English is stupid

I’m a professional writer, editor and organizer of words and ideas. I love grammar, syntax and the structure of words.

So when I tell you that English is stupid, I know whereof I speak.

I don’t mean there’s not a reason why things are the way they are. We can spend pointless hours on etymology and learn a lot about our language’s history. And then end result is a hodgepodge…it’s all stupid.

I’ve been reminded about how dumb all these things are because my son, 5 1/2, is on the verge of really, seriously, honest-to-God reading. And bless his heart, he’s worked hard, and he knows the rules — but not yet the exceptions. So he sees
and he sounds out, “kuh-now.”
and he stops dead cold.
Or how about any word with silent E? Do you know how many silent Es there are at the end of words in kindergarten readers?
And any word with C. Here’s a letter whose only job is to sound like two other letters. Kinda like X. Except that sounds like maybe 3 other letters. Or is that K that sounds like X?

The information architect in me hates all this. Information architects like things to be neat. Organized. Buttoned up. And most of all, easy for the audience. English is not easy for anyone. Those of us who are native speakers often aren’t able to keep all the rules in our heads. [Note: There is the obnoxious side of me, which LOVES all the arcane rules and spellings, because I happen to be good at remembering most of them. The more rational part of me thinks that the arcaneness prevents us from communicating as well as we could.]

R u with me? Let’s considur fonetik speling and rulz that don’t have silee xsepshuns. It wood sure help my sun.

You should go to Podcamp Nashville

The short of it: If you’re reading this [and you’re not my mother, who lives in Florida and has no connection to digital media], then you should go to Podcamp Nashville on Saturday, March 26.

The long of it: Nashville’s got a bit of a schizophrenic bar-and-podcamp scene. While the events are part of the “official” unconference movement, the Nashville events have had a bit more structure than the “official” unconference method dictates. This is all for the good.

For the past several years, the content at Nashville’s Barcamp and Podcamp has rivaled many top-drawer, national paid conferences. The very idea that you can get this stuff for free still blows my mind. If you work anywhere near digital media, you have got to make it to Podcamp.

I think the content is so fantastic for a couple of reasons:

  • The organizers here put a lot more work into the structure and planning of the event than the unconference label would lead you to believe.
  • The digital community in Nashville has grown dramatically in the past few years. There’s a lot of great talent here.

How it works: Sign up now and post your idea for a session. Here are the full details, but don’t mess around — session proposals close on Thursday at 8p.

Then Friday night, they’re drawing the sessions out of a hat and the winners get a slot.

After that, everyone who’s attending will be able to sign up for sessions. You don’t have to choose your sessions in advance, but I recommend that you at least look at the schedule before you show up. There will be too much to choose from the day of.

Show up early. Barcamp and Podcamp tend to have decent swag bags due to the great support they get from the tech community. Don’t miss out!

IA vs. UX vs. content strategy vs. your name here

There’s an interesting editorial over at the fall 2010 issue of the Journal of IA, which I do like reading. Eric Reiss spends some time trying to place information architecture, user experience and content strategy in terms of each other. I don’t think it’s an entirely worthless endeavor, but in my opinion, he’s bitten off a ginormous challenge. We’re the people who like to organize, categorize and name things. So no wonder we don’t all agree here. Reiss has certainly put his finger on an ongoing point of contention.

A much more recent post by Erin Kissane tackles the same topic from a different angle, making content strategy more of the umbrella.

I’d draw a bigger picture though. I’d put the business strategy umbrella over the top of the project as a whole. It’s got to define your work, no matter your discipline. To my mind, then, systems, development, UX, IA and content strategy all need a seat at the table to get from strategy through to executed product. There are a number of ways to make the process work — even how to define your business strategy. And depending on which process you use, one discipline or another may take a more prominent role.

