Jeffrey Zeldman and Panel - Content Matters

[Live from Web 2.0 Expo 9/16 - 9/19 Follow along the other Expo Talks in RSS.]

The Panel: Liz Danzico – - part information architect, part usability analyst, and part editor. Alex Write “Information Architect” – – Previously a UX designer and journalist in California. Bre Pettis – “Videographer” –, Kristina Halverson – “Content Strategist” – Jeffrey Zeldman  - “Evangelist” –,,

Paul Ford – “Editor” – Harpers Magazine,,

Liz Danzico Setting Context for Panel Discussion

The people on this panel are interested in changing your minds on the role of the content in design and user experience mocks. The original name of this talk was: copy matters.

You may have heard these two conflicting views: 1. Content drives traffic. Content certainly is a primary reason for users to come to you. 2. Users don’t read on-line (Jakob Nielsen).

We will be talking about whether we are at a cross-roads. Going back a little bit in history to transitions in media, people referred to television as radio with pictures. When movies and television were first made cameras were stationary. Early MTV was just bands on the stage playing. When we make transitions from old to new we borrow metaphors from old technology and apply them to the new. As we look at the web as a publishing medium we’re looking at a different publishing medium. Different responsibilities for makers, editors, etc.

We aren’t writing, we are speaking in text.” – Erika Hall of Mule Design.

The internet looks like writing, but it’s actually a conversation.” –Khoi Vinh,

What kind of content are we talking about in the panel?

Navigation & Orientation content –, with rotating greetings setting the tone in different languages. Navigation on CNN is an example of clear communication on sub-pages. Matched with URL and page hierarchy.

Labels & Action – Vimeo with its labels. as a quick review of what labels are.

Help Content – Tick “Just kidding I Remember Now” link next to “Send me my password”.

Non-textual content – Visual content like election maps, photos, info visualization.

Content, content, ! – Marketing communications sites like Business Week with Editorial Content, etc.

With this new publishing model and these new types of content, how are we going to make it work? Ask the experts!

Q) What is the nature of the content work you do? The reason I asked each of you to the panel is because each of you has a different role in content.

Halverson- Typically our clients are dealing with content that helps discuss their products and services. We are trying to help them wrangle, plan for the creation, creating, standards and structures in place to help them govern that content. I got into content strategy because I was handed wire frame to fill content for websites.

Pettis- I got into video and videos about how to make things. For two years had a show called video projects. I’m a video guy who thinks print is a part of the past.

Jeffrey Zeldman

Zeldman- With the magazine I write, with my website I write. I was a journalist and in advertising and copywrite for a long time. When I started websites back in 1995 the whole thing as that it was self publishing. I thought everyone was going to learn HTML and be self –publishing. I thought everyone would find their voice and try to find an audience. With our client services projects we always start with the content, what it is, what’s there, how they’re going to interact with it. We develop content strategy and architecture before we get to design. If you bring design in fairly late in the process you’ve already worn them down. In terms of the magazine it’s a labor of love.

Q: How do you deal with accommodating both organizing content that is purely visual and content that is textual?

Write- NYTimes publishes a lot of content and we increasingly publish a lot of multimedia content: images, slideshows, interactive flash, etc. Issues that come up is around the metadata layer. All of our photos are in a huge database that exist separately from the article database and content management system. We have a good taxonomy to tag articles but we don’t have the same capabilities with issues. From a design point of view we’re constantly trying to figure out how to weave that content into the site.

Pettis – The thing I’m excited about on the internet is that people find a passion and get into it and publish about it. I’m on the blogging team at Etsy. We have really passionate users.  What we do with the blog is open it up so that anyone can pitch ideas. We have over 300 authors on the blog. We have a video team of people who want to point cameras at things and record what they’re thinking and doing. It’s a way of sharing passion and excitement.

Q: How are you helping your clients how to become sophisticated publishers of content?

Halverson – That for me is way down the tracks. As an example take a company with 12 different business units serving 122 different markets. Producing content for a lot of audiences. Our process is A) Figuring out where the content is and who is out there B) establish who is publishing content, reviewing content, etc. C) governing consistent brand standards across the content. There’s a complete infrastructure lacking within many organizations between print marketing and interactive marketing. We start by trying to bring these people into the same umbrella. That challenge in some organization is really difficult. They spend all their money on brand and have no idea how to govern and create content.

Zeldman – I would just like to say it’s mostly luck. Like woody allen said ablout love: sometimes you’re lucky sometimes you’re not. With clients we would turn things over and sometimes the client would use it and take of running, sometimes they wouldn’t. We built a content management system and would write guidelines and sometimes clients would follow them and sometimes they wouldn’t. We’re doing something for a food manufacturer and they make a delicious bar which has a cool brand and has medical implications so the challenge for copy is that there are pages that have to address people with lupus and there are other birds where there are birds with funny sayings. What rules do you give the client for when they use each tone, how to transition? We create matrices and recommendations and if we’re lucky the client has the right people and the right talent to keep it going. You hope that everyone is passionate about the project.

Question: How do you approach content from a user generated view point?

Zeldman – I think it’s both. You have to talk about both sides of the equation.

Liz – More and more it’s our responsibility as designers to think about creating very good frameworks that are well thought through, intuitive, and provide intuitive roles which people can participate in. That’s one step: designers create a framework to participate. The second step is for users to actually be involved. The third is an editorial responsibility of the client to monitor content.

Zeldman If you abandon the responsibility of editorial control you lose a lot of value. If your content is of high quality you’ll get comments of high quality. Generally because the writing is so good at NYTimes there are some really well thought out comments.

Write – When user generated content works well it’s when it’s well channeled. If there’s a cacophony of noise you can’t get anything out of it. At NYTimes you can comment on certain articles but it’s all moderated by a team of people that try to keep the level of discourse civil. The notion of just opening things up and letting people go after it leads to craziness.

Ford – Another example: how many wiki sites are dead on the web right now?

Zeldman – The first site I worked on for a client was Batman Forever in 1995. We had a forum and seeded some content. It went well initially, people used it. But once we were off the job and the movie stopped needing to sell tickets so they stopped keeping track of the forum. later did a piece on it. People were making racist comments and trying to have sex with each other.

Ford - You can get content for free but you can’t get editing for free.

Halverson – We’ve had companies who try to fix their content problems by buying a really expensive CMS. They think the magical content will just arrive. You must plan for, create, and govern content.

Zeldman – Even Flickr is about constraints. They encourage a certain kind of user.

Halverson – Good example but an easy example because the site is for fun. It gets more complicated when the matter is more serious.

Q: What kinds of tips can you give to people who are responsible for creating content?

Write - Part of the design process is what are the words that exist on the page? “The vacuous victory of typesetters over authors.” People tend to think of the web as boxes and content blocks.

Bre Pettis

Ford – If you are the one doing content make it very easy to get tons of feedback. I’m the sole guy doing web copy on Harpers and I hear back from customers constantly. When you are the person doing the copy it’s your job to make it as straightforward as possible.

Pettis – I’m shocked to hear businesses farming out content and passion.

Halverson – I often work with people who are responsible for content on top of their many other jobs. Don’t conceive of and put boxes on your wireframes for content you don’t have time to create and govern. Scale back.

Zeldman I think that’s the most important piece of advice I’ve heard today. Scale back. If you don’t have the people to do it, you shouldn’t do it. Grow slowly.