Content Amid Chaos

This is an article version of the talk I delivered in February at An Event Apart Atlanta. See the slides here.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens
Philadelphia Magic Gardens by Alex Thomson (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The Magic Gardens are one of my favorite things about Philadelphia—a frenetic mix of mosaic and poesy, of dinnerware and bike wheels and old bottles turned into wandering walls and grottos. They were built in two adjacent vacant lots in the nineties by Isaiah Zagar, an old hippie artist who’s lived in South Philly since the sixties, when they tried to tear down the neighborhood to build a crosstown expressway and property prices plummeted.

The Gardens aren’t really my taste, aesthetically. But they embody everything I love about Philadelphia: weird, beautiful, shambling, thriving, and jumbled-together, all at once. Philly is Ben Franklin as much as it’s Rocky. It’s grand monuments built by nineteenth-century industrialists next to hodgepodge neighborhoods. It’s a place where the Italian Market is half Mexican and you can find pretty much anything served on a hoagie. I love it here.

But my city is also filthy.

South Broad Street in Philadelphia
Broad Street between Tasker and Morris, in South Philly.

On my walk to the subway, just three little South Philly blocks away, I see plastic bags blowing in the breeze, newspapers fluttering to rest in gutters, entire sacks of household trash propped against trees and street signs.

It’s a real problem, and it’s not new. I found articles dating back 25 years complaining how Philly’s “urban flotsam” was “liter-ally disgusting.”

Everyone blames everyone else: the sanitation workers are careless and let trash fall all over when they pick it up. Dog owners are thoughtless. The kids drop their fast-food wrappers on their way to school.

Sometimes it smacks of racism and classism—“those people” just don’t care about keeping it clean. Other times, people just ignore it. “The litter?,” they say. “I guess I don’t think much about it.”

We have subway ads calling to “Unlitter us.” We have a chapter of the city code devoted to “refuse and littering”:

§ 10–702. Litter in Public Places.
(1) No person shall place or deposit litter in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public place within the City except in public receptacles or in authorized private receptacles.

It seems simple enough to stop littering: just stop leaving trash on the ground. Secure your garbage. Clean things up when you see them.

And yet, they don’t call it Filthadelphia for nothing.

Your website might be filthy, too

Most of the people I talk to—people at major universities, big corporations, institutes and nonprofits, government entities, and even small companies—tell me their websites are fully of garbage, too. They’re cluttered. They’re packed with corporate-speak jargon and outdated PDFs. And for all that content, they lack substance. They’re collections of digital flotsam, fluttering in the breeze and settling right in their users’ way.

What gives?

We’ve been advocating for content strategy for years now. We’ve started auditing all our content and telling people what they have, where it goes, and what to get rid of. We’ve started making governance plans and style guides.

And it’s not just content strategists. Designers, developers, and everyone else I know involved with web-making are talking a lot about content these days, too: building content-first wireframes, establishing voice and tone, creating modular chunks. As an industry, I believe we’re doing a much better job considering content in our projects these days. Yet we still end up with documents that feel a lot like Philly’s city code:

No person shall place or deposit unnecessary content in or upon this website.

Do this. Don’t do that. I understand the impulse: we’re the experts, after all. We design with users in mind. We research. We interview. We build responsively. It’s natural that we want to take that knowledge and bind it up in a tidy package—a set of fixed guides that say, “We know what the content should be like. Here’s how to do it right.”

But then we stumble upon that abandoned section of PDFs dating back to 1998. Then we’re in a meeting and so-and-so pipes up to say actually we can’t possibly get rid of that. Or that. Or that.

And by the way, the CEO still wants her letter on the homepage.

No matter how hard we try to control the content, the chaos always seems to win eventually.

Suddenly, our projects feel like a game of whack-a-mole. No matter how hard we try to control the content, the chaos always seems to win eventually.

It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

Web projects as content catalysts

Hope is not lost. Cities can get better—and our content chaos can, too. But it won’t happen just by telling people the rules and punishing them for doing it wrong.

It’s up to us—content strategists and designers and developers and UX specialists and everyone who makes websites and products—to stop thinking of content as that game of whack-a-mole, where we try to fix everything that’s wrong until our arms are too exhausted to move and the moles finally take over.

