Four Kitchens

Trip report: Confab Central

11 Min. ReadEvents

Doug Bigham: Hello, @joetower and @eesapp!

Joe Tower: Hello :wave:

Emily Sapp: Hi

Doug Bigham: So, the three of us recently attended Confab Central in Minneapolis. Was this yall’s first Confab event?

Joe Tower: Yes

Emily Sapp: Yup

Doug Bigham: This was my second Confab. I went to Confab Intensive last September in Seattle. So it’ll be interesting to compare our perspectives. BUT… Let’s start with first impressions. What did you think of the experience, overall?

Emily Sapp: Overall, it rang all the bells for me. It was a good mix of confirming that I was doing things the “right” way and exposing me to new methodologies and concepts. The big thing that stood out to me was how human-centric it was, both from a user and stakeholder perspective. I feel like a theme throughout was “we are dealing with human beings here, don’t forget that.”

Joe Tower: There were excellent sessions and not-so-excellent sessions, like any conference. The presenters and all attendees thoroughly love content. The venue was mostly great aside from room labels being weird. The fact that Confab is so well organized helps frame my overall impression in a positive light. The topic diversity and scope was fairly vast. I definitely picked up some great takeaways from several sessions. Also really appreciated the feedback/comment slips on the chair, waiting for you to fill out, in each room. Everyone actively wants to help make content and web experiences better and more engaging in meaningful ways. It was awesome meeting LeVar Burton, too. :smiling_face: The quality of both keynote sessions was high.

Emily Sapp: Yes. LeVar!!!!! That was the biggest surprise for me. I was never a big fan of anything he was in but now I’m a huge fan of his in general. I got his book for my daughter and it’s amazing. Ugly crying at 8am in front of 300 strangers is also fun.

Doug Bigham: LOL. I very purposefully skipped LeVar Burton. He’s been one of my idols since I was a kid and I didn’t want the mystery to disappear.

Joe Tower: My nephew loves the book, too, though we’ll have to show him Reading Rainbow when he’s a bit older.

His dog passed away recently, so the timing was perfect and sad. perfectly sad

Emily Sapp: Somehow I missed the Reading Rainbow wave.

But now I plan to go back to it.

Doug Bigham: My goal as a young writer was to be on Reading Rainbow.

But anyway… back to content….

Human Centered Content

Doug Bigham: Emily, you mentioned the human-centric aspect. I totally agree.

One of my favorite sessions was … (looking through program) … Biz Sanford’s session “Writing thoughtful product content at scale”.

I went in expecting a lot of stuff about automation and workflow routines, but it turned out to be about the people who engage with content, and how they experience it.

It was cool.

Like, you really can’t automate good writing. If you want content at scale, you have to scale up the number of human producers, not the number of pieces of content.

Emily Sapp: Emileigh Outlaw said in her Large-scale Content Projects session, “Remember that real humans, nice people, created this. You’re walking into their home. Act accordingly.” Her whole talk was a nice reminder that people have great intentions even when the execution misses. Make them your allies, not your enemy.

Doug Bigham: Yes! I love that. Because so often it does feel like the “audience” is being positioned as the enemy. A hurdle to overcome.

Emily Sapp: Like you, I was expecting it to be solely focused on dealing with a large amount of content, but like all the sessions, it was equally about the humans who create and consume.

Joe Tower:Content design: What it is and how to do it” by Meghan Casey. Meghan offered fantastic insight through recommending a prioritization matrix approach to defining content strategy. Making content easier to both understand and discuss. She recommends always evaluating content by user need and business value. Evaluating each content type based on focus, drive, guide, and kill. This approach is an expansion and slightly different from what I’m accustomed to in our process of: keep, kill, shrink.

  • Focus content: Refers to the most important content to users and the business.
  • Drive content: Refers to content you may point people to after the initial goal content has been reached.
  • Guide content: Refers to content that is necessary to provide users but doesn’t directly benefit the business.
  • Kill content: Is just that – content that needs to be killed. It’s helpful to put content in actionable buckets. Not only does it help everyone understand each content goal, conceptually, but it helps qualify it as well against something “real”. One could place metrics against these main buckets and iterate/evaluate content focus over time.

