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Michaela Hackner & Scott Sullivan at UX Camp Home Edition 2020 (Video)

Lunch Break Discussion & Debate: CS + UX = BFFs?

Michaela Hackner & Scott Sullivan debated “CS + UX = BFFs?” at UX Camp: Home Edition on Saturday, June 13th. Enjoy!

​​​The following transcript may contain typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!

I wanna clear up some things around some of the intro stuff, clean, I are very much in agreement about the relationship between content strategy and user experience, and it’s not gonna be all that much of a debate, just a Osei… You worry about that. Yeah, we like each other, so we’re not gonna get this over to folks, I’m just gonna go… It’s been awesome.

You getting… I’m getting please to.

Okay, it’s just I… A lot of the stuff that I think is important, we can kinda get out of the way by having a basic discussion around semantics, right. So as everyone here is aware of the experience design field, have a lot of conversations around semantics, what do we call ourselves? What do we do? There’s 1000 different ways you can call yourself a designer and then nobody really agrees, and nobody agrees what… Any definition really means… I think the first good question for Mikal would be like… What is Content Strategy?

Yeah, so there’s lots of different opinions on what content strategy is, and even in my company, we have editorial content strategy, marketing content strategy, and what I work on is UX content strategy, so I will stick with that definition today in the way that I think about it, is really working with the product design team to design a holistic strategy across our product services and features, and we do that really by creating a framework that identifies what we should say and when we should say it for every user TouchPoint, so really thinking about that end and conversation across our product experiences to ensure that people can understand what’s going on, that they get the information that they need along the way, that we anticipate their needs, and that they’re able to have a great experience. That helps them accomplish their goals.

I hate.

That’s good. That sounds good. That sounds gonna be… Is what is a UX writer?

Yeah, so again, you’re talking about semantics, if you are content strategist and you look at job descriptions for content strategy, you’ll find that there’s lots of different ways to talk about the same thing, so some people will call it content strategy, some people will call it content design, UX writing is really focused on the writing piece of content strategy, so maybe backing up the way that I think about content strategy, at least within our team, is taking on three specific goals, so one is to design the conversation across the experience, so what is that holistic narrative that leaves and brings everything together, and then I think about the writing piece of it, of what is the content that we’ve got on the screen to convey that narrative and help bring someone along, and then then I also really working with the team to co-create content to serve and support at that experience, and so UX writing, I would say is really… That tends to be that focus on the writing piece, the UI coffee, I… Thinking about all of the words that go into the experience, but I would say that most ex-writers actually practice a whole bunch of strategy and think about the holistic narrative, so it gets really messy, and I think when people are looking for jobs and content strategy, it’s really hard to to know what even title to use because it gets so murky, so I don’t know what your experience has been with that, but I think it can get confusing and I… Yeah, so I think I just focus on what the actual skills are… Yeah, when I do that or I… Yeah, it’s definitely tough. So I hear UX writer, the phrase turn around, but I’ve never actually had any idea of what that meant, so it’s seriously that… Because I don’t know, I hear it, but they’re actually trying to hire one, so I don’t… It wasn’t exactly sure or it tends to be more production work, again, if you’re a good UX writer, you’re thinking about the whole end and experience, and if we’re talking about the intersection of UX and content strategy, it’s really… I think about UX as designing the experience, the end an experience using wire frames and flows and boxes and arrows, and I think content strategy and UX writing does the same thing, but with words.

Okay, I think that makes sense. Okay, so… So we had a long time ago at Capital One. So Capital One is a magical place, so they’re very fun and special things that happen there, and one of the biggest things is that I was really exposed to content strategy in a very kind of meaningful way.

I think up until that point, I had never been…

I never really thought about it. I did, it wasn’t something that was super on my radar, it was mostly like, Oh, I’m a designer, and that’s what I do, so I… I, I deal in my lane, and if I… Sly didn’t even know what content strategy was, I think at that point, and the course of this project. Well, the content strategy group at Capital One was probably still is really good evangelizing their… What… Their work. So I think at a certain point, pretty much the entire 400 or so person design team was pretty much all on the same page, that content strategy was really valuable, and we had it in our project and you guys were spread so thin, essentially, that what you had to do was train us. So we worked on building the home loans project. And you were hands-on and then to a certain degree, and you kinda got to set up and then we’re kind of like, Okay, here’s how you do it, and then go forward from there.