Instead, what if we recognized that our companies—and the people we work with, and the websites we make as a result—are simply complicated? They’re chaotic. They’re a lot like cities: they have infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean everything runs smoothly. There are too many parts to orchestrate and control.

What if we worried less about fixing the content, and instead accepted some chaos along the way? What if we looked at our work designing and building websites as opportunities to help others—to create ownership, commitment, and progress for the long term, rather than perfect webpages?

That’s what I’ve tried to do in my work. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Start with just one thing

I’ve always been a trash picker upper, but there are neighborhoods that are just too heavily covered for a person to pitch in while walking.
A West Philly resident

Most people don’t want to live in garbage. But the problem with big things is just that: they feel too big. If I can’t solve Philly’s filth, what’s the point in trying?

When I started reading about Philly’s litter problems, though, I kept hearing two names: Aine and Emaleigh Doley, sisters who live on the same block in North Philly. They also hate litter, but they’re not trying to solve the city’s problems—or even North Philly’s problems. Instead, their goal is simply to “revitalize one Philadelphia city block”: theirs. For the past few years, they’ve run the West Rockland Street Project, organizing cleanups with their neighbors and setting small, achievable goals.

They found one thing they could fix. And then they led the charge to fix it.

Avoid the overwhelm

Just like most people don’t want to live in garbage, I think most people want to do a good job—they don’t want irrelevant content clogging their site and getting in the way of their users. The problem is that people like us show up with these big, exciting projects in mind—like a responsive redesign, or moving to a new CMS—and those projects have huge implications:

  • “We need to rewrite all the content for responsive design”
  • “We need to cut everything in half so it’s easier to skim.”
  • “We need to transform all 4,567 PDFs to structured content.”

Who can deal with such big problems? They make everyone feel as defeated as a dirty city.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can instead identify smaller, more manageable content problems—problems we’re actually equipped to solve. To do this, I’ve started looking for three key traits in my “one thing”:

  • Visible: What’s causing pain right now? Is there a process that’s frustrating staff? A set of content so broken that it’s driving lots of customer service calls? What you’re looking for here is an eyesore—that abandoned, litter-covered lot.
  • Valuable: What will have immediate value for the organization and its users? Is jargon clogging the user flow and reducing conversion rates? Are authors and designers creating time-consuming, hand-crafted pages for routine stuff?
  • Scope-able: What’s something that could be completed in a matter of weeks or months, not something a team will toil away on forever (and forget what they were trying to accomplish in the first place)?

For example, let’s say you’re part of the team leading that oh-so-popular responsive redesign. Everyone’s excitedly resizing their browser windows. Along the way, you come upon those thousands of old PDFs clogging the site—they’re not at all ideal, but there are far too many of them to deal with right now. What if you found a subset of those old documents that are critical to the organization—for example, something like product spec sheets? Every time a product changes, someone has to design a new PDF, and someone else has to get it uploaded to the CMS (someone else probably ought to remove it from the site when it becomes outdated, but…well, no one really remembers to do that).

You’ve just found your one thing: understanding the way product spec content works, modeling it into a format that’ll work in different screen sizes, and getting a small team to migrate it from those PDFs into the new structured, modular system. It’s tightly tied to the responsive project, so you’ll have credibility when suggesting it gets prioritized. And it’s likely causing both internal staff and customers pain right now.

These small wins—a clean city block, an improved products section—don’t solve the whole problem. And that’s hard for people like us. We’re trained to create consistent patterns, design clean systems, make everything seamless. Of course we want to fix all the things. But small wins make people feel capable of change. They keep people envisioning, and striving for, a less chaotic future.

They create perhaps the most important tool of all: optimism.

Create ownership

When problems are hard, it’s easy to start waiting for someone to come solve them. But waiting for change to happen is a recipe for apathy.

Back on West Rockland Street, they’re not waiting. They’re taking ownership of their block by asking neighbors which projects they want to pursue—from a vegetable garden to sidewalk improvements to graffiti coverups. Their efforts are examples of tactical urbanism—of people saying, “we are going to own this.”

We can do this in our projects, too. We can help people take charge of their content chaos and own their efforts, rather than assuming a redesign is going to do it for them, or that it’s a lost cause and they shouldn’t bother trying.

