All posts in Content Strategy

UI Writing: A New Look for News Feed

Facebook changed the look of News Feed in March of 2014 to improve consistency across mobile and web. As the UI writer for News Feed, I was tasked with writing a message to explain this change. It would appear at the top of News Feed the first time people signed in.

Like most UI writing, this message was deceptively complex. Understandably, people don’t always like changes. We wanted to make it clear that:

  • This change was based on people’s feedback
  • It improved a few simple and specific things (photo size and design consistency)
  • Its goal was to make Facebook easier to use

There were many other constraints (length, word choice, clarity, imagery) typical to the UI writing experience (about which I’ve written before) but overall the message successfully (and positively) communicated the change, which is always the goal.


Information structure for sketchnotes

After experiencing an empty chair moment while trying to sketchnote a training last week, I realized I needed to hit the books and revisit some basic visual information structures.

The Napkin Sketch Workbook chapter “Choosing a Structure” provides great sketchnote examples for several information models, so to teach myself, I applied a concept from work (Kindle) to the info models myself. Here are my results*
*info represented is example only- not real data

Here’s another extended example of a workflow or business process. I find myself drawing these at work whenever I’m thinking about ideas or objects that move between people or locations.

Next up: tackling more structures, and a visual icon library…

The Rise of the Content Strategist

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 4/1/2012

Content strategy jobs are hot—Flip the Media’s Peter Luyckx called it last year. Type “Content Strategist” into a job search engine and you’ll see plenty of results. Reflecting that trend, my own title was recently changed from Editor to Strategist.

Five years ago, Content Strategists were rarer than unicorns. I’d know– I’ve been in content since 1997 and only recently started seeing the title come up. What’s happened in the content industry that’s driving this change?

Kristina Halvorson’s Content Strategy for the Web, first published in 2009, has been a big influence, as Peter notes in his post. In her book, Halvorson defines content strategy as “the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” How does this differ, though, from what professional content writers, editors and managers have been doing all along?

Read more…

Design skills: Required in your next writing job?

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 5/1/2012.

Have you seen “design skills” asked for in a marketing or content writing job description recently? I have— the most recent two writing jobs I’ve held listed graphic design skills a prerequisite. The visual web has arrived: look no further than Pinterest, Tumblr, or the rise of cell phone photography for evidence. With tools like iPhones and Instagram, most of us can take good pictures without photography skills, but what about other kinds of visual art?

As the web has evolved from text to images and video, many jobs in the communications field now expect candidates to bring visual design skills to positions that were once mostly about writing. Experience with interface design, storyboarding, wireframing, prototyping, infographics, and even cartooning are all in demand, as they are now part of the content creation process in the visual web era. What’s a non-artist to do?

Read more…

Content strategy: Strategy vs. tactics

Note: My article was originally published on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog on 7/12/2012.

Content strategy experts Val Swisher, Scott Abel,  and and Kristina Halvorson  recently hosted a webinar about success factors in content strategy projects. It centered on an important theme: objectives vs. tactics. We’re often focused on the latter which can be to the detriment of customer needs and business goals. Here are four themes from the presentation that will help you set the right priorities in your next content project:

1) Avoid the buckshot approach

Most of us center our workday around tasks. In communications, this usually means producing information. Blog posts. Web pages. Status reports. Videos. Diagrams. Presentations. We define our accomplishments around the quantity and perhaps the performance of these items, and call this content strategy. But this isn’t strategy – its tactics. “A bunch of things all in a row is taking a buckshot approach if it isnt tied to business objectives,” says Kristina Halvorson.

What are the business objectives of your daily communications tasks?

2) Content strategists aren’t content developers

Many organizations confuse the roles of content strategist and content developer. Kristina Halvorson describes content strategists as people who “oversee the success of content initiatives.” This involves creating a roadmap of content initiatives (tasks and deliverables) that clearly serve business objectives, and ensuring the success of those initiatives via the use of success measures like analytics and scorecards. This is a management role, and differs fundamentally from writing page copy and shooting video.

Read more…

Creating content on an iPad: Is text passé?

iPad sketchRecently I wrote a big ol’ research paper on the future of tablet computing, in which I discussed the popular perception that the introduction of Apple’s iPad in 2010 (was it really that recently?) began a shift toward consumption-only computing— you buy a tablet and then use it more or less like an interactive TV with a pay-per menu of entertainment products. No more content production and contribution from unsanctioned entertainment entities, a.k.a. average people. A retreat from the hive-mind ideology of web 2.0 and a return to our place in front of the tube.