Doug Bigham: Oh, fantastic. I’m sorry I missed that. That’s exactly the language I need to let our bosses know why I’m doing what I’m doing on our site. lol

Joe Tower: :smiling_face:

Content… and Content Strategy

Doug Bigham: That reminds me of something else I was really impressed by at Confab Central something that really made it stand apart from Confab Intensive, too—

Central seemed to have a good mix of talks focusing on Content qua Content, along with talks that focused more on Content Strategy / Modeling.

Intensive was almost all Strategy/Modeling stuff.

Emily Sapp: Eileen Webb’s Coaching Success session I expected to be more about the humans but I was still blown away by her humility and her humor. The willingness to speak to her own struggle with judgement and control— that’s a difficult thing to do in front of a bunch of strangers. And it was such a familiar story: person who creates the content strategy blames everyone else for not implementing it. It’s easy to get into a place of “Hey, I worked really hard on this amazing content strategy, you’re —insert judgment here— for not being able or willing to implement it.” She put the ownership back on the creator — how can you create a content strategy that people use? What training needs to happen and when?

Doug Bigham: So the judgement and control are both on the creator’s shoulders?

Emily Sapp: Letting go of judgement and control. Very Buddhist. :smiling_face:

Doug Bigham: That sounds like frustration to me.

Emily Sapp: HA Typical.

Doug Bigham: Capricorn, Virgo rising. Very typical. lololol

Emily Sapp: Specifically, are you setting people up for success or did you create something completely foreign? You can’t throw people into the deep end and get irritated when they don’t swim. Did you design it so precisely that it depends on you? Or can it live and flourish without you?

Joe Tower: I really liked Eileen’s comments around “urgency lying” In that it tells us “done” is more important than “done well”

Doug Bigham: ? like, we’re lying about how urgent something is?

Emily Sapp: Yes, I have that highlighted as well.

Joe Tower: – Urgency leads to shoddy work and poor usability. Urgency leads us to sacrifice sustainability.

Emily Sapp: – Urgency can be good for momentum building but not much else.

Joe Tower: She recommends countering urgency with awareness.

Emily Sapp: The hustle that gets you up the mountain doesn’t always serve you when you’re at the summit. (sort of quoting)

Joe Tower: When the entire team understands the strategy and project goals in a deep way, the project can only be more successful.

Doug Bigham: But how did she define ‘urgency’?

Joe Tower: Things are moving so fast that we fear we won’t keep up unless we hurry. This is sometimes true. It can be a great momentum builder. But once you are moving, it becomes a hindrance, tempting us to rush through work without testing, documentation, or quality.
Emily Sapp: Yeah, I have: “Frantic scrambling. The world is moving fast and we have to keep up.” I feel like it’s sort of a “are we in reaction mode or strategic, thoughtful action?”

Emily Sapp: Knowing when to slow down.

Doug Bigham: Right.

Emily Sapp: Also: “we breeze past the part where we explain to our team what this project is all about.” I feel like this happens a lot. A deliverable is handed over (PDF, spreadsheet, etc.), there is maybe one meeting about it, and then it’s done. [Eileen] talked about how repetition and teaching things in different ways is crucial; even though it felt inefficient to her, she had to lea\r\n \to embrace that. And that there is no magic explanation. You may always have to explain things ten times in ten different ways.

Doug Bigham: Ahh, so the focus is on the product rather than on the WHYs and WHOs that should frame any piece of content. I get it.

Emily Sapp: Which is where the “strategy” part of content strategy comes in. Strategy keeps us from living in reaction mode. It creates a clear, consistent identity, a confidence, a rudder to depend on when new things come in to knock us around. I feel like that slowing down thing came up more than once as well. Stay humble. Slow down. Say no.

Joe Tower: Yes, that’s HUGE: reaction mode.

Emily Sapp: But there were plenty of nuts and bolts in there as well. It wasn’t all so philosophical.

Doug Bigham: Yeah, I went to a couple good ‘nuts and bolts’ focused sessions, too.

Emily Sapp: Going back to Meaghan’s talk it was very much about things being prioritized and actionable.

Doug Bigham: That came up a lot. These notions of ‘priority’ and ‘actionable’… even if it wasn’t in those words.

Doug Bigham: We all went to Scott Kubie’s talk, and I feel like that was a big part of what he was saying as well.

Joe Tower: YES! I enjoyed his talk so much. Specifically the part about his steps toward building your own content ecosystem model. We create models to: gain clarity, run experiments, show relationships, change perspective, and influence & persuade.

That last bit is so critical in getting stakeholders to see perspective or steer them in a better direction.