I love this example from Livia Labate, who until recently led digital standards at Marriott. On the Responsive Web Design podcast, she talked about how they decided to tackle a massive responsive redesign project:

We said we can have one team that’s the responsive team and this team just goes on and makes the site responsive. Then we thought, okay we’re going to be done and the organization would have learned nothing from this exercise. Because we have so many people today that are contributing to these sites, how are we going to get to a place where they feel equipped to do that? … How do we make this organization more empowered to make these changes and adopt better practices?

What I’ve realized is that this approach of empowerment is perhaps especially important when it comes to content. Because content is the thing that is created most often by the largest number of people. If you can’t get them to take ownership, they’ll never learn to manage the chaos.

Ask, don’t just tell

You can’t just tell people to own the content, though. You have to give them problems to solve—which means getting them involved when you’re still asking questions, not when you already think you have the answers.

It’s a skill I first learned more than a dozen years ago, when I worked at a sexual assault center giving educational presentations to middle-school kids. At nearly every school, a child disclosed abuse to me—took me to a quiet corner and explained something terrible that was happening to them. The most powerful thing I learned back then was that no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t solve those kids’ problems. I couldn’t ensure their safety, or take away the hurt. What I could do was ask a question:

What would you like to see happen?

I couldn’t promise it would come true. But oftentimes, I was the first person who’d ever asked, who’d acknowledged that they had choices—that they were humans with preferences and wants that deserved to be considered.

When you ask people what they’d like to see happen, they feel connected to the process, rather than simply told what to do.

Thankfully, our web-making challenges aren’t nearly so dire. But the idea stands: when you ask people what they’d like to see happen, they feel connected to the process, rather than simply told what to do.

For example, I recently worked with a small team within a big, old-school software company. One day, the team discovered an abandoned page on the site. That’s not abnormal in a big company—except this was the third most popular page on the whole site, getting hundreds of thousands of views each month. Each product line managed its own content on the site, but this page wasn’t about one product—it was a free download that could relate to multiple products. At some point, it was forgotten. And as a result, the content was terrible: outdated, disconnected from the rest of the site, not very useful. And it certainly wasn’t helping the company connect people from a free download to a paid product. What a missed opportunity.

But it wasn’t just this one page. It was a culture where the website was often the last to get considered, and where every new campaign resulted in new web properties, without a lot of effort put into how they all fit together. So we didn’t try to just fix the content. Instead, we pulled together people from different groups: marketing, product lines, designers. And we asked them, how should we address this? What do we need to do to solve these users’ problems and support our business goals? We had them think it through, sketch it out, and write new copy in small groups—and as a result, came away with two dozen people not just on board with fixing this page, but actually excited about finding (and preventing) other content problems.

Do, don’t just talk

Whatever your content problem, it’s incredibly helpful to get people together to actively work on things, not just talk about them.

I recently worked with a think tank that published a tremendous amount of research and news. Over the years, they’d amassed hundreds of individual tags for their content—but no consistent taxonomy that supported their goals. Part of the strategy for their new site was to better connect readers of various expertise levels to the topics they wrote about—building not just a reverse-chronological stream of content, but a system that created context and enabled people to understand and engage with issues across a variety of media: video interviews, blog posts, conference presentations, courses, research papers, and the like.

Taxonomy workshop with a team of designers, editors, and subject-matter experts
The taxonomy workshop in action.

I could have easily gone in and designed a new taxonomy. But instead, we got a cross-section of their team together—communications and editorial staff, graduate students, the research director, and the web team—to decide the taxonomy themselves. We laid all their existing tags out on the table as cards, clustering and relabeling and merging things as we went. Within three hours, we had a new topical taxonomy that was 90 percent complete—and that everyone on their team bought into, because they had built it with their own hands.

With > for

Ultimately, what I have learned is that it’s much more helpful to define and address problems with the people who create and manage content, not just come up with the answers for them. Not only will the end result be stronger, but you’ll also make people feel like they have a stake in things—like they have a reason to stick with a strategy, because they helped to create that strategy in the first place.

Build commitment

Big strategies tend to fall flat because they ask people to take a tremendous leap all at once—to move from their existing practices to a brand-new world in one giant leap, and without much support along the way.

