Skip to content

The Imperfectionist

June 24, 2013

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

You know those childhood memories that are burned so deep you can remember the shirt you were wearing, or the way the grass smelled? I’ve got a few: The Time I Fell Off My Bike Riding With No Hands; The Time I Couldn’t Keep My Balance On The Rope Tow And All The Skiers Stared.

But there’s a particularly unremarkable one that’s always haunted me. I was in the first grade, and we were making collages of cut-out magazine pictures to accompany the story we were reading. Except I wasn’t cutting anything out—I was just sitting there, vetoing every picture I came across. Nothing was good enough. Nothing lived up to the perfect collage in my head.

While everyone else shared theirs with the class, I just sat there, empty-paged and ashamed. I wanted to hide.

Two decades later, I was still hiding. It was 2008, and I was fumbling my way through mountains of messy web content for an agency in Arizona when I stumbled on some people writing smart stuff about the very problems I’d been dealing with alone: too much content, outdated content, hard-to-manage content, useless content. They even had a name for their work. Content strategy.

I wanted desperately to join them.

Instead, I told myself my projects were boringly provincial and my examples embarrassingly amateurish. The prospect of sharing them was mortifying.

Eventually I forced myself to write a blog post. Then another. And somehow people responded to the things I had been so petrified to write about: How to make content work for mobile, deal with the messy people problems behind most companies’ publishing workflows, and break down decades of document-centric thinking.

I still didn’t have the answers, though. I’d simply become an imperfectionist.

Read more

Change is hard. But it’s our job.

June 13, 2013

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

In May of 2011, I came home from the best conference I’d ever attended, took a deep breath, and decided dammit, I’m gonna blog about content strategy. It was now or never, I figured.

I’m glad I did.

So last week, I took the stage at Confab myself, tackling a topic that’s been on my mind pretty much since I wrote that first post two years ago: How do we get content folks to see their work, their responsibility, as more than just planning for pages and documents? How do we get them interested in, and contributing to, all the challenges and opportunities that new devices and technical capabilities bring?

As our content is increasingly shifted and reshaped for different devices, laid out dynamically, sent to third parties, or combined with other data, I believe we—the people who know the content best and have dedicated our professional lives to making it meaningful, relatable, and helpful—have a responsibility. We must ensure that content—the content that’s mashed with Google Maps, that’s shown as related or personalized, that’s delivered in automated ways of all sorts—is as carefully considered, as natural, as it can possibly be.

We can’t manually control all the different ways our content might be used and seen. We don’t know when our users will want to save our content via Instapaper or Pocket. We don’t even know which devices they’ll be toting around next year.

What we do know is that we’re going to increasingly rely on what I loosely refer to as robots: machines that make decisions on our behalf about how content is displayed, shared, and accessed. And the more we can understand those ‘bots, the more we can help them make choices that feel editorial, considered, human.

Not my job

I spend a lot of time talking to content people—communicators, editors, marketers, strategists—about this need, and when I do, I hear a pretty common refrain.

“I’m not really technical. I deal with the words. What’s an API mashup have to do with me?”

It’s not limited to content specialists, either. I wanted to give a talk about APIs and information architecture recently. The response? “What, do IAs have to do everything now?” You could almost feel the accompanying eye roll.

Please. We’re not martyrs. We’ve spent years learning skills most people don’t have. We’re hired to apply those skills to solve problems and make great things. That’s always been our job.


Thing is, this work isn’t actually difficult because it’s technical.

Sure, maybe you can’t build an algorithm or design a database or launch an API alone. But the underlying concepts aren’t particualy technical at all: we need to define specific, discrete bits of content, label them well, and use them consistently. We need to look at the information we have—or could get from other sources, whether that’s map data or Wikipedia content or biographical information—and figure out how to best turn all that stuff into something useful, helpful, and relevant to our users.

In other words, it’s the same things we’ve been talking about all along: analyzing, organizing, labeling, and consistently styling our content. We’re just applying those skills to a plane that looks a little different.

This work is hard, though. It’s hard because it requires us to see our jobs—and therefore ourselves—differently. It’s hard because change is uncomfortable. And the more stuck in our ways we are, the more getting unstuck will hurt.

But mobile is a disruptive technology—one that is quickly transforming everything about the web. Including our own jobs.