At the time I wrote this paper I agreed generally with this assessment of the iPad, particularly because of its sole reliance on the finger as an input method. What realistically could you create without pens, keyboards, and other tools of expression? The thing was, this conclusion was based on theory, as I didn’t have (nor had ever used) an iPad, which has since changed.

I had no idea of the sheer number of productivity and content creation apps that existed for the platform, having only previously used an iPod touch, for which most such apps are either unavailable or impractical. On using a few, I realized that the kind of creative expression best suited to the iPad is one which the computer didn’t formerly serve well or at all: a portable, spatial sort of creativity, in which one builds flowcharts, drawings, collages, to-do lists, information requiring visual elements that one can rearrange or manipulate directly onscreen, anywhere they are. It’s not about text.

Now, text is the internet— Google has built a colossal empire upon it. But as it stands, Google can’t do much with the visual products we create, unless they’re hitched to textual metadata. (I’ve been typecasting for years, and not a word of it has ever been understood by search engine technology). What little I know of HTML5 suggests that the keepers of internet technology aim to evolve the web in a more visual direction, but this will remain a theory until browsers comply (years from now, if ever completely). The kinds of information products you can create with an iPad don’t really fit well into the internet’s open ocean of words, which has become by any measure a glut of info-pollution. Is text passé?

Unlikely, but it’s merely a single and overtaxed information channel, one far more effectively paired with visual input for optimal learning, according to the dual coding theory. Rather than taking the instruments of creation out of our hands, are tablets like the iPad empowering us to begin creating visual and spatial information products alongside textual ones? I intend to begin reviewing particular iPad apps against the measure of this question.

6 things I’ve learned about writing user interface text

#1) UI is the hardest kind of techwriting there is.

As a writer for Microsoft, that’s the first thing I learned about UI. You’ll never spend more time writing fewer words. Actually, that’s not quite the right way to say it, because…

#2) UI writing isn’t writing.

It’s user experience design. If a software design team hands you a finished interface and wants you to spray some words on it, you’re too late. Why? Because the writing *is* the user interface, and UI needs to be designed with language in mind from the ground up. Language is how people think. A colleague of mine once made a brilliant presentation about the value of words in UI: he showed a screen shot of software with all the words removed. What was left? Gray boxes. Now, those boxes had some cool drop shadows, and I’m sure there was a ton of complicated programming involved in making the boxes move around, but I’m going to guess a design like that wouldn’t make it too far through usability testing.

#3) Make friends.

Gain respect from program managers, designers, and engineers early in the product design cycle, when they’re first writing the specs. You want them to see you as contributing something essential to the team. Face it: technical types don’t generally think writers have important things to contribute to software design. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they had to take classes in college like Discreet Mathematical Structures, while you took classes like Harry Potter: Myth, Magic, and Morality (I love you, UCSC). However, no matter how smart they are, technical people tend to think terms like “stack overflow” and “fatal exception” make perfect sense in UI.

#4) Be assertive.

Maybe it’s Microsoft, but I bet it’s everywhere else. Program managers and engineers are competitive and opinionated. Technical writers tend to be introverted and circumspect. Now, there’s nothing wrong with introverts (although in a tech company, you may begin to question this), but to earn respect, you have to be verbally assertive (even if you’re bluffing, and especially if you’re female). Try to start an argument during a meeting for bonus points, just to practice holding your ground.

#5) You’re underqualified.

See point #2: UI writing is user experience design. Now, there are relevant UI degrees out there, but most technical writers don’t have them. Techwriters are mostly UI writers by fiat, because UI contains words, and writers write words. If you really want to contribute to good UI, though, learn more about it.

#6) It takes a nation of millions to write OK/Cancel

Imagine yourself writing something. Are you picturing a conference room, full of people who aren’t writers, arguing over every character you’ve proposed? Challenging your authority on every letter of every word? Pushing you for revisions for months on end? Are you envisioning the result of this trial being a few labels, and maybe a sentence fragment or two? User interface writing brings design by committee to a whole new plateau – bring your air tank. Why? Two reasons: UI text is the most important techwriting there is, and everyone thinks they’re a writer. Your job is to prove that you’re a better writer than they are (a given) and that you understand UI design as well as they do (here’s where the work comes in).