Maker Series Recap: Karen McGrane

Karen shared how to stop the bleeding by making your content and sites better iteratively.

In the intimate Maker Series setting with 35 other people who care about content, Karen took us all to church, preaching that we have to stop stalling. We have to “stop the bleeding.” We all have to get comfortable with iterating. The web was made to be changed over and over again. We have to step away from a fixation on perfection and getting it all right upfront and instead embrace technologies (responsive design) and techniques (content modeling) that get us most of the way there and then refine and adjust as we go.

How to Stop the Bleeding

Admit & Commit To It

Karen shared how she talked with the New York Times over 15 years ago about how their recipe content wasn’t structured well enough to make the data beautifully extendible. However, 15 years later, after not solving the problem, they found themselves with the same problem, only bigger, talking with Karen again. Merely talking about your content problems won’t solve your content problems. Solving content problems takes time, patience, and money. And the longer you take to solve your content problems, the more costly the investment will be in all three areas, because every day you build more legacy content that will need retouched later. Admitting you have a problem is step one, but you still have to follow through.

Chunk It

“Content Modeling is the process of turning all the ‘stuff’ on the website into a well-organized system of content types, attributes, relationships, and data-types,” Karen McGrane.

There are a lot of excellent resources that break down content modeling, what it is, how to do it, and more. In the end, it’s about breaking down everything that goes into making up your site into chunks. Have an article? It probably has an author, date, summary, main content, and possibly more. And it might be nice to have the author’s name, along with his or her email, and maybe a short biography and photo. What’s that? Your authors write more than one article? Yikes, that’s a lot of stuff to rewrite each time. You probably want to break the authors out to be something special in your CMS that gets related to articles... Content types can snowball fast, but they are necessary, and spending time working on them upfront (and revisiting them often) makes your ability to reuse them later way more powerful.

Make It Responsive

“90% of people start a task on one device, then complete it on another.” Google, Navigating the new multi-screen world. Karen argued that while there are many approaches you can take to having a website that works nicely outside of a desktop experience (including a dedicated mobile site and adaptive design) responsive design is the best approach the majority of the time. As users access the same content to perform tasks across devices, they want a consistent experience.

Another reason to avoid mobile and adaptive options are the increased upfront and long-term maintenance costs. In addition to a more fragmented approach (where typically different teams wind up potentially making wildly different decisions), Karen shared that “a lot of the assumptions people make to aim your strategy at a particular device type wind up being flawed.” So taking other approaches can lead to worse experiences for your users and cost you more money. Double gross.

And let’s not forget that typically mobile-specific sites wind up drastically slashing content. When you consider that “34% of mobile internet users say that’s the primary way they go online,” according to Pew Internet, Cell Internet Use 2013, you’re potentially making it so some people can’t even access what might be critical content, simply by assuming they’ll use the desktop version if what they really wanted was a bunch of information. As Karen said, “Anytime you’re trying to guess what the user wants... you are likely to guess wrong.” Instead, Karen suggests taking a responsive approach across the board, and only adapt your content when you see a very good reason to based on your user’s context—which you let them inform you of (don’t make your own guesses based on device type).

Resource It

It’s one thing to understand what needs to be done, but when it comes to content, all too often it’s difficult to get dollars to invest in improved author experiences, content modeling, and other strategic content decisions. Karen had two key tips (that are dead simple, but so easily overlooked) to get the resources you need:

  1. If you want dollars, then you’d better be able to talk in dollars. If you can’t articulate the costs of a poor author experience, then it will never be prioritized. Look at how much time is wasted by a content author and the author’s salary as easy ways to bring costs to light.

  2. Know what’s important to the business. This applies to getting anything you need at work. If you can understand the business goals and explain how your project could achieve them, you stand a much better chance of receiving funding.

Just Pick a CMS Already

Continuing on the trend of moving forward, Karen also made picking a CMS a little less scary (hopefully) by telling attendees that “every major platform will get you 80-90% of the way there. It’s the other 10-20% where you might find mismatches between a platform and your goals.” There are a ton of good mid-tier content management systems out there (Craft, Expression Engine, Contentful, Typo3, Drupal, eZ Publish). And Karen’s best advice for large companies is to have platforms tell you what they think they’re best at and not-so-great for—because they’ll all tell you they can do everything.

Get in on the Learning

It was great to hang out with such a powerful content thinker for the whole day, listening to her share resources, answer questions, and run us through a workshop. We have two more Maker Series events left this year with Dan Mall talking Design Workflow this Thursday and Ethan Marcotte talking Responsive Design in November. Early bird tickets are gone for both, but we still have a handful of in-person and livestream tickets available. So hurry up and grab your tickets.