[00:00:39] Chicago Camps: What inspired you to start Rosenfeld Media and how has your background in Information Architecture influenced your approach to publishing and content curation?
[00:00:48] Lou Rosenfeld: Okay, so I’ll start with the first part. I got into this because I was pissed off. That’s really like a great motivator for a lot of things. I was pissed off that the more mainstream publishers didn’t really want to take on UX.
[00:01:05] It was like dip a toe in, see how it goes. I felt very passionate that UX was important, was going to grow. I think being pissed off is great motivator for a lot of things, but I felt I might as well just start a company that did UX books because we need more UX books. And I already had a little bit of an entrepreneurial track record.
[00:01:26] And I knew it was gonna be a lot of work. So I figured I might as well do that for myself rather than for someone else. That all said, there’s more to it. I also felt like traditional publishing was not very focused on quality. I don’t know what folks think about when they understand how, or what they think publishing means.
[00:01:48] I know when I’ve talked to some people outside our industry and I say I’m a publisher, they’re like, so you books and you have a printer, is it, or you have a basement full of boxes of books and you ship none of those things. Publishing is really about helping ideas mature and become better and more marketable and to actually take care of a lot of the marketing and editing and that sort of thing.
[00:02:18] However, most mainstream publishers are really focused on quantity and they will publish a lot of books, including titles that compete with each other. With the understanding that only a few of them need to be successful in the marketplace. It’s like the venture capitalists model. You just throw a bunch of things up against the wall, only a little needs to stick and that carries the day.
[00:02:42] I hate that. So I wanted to have, unlike my experience as an author, I wanted to have someone who was going to be there to help me figure out my ideas and an editor, marketing person, a publisher, people I could actually talk to, none of that was really available to me. As an author for other publishers.
[00:03:02] So I wanted Rosenfeld Media to offer that kind of collaborative iterative support to its authors. And we’re not perfect, but I think we do a pretty good job. It means we only can do five or 10 books a year, not 50 or a hundred or 200. But that’s the way I like it. And we take the same approach really with conferences.
[00:03:24] I hated showing up at conferences unprepared and not knowing anything and not having support. It’s just. I don’t know. I like collaboration and iteration, and I think that’s a good way for UX people to go about creating products. That’s how we preach it. I wanted to do that with books and conferences.
[00:03:46] Chicago Camps: Can you describe the Rosenfeld Media approach to curating high quality content and what makes this method stand out in the field of UX?
[00:03:54] Lou Rosenfeld: I don’t know how well it stands out. You guys do such a great job with what you do and your conferences and you don’t charge anything for it.
[00:04:02] I don’t know how you do it. I’m going crazy trying to get people to buy tickets these days because we throw so much effort into it. But let me answer your question. Three words. It really animate what we do with our books, with our conferences, really all of our products. Those three words are inclusion, collaboration, and iteration.
[00:04:21] So we take an approach, an inclusive approach that’s designed to surface voices that aren’t necessarily represented well when it comes to presenting, curating, and writing. When we first got into conferences, I was like everyone else, wow, I want to get all the big names I know. And I knew a lot of people, but more and more, it is about finding perspectives that aren’t well represented, because that is what leads to a healthier field in general. We don’t want to monoculture ourselves with the same old people again and again. It’s boring, frankly. So we’ve tried to do a better and better job of finding people who haven’t done this before.
[00:05:04] In traditional publishing, it’s a high risk thing. And so publishers will only publish people who’ve published before. It’s insane. How’s that ever going to, obviously that doesn’t play out very well in the long run, so we try to, we don’t necessarily like to publish people who are already wealthy, it means we.
[00:05:25] We could probably be more financially successful if we did that, but again, in the long run, that’s bad for us all. So that’s one word, inclusivity. Second word, collaborative, collaboration. What we really try to do is take an idea that is just the grain of sand around which the pearl forms and iterate on it collaboratively.
[00:05:48] So we try to work closely, let’s say with authors on taking their idea. Before they’ve even written a proposal, I work with them before I even sign them to see if this is like a good idea. Let’s talk about it. Let’s iterate on it. I have them start with a one page pre proposal and I don’t expect them to show up with a fully developed proposal.
[00:06:13] Because partly because I haven’t been able to shape it. If that’s the case, I don’t know. Enough about who they are as well as really what their idea is about. And they aren’t benefiting from my expertise as a publisher who knows this audience. So we try to develop things collaboratively over many rounds.
[00:06:33] That’s where the iteration comes in. And we keep that growth going on through the development of a formal proposal through signing, and then through developing the book. So when we sign a book, we. Assign an editor, a developmental editor who works with our authors on a regular basis, giving them writing coaching, helping them with writer’s block, but also helping them with voice tone, helping kick their asses when their asses need to be kicked.