And it was this big epiphany for me as a designer, as a practitioner, because essentially, if you think about how much of what we are designing and why we’re designing it, how much is communicated through verbally or through words or… However you wanna call it, it’s a lot, and it very well may be the majority of the overall communication of any given thing that we’re designing, and it’s something that if you don’t have the North, it’s ignoring what is most likely the majority of the experience…

I think a couple of years later, I think I saw Jonathan Coleman posted something on Facebook. A Jonathan Coleman is a content Carey guy.

I think he… He might be a big in the Content Strategy industry, I think is it? Yeah, yeah, yeah, he…

Okay, yeah, cool. He’s somebody that that pops up on my everything all the time, so… But I think he put a number of something like 80% of communication that happens on digital platforms is actually verbal communication, so that make a lot sense. That follows, I completely understand that.

Yeah, and I think when, when the Internet became this thing and then evolved into websites that actually turned in applications and providing services online, I think everyone kind of started with, here’s the code, Okay, now we need to design this experience so people can use it… Oh, by the way, we actually need to put words on the page, and I think that’s really how content strategy came to be because I think people realize that you have to be intentional about the words because the experience won’t work otherwise, and really when people are most frustrated with an experience or confused, it comes down to a lack of understanding.

We’re anticipating the problems, which can often be resolved through language, and so I think it came to be because it once was this an unintentional thing, and now is move into the need support to be intentional. And I think as design has matured, I think designers are practicing a more holistic approach to design, by thinking about the language and considering the words on the page is just as important as every other decision that’s being made, it’s not just like we’re adding the words after the fact we might add… I know visual designers get frustrated with, is the discussion of like, Oh well, we’re not just adding the prostitute cake, there’s reasons behind all of our decisions, and it’s the same for the words we don’t wanna end up with… I don’t want you to hand over a bunch of wireframes or E to added words too, because really what I’ll probably show you is that the experience itself might not lend itself to of the narrative that you wanna convey, and we might need to rethink the whole UX so I think now content strategy is becoming a much more involved part in the process to actually co-create that experience, which is what we did in the home loans process, or in that project. I just really teething… You mentioned that we talked through a bunch of things and then I handed it off to you all to kind of work on, but really a lot of it was co-creation because when you come together to eat to design an experience, everybody brings unique context. And so as a content strategist, I find it’s much more effective or to bring all of those stakeholders in the room to create the content together, because you get to share that context, you align on what you wanna say.

There’s not that back and forth of editing that happens that nobody enjoy is like, Oh well, here’s this content, go ahead and review it and send it back, but we’re all creating this shared vision and shared language together that will ultimately serve the design and our users.

Yes, yes, absolutely. And I think so the big kind of breakthrough for me is that I think a lot of it, it was a process-oriented, so we’re coming from a kind of a human center design perspective, and there was very much this kind of research thing in the beginning, and discovery research, primary research, when we’re going out and we’re problem-finding instead of problem-solving at that point, and I think that essentially what that was is I… Absolutely, perfectly with what you guys were doing. And one of those big kind of epiphany for me, which is that it’s pretty much the exact same thing, it’s just we expect it to be expressed in a different way, so words versus some kind of visual or expressed in some other way. And I think that that was a big part of it for me, but I think the…

I wanna talk about a little bit more about some of the specifics of the Home Loans design.

So it’s just… I’ll try to get there quickly if no one’s interested, but… But essentially like, Okay, so home loans and mortgages, buying a house in general, as with almost all financial products and things at Capital One is a very emotional thing, but it’s also a really… It’s a high consideration purchase, it’s easily, probably for the vast majority of people, the most expensive thing that they’re ever gonna buy in their entire life, and it’s really complicated, there’s a lot of paperwork, there’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of other things. There’s a lot of weird… There’s a lot of weird kind of like… You have to kind of like… The thing is your credit score.

Right, so a lot of people are just avoid knowing what their credit score is because they don’t like the idea that they’re going to be kind of like numerically judged on their behavior, and there’s a moral aspect to that, there are… There’s the idea of this being, you have an emotional connection with the house basically before you apply for the loan, so there’s a lot more kind of high stakes going into that, there’s a boat load of paperwork that you need to do and not… Up to that point, there wasn’t a lot of… There was a lot of resources that were kind of all kind of aligned alongside of where you would do that stuff.

So how the project kind of met it out was that it was mostly content strategy, the output, and the reason why the product was so successful beyond this hattori… Absolutely know this for sure.

