I will go on just about any damn tour of anywhere. I tweeted to that effect recently, and my friend Jared remarked:
Field trips. Hell yes. I hadn’t been thinking about them that way but I’m using that from now on. And Jared is right: you can go on field trips as an adult for no reason. Or for simple, pure, middle school reasons, like curiosity or joy. Field trip day was the best, wasn’t it? The zoo. The post office. Hell, one day my daycare took a “field trip” to a pizza place. (We got to tour the kitchen – it counts!)
A good tour is like a book with walking. Except you can ask the book questions! I’m always the one who asks questions.
I’m mostly writing about this to crystallize it for myself. I know I enjoy tours and I should sign up for more of them.
Seeing how I started this blog fairly recently, I thought I’d share some cool field trips I’ve been on in the last few years:
St. Anthony Falls Laboratory
The tour I tweeted about. UMN maintains a fluids laboratory on the river, with everything from a natural wetlands area that studies river wildlife to a high-tech wind tunnel on the inside.
Took a day trip up to Phoenix with my parents to visit the winter home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s an absolutely beautiful facility. We had to be quiet in one of the rooms because architecture students were working. Highly recommended. I want to go back and spend more time there.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Office
Less cool than Taliesin, but lovely nonetheless. I went by myself during a work trip. I daydreamed about buying it, closing it to the public, and making his studio my studio. Most impressive feature to me was a piano that had been installed in the play room such that the body extended over a back stairwell.
Titan II Missile Silo
From my journal on December 28, 2016:
Only guided tours are available, and we took one. The entire facility was smaller than I had imagined. When operational, it housed a 4-man crew on 24-hour shifts who sat guard over a 9-megaton hydrogen bomb deployed via intercontinental-ballistic missile. I very much enjoyed the tour. It was interesting to hear about all of the systems of verification and identification and target selection and such that were used. The crew took orders for Target 1, Target 2, or Target 3. Three buttons. They didn’t get to know what the targets were. Interesting that there are so many safeties on actually launching the missile, but seemingly only a single press required to select targets. If it were me I’d worry about forgetting to switch from 1 to 3 or 3 to 1 or what have you. It really does launch as soon as both keys are turned, just like in the movies.
Dive Bars of North Minneapolis Bike Tour
No pictures from this one. Bill Lindeke, a local urban historian of sorts, organizes themed tours on the regulary. This one had us biking around North Minneapolis visiting various notable dive bars, or places where they used to be, including one of the last 3.2 (pronounced “three two”) bars around, the T-Shoppe. They only sell “near beer” with a max of 3.2abv, but make up for it by serving them in enormous frosty mugs. I’ve been to most of the dives on his write-up for City Pages.
Soap Factory Islands Tour
The Soap Factory is an art building/collective thing that I don’t totally grok but they put on cool programming from time-to-time. I went on an “islands” themed art walking tour that explored literal geographic islands like Nicollet Island, and less traditional islands like a lovely little community garden that exists in an island of land between two roads intersecting at an angle.
When I’m trying to figure out what I think, to unravel something new, I use paper.
Email makes you think like email. Pick some people and tell them something. But maybe I don’t need to tell anyone anything. Maybe I need to make a to-do list, or write up a list of questions and add them to a meeting agenda.
Word makes you think like Word. Make a document, 8.5 x 11. It probably needs a title, a heading, paragraphs laid out one after the other. Fine, maybe. But what if drawing a picture would do me better?
Neither let you start in the middle of the page. Or work upside down. Or backwards. They don’t easily accommodate doodles, sketches, a scratchpad for the thinking that’s not fully baked yet.
I’m using paper as a metaphor here. It could be a whiteboard. A sandy beach and a stick. The iOS app Drafts is like paper, in a way: it lets you capture words before you have to decide what they’re for or where they’re going. It’s where I started this post.
Sometimes I’m intentional about how I use the paper, other times it’s just a scribbly mess. But it’s always a good place to start when I don’t know what I think. Hooray for paper.
New version of Ulysses is out. Lucky 13. Nothing I’ll make immediate use of but I see the appeal of the colored keywords, especially for a larger project like a book.
A recent episode of 99% Invisible about Curb Cuts jumped right into their top ten for me. Design, usability, political activism, shitting on Jerry Lewis. All the good stuff. (Excellent article at that link, too, if you’re not much of a podcast listener.)
One my favorite talks I give is about making Dale Carnegie’s 9 Golden Principles for Being a Friendlier Person an accessible idea for UX designers. The first principle is often one of the hardest to adhere to, both IRL and on the web:
Never criticize, condemn, or complain.
When a user does something we perceive to be “wrong” — either in the moral sense, or in the sense of how we want them to use our software — our first instinct is often to tell them, directly, that they are wrong. You clicked the wrong button. You typed your password wrong. That’s not enough digits for a phone number. You sent horrible racist memes to a female journalist. And while it might feel good in the moment to tell someone they are wrong, especially when we are experiencing moral outrage, it’s often not very helpful. Nobody likes to be criticized, even if it’s well-deserved.
