Content Strategy at Confab 2019: First, Do No Harm
People have been doing content strategy since before it had a formal name. But over the past decade, the field of content strategy has gained a lot of traction. Executives are beginning to (finally) understand the importance of content, and are putting more money and resources into building teams.
We no longer need to shout from the back of the room that content counts. So what’s next?
If there was one overarching theme at this year’s Confab conference, it was content ethics. Content strategists should remember (and follow) the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Now that we have a seat at the table, we need to use it to empower others.
Indeed, Confab 2019 dove deeper into many of the same themes I wrote about at Confab Central 2017: That part of content strategy’s job is to make the web more inclusive and accessible. And that we still have a lot of work to do to make that happen.
Be aware of bias
Did you know we make an average of 35,000 conscious decisions each day? Our minds take a series of shortcuts—called cognitive bias—so our brains don’t explode from all those decisions. Shortcuts are good and meant to help, but sometimes they hurt and can lead us to error.
In his talk “Fight Bias with Content Strategy,” David Dylan Thomas challenged us to acknowledge and combat potentially hurtful biases, then make content and design choices that either mitigate biases or use them for good.
An example is our bias that if something is hard to read, it’s hard to do. If something is easier to read, we think it’s easier to do because it’s easier to process. Something that’s easy to remember feels more certain. Use that bias for good: Remember it next time jargon or long, complex sentences start to creep into your content. Plain language is everyone’s friend.
Bias came up in other conversations, too. Lisa Maria Martin taught a workshop on information architecture and how to structure content to empower users. When working on site structure, think about what biases and privilege shape your perspective. Who benefits most from your categorization system? Who might need more context or explanation? Who might be excluded? Have you used clear, actionable, and inclusive language—and labels?
In Lisa Maria’s words: “Our decisions are powerful. Things that seem so tiny—like labels or categories—deserve our time, attention, and intention. We have power to control the way people find, understand, and use information.”
In speaking about conversational design, Erika Hall pointed out that “Our products need to stretch to meet the ways people think out in the world.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean automation and scaling. If you have bias in your processes and then automate those processes, you’re just amplifying the bias.
An example would be signup forms that force folks to choose between male and female as a gender. In doing so, other peoples’ realities are erased. Another example is one that David Dylan Thomas pointed out in other forms: When females are required to choose between Mrs. or Miss as a prefix, it sends the message that the very first—and most important—identifier is whether she’s married.
In a world where systems are designed around new technology, we need to think more about the people. As David Dylan Thomas says, “[Bad] content strategy decisions are how we scale inequality.”
Assumptions are bad—but they can be used for good, too
Similar to bias, assumptions can also affect people and personalization systems.
Both Dan Brown and Jeff Eaton discussed the impact assumptions have on people through information architecture and personalization, respectively. (How can navigation be inclusive? When does personalization—and the information we think we know about someone—backfire?)
Andy Healey’s entire talk was about assumptions. We assume others know the language we’re using, and we assume that our language not only makes sense, but is useful and clear.
If those assumptions are wrong, however, not only can projects fail (and personalization turn creepy), but—even worse—you might be unintentionally building bad systems that harm people.
Is there a right way to make assumptions? Andy says yes, and one way to do it is to be intentional about how content is created. Our role is to look after our users. Focus on making safe, inclusive assumptions. Use plain language. Don’t leave anyone behind. (Read more about how to make the right assumptions in Andy’s terrific blog post based on his presentation.)
What I heard loud and clear from multiple speakers: Challenge your assumptions the same way you challenge your biases. And keep the biggest assumption in mind—as Marchaé Grair says, “Assume the work begins with you.”
Content strategists have a job: Make content inclusive, accessible, and meaningful
As content strategists, we’re often the gatekeepers of content. That’s a big job—we have a say in how we are shaping our little corners of the Internet! How exciting and terrifying.
Many speakers had a lot to say about making content accessible, useable, and readable for everyone:
- Sarah Richards: There’s an entire spectrum of access needs. 1 in 4 adults in the US has a disability—don’t leave them out. Accessibility is finding the right information at the right time. It’s clear structure, clear format, and clear language. Accessibility is usability. If you don’t have one, you don’t have the other.
- Anusha Jha Rohom: The Internet has been developed by the English-speaking world for the English-speaking world. Over half of web content is in English. As web access continues to spread to rural areas, millions more people will be accessing the Internet. They likely won’t be speaking English, and they might also be illiterate. When the audience is illiterate, access alone is insufficient. Usability is essential. Global companies will need to consider the worldview of audiences and content’s impact on all users.
- Mike Powers: There are many ways to test readability besides the Flesch-Kincaid formula. Cloze tests measure comprehension and let you see if a text is appropriate for your audience. Read-able and Hemingway App are online readability tools. Why should you care? Because readable content is easier to understand (for everyone), gets shared more often, and can be an accessibility requirement.
Need to convince stakeholders about the importance of accessibility? (Besides the argument that it’s literally the law?) Check out the open-source Readability Guidelines, started by Sarah Richards. It’s full of studies and research that you can use to bolster your case.
To learn more about the spectrum of accessibility needs, check out this Alphabet of Accessibility deck, which highlights the various types of visual, auditory, physical, and cognitive/neurological issues that content strategists and designers should be aware of.
So how do we do all this?!
Does this seem like too much to take on in your organization? I understand the feeling. But don’t get overwhelmed. To paraphrase Greg Dunlap, this is an evolution, not a revolution. The goal isn’t to change the world. Do whatever you can to inch progress forward.
More nuggets of wisdom from Confab experts:
- Always be asking. Ask why. All the time. Why? Because it exposes things that aren’t immediately obvious. As Erika Hall says, “The question is the most important tool we have in our toolbox.” And as Greg Dunlap says, “‘Why’ brings the greatest techniques to bear on a project. It helps you understand users’ motivations and design for them.”
- Always be critiquing. Don’t settle. Critique makes content design better. We can’t do work successfully without having a conversation and getting feedback on that work. And having our own work critiqued helps bring to light whatever biases or assumptions might be lurking. (Dan Brown and Andy Healey)
- Have the difficult conversations. Inevitably there will be some tough ones ahead. Don’t avoid them. And even though you may disagree, or feel defensive, be respectful—really and truly respectful. (“Civility masquerading as respect happens all too often,” says Courtney MacDonald.) Be an active listener.
- Don’t get defensive, get curious. When you have those difficult conversations above, and you’re feeling defensive, don’t shut down—ask yourself why. (Marchaé Grair)
The way forward
The message was loud and clear at Confab 2019: Content strategists need to step up. We have a responsibility to make the Internet a better place. Our jobs aren’t just to build cool things—we’re here to help people access the information they need.
David Dylan Thomas summed it up nicely: “Language doesn’t just describe reality; it shapes it.”
And to quote Lisa Maria Martin, “When we own our power, we can create a better Internet. Whatever you’re doing is not neutral. We’re either challenging [bias and assumptions], or validating them by not doing anything. We have the power to change narratives.”
Time to get to work.