[00:07:08] You remember all that. And that’s really a great collaboration. It’s like really a beautiful thing to see how much more and how much better it can be when they’ve been working together than if the author just went and sat in a Garrett on their own for a year and just came back with a fully formed manuscript, I just don’t think.
[00:07:31] Most authors should or can do that very well. So there’s also one of the things that we do is we put a lot of marketing effort in while the books are being written. More and more, we see that the research an author does while they’re writing content development research, they do is the same as the marketing they should be doing.
[00:07:51] Everything you do that you’re, while you’re trying to reach out to people, get their perspectives. Bring them into your book. That type of collaboration is also marketing because you’re creating more and more stakeholders in the outcome. And when a book is being researched and people are being brought in and they’re excited about it, they’ve even had something to do with it.
[00:08:16] They’ve contributed something in some way. Then when the book launches, it’s got a lot of wind behind its sails. Because it has so many stakeholders. So I’m giving you a very long answer and I’m really just talking about books, but with conferences, it’s the same thing. When people speak at our conferences, they go through typically a pretty involved CFP that has a double blind round.
[00:08:41] I have a curation team for each conference. That’s a fairly diverse team that reviews proposals. And we try to bring in a lot of different perspectives in terms of proposal review. We encourage people who haven’t ever spoken before to submit. So there’s that inclusive approach. Then it goes through a second round of evaluation where we reveal who the presenters are.
[00:09:05] We do a diversity analysis and then there’s a third round where we do invited speakers to our programs. And not only does that lead to a more inclusive program, but then it’s really a more designed program where we’ve I consciously fit together the various speakers in a very research driven way that leads to what I think is a really cohesive program for every conference that we do.
[00:09:35] But then the collaboration and the iteration continues. Once we get a lineup of speakers, a speaker roster, we have them work together in cohorts with speaker coaches and facilitators for two or three months before the conference, taking their idea steadily. Iteratively developing it from idea ultimately to rehearsed presentation.
[00:09:59] And they support each other. So the various pieces, the individual presentations end up referencing each other and fitting together in a really cohesive way. That’s the UX way to do things. And I know I posted some snarky thing the other day and LinkedIn is saying, Oh, I’m going to be doing Russ’s Chicago camps session.
[00:10:20] And here we are. And I said, I wish UX people would value the UX of the books and conferences that they consume a bit more, because I think we take books and conferences for granted, they’ve been done the same way for so long. I don’t think it has to be the way I think there’s a UX way to do this stuff.
[00:10:39] And that’s what we try to do.
[00:10:41] In my mind, people who organize, just doing what you’re doing tonight here, that you’re the heroes of the industry, because that’s how we learn together is we come together and we share ideas.
[00:10:52] It’s somewhat thankless at times. There’s a reason we keep showing up. And it’s also been incredible to like, I’m really so thrilled to have you say, or hear you say that we’ve been helpful to you. I feel like I’ve gotten so much out of so many people. Oh my God. I learned so much from Jared’s Spool about putting on conferences, Dave Malouf taught me a lot. I can just go on and on Bruno Figueredoof UXLX. Canadians do a great job. Fluxible. Yeah. There’s just, it’s just so much fun to learn and it’s experience design.
[00:11:27] It’s totally experience design.
[00:11:30] Chicago Camps: Given your expertise in Information Architecture, how does this discipline shape your strategies for content organization and dissemination at Rosenfeld Media?
[00:11:40] Lou Rosenfeld: IA is interesting.
[00:11:41] The more I think about it, and I’ve been thinking about it for like practically 30 years now. The more apparent it is to me that it’s not just about information. You’re really convening information and people, and it’s this kind of chain that’s of connections between those things, between people, between information, in all forms, and it’s constantly changing.
[00:12:08] IA trails people. Think about how metadata change, metadata are an expression of ideas that people have. And then in turn metadata change people. And it keeps, that’s one example. And I see IA really as like a framework that we use to convene people and ideas at our conferences and within our books. And that sounds very hand wavy.
[00:12:36] I get that. There’s definitely like more concrete aspects of IA that I can point you to in books and in conferences, like here’s the new book here. And I remember sitting down and we were designing our books from the very get go. First of all, there’s a design system, our first book, Mental Models, back in 2008 and our newest book, Design for Learning, they’re the same family.
[00:13:06] It’s clearly the same family. I can grab a copy of Indy’s book and you’d see if I held him side by side. That’s by design. Now is that IA? That’s a design system aspects of that are IA. But the interiors have a lot of consistency and one of the things I really wanted to do was give people multiple forms of access to this information system.