You can be right or you can be effective, but you can rarely be both. Being “right” implies that someone else is “wrong”, which creates an adversarial relationship, which tends to discourage people from doing what you want them to do.
The stopit mechanisms, as they came to be known, were based on a simple proposition: Most offenders, given the opportunity to stop uncivil behavior without having to admit guilt, will do so. The stopit mechanisms thus were designed to do two things: to discover computer misbehavior rapidly, and to communicate effectively with its perpetrators.
In one of the best examples, users who posted harassing material were shown that material and asked to check if their account had been compromised and if they were aware it was being used in this way. In many cases, users who definitely posted the bad stuff themselves went in and changed their passwords anyway, and stopped their bad behavior. Amazing.
When we let them save face by pretending (if only to themselves) that they did not do what they did, they tend to become more responsible citizens with their pride intact. We lose the satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished, but we reduce misbehavior and gain educational effectiveness.
In my observations of social media culture, that “satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished” gets a lot of people up in the morning and drives a tremendous amount of activity. Lots of folks being “right”, but not necessarily effective. Community policing of bad actors can only go so far.
It’s an idea you can trace back further than ol’ Dale Carnegie, even. As Sun Tzu encouraged: Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
I did a completely new workshop (and related talk) at Confab this year. By completely new, I mean:
Not upcycled from a talk I’ve already given
Not an evolution on a previous talk or workshop
Not based on a blog post or other writing
So new, new, new. It was a lot of work.
Confab Tenessa (her actual legal name, believe it or not) asked me to do a workshop that responded to the strong interest she gets on the topic of user journeys and customer journeys. I was game, but I knew I didn’t want to simply teach “how to create a customer journey map 101”. For one thing, that’s often not the right solution. For another thing, it’s not an area I have direct deep experience in. So I took it and turned it a little and my premise became: use the excitement around user journeys and experience mapping as bait to hook people into a workshop about being more user-centered in the content strategy work they’re already doing.
These were the major steps in my process:
1. Read lots of books
All design tools are made-up, yes, but a lot of what’s been made-up has also been written down, so we might as well start there. I read a few new books and revisited some old ones to get a fuller landscape of user-centered design tools planted in my head. I wanted to lean on books in particular (as opposed to blog posts or my own reckonings) to anchor the material in current literature and help ward against semantic diffusion.
2. Capture all my notes in a single-purpose analog notebook
This was a change from my usual approach. I normally take notes into an outline-style mindmap document. This time I wanted to stay more open and have more room to play and sketch. I had even less idea than usual what would be valuable and where I was going to go with it. Paper is more workable. You can scribble stuff out, cross things off, circle and highlight. Mindmaps are faster, but I didn’t need fast this time, I needed flexibility.
Having the notebook also helped the workshop prep feel compartmentalized from other projects. I kept it on top of the books I was working from in a tidy little pile, and I knew it was workshop work time when the notebook was open. Taking analog notes also cut down on digital distractions.
3. Use my whiteboard and abstract to focus on the big picture
Trust me: you do not want to put in weeks of work only to re-read the abstract toward the end and think “Oh shit. Thaaaaaat is not what I’ve been working on.”
I printed and taped my abstract to my whiteboard and worked over it to put some weight behind the main ideas and give myself some points of focus throughout the rest of the process. The big diagram in the center, for instance, got refined into a simpler slide when it came time to draw the deck.
Having big ideas on the whiteboard helped keep me moving. It was a place for my eyes to land whenever my brain unhelpfully interjected “Wait, what the fuck was this workshop about?”
4. Draw out my ideas (literally and figuratively) in the Paper app
Drawing slides put my brain in a different mood than assembling them in Keynote. Every slide was a blank slate. Did I want to make one big point with a few big words? Or break something down in detail? Would this idea be best expressed with words? Or a visual metaphor? Or a sketched representation of the actual thing?
I initially thought I would just use Paper to do a few illustrations and/or hand-lettered quotes, but I was really enjoying myself and ended up drawing every single slide.
In hindsight I might have used a different app with layers and more flexibility to make changing things easier, but it took less time overall than you might imagine. Drawing means you’re not fussing with guides and grids and alignments and fonts. Being able to sketch whatever I wanted also meant no time hunting for photos and graphics.
Drawing the slides was also a great excuse to practice sketching and lettering. My work on the slides was spread out over a period of no more than three weeks, but I can tell at a glance which ones I did first and which ones I did toward the end.
5. Arrange and find structure in Keynote
After finishing what I imagined to be 2/3 of the slides, I exported images from the Paper notebook to Dropbox. I then set the Keynote presentation to a custom size that matched the default output size from Paper so I could directly drop in images as new slides without having to adjust anything.