The work of many

I’ve had IAs tell me that business rules have been part of their work for years, so why was I talking about them now? I’ve had database developers start whipping up entity-relationship diagrams before I’ve finished my sentence.

It’s great that so many people are already working on the problems with shifting, sharing, and connecting content across devices and platforms. What’s not so useful is when this turns into a turf war—a way to say, “that’s not your thing; it’s mine.”

When I wrote that first blog post back in 2011, I talked about collaboration—about not just accepting but actually taking delight in the shades of gray between disciplines.

That’s not because I was hoping for some sort of campfire kumbaya moment, though. It’s because I believe no one has a lock on concepts like rules, business cases, metadata, or content structure. Not developers, not IAs, and certainly not content strategists, either.

Adapting to a world where the web may be embedded nearly anywhere, and where content can be viewed and used in a range of different contexts, isn’t a one-person job. It takes understanding users, developing databases, updating content management systems, writing clearly, designing modularly, thinking in systems, and a million other skills.

It is not a phase. It is not a project. It is a fundamental change to the way we make things.

We’ll only be able to embrace that change if we bring people with different specialties together, and give them enough shared vocabulary and understanding to have productive, specific conversations.

In other words, it’s one big ol’ gray area. We’re going to have to bump into one another a bit before we figure out how we all fit in.

The hardest part

It’d be one thing if this were just about redefining our roles, but it goes deeper than that. If we want to embrace the flexible, ever-changing nature of the web—if we want to be successful with the digital transformation Jonathan Kahn talks about—then we need to get over the idea that our roles can be fixed,  that they are immutable and innately “ours.”

The gray areas aren’t about to disappear. On any given project, in any given circumstance, our roles could—and, most importantly, should—shift. Rather than claim a territory, we have to be a bit more malleable, a bit more comfortable applying our skills even while rolling with the punches.

Because technology’s not going to stop hitting us with new stuff.

This is hard enough at the individual level (comfort zones are, well, comfortable, after all), but it’s even more difficult when we consider what that means for working with or for organizations.

Most organizations—even small ones, even non-corporate ones—are used to clearly demarcated borders, and get more than a little antsy when you start streaming through departmental walls like the Brandenburger Tor just opened and you’re about to bring bananas to the East.

But, as I’m reminded often, “this gig wouldn’t be any fun if it were easy.” That’s true for designing and developing sites that work across browsers and devices, and it’s also true here.

If you’ve embraced this content strategy thing, odds are it wasn’t because it was the easiest way you could find to make a living.

I bet you’re here because you like a challenge.

Today’s challenges extend well beyond the borders of style guides and editorial plans. They run deeper than issues with devices and APIs and content reuse, too. These are problems with organizations that weren’t built for change. They’re problems that will take time—and sweat and probably a few tears—to unravel.

Fixing our content—making it modular and mobile-ready, letting go of old print mindsets, and dealing with dated content management systems—isn’t a cure-all, no. We won’t turn businesses from stuck-in-their-ways factories to podular, connected companies overnight. But what tackling these content challenges will do is get us talking. It’ll get us thinking.

And slowly but surely, it’ll get us unstuck.

Introducing: Content Everywhere

December 12, 2012

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Today, about a year after I wrote a sample chapter and convinced Lou Rosenfeld I could pull this off, my book Content Everywhere is officially on sale.

Stack of print editions of Content Everywhere

It’s done! It’s here! Now what do I do with all these?

Some of my favorite people have even said glowing things about it. Here are a couple:

The book you’re holding is magic. It cuts through all the noise surrounding structured content and offers immediately useful ways to turn your content from a bunch of scattered pages into a strong, flexible mesh that’s ready for countless new uses. And the best part? Wachter-Boettcher walks you through all the reasoning and all the sub-steps of this process without ever losing sight of the real goal: to create and maintain lively, useful content for human beings. —Erin Kissane

Sara Wachter-Boettcher arms you with insight and courage for the content you confront—and the contexts we cannot yet imagine. —Margot Bloomstein

OMG, so that’s what I’ve been doing these years! You know that unexplainable part where I divine order from the chaos of an existing site? Well, Sara makes it systematic, repeatable, and frankly better than anything I ever did. —Jason Grigsby

If you’re making content with a single destination in mind, you’re wasting a lot of time. You should stop, read this book, and rethink the way you think about content. —Rachel Lovinger

Writing a book wasn’t easy, but I’ll admit that the hardest part wasn’t wrangling 60,000-plus words. (I mean, I’ve worked on lots of big content projects; at least I knew where all the content in this one was coming from.) It was hard in the soul-searching, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here sort of way—the way that makes you question, with every paragraph, whether you know enough to be doing this in the first place.

