationship between IA and user experience, something comes to mind. I have been actually reflecting on that, the “Elements of User Experience” model by Jesse James Garrett.
When I first saw it, sometime, maybe five years ago, I was quite impressed. But as I reflect on it over time, I feel, and this is a conversation, right? I’m not saying I’m right, I don’t know.
Kristina: It’s OK, he’s not here.
Joy: I feel like the IA piece is not represented correctly in that diagram by Jesse James Garrett. I know he’s here, like, please forgive me.
Karl: He’s not.
Joy: Please forgive if I say something like terrible at this point. High risk, high risk.
Kristina: Don’t apologize, just say it.
Joy: Just a dialogue. ‘Cause I thought about it and I realized that IAP is just not in the right position. Because IA isn’t…interaction design also, it shouldn’t be like a little thing there. I feel like the whole diagram is not…of course all models are not perfect. It’s just a representation. But…
Kristina: Where do you think IA should be?
Kristina: It’s something that we can discuss, but I don’t want to give a solution right now, but I just feel like that diagram doesn’t represent IA properly. Also of course the other pieces may be even content or interaction design or whatever the other pieces are. I’m a novice myself. Anyway and sometimes these diagrams, when they get distributed, for people who are still learning — we’re all learning in this field…
I guess I’m just making…
Kristina: Yeah. Just real quickly, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot when saying, “Where do you think it should sit?” I just want to…you have ideas or you have questions. Never apologize for them.
Joy: Thank you.
Kristina: Just say them.
Kristina: Especially, this is such a safe place.
Joy: Yeah, good, thank you.
Kristina: That’s why I was like, “Well, tell me where you think it should sit.” Not because I was calling you out, because I want to know. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, that was one of the first places I started with content strategy, saying, “Where is content? I don’t see content, Jesse.”
Kristina: You’re right. It’s not about that model. It’s about a model. But I don’t think that we can start a conversation about a practice or solving problems without some framework that we can either relate or shape our conversation. You look at content strategy. Type in “Content strategy framework” or “Content strategy diagram” and Google will return a gajillion different things.
That came out in 2000 and it was huge in shaping the user experience community. But we are all curious people. We’re pragmatic. We want to evolve. The diagram has evolved. It’s not about that diagram, I agree.
Karl: My two things are, one, that…
Karl: Lucra Blusky has a website where he collected a whole bunch of different diagrams about user experience and related fields and these are these conceptual models that try to tie all of these things together and Jessica’s is one of them.
If you look at all of them, what they do is they reflect all of the different kinds of thinking that people from different backgrounds and different experiences with different interests, and “This is my mental model projected out into the world of how all these things fit together.” It’s a fascinating collection to look at to see how different people conceptualize it.
The second thing is that that relates to the comments we had earlier about wrestling with the different kinds of concepts, the friction we have — the healthy friction, and how this is a critical and necessary part. When you look at that diagram and you say “I think IA is in the wrong place or not properly represented,” I say, “Yes.”
Your job and the job with the people that you work with, and in the larger community, whether it’s on Twitter or whether it’s coming and presenting, is to continue that and talk to people about it and do that wresting and create that friction around it to evolve that, to grow that, to understand it, because this is how the understanding happens.
It doesn’t happen by “I have received the wisdom from on high.”
Karl: I have worked through it.
Kristina: That takes bravery. It takes courage. I think the one other thing I would say is with any framework, with any model, with any definition don’t become emotionally attached to it. I put forth this definition that was tested out and shaped by the Content Strategy Consortium about content strategy—what it was. Because I wanted an elevator pitch.
The number of people that have come back, “That’s not what it is,” or “I’m going to evolve this” and “I’m going to say…” and “You’re wrong”— if I were emotionally attached to that definition, I’d be more of a disaster.
Kristina: Or the framework that we introduced— content strategy, substance, structure, workflow, governance. Is it perfect? No. Does it help start and frame the conversation? Oh yeah. It sure does. If people change it or they say it’s wrong, I’m just not that emotionally attached to it.
Whatever model or approach or methodology, don’t fall in love with it because it will shut you down as a thinker and a professional and it will hinder you in your career, in your personal growth over time. That’s my final…
Karl: My final bit. You talked about emotion and we previously talked about the abstract philosophical stuff. The emotional piece is something that one does need to have. If I was to say, and I would say this to students, “If there was a book written before 1990 that everyone who does this kind of room or come to the IA Summit or not or come to Confab or not, should probably still read or feel guilty about not reading.
Kristina: Oh God.
Karl: That would be “The Design of Everyday Things.” It’s had a huge influence. It’s still important. I would teach that book and I would say, “OK, week one just read chapter one.” They would come back into the room and I would say, OK. Why did Donald Norman write the book?”
They would say, “That is because he is a cognitive psychologist who had done various empirical studies and had thought that he had discovered some useful knowledge and concepts that he wanted to share that would perhaps make the world a better place.” That that was relevant for The Design of Everyday Things.
I would say, “No, he wrote the book ’cause he was really pissed off.”
Kristina: See? See?
Karl: Go back and read that first chapter. He’s sitting there, “I can’t believe it.” I go to London and I can’t turn on the shower. What the hell?
Karl: I walked into a door and broke my nose.” What the hell?
Karl: It drove that. But that tone, that’s really important for setting the stage for certain types of things, but you need to control that too.
Kristina: Agreed. High five.
Kristina: We’re done.
Man: Let’s give it up for Kristina Halvorson and Karl Fast.