In the end, I think the argument is largely academic. The critical thing is that the disciplines of content strategy, IA and UX all seem to get more respect now. When I started working on the web, there was design. And HTML. And then content, but in the “words-go-here” variety. Things have improved a lot since then — consumers have gotten much more sophisticated in what we demand from our web applications, and those of us in the web industry have responded to that. There are still people trying to execute web projects and applications without content strategy or IA or UX, of course. But if you want your work done effectively and well, you need all three.

You might need content strategy if….

  • If you’re liberally using the phrase “Click here.”
  • If you don’t know how copyright law applies to your daily work.
  • If you don’t have a specific plan to deliver the information your customers need to solve their problems.
  • If you don’t know how your content management system works.
  • If you don’t have a content management system.
  • If you aren’t measuring your results and reacting accordingly.

I’m just saying.

Content strategy and agile development: Can they be friends?

Rachel Lovinger started a great thread at the Content Strategy Google Group about agile development. It really hit home with me because I’ve had clients who use both traditional and agile development. From a content strategy perspective, both have their benefits — and downsides.

Best about waterfall:

  • Typically has a well-defined process, and if you get in on the front end, it’s easy to define over-arching business goals
  • Everyone’s role is clear

Best about agile:

  • Fast, fast, fast!
  • Favors user stories, which suss out business goals

You cannot create effective content strategy without knowing your business goals.

Waterfall done poorly exacerbates the human tendency toward bureaucracy, both in the development process and in the long-term operational strategy. Agile done poorly swings from insignificant goal to unimportant goal, making little things happen that actually make no difference. So either has the potential to make your website/software product ineffective.

Done well, agile suits me better. I think we all like to feel progress, and agile delivers progress regularly. But when you dive into agile without the big goals written on the wall, you run the risk of doing stuff because you can, not because you should. And while you can create content for any particular goal, if you don’t know the big goal, you don’t know how to craft taxonomy or style and tone, never mind how to create page flows that deliver useful information to your customers, and deliver on your business needs.

Whatever style development you’re using, you have to start with the business goals, and you need content strategy at the table from day one.

Get some spaghetti on the wall

When people are developing a content strategy, sometimes they run into problems. That’s to be expected with any complex business process, of course. There are many places you could have trouble, but I’m thinking today about two big categories:

  • Trouble with content
  • Trouble with strategy

I’m focusing on this particular dichotomy because it leads to opposite problems: Too much content [strategy issue] and too little [content]. I’ll get you something in the next couple of days on the strategy side of this equation, but you can probably already guess where I’m headed there with spam, content farms and other unwanted content.

I don’t know if the content side is the harder problem or not, but it’s definitely a mental issue. How many times have you thought about your content situation and said, I just don’t know what to say…I’m not sure how to proceed…I don’t see how my information can make a difference…or the worst: Our customers already know everything they need to know?

I’ve yet to meet a business that didn’t need more valuable content. Sometimes we fall short on marketing, sometimes on customer support, sometimes on operations. But no matter what area of the business you touch, you need great content.

When you start a blog, and then stop, you’ve proved nothing. When you open a Twitter account, and don’t tweet, you’ve learned nothing. When you join a community, and don’t post, no one gains. When you add a help section on your site, but don’t actually give good instructions, you aren’t actually helping anyone.

How many times has your organization made a half-assed effort on content and then proclaimed it a failure?

I don’t ask that to judge — I’ve done the same myself. But we can’t expect great results from minimal effort. Great content takes expertise and hard work. Everyone’s got the capacity for both requirements, but it’s often a matter of getting them in the same place at the same time.

So it’s Friday afternoon where I am. It’s a great time to think about what you’re going to make happen next week. Plan now to throw some spaghetti on the wall next week, content-wise. I don’t mean that you should be haphazard about it — find a small project that you’ve been meaning to tackle, or a part of your product or marketing plan that needs a little love, and act on it. Get ready now so you can attack it Monday morning. Figure out now what it will take for you to judge the success of the project — and follow through step by step until you can say for sure whether it worked.