But what I’ve realized is that there’s no such thing as knowing “enough.” There’s only knowing what you can, and sharing it the best you’re able to. That’s what I do with my clients, that’s what I’ve done with this blog, and so that’s what I did with the book.

So this is it—everything I had to share: A lot of ideas, some examples, and plenty of fodder to help you think about your content differently. Plus, of course, gorgeous illustrations from the delightful Eva-Lotta Lamm, and a foreword by Kristina Halvorson, who first pushed and prodded me to do this.

I hope reading it helps you half as much as writing it has helped me.

Thankful, tired, ready: My midyear update

July 26, 2012

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

About a year ago I wrote a little post that asked some big questions about what responsive design, mobile, and the ongoing flood of new, weird devices meant for content. And then I spent a year thinking about it.

I wish I could tell you that I have all the answers now. I can’t. But boy has the asking been worthwhile.

In the year since, I left my job and began consulting. I wrote for A List Apart and Contents. I started writing a book, Content Everywhere, for Rosenfeld Media. I did a bit of speaking. Meanwhile, my husband defended his dissertation and accepted a visiting professorship at Franklin & Marshall College in the delightfully not-Arizona-like Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Three weeks ago, we packed our things into a metal box and moved 2,400 miles in a Mazda hatchback with two cats.

Yesterday I sent the draft of Content Everywhere off to a small group of readers. The end is near.

Cue large exhale.

So what’s next? This weekend I’m visiting historical sites and state parks and other relaxing places where no one will ask me about the future of content. After that, I’ve got a few things happening that I want to share:

The book

I’ll be revising the manuscript for Content Everywhere so I can get it into your hands just as soon as possible. I hope you find it practical, thoughtful, and worth your time and money. Sign up here to be updated when it’s about to be released.

A List Apart

If you missed the news, I’ve just been asked to serve as editor in chief of one of my most beloved publications. Helping smart, passionate people communicate their ideas and hone their arguments better is an honor. If you have something important to say about working on the web—and you’re not afraid to say it loudly—then you should most definitely send a submission or chat me up about your ideas.

Speaking and teaching

In September I’ll be in London teaching a workshop with Jonathan Kahn and Kate Kenyon that’s all about changing organizations with content strategy—the missing piece in so many initiatives, I think. Then I’m bouncing down to Rome to speak at EuroIA. I’ll be at the MIMA Summit in Minneapolis in October, followed by my first-ever voyage to the Southern Hemisphere—and it’s a twofer: giving a workshop and a talk at Web Directions in Sydney, then a talk at the Content Strategy Forum in Cape Town. I’ve been promised koalas in Australia, cheetahs in South Africa, and wine in both places. In return, I’ll be talking about how to stop thinking in terms of pages and documents and start structuring content in meaningful, flexible ways—as well as how organizations can adapt to make all that possible.

If you’re coming to any of these events, please say hi. I’ll be the tall one feeling nervous and out of her league.

New work?

Writing, editing, and speaking are tremendously fun, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity. But I need my hands in messy content projects, too. With the book drafted and the cross-country move complete, I’m interested in new gigs with organizations and agencies with crunchy content challenges—particularly those in or around Philly, DC, Baltimore, and New York (I’m just a train ride away).

If you think we’d work well together, get in touch.

We’ll tell you what you really want: Mobile context, top tasks, and organization-centric thinking

July 11, 2012

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how we plan and deliver content for people using mobile devices: Do we make a mobile site? An app? Go responsive? Does our content get cut down? Rewritten? Reprioritized? Hidden?

This is great. Debate about how to deal with the sticky issues of our time is a wonderful thing.

What got me all bothered the past few days isn’t that there’s disagreement. It’s the sickening sense I get that much of this supposedly user-centered thinking is actually, deep down, way more focused on the organization than anyone cares to admit.

Contextual contention

Yesterday, after reading both Karen McGrane and Stephen Hay’s blistering new posts about the topic—and not long after getting caught up in a long exchange with Christiaan Lustig about his take—I saw Colleen Jones tweet something that finally stopped me in my tracks:

I disagree. I think context matters for everything.