Instead of massive overnight shifts to content, what we need is a map. Maps are what connect our big ideas to the operational, mundane things that need to happen to get there.

We can see it in urban improvement, too. Just a few blocks from that first photo of trash, and from my house, is East Passyunk. Once an Italian-American enclave of family shops and red-and-white-checked tablecloths, it started declining in the seventies, when families left for the suburbs and the people who were left started getting older. The neighborhood wasn’t evolving…and yep, it had become covered in garbage, too.

But East Passyunk is a neighborhood full of great storefronts and restaurant space. It’s easy to access from Center City, and close to transit. People recognized its potential, and a group called the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation was formed.

PARC’s aim was to figure out how to transform East Passyunk from declining to thriving—and not just by attracting chain stores, but by focusing on the kinds of restaurants and services that locals would frequent, too—so the neighborhood would become a residential hub, not just a shopping corridor. So PARC decided to:

  • Purchase property along the retail corridor
  • Revitalize it to rent to local businesses
  • Use the income for neighborhood cleanup
  • Plan long-term civic improvements, like pocket parks

Their roadmap works because it’s sustainable. It’s not all at once. As they improve the neighborhood, more businesses want to be there—in fact, it’s now home to some of the most talked-about restaurants in town.

A roadmap for content

Many organizations are using product roadmaps these days, and I’ve found the concept incredibly helpful for content work, too.

For a content roadmap, you first need to know where you’re headed: what would thriving content would look like for your organization? Maybe it’s like my first example: you have lots of PDFs and unstructured blobs of content, and the goal is to make it modular. Or maybe you’re trying to move from a place of confusion about the content you have to a place that’s actively governed. Or maybe you’re trying to break the habit of churning out more and more content, and get people to always start from user needs instead.

When you build a roadmap, you’re asking the people who work on content to come up with a path that will make their content thrive: What are the steps? Who can do what? When? What needs to happen first? By mapping out content as a parallel process—as something that’s not just within a web design and development project, but that exists alongside it, and beyond it—you can create a path that people can run with, long after a redesign has launched.

Maps keep us moving

Back in January, we held a planning workshop for A List Apart, where I’m the editor-in-chief. Our goals were big: we wanted to start reaching a new, younger generation of readers, and to diversify the authors we publish.

We worked in small groups that shifted throughout the day to brainstorm ways we could get closer to our goals—including new types of articles, different approaches to promoting our content, and a million other things. Within a few hours, we had dozens of ideas stuck to the wall. But we also had a small team all working on ALA on the side.

Me evaluating ALA project ideas on sticky notes
Me at the ALA workshop by Jeffrey Zeldman (CC-BY 2.0).

That’s where roadmapping comes in. The roadmap turned our ideas into something coherent and feasible by helping us choose which projects to pursue, prioritize them over the year, and identify what it would actually take to get them started.

Over a month later, we’re making real progress on a half-dozen different initiatives, each with its own leader and working group. We’d never have gotten this much momentum without building out that roadmap—together.

Content is chaotic

I wish content were perfectly controllable, but it’s not. It’s imperfect. It’s political. It’s never finished. No matter how well we plan and design right now, the content will change.

But that’s okay. Humans are messy and weird, too. We’re chaotic, imperfect, and in progress. The same things that make content so difficult to manage are also what can bring it to life.

What I’ve learned is to stop trying to wrap web projects up with a perfect bow and expect them to stay that way, and to start embracing the chaos instead. After all, we know the web ebbs and flows. So does our content. Instead of trying to fix it by designing perfect webpages, we do our best work when we create a space where all our colleagues can understand, and use, this medium you and I love so much.

It’s not easy. Change never is. But it’s the only way out of content chaos.

Mosaic that reads 'Change' at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens
Mosaic from the Magic Gardens by Melody Joy Cramer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

2 thoughts on “Content Amid Chaos

  1. Realistic, practical and with great examples my team and I can wrap our heads around. Thanks for another great piece, Sarah Wachter-Boettcher!

  2. Sara, I loved this post! First and foremost, since you’re talking about trash in Philly (and linked to our post), but also love the tie in with content. I see many instances of both cases- on the streets and in the web.

    Glad I stumbled across this. 🙂

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