Margot Bloomstein – Controlling the Pace of UX with Content Strategy

Sean Carmichael

August 21st, 2013

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Margot Bloomstein

In some scenarios, getting a user to convert or react to a call to action is the desired outcome. It means your design and experience work. But if users are coming to and then quickly leaving your site, what are they really experiencing? If they don’t take the time to explore and discover they may not have any loyalty to you or the experience. And if you’re dealing in complex decisions, you want your users to take the time they need to fully understand and commit to their choice.

Applying content strategy to your design guides your user throughout the total experience. Margot Bloomstein believes that allowing for a user to explore and discover will increase their knowledge about products and aid in how they process information. During her virtual seminar, Controlling the Pace of UX with Content Strategy, the audience asked a slew of great questions. Margot joins Adam Churchill to tackle some of those questions for this podcast.

  • Should you let a visitor to your site know in advance how long a process will take?
  • How should error messages be worded, straightforward or more in line with the tone of your brand?
  • How do you balance long form content with being long-winded?

Recorded: June, 2013
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of the Spoolcast. Earlier this spring Margot Bloomstein came to our studios to present her virtual seminar called, “Controlling the Pace of UX with Content Strategy” Margot’s seminar along with over a hundred and twelve others that teach the tools and techniques you need to create great design are not part of the UIE experience training library.

In the seminar Margot shows us how good content guides us. It helps us focus and encourages us to explore. It helps us make better choices and have more positive memories of an experience. But the question that many design teams are left with is how do you help your users focus on what’s really important?

Margot knows which companies use content to control and focus users attention. In this seminar she showed folks how those brands structure conversations to help their target audiences make decisions. Margot’s back to answer some of the questions that came up and also wanted to share the latest thinking from an 80 year old Hungarian psychologist. Hey, Margot, thanks for coming back.

Margot Bloomstein: Hi, thanks so much for letting me come back.

Adam: For those that weren’t with us that day, can you tell us a bit about what you talked about in your presentation?

Margot: Sure, yeah. Well, as you were just discussing, we talked a lot about how often times with content and content strategy, we’re trying to optimize experiences for speed.

We want to get people through those experiences as quickly as possible and make sure that they’re putting an item in their shopping cart, they’re not having time to second guess their decision or anything. But instead, they’re quickly making a decision, moving along on their way, maybe leaving the website as quickly as possible.

The thing about that is that it works well. It gets people off our websites, out of those experiences, as quickly as possible. Sometimes that’s good, but not always, because it undermines, sometimes, their loyalty for the experience, their memories of it and how well they can kind of create and knock those memories.

Also, it undermines their sense of discovery and exploration. Those two, especially, are really important in terms of how they’re learning about products, maybe how they’re connecting disparate pieces of information, and really, how they’re framing their own response to a product or to a brand.

It doesn’t just affect products in e-commerce sites, though we can certainly focus on those a lot. But also, if we’re just taking them through, maybe, complex decisions, sometimes we want to make sure that they’re respecting them with the appropriate amount of time.

As you discussed, during the virtual seminar, we looked at a lot of different ways that we can identify opportunities, where maybe speed isn’t the goal, but rather, we want to have our users explore and learn through discovery and validate their decisions. We looked at some examples, both online and offline, from a variety of different brands. Yeah, it was good. It was a good conversation with a lot of good questions from the audience.

Adam: Lots of buzz from the audience on Twitter and in the question-and-answer room, so let’s talk about some.

Crystal had this great question about, when a visitor comes to your site, does it make sense in advance to let them know how long the process is going to take or what kind of time commitment they’re making before they engage?

Margot: In general, I would say no, simply because it breaks with the normal way in which we have conversations with our friends and family, let alone our users. You don’t say, going into a conversation, “I haven’t seen you in a while and I want to catch you up on things, and I really want to enjoy our conversation over lunch, so plan 20 minutes for the story that I’m about to tell you.” It doesn’t work that way.