There is, of course, a catch: We don’t know our users’ context.

We want to know it. We’d pay to know it. And yet, we never really know what a user wants—unless he tells us. And that’s why it might make perfect sense to build an app with just a few features, in the same way it might make sense to build a microsite for a specific event—because in these scenarios, our users are telling us that they want a specific subset of information. We’re not guessing.

Take, for example, the Patient app for Mayo Clinic that Colleen’s colleague wrote about last month. Designed for patients (of course), Patient offers information that’s incredibly useful while you’re at the clinic, like directing you step-by-step from one appointment to the next across a large medical campus. If I were about to receive inpatient care at Mayo, damn straight I would download that app before I went.

But what if it were the default experience for anyone visiting from a mobile device? Suddenly, those whose context doesn’t match the one Mayo designed its content around are utterly left out.

We’re solving the wrong problem

You often hear about cutting content to cut clutter. I support this—if you’re cutting the clutter from everywhere, not just a mobile experience. After all, clutter is crap: the sweater your aunt gave you three Christmases ago that’s so terrible you wouldn’t even wear it to an ugly sweater party, not the raincoat you only use six times a year. Because those six times, that raincoat might be the most important item in your closet.

When we try to solve mobile design problems by cutting useful content, we’re taking the easy way out—and we’re doing it at the expense of our users.

There’s a harder, but much better, way.

On Monday night, I spent three full hours in an Ikea outside of Philadelphia. The trip ate away most of my soul and basically all of my remaining youth, as these things are wont to do. But it gave me back something unexpected: A reminder about bringing order to small spaces.

Tucked into that never-ending “showroom” path that weaves from department to department, you’ll find a display of an entire apartment, expertly designed for a family of three, coming in at just over 500 square feet.

I don’t know whether any of us wants to live in a home made entirely of affordable Swedish mod merchandise. But this little display teaches a number of lessons we could all stand to learn as we’re designing for mobile: how to create visually distinct, yet compact, spaces for different purposes; how to tuck away items for later use without making them hard to reach; how to pack complex content into close quarters without a single item feeling crammed in or off-kilter.

Now whenever I read that we need to remove content in mobile, I think about that little apartment and how seamlessly it held three lives in place—without cutting out anything valuable.

Maybe the answer isn’t cutting. Maybe it’s learning better skills for designing and structuring complex information to be usable and enjoyable in small spaces.

Maybe we should be investing our time in getting better at flexible IA and navigation schema, not designing websites that eliminate the stovetop because the toilet and shower were more popular tasks.

(I mean, the average apartment user only cooks at home a few times a week. But she goes to the bathroom, like, every day, right? We cut the clutter so she could focus!)

But 80% of women aged 26 to 34 want long, romantic curls!

That’s great. But 100% of me thinks I look stupid with hot-roller head and just wants the damn asymmetrical bob I came in here for.

Trends and averages are extremely helpful for making decisions about prominence and priority. But as a user, I only have one “top task”: mine.

This doesn’t mean top task analysis can’t be a useful and wonderful thing. Knowing which content people want most can help you focus your efforts and make marked improvements to your site (and your bottom line). It’s called tackling the “fat head”—the opposite of the “long tail”—and it’s a way to get more bang for your site-update buck.

I take no issue with any of this. None of us has unlimited time and money to offer everything to everyone. The problem is when you begin using that research to build entire new sites that limit some users’ access to valuable content just because of the device they’re using. Because when you do, you’re thinking about your organization and its results: “We cut bounce rate by 40%!” What you’re inherently not thinking about is your user—not in the personal, empathetic way I think you ought.

User experience isn’t a statistic in your Omniture account. It’s a commitment to the very real humans on the other side of your site—humans who are trying to solve a problem or answer a question, and for whom averages and trends mean very little.

Telling them what they ought to want isn’t how you show you care, folks.

Banishing org-first thinking

We’ve been talking about user-centered this and that for years. Yet the more some organizations start dealing with content that’s flexible, that their users might encounter in multiple different contexts, the more uncomfortable they seem to get. The more they try to lock their content down and force people to experience it their way.

When your organization is truly customer focused, right down to its core, then the prospect of preparing your content to go wherever your users are stops seeming outlandish and starts seeming like the only sensible course of action.