Emily Sapp: And also the five key components that are a part of these ecosystems: touch-points, content types, people, products, and systems (input/output, tech, governance, etc.).

Doug Bigham: Yeah, I really liked the way he was using the ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’ metaphor. Like, those are the basics—those are the foundation. After you understand that, only then you can move on, because only then do you really have something to move on from.

Emily Sapp: And he gave some great facilitation tips for this process as well, which will be helpful for me as I lead workshops. The nerd in me loved how organized Scott Kubie’s session was. Even my notes are organized! :smiling_face: Everything in nice buckets of five.


Doug Bigham: That’s something I want us to talk about— so, Confab Central was overall pretty great, but what do we do with this now? Like, we were around other content people for three days— and we laughed at all the ways that non-content people get content wrong— but now we’re back at work, and we have to take what we learned and implement it.

How do yall think you’re going to do this going forward?

Emily Sapp: Things I know right away that I want to implement:

1) Brand Sort cards from Margot Bloomstein/Appropriate Inc. I think this would be a great exercise to add to our Discovery process. I had a note from my last workshop to spend more time getting to know the brand as a whole before we dive into the project.

2) I am already implementing some organization tools and techniques that Lisa Marie Martin showed us in “Structured Content Across the Redesign Process“, in particular how I am formatting my content strategy collaborative spreadsheets.

3) Working Scott Kubie’s content ecosystem modeling exercise into our Discovery process. What’s great is that I had done something like this on my own for a client but didn’t know what to call it. Now I’ve got a framework to build upon both for the deliverable and for facilitating the exercise.

4) Adjusting my approach to handing over the keys to a new website/content strategy. Building in more time and training. I think sometimes everyone is so anxious to be done at the end of a project at this scale that handoffs and follow-ups aren’t handled with the same care as kickoffs. But it’s just as crucial here and absolutely essential to having a site that’s successful in the long term.

5) I’m also inspired by the way Marissa Phillips leads her team at AirBnb. While there are clear differences: in-house vs. contractor, product vs. website, team size, etc., I can see quite a lot of it being beneficial to internal teams at 4K. Even something as simple as having a team mission. We both have very culture-centric organizations which solicit feedback and iterate.

Joe Tower: Implementation takeaways for me:

1.) From Content design: What it is and how to do it by Meghan Casey. Use different content design approaches. Try using her prioritization matrix methodology of Focus, Drive, Guide, and Kill to define and qualify content types. This is helpful in setting priority and reinforcing business goals.

2.) From Content ecosystems: Reduce content chaos with a model of your content reality by Scott Kubie. As Emily noted above, using what Scott implements in his 5-step process for building content ecosystems.

3.) From Short and sweet: How and why to simplify writing by Becky Spurbeck. This session brought awareness to my own writing which can also be leveraged in recommendations to our client’s writing and content style guides. Writing shorter sentences containing shorter words can be effective in increasing reader comprehension.

4.) From Model the message: Holistic content modeling by Devin Asaro. Similar to customer journey maps, explore using Adaptive Path’s “experience maps”. Revisit “gray box” as an initial approach to wireframing. This is my own interpretation on Devin refers to as “content overlays”. Basically, create and iterate simple wireframes by creating empty buckets that can be filled in and talked about. It’s similar to what other people at the conference call “annotated wireframes” but just a bit different. This session inspired me to revisit this approach to possibly achieve greater content understanding, quickly, to us and project stakeholders.

Doug Bigham: That sounds awesome, yall. I know for me, my biggest takeaway— and the thing I want to start implementing right away— is coming at content strategy from a “what works for this company” perspective rather than a “how can I create a great strategy” perspective. More feedback from the stakeholders and team at all iterations of content creation.

Emily Sapp: That’s a great perspective shift, Doug! I think it rings true for UX, Design and Build, too.

Until Next Time!

Doug Bigham: Well, I think that about sums it up. Confab Central 2017 was a hit! Can’t wait til next year!

Emily Sapp: It’s been so fun recapping. I’m glad I had some fellow Web Chefs there with me and that we get to compare notes like this. :wave:

Joe Tower: Thanks you two! I had a blast hanging out with you in Minneapolis nerding out about content, design, and all things user experience. :peace:

Doug Bigham: Bye everyone! And make sure to stay tuned to the Four Kitchens blog throughout the summer as well have some more in-depth posts on content, content strategy, and what we’re learning.