There are other cues that we give people in the real world — maybe when you block off time in somebody’s calendar or you just go into the room saying, “I’ve got something really important I need to discuss with you.” Maybe you pull out a chair at the conference room table so the other person also is saying, “Alrighty. Now I should sit down, because this is going to take some time and I need to give it my full attention.” Maybe it’s just as simple as flipping over your phone so it isn’t staring you in the face with different prompts and reminders and incoming tweets and all.

There are a lot of ways in the real world in which we focus our attention and we focus the attention of the person with whom we’re engaging, and that can happen online as well.

Now, there are some sites — I believe Medium.com does this — where they’ll say at the beginning that a story is maybe a five-minute read, so you know going into it, “OK, this is about the time investment it’s going to take me.” There are other cases where, maybe because of the nature of the photography, the nature of the typography, you know going into an experience, “All right, this is a very content-rich experience.” Maybe the style of the typefaces, the number of paragraphs that you can see just on that immediate first glance — you see that there’s a lot here, and that it’s paragraphs, not just bullet points.

Those sort of visual cues can help users understand, too, that this is not just about a quick, “come here, get your information, and get on your way” kind of experience, but rather that there’s a wealth of information here. Those visual cues, I think, help people set their expectations appropriately.

Adam: There were some questions about error message, and in particular, Lauren asked this question about, when you create error messages, there’s this thinking that they should be purely functional, right — quick, direct, concise — to let the user know what’s happened, to immediately get them back on track. But does that break with this deliberate voice from a brand, this slower, more deliberate voice that should be used?

Margot: Not necessarily. And I would also point to the work that Kate Kiefer Lee does at MailChimp. She’s really helped to evolve the voice there, to say there are times, places and certainly channels, forms and topics of communication where we can be a little bit more loquacious, maybe a little bit more playful and get into the details on a topic. But then there are other channels and topics that are very serious where we need to be short and to the point. And very concise.

So those are two different voices and styles of communication. At MailChimp, they correspond to different topics. When it comes to error messaging as a topic, the, “Something just went wrong. Now what?” We tend to default to something that is much more concise and blunt. But it doesn’t just have to be about machine language. In fact, often times, it’s when something has gone on, something that has happened that is wrong that we need to be that much more human and humane in our communication.

An error message, we know a good error message has to just do a couple things. It has to tell someone, “Here’s what happened and here’s how to undo it.” Or, “Here’s where you should go next.” Sometimes it’s just, “That page doesn’t exist anymore.” We show the 404 error. “Maybe instead you want to go to search.” Or we want to redirect them to a home page or to a site map. That’s fine. It says, “Here’s what happened. Here’s what you should do next.”

The 404 pages that we hear about most often and certainly that everybody loves to post and share are the ones that are a little bit more whimsical. I think it’s North Face that shows a picture of a mountain goat, I want to say. The messaging is somewhere along the lines of, “A mountain goat has eaten that page. Sorry about it. But here, let’s redirect you to the home page.” Something along those lines.

It’s still to the point. It says, “Here’s what happened.” Granted, we know there aren’t mountain goats back in the machines. But who knows, maybe at Google there are. And then, “Here’s what you should do next, go back to the home page.” In other words, not just saying, “We’re going to stick you in this continuous, machine-driven loop and you’re never going to find the right information.” The same way that, often times in search results, we get a sort of error messaging that says, “Can’t find anything using those tags. Maybe instead you should search in another way.”

And then we give people more language, more cues to say, “Use fewer terms.” Or, “Use more terms.” Or, “Use synonyms.” That’s not necessarily short information. But it gets to the point. Sometimes we can say it more warmly, if that’s appropriate for the brand that’s conveying that information. Sometimes we just want to be terse, again, if that’s appropriate to the brand that’s conveying it.

I’d say just because it’s an error message doesn’t mean we have to completely avoid the brand or divorce ourselves from the brand and the voice that it needs to espouse. Sometimes, when something has happened that breaks the experience, that’s when we need to be all the more humane, patient and say, “Here’s what happened. Here’s how we’re all going to get through it together.”

Adam: Martha had a question asking for tips on balancing between the long form, versus the long-winded.