[00:13:30] And so just as a, there’s a table of contents and there’s a back of the book index, just like you’d expect is also an FAQ in the beginning. The FAQ is basically there to be an alternative means of giving you access. Did this information in this information system, it references certain chapters where you’ll learn more, either you go and your other aspect, just like this little goofy progress meter that I designed a million years ago to tells you where you are in the boat.
[00:14:04] So there’s a bunch of things like this. And in fact, before we printed our first book and we were still working on the design, I worked with Liz Danzig at the time and we designed a usability study back in 2007, eight. And we got books prototyped, we printed them in Lulu, remember Lulu, and we did a usability test on how people would interact with this information system and really helped us with the design.
[00:14:30] We did a lot of upfront, both IA, usability, and then some. There’s more to it where IA has influenced how these books work. And by the way, a book is part of a broader information environment. I spend way too much time. Doing things like figuring out metadata and keywords to populate the Amazon ecosystem, which you cannot as much as I’d like to ignore.
[00:14:58] But there’s, and there’s other things like with conferences, the IA of a conference program. We do research to gen and a lot of work to generate what the themes are, but it’s not enough to have themes. It’s actually really important to think of the sequencing of the themes of a conference. It’s also really important to think about, especially for an in person conference, the narrative arc of a conference program.
[00:15:23] I learned a lot from Donna Lichaw first Rosenfeld book, The User’s Journey, about how that arc needs to really drive people’s energy levels at an in person conference and design our in person conferences accordingly. Maybe that’s really. Interaction design as much as this, as it’s IA, whatever it’s all UX ultimately, and you got to use that stuff even in traditional settings like books and conferences.
[00:15:52] Chicago Camps: How do you ensure that the content curated for UX events and books remains relevant and engaging in a field that’s continually evolving?
[00:16:02] Lou Rosenfeld: One of the things we always like, obviously a book and a conference presentation are a little different and how they align with time is different. With a book, we always try to do very evergreen topics, design for learning, which just came out today, it’s going to be as relevant in five years, maybe even 10 years as it is now.
[00:16:25] It’s just not like a topic that is highly dependent on, let’s say the technology du jour. And when our books do reference technologies, what we try to do is. Use current examples, but within the context of a broader framework that is evergreen. So if you’re trying to make sense of, let’s say things that change often, like tools, the framework should still be relevant when we do a second edition of the book in five or 10 years, but the examples would change.
[00:16:59] And that, that I think. It’s not only easier if it is going to be updated for a second edition, but it’s easier for the reader to figure it out on their own. Oh, okay, this book came out three years ago. Invision is no longer the big thing. I think we would probably use Figma here, but the bigger point is relevant nonetheless.
[00:17:20] And that’s really what I’m taking away as a reader. So books are fairly evergreen and they have to be because It takes so long to create, they’re so resource intensive to make in every sense and there’s very few topics that you get to tackle as a book. In other words, in a way, you and I were just really dumping on process of writing a book, but it’s also a gift.
[00:17:51] It’s rare that we get an opportunity. To dig so deeply for so much time, and maybe even with some support into a topic we are passionate about individually, that is unusual. So it better last for a while. This does require a lot of effort and expense now conferences. Are different in the sense that they’re repeating often on an annual basis.
[00:18:20] They’re like one of those metronomes of life, right? We’re always going to do, I’m always going to go to the IA Summit every year, whenever it might be. And we try to be timely because we know we’re going to be back in a year. That said, we do see certain themes that are evergreen. And when we see them again and again, we try to remind ourselves not to get frustrated Oh, Is this just a rehash?
[00:18:46] Because while the themes may be often repeated from year to year, the maturity of the field changes and how we relate to each theme changes. So that’s a good thing. And actually you start to look at the evolution of a conference’s program from a year to year basis. And I think that is the best definition of any particular practice or field there is.
[00:19:14] Define content strategy. You can write it out and it would be probably a pretty bad definition that no one would agree about. Or how about define content strategy by looking at the confab program over the last eight years or however long they’ve been doing, but that’s a very different way of defining.
[00:19:36] I get it. It’s more involved, but it’s, if your idea of definition is to make sense of some, something complex. I think looking at conference program evolution over a period of time for a new field, like most of us are in, is maybe the best way to do it. I appreciate that.
[00:19:56] Chicago Camps: Finally, looking towards the future, how do you envision the role of content curation in UX changing and what advice would you give to those aspiring to curate high quality UX content?