It was, it was the content strategy, and I know this because that’s kind of what we found out in the research, that was essentially people were going through this process with incomplete information, so people… When something is difficult and emotionally charged as buying a house, people need a lot of information and they need a lot of tools, and they need a lot of things to be able to go through with that purchase, and a lot of companies and still out in the world today, they haven’t really put that together, so I think 100% focused on getting the right information to people in the right way at the right time, and in pairing it alongside the actions that they would have to take in order to make this decision and kinda go through the process of making a home loan purchase and the final results of that, we went from being unranked on JD Power to number two behind Quicken in the first year. And it was a really good project. It was a cool project. We found the right answer, we were able to execute on that answer, and the answer for that was content strategy, and I think on strategy is certainly going to need to play a bigger role the more complex of a product or service that you’re building… I don’t think peanut butter… You don’t need a lot of information to get value out of peanut butter, but I was a hit value, a mortgage that takes a lot as person who’s doing it, and I think that… Yeah, I think the more complex of an interaction and a more complex able service that you’re making the A, A, the strategy is, is kind of like is exponentially more important as you’re going forward.

Yeah, but I would say it’s two states, I think one of the wonderful pieces of that story is that you… We introduced the idea of content strategy to you, we did a lot of co-creation together, and then you went running off with it.

I think content strategy needs to be part of every single project, but the reality is, despite how much I would love for it to be true, there’s not often the resourcing, so that a content strategist can be part of that team. And so one of the ways after this is, I’m working on the third practice I’ve built of content strategy and really just coming up with the lean ways to scale that, and often that’s really developing the skills and all designers to think about content in an intentional way and so the way that… Some of the ways that I’ve done that are introducing activities that teams can do together, so I’m sure a lot of the designers on here today have done to use the book game storming or have participated in different workshops and activities to really think about what the design should be what we’re trying to… How we’re trying to move someone through an experience, and you can do that through content strategy as well, which gets everyone thinking about what are the words needed to help someone feel confident and secure and anticipate the things that are concerning to them, especially in things that are really emotional, like the home buying process, or a banking, or investing or healthcare, all of these things, you’re moving through an experience, you’re probably stressed out. There’s probably… One of the things we learned about within the home loans research, but this is in general with people making financial decisions, is that there’s usually a life event that drives people to do those things right, and so you’re coming to the conversation, you’re coming to the experience with some sort of maybe emotional baggage, something that’s going on, whether it’s something that’s joyful or something that’s really stressful, and so you can use language to help them, to build trust, to build credibility, to help someone feel comfortable that they’re there with home loans, we wanted… We heard from the research that people wanted someone there to guide in every step of the way, I still remember that quote, there’s a quote all about like, I need someone to help me every step of the way, and you can convey that with content and you can use content to help someone feel like You’re not gonna leave them off to dry and to the patting as that of Terri have to drive. And you can also anticipate like there’s a moment where you might need to speak to a real human and providing that information in in a way that feels really personal. So I think all this to say is I think that you as a designer and other designers I work with have really strengthened their practice by taking on some of those tools, developing UX writing skills, thinking about the narrative, because it ultimately strengthens all of our practices, just not thinking about it necessarily as a specialization, but this is a piece of design and a set of tools that are necessary to really create wonderful and delightful and meaningful experiences that help people do the things they care about most.

Yes, yes, absolutely, and I… And that’s one big thing that you and I have spoken about is the idea of this kind of specialization and roles within the design process. I think so. I know you are very research-focused, I’m very research-focused in terms of what value I bring to any team or project is mostly comes from that kind of upfront, that discovery research, the problem finding stuff, and honestly, I think it’s… So that being this kind of core similarity between these two things, it’s not that different, but the content strategy stuff and the kind of lens that we got from that project has really affected how I do research now.

Right, I think… So I’m working in healthcare right now, and there’s this kind of idea of the information environment and information asymmetry and how that relates to trust, and I’m doing primary research, and that is going into this, we know that asymmetry exists in healthcare just because it’s inherent to our healthcare system.

Alright, so it’s the only thing that we buy that does not… That we don’t know the price of it before we buy it, and we usually don’t make a lot of pre… In a lot of cases, we don’t even purchasing decisions, we might be unconscious when I… Some kind of medical procedure happens to us and we could get stuck with a bill that could sink us completely, that whole… There’s a distrust of insurance companies and a distrust of the medical system based on that, so going into that, we knew that that was going to be an issue, we just kinda had to figure out what that framework look like, right. So where are these? What are the specifics that a symmetry… How does that show up in people’s minds, how does that show up when they are in moving through an experience of our service, and then how can we alleviate some of those things?