Margot: I love that question. I think that’s really important. When we talk about a slower content strategy and more long form copy, the natural reaction to that, especially for everyone that’s grown up with the Web that comprises just bullets and brevity, is to say, “No. Long form copy? A paragraph? That is bad. We don’t want that.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Just because there is some copy you see that’s long and we see it takes a long time to get through doesn’t mean all longer form copy is like that.

The same time, I would also say there’s a lot of short copy that you have to read over several times to really understand what it even means. I think we can look to Twitter for a lot of examples of that. That’s certainly not long form copy. I would say, when you’re writing copy of any length, but especially if you’re asking more time from your readers or users, in other words, if it is many paragraphs long, there are a few things to pay attention to.

For me, they always boil down to cohesion and consistency. Cohesive content is content that starts with old or existing or commonly known information, and uses that to lead in to new information. Whether that’s within the length or duration of a single sentence, or if you’re stringing together multiple sentences across a paragraph, or multiple paragraphs across a page.

One of the examples that we looked at in the virtual seminar was from Crutchfield. They have a lot of long-form copy there, that uses, sometimes, more garden-path sentences to pull people through the information. What they do really well, though, is to make sure that that content is always cohesive.

For example, they might start out with information that is, “As everyone knows, photography is a growing hobby.” Then it might lead into information talking about, “Photography, as a hobby, is growing especially among audiences that are moving into digital SLRs. Digital SLRs, or DSLRs, commonly fall into these three categories.”

Then it might have a sentence about category one, category two, category three. Using that structure of topic sentence, three examples, and a conclusion sentence that we all learned, learning about writing in school and all.

By using a familiar structure, as well as information that can build sequentially from old or known information to new information, and you keep doing that sentence to sentence. It helps them pull people through the content.

Another way to ensure content is cohesive is to write in the active voice. In other words, get to the verb quickly. Always let me know who is doing what, and then pull people through the information that way. Start with strong verbs, if you can, because it gets to the action, so it helps me know what’s going to happen in the sentence. Let’s move on to the next one. What’s happening in that sentence?

By structuring your content that way, with a more cohesive format between sentences, familiar structures, and active voice, you can write in a way that really pulls people through the information. It doesn’t feel like they have put forth the effort of slogging through.

Also so that they’re not stopping every few sentences to say, “Wait, what was this about again? What was the point? Let me go back a few sentences to figure out what we’re talking about again.” That’s the stuff that slows people down. That’s long-winded content.

Adam: Margot, you wanted to talk about a cool article that you found in “The Atlantic” recently.

Margot: Yes. Sorry for that, maybe, long-winded answer to that question about long-form content.

[laughter]

Margot: As we’ve been talking more and more about how to optimize experiences for the experience, not necessarily for the efficiency. I think it’s something were we’ve been seeing more content about that concept out in the popular vernacular.

Actually, just this week in “The Atlantic,” Linda Stone published a terrific piece called “Machines Can’t Flow; The Difference Between Mechanical and Human Productivity.” In it, she basically posits a theory that, oftentimes, we optimize experiences, we optimize work productivity, and what we want to get out of work, based on machine productivity.

In other words, if machines, whether it was typewriters, or washing machines, or, now, computers, and microwaves. If they can help us do things more quickly, then that’s a good thing, and let’s produce more stuff.

It used to be that it would take, maybe, half an hour to prepare a decent dinner, now if we can just throw more things into a microwave, maybe we can prepare more dinners, in a shorter amount of time, for more people. That type of thinking, that focuses more on output rather than outcome.

The meal that comes entirely out of the microwave, is it of the same quality as the meal that you’ve prepared carefully, maybe by simmering the ingredients slowly together on the cook-top?

When we confuse outputs and outcomes, it’s that classic issue. It’s certainly the issue that we’ve been talking about for a while now, of confusing quantity, and efficiency, and just getting more stuff done quickly with getting it done well.

I know, in our virtual seminar, I share the example from Patagonia. How their creative director there, he raised the point that they’re not in the business of selling more stuff. They’re not just trying to optimize for more outputs and getting more done, getting more things out of their shopping cart, that type of thing.