[00:20:09] Lou Rosenfeld: Listen, it’s really interesting to see how some of the generative AI tools are impacting things. And they do, I’m starting to experiment with them because I think it’s always great to have a straw man.
[00:20:26] And they do come up with straw men for a lot of things. You could ask Chat GPT to give you ideas for how to program conference X or what should I write? ChatGPT keeps making up citations. Maybe that’s an editorial agenda for the world. Every time ChatGPT makes up something that doesn’t exist, write it.
[00:20:48] It’s probably a good idea. That’ll, so I do think there are more and more technologies out there that can really extend curation, but what’s really important is relationships. Which is where I don’t think tools are ever going to really help us that much. So the fact is, I knew you for a long time, Russ, before we decided to work together on a book.
[00:21:16] And that wouldn’t have happened, really, if we didn’t know each other. Relationship is really important and that you knew Chris Avore is your co-author. And there was a relationship there, how I find curators for our conferences is very relationship driven. And it’s often, I don’t necessarily know the person, but I know someone who connects me or suggests another person that is like what the secret sauce of curation of any kind of content curation is who you know.
[00:21:51] And that is really like where you need to start. You have to ask yourself, do I know people? Do I think I can know people? Do I feel comfortable networking? Can I, do I feel comfortable asking for favors? Hey Russ, can, do you know someone who could do X, Y, Z? I feel comfortable asking you that. You feel comfortable asking me for things like that.
[00:22:17] That’s great. A lot of people, that just doesn’t come natural, or they’re introverted or they’re not confident or whatever. And maybe one of the things to think about with curation is a great question. I’m sorry I’m gone so long, but I love it. Maybe one of the other things to remember is curation is not about you.
[00:22:38] It’s not about you as a curator. It’s about the people you are lifting up. You are not the center of it. I know my company has my name on it. The only reason it’s Rosenfeld Media is because I needed a name and all the good ones that I could find were taken and I ran out of time literally and I punted and I just decided I would rather have not used my name because the whole idea is you are trying to lift other people up and get their ideas to the surface and get them out there.
[00:23:13] So curation is about knowing people but not being the center. Of that world that you’re in,
[00:23:21] Chicago Camps: And now a question from our live studio audience. Lou, how do you think about content curation across media types such as books, videos, interactive for purposes, like learning paths toward a professional goal, like adding skills or ever changing careers? Thanks for the question, Phillip.
[00:23:39] Lou Rosenfeld: Yeah, that’s a great question, Phil. And by the way, Cheryl Platt’s book that she did for us is a good book to look at there in terms of design across devices.
[00:23:49] When you’re talking about putting different media together for learning paths, my feeling is that you have to take a very mixed approach. In other words, you have to look at things like, how can I put together content that is both recorded, let’s say, and live. Synchronous and asynchronous, some of which is textual, some of which may be video and other formats and put it together to try to cover many bases because your audience is probably going to rely on different pedagogical styles.
[00:24:35] I, and there’s also business side of creating a learning path that is viable. So don’t necessarily want to have your world’s leading expert on topic X. Give the same lecture over and over again. That’s probably a recording, but it’s nice to give people access to that expert in an office hours or a live Q and A.
[00:25:00] I think those are the most successful kinds of learning paths. Ones that take place over time that support collaboration and iteration. Now, the problem with doing it this way is. The way the rest of the world works and specifically the way the rest of the world pays for things. So years ago, when we were really ramping up our training program, I was trying to really push our corporate clients to bring on people from my company’s roster of experts.
[00:25:38] Who would use different techniques to train, to build a practice, to build an internal practice. Let’s say it’s maybe would have been, let’s say like content strategy, for example, and I would put to put a content strategist, I’d have them work with a corporate client for six months and they would do a combination of lectures and workshops.
[00:26:03] And recordings and office hours at a certain prescribed cadence, like all those things might happen at a slightly different cadence. And I would also pair them with an internal person who was being positioned to be the internal expert once the six months were over, it was like the training wheels would come off at that point.
[00:26:25] It was a great idea. What did I just describe? Is that training? Is that a conference? Is that. A book, it’s all those things in a way. And when you look at the P&L, it wasn’t clear what line of the P&L should pay for that. I could, so I ended up saying, I guess I just have to keep selling one day workshops because the P&L supports that.
[00:26:50] And I got to keep selling books because the P&L supports that. And I got to keep support selling conferences because the P&L supports that as well. It’s putting those things together in an integrated way, Phil, I don’t know what part of the P&L would cover it. And so we really had to give up trying to sell what I think you’re asking for.
[00:27:10] It’s doable. It makes sense. It can even make business sense, but it’s really hard to sell.