Mobile is a tremendous shift, but it’s just the beginning. Devices are going to get wackier. Users’ expectations about shifting and saving and sharing content are going to get greater. As they do, this mindset—one where we, the benevolent organization, tells customers what they, the individual, should want—will get more and more frustrating for users, and damaging to businesses.

If it is truly “all about the users,” then let’s start acting like it.


Workshop: Structured content and organizational change

June 14, 2012

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

When I first started working on flexible, future-ready content, I spent a lot of time thinking about the content itself: what it means, why it’s important, and how to structure it so those things stay intact across devices and channels.

But then I realized. Tearing down WYSIWYGs and building content models are critical, but they’re just part of the solution. If we want content that’s truly flexible and sustainable, then we have to deal with the messy, complicated, politically charged organizations that are creating it in the first place.

Which is why I’m beyond excited to be 1/3 of the team behind a workshop with Jonathan Kahn and Kate Kenyon, coming up on September 21 in London:

Advocate, Adapt, Align: Using Content Strategy to Change Your Organisation

The web has shifted business forever, and organisations are struggling to keep up. From learning how to listen to customers to adapting for mobile to collaborating across departments on a coherent digital presence, we’re faced with all kinds of new challenges…

The good news is, customer-focused, flexible content strategy can help. In this four-part workshop, you’ll learn how to make change with hands-on exercises, real-life case studies, and informative presentations.

If you want to be an agent of change in your organization or for your clients, I hope you can make it (and definitely register soon—early-bird pricing ends July 2).

Either way, expect to see more on this blog about organizational change—and how to use content strategy and mobile as a way to make tough conversations and lasting change happen.

This time with feeling: A fresh look at content modeling

April 23, 2012

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Database modeling isn’t something you typically associate with a content strategist—particularly not the kind who is obsessed with things like brand, message, and editorial style.

But maybe it should be.

As I started writing a book and delving into “the future of content,” I began thinking a lot about what’s wrong with how content gets structured now (or, more often, doesn’t get structured), and why content modeling hasn’t caught on beyond some relatively niche, typically tech-comms realms.

Then it struck me. Many people who otherwise obsess over content don’t want to model it because it comes off all clinical and dreary. It seems technical and too dry and not at all what we’re about. Content is complex and beautiful and weighty and important, and reducing it to a diagram of chunks seems so…soulless.

It needn’t be. Read more

Responsive-Ready Content

March 7, 2012

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

The nice folks at A List Apart published a piece from me last week called Future-Ready Content, which I wrote amid the fervor over future-friendly thinking and responsive web design last year—a fervor I both joined in and felt terrified of. Because no matter how exciting this flexible, unfixed future seemed, for months I couldn’t shake this little voice inside my head—the voice that said our content wasn’t ready.

But it can be, if we put in some work.

So today, I wanted to expand on the discussion around responsive design specifically, demonstrating why we need a foundation of content types, micro structures, and business rules if we want to keep priority, relationships, and meaning intact. Read more

Why I don’t (always) do content audits

December 27, 2011

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Stack by Striatic on Flickr

Content audits are essential—the very backbone of content strategy, right? But I’ve got a secret: most of the time, I don’t even do them.

Don’t get me wrong. I love me some quality Excel time. I don’t mind spending a few days weeks neck-deep in the quest to document every single thing about a site’s content. As a consultant, I’d just prefer that you do it yourself.

Yes, you got that right: I like my clients to do their own content audits. Seem like a poor way to make a living as a content strategist for hire? Blasphemous? Or just plain lazy?

Trust me, there’s a method to this madness. Read more

Consuming Content vs. Loving Language

September 22, 2011

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Stop consuming content? Or not?

Content strategists are known for caring deeply about words. So it’s no surprise that when opinions on language start flying across the internet, we’re quick to take sides. It’s been happening a lot lately – most recently, for me, when a certain well-loved rabble-rouser tweeted loud about the terminology many of us use regularly:

In case you’re wondering when your soul left your body, it’s when you said “consume content.”

Baby, relax.

Imperfection is all right.

There’s nothing satisfying about saying we “consume content,” true. But the same is true for engage with, absorb, use, ravage, caress, suckle on, or whatever else others have suggested a thousand times before. Each option is unsatisfactory, limiting, or gross in its own special way.

Read more