They’re not trying to sell more stuff, but they want to make sure that stuff you buy lasts, and that it’s right for you. They’ve made the investment in content and in content strategy to support it. In a lot of content and content marketing that allows you to learn more about the product.

See how it would fit you, so that you can read different reviews, see other examples of other products that, maybe, would fit your needs a little bit better. They want to make sure that the experience gives you the right outcome, not just giving them lots of outputs and adding more to their bottom line. I think that that’s pretty exciting.

When we take that conversation out of content strategy, as this article has done, it allows us to look at a lot of other opportunities and experiences across how we use the web and human interaction in general.

One of the core components to their article. She’s driving on, as you alluded to in the beginning of our conversation, is something that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined, which is the term “flow.” He’s a Hungarian psychologist and psychology professor, and he specializes in looking at how people understand, and process, and create happiness.

In other words, how they make better experiences for themselves, and, also, how they they gain better experiences from their work, from their experiences in the work place. Then, finally, what we can do to optimize those experiences, so that they achieve better enjoyment.

Maybe they’re able to focus more on their task at hand rather than trying to get lots of things done. When they try to do lots of things, yeah, maybe their output is higher, but their error rate is also higher.

When Csikszentmihalyi used the “flow,” he was describing this idea of being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. In other words, that state that you’re in where you’re like, “I didn’t realize that three hours just went by while I was clicking through videos on YouTube.”

Granted, we don’t always want to optimize for that kind of YouTube experience, but, certainly, when you’re on Patagonia’s site, or you’re on Crutchfield’s site, they want you clicking around. Learning more, focusing on the product, getting it right, getting the activity of making a purchase right, not just done.

They don’t want you to just finish it up as quickly as possible. They want you to make sure that you’re making the right purchase decision. That idea of being in that state of flow, that builds on this idea of slower content strategy. Content that helps you slow down, and focus, and make more deliberate decisions.

In the article she also said, and I’m quoting here, that, “It’s time to re-think productivity.” We can certainly relate that the number of products we sell through our websites. How quickly we’re able to get somebody to put something into a shopping cart, or, maybe, how quickly we’re able to get them to process information. Maybe re-balance their 401k, something like that.

It isn’t just about getting more stuff done more quickly. Instead, we want to make sure, are they doing it right? Are they able to focus, make more deliberate decisions?

She continues, “More output produced faster may be great metrics for machines, but for homo sapiens, the most powerful metric is engagement. Engagement is about process, outcomes and quality. Engagement values the methods and the results versus just focusing completely on the output.”

I love that, because I think, as we increase access to information online, and suddenly, you can make myriad decisions just based on what you’re able to learn on, just say, Wikipedia alone. The challenge, then, is how do we curate that information? How do we make sure that we’re helping people sift through the noise and focus their attention on just the most valuable content? The content that will help support their decisions best.

I’m actually going to be speaking at the Deloitte conference in October. We’re going to be looking at that further. How do we create better experiences? How do we create experiences where people can generate more loyalty for the brands that they like, sift through the other content and the other brands around them to figure out, all right, here’s what best supports my needs right now. Overall, how can they enjoy their lives better as they’re kind of going about their business?

Seeing this kind of stuff in “The Atlantic”, kind of just outside of and beyond where we talk about just content strategy, that to me is really exciting, as well.

Adam: Very cool. For folks listening in that want to get their hands on that article from Linda Stone, we’ll make sure we get the link into the post for this podcast.

Margot, nice job with Mihaly’s last name. I’d be honored to introduce him at one of our events someday, but selfishly glad that I haven’t had to…

Margot: Yes, it’s, Csikszentmihalyi, I believe. Because it’s a whole lot of consonants going on up in there.

Adam: Yeah. That’s great. Well, Margot, thanks for coming back and joining us to talk about this important topic a little bit more.

Margot: Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.

Adam: All right. For those listening in, thanks for your support of the UIE virtual seminar program. Goodbye for now.

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