What we’re trying to do is really equip people with the right information at the right time, so they can make more informed decisions and be more intentional about how they live their lives, and that shows up in the research in multiple ways, one is just the… Just talking about that idea in general, but also showing… Talking about… There’s a lot of abstract concepts.

Right. There’s a lot of abstract concepts. And there’s a lot of ways that we talk about it in the insurance industry or the healthcare industry, there’s a lot of ways that people talk about it in the world who don’t have that in that kind of background, they’re very different, and I don’t wanna even bring it down to the level of like, they use different words, how those words are strung together into a sentence, that’s a lot about how they understand what’s actually happening, so it’s not just this kind of superficial idea of individual words like, Oh, they call it…

I don’t know, there’s probably good examples that everybody could get to, but I think of it right now, but they call it a dorm, we call it student housing or something like that, so it’s not just that, it’s not just swapping out one word for another, there are entire ideas that you kind of uncover when you have a sensitivity to this need in the design process that I don’t know that I would have got to otherwise, and that’s a weird thing, but it’s also a weird thing that… So what’s stopping designers now, in your opinion, from kind of developing this sensitivity in terms of the over the end and design process, having more people… I been more explicit about getting these kind of skills and kind of this learning…

I think a lot of it depends on the culture of the design team and how… The background of the designers, depending on where you develop your design skills, you might have come out of a boot camp and are really focused on just what’s happening on the screen and how can I make sure that the screen can get someone through this task versus thinking about more of that end-to-end experience of what’s happening before and after.

And I think the thing about when you’re a content strategist, when you think about writing a narrative or a book or a paragraph, you have to know what you’re saying at the very beginning, the beginning of the paragraph, and at the end of the paragraph to be able to design the content in between, and so I think content strategist naturally take that approach and for design, similar to that, you think about design, I think picking up content strategy is really… Is very intuitive, because you’re already thinking about design through narrative, and I’ve talked with a lot of UX designers over the years, we’re like, Well, I guess I am a content strategist, ’cause that’s how I’ve always thought about design as a narrative.

And so that’s where you get back to this whole semantic idea.

So I think it’s depending on where your scope of how you view the design problem can really help make it easier for you to adapt, adopt these types of practices or even recognize the content does play a role.

Just thinking about the idea of transitions that you probably learned in middle school, how do you transition from one paragraph to the other, I think about that as it relates to screens, it… You’re working through one thing on a screen with a user, and then you’re jumping into this next screen, how is the content on the screen and the button in the label, how is it all communicating what’s about to happen?

So that when they get to the next screen or the next paragraph, they’re oriented, they know what’s going on, they’re not like, How the hell did that get here?

So I think just that mindset really helps, the other thing that has really been interesting for me to see over the years is when you start practicing content strategy, and maybe this was true for you, it was definitely true for me, for years in academia and professional lives, you’ve been trained to speak and write in very professional ways like Hello served using a lot of very formal language, and I think when you’re doing content strategy, Well, you’re reducing the need for translation to your point of having different names for things, if you’re just being straight up in direct and using natural language, like the words that you and I are using right now, you’re gonna be most effective as a content strategist and designing content for your experiences, and I think we kinda get in our own way because we’ve been trained for so long, to write in these formal ways, and so when we start writing copy, screen or it’s like, Oh, I’m gonna just immediately go to the way that I’ve always written formal letters in my office, and so I find that it takes a while to get that muscle back where the muscle that we have when we talk right now is different than the muscle that you use, like the mental muscle to write, and so being able to channel how you would naturally say something into what you’re writing or typing on the screen, it takes a little bit of practice. And so, literally for that reason, the number one guidance I give to designers and my partners when they’re designing content for a screen is just to speak out loud in the of what they’re trying to communicate, and often what they say out loud about trying to explain something on a screen is really the word that they should be putting in their wire frame, and if you can do that with users, and that’s where the research part comes in, if you can talk to a user and ask them what’s happening now, what did you just do what are you going to do next? What I think’s gonna happen next, but words that they give you are probably 99% what you wanna be putting within your experience that they’re gonna really communicate without requiring that translation piece.

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