My patronus is the pizza rat: A love story about content strategy

Here’s a hypothetical situation: you’re in graduate school for oh, let’s say human-computer interaction. You took the long way there, but the moment you set foot in your design classes and met your classmates you knew you were in the right place. You spent your first year reading and pushing yourself and talking to people and finding out just how big this world of user experience design truly is, and now you’re entering your second year wondering what’s next and how to get there. Who are you, and what is your place within the design community? What do you do with the fact that you love to write? Does that just sit on a shelf, waiting for the moment you finally feel ready to put pen to paper, or can you figure out a way to pull that into your UX work? 

Totally hypothetical.

But then, a very wise person sends you a link to a blog about a thing called “content strategy” and you’re intrigued. You have a pretty good idea of what content is, and what strategy is, but these two words together are a novelty, like a peanut butter and pickle sandwich. You wonder if you’ll like them when they combine.

You don’t know it yet, but you’re about to fall in love.

2016 Content Strategy Fellows with the Facebook Content Strategy Team. Photo credit: Confab.

You read articles by Jonathon Colman, and then follow him on Twitter and wonder, genuinely, how he can be in ten places at once. His articles lead you to more articles by more content strategists, and you wonder how on earth you’ve gone 29 years and never heard of this field, these people, your people. You follow the aforementioned very wise person’s advice to apply for the Facebook Content Strategy Fellowship, and somehow, you get it. You’re so excited that you’re afraid to utter the words out loud.

You attend Confab Central in Minneapolis and arrive early enough to ride a rented bike along the shores of Lake Calhoun and visit the Walker Art Center and hang out by Cherry and the Spoon. Once the conference starts, you find yourself surrounded by brilliant, interesting people, and strike up a conversation with someone new each time you take a break from sessions to stuff yourself full of delicious snacks. Five or six conversations in, you realize that every person in the whole place took a different route to where they are now, and that their paths to get there were just as meandering as yours, and that the reason they’re so good at what they do is because they infuse their work with these past experiences. You take immense comfort in that fact. 

You meet Facebook’s team of content strategists and your fellow Fellows and they are every bit as genuine and thoughtful and brilliant as you’d hoped. You meet Kristina Halvorson and ask her a million questions and marvel at the way she is able to know exactly what you mean, even when you haven’t done a great job of articulating your thought. How she just knows, and how she’s able to do this with everyone she meets. You allow yourself to be drawn into their world. 

"If your app/website is full of assholes, that's your fault." Anil Dash discusses bringing humanity into tech.

Your second day begins with Anil Dash discussing the collective responsibility of tech companies to be humane and use their optimism and vision to create a better world. He ends his talk with a Q&A about Prince (you are in Minneapolis, after all), and you’re entranced by his encyclopedic knowledge of the man. You wonder if you know as much about anything as he does about Paisley Park.

You listen to a talk by Brain Traffic’s Scott Kubie on sense-making and clarity for ambiguous projects, and the difference between voice and tone. From Netflix’s Mike Hastings, you learn about personalization algorithms, tagging, and how genres like “Adrenaline Rush Race Against Time Action & Adventure” and “Strong Female Lead Based on a Book” come to be. Later, you find yourself wondering whether Facebook’s Mike Atherton was a radio announcer in a former life as he discusses service design and the intersection of information architecture, UX design, and content strategy. He notes that the tiniest bit of the right content at the right time can make the difference between dropoff and delight, and you write this down in huge letters. You approach him afterward and thank him profusely for answering the exact questions you’ve been asking yourself all weekend.

You listen as Anna Pickard talks about conveying personality and humanity through Slack notifications, and what it’s like to avoid sounding robotic when scripting the Slackbot. She reminds you of your father always telling you to “measure twice, cut once” as she describes the care that goes into crafting these messages. When she says that her team often aims for “minimum viable charming,” your heart grows three sizes. Later, 18F's Kate Garklavs teaches the audience how to create a content lab within their company, encouraging you to think of the pizza rat as the patronus of content teams everywhere: agile, intelligent, crafty, and willing to figure out creative ways to achieve their goals.

Jasmine Probst discusses the difference between empathy and compassion, and how it applies to designing for difficult experiences.

Later, the conversation turns to more serious topics as Jasmine Probst tells you about the research and compassion that go into designing Facebook’s suicide prevention interface. Real life is messy, she says, and you have to design for that. You write that down, too, and then you underline it. You continue thinking about these talks all day. And the next, and the next. You gush about everything you learned to all of your friends, because enthusiasm is contagious and you want them to catch the bug, too.

You realize that content strategy is exactly what Kristina Halvorson says it is: “planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content.” Content strategy is giving a voice to a robot or an Echo. It’s thoughtfully and compassionately designing the words and interactions that go into helping someone get through difficult times. It’s helping people find personalized content based on carefully chosen tags. It’s planning a person’s experience as they seamlessly move from computer to mobile to kiosk and back again. It’s taking responsibility to design things that help people, and it’s doing away with Lorem Ipsum text in favor of something more meaningful. Content strategy is everywhere, and you’ve only scratched the surface.

You marvel at the amount of content that lives under the hood of your favorite products, and you vow to continue learning, to keep asking questions and pushing yourself to get to the place the speakers described, where UX and IA and content strategy intersect.

Facebook Fellows with Kristina Halvorson. From left to right: Kristina Halvorson, Jeana Ridley, me, Sydney Harris.  Photo credit: Confab.

Facebook Fellows with Kristina Halvorson. From left to right: Kristina Halvorson, Jeana Ridley, me, Sydney Harris. Photo credit: Confab.

You write this blog. You hope for the best. You dive in.