I then played around with sections and structure in Keynote, adding transitions here and there and just kind of getting a feel for the flow of everything. I leaned heavily on the ability to nest slides into sections in Keynote’s navigator. Unless I’m giving a very short talk my slides are always organized into sections, even if the sections are not called out explicitly during the session.
When I found need to revise a slide or add a new one, I would sketch it quickly in Paper and send it to my laptop via AirDrop. Easy-peasy.
6. Rehearse out loud to figure out what I had to say
Once I had most of the slides in, I did a couple of fast play-throughs (just looking at all of the slides in sequence) and added presenter notes as things occurred to me. I’ve found that talks and workshops flow better when I make notes in small batches across big sections, rather than getting focused in on a particular slide or talking point.
I use presenter notes for self-coaching and to capture any details I’m afraid I’ll forget. I try not to make them too dense, and I intentionally leave out some of the bigger, more mentally-available ideas and anecdotes because I don’t want to accidentally be reading them instead of presenting them.
7. Tweak and refine
I channeled my usual last-minute anxiety about the workshop (and the talk version of it I gave a few days later) into improving the quality of slides I already had: primarily, re-lettering words to make them bigger and (somewhat) easier to read. In most cases I would flip to the original illustration in Paper, duplicate it, erase any words that I wasn’t loving, and give them another go. Then AirDrop, drag and drop, save.
8. Give the workshop!
I felt vulnerable using lo-fi, sketched-out slides, but I managed to only make one joke about it. I put a link to the slides on the screen as people came in the room so they could find them on Slideshare and follow along (in case anything was difficult to read).
In facilitating this workshop, I discovered a major advantage of my approach I didn’t expect: I knew the material really well. Every drawn slide was like an icon in my mind that helped me recall what I’d read about it, what information I decided to include or not include, even the point in my process where I added that knowledge to my stack. I felt much more confident about the topic than I had any right to be, and the workshop was so much the better for it.
Holy shit. So was that a conference or was that a conference?
I’m still reeling from the end of Confab 2018, a (the) content strategy conference held annually here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My employer, Brain Traffic, produces the event. My primary contribution leading up to Confab is to interject unasked-for advice into conversations I overhear the actual Confab team having. My two best interjections this year were suggesting those little instant cameras as speaker gifts (which was a trick, because I wanted one), and the idea for making an activity book for the attendee swag. I also came up with at least one content strategy related owl pun for the cakes that nobody ever sees because they get cut up before the cake break.
(Note that this is just me as a dude reflecting on his own Confab experience, not any official statement from Brain Traffic or Confab. I feel dumb saying that because no one cares but I’m saying it anyway because PROFESSIONALISM!)
I had a full calendar for this Confab and I was glad for it. My friend Ida was in town early, and we spent Saturday as tourists all over downtown Minneapolis and eventually at Art-A-Whirl. We were lucky enough to see Sean make his first in-person sale for Modern Skateboards, his ridiculously beautiful line of custom, hand-painted complete skateboards. I got in some more Art-A-Whirl with my friend Michael the next day, and found myself daydreaming about renting a studio space somewhere in Northeast just for kicks.
Confab is three days long, with workshops on the first day. So I was up early Monday for breakfast before facilitating a brand-new workshop about being more user-centered as a content strategist. It went fine I think?? We’ll see how the evaluations turn out. Workshops are tricky because they depend heavily on the experiences of the people in the room, and because it’s difficult to rehearse them solo. Still! Confab crowds are attentive and inquisitive, and their good questions and contributions always help fill in some of the rough spots. My goal for a half-day workshop is for 80% of the participants to mostly enjoy themselves and leave with at least one good idea. For a full-day workshop it’s two good ideas.
I decompressed in my hotel room in the afternoon and did a bit of work. Later, there was a speaker reception at 4 Bells, which is completely gorgeous and has great service. Made a few new friends and caught up with some old ones. We met the new Facebook Fellows and I scored an excellent Baggu tote bag with a subtle Facebook Content Strategy logo they brought for the occasion. Got groceries with it last night and the clerk said, “This is such a nice bag I almost feel bad putting groceries in it!” Now that’s some classy swag.
Tuesday morning was a new experience for me: not being even a little hungover the morning after the speaker reception. Oh, and also: leading the official Confab run! I was downstairs at 6:30 in the goddamn morning to lead eleven lovely Confabbers on a 2.36 mile run through the Loring Greenway and park, around the sculpture garden at the Walker, up and around the Walker itself, and back. And we didn’t lose anyone! I don’t think.
I’ve never been on a group social run, let alone led one, but I was able to borrow experience from going on community bike rides here in Minneapolis, and from leading campus tours at Drake way back in the day. Which, now that I think about it, a running campus tour would be kind of cool.
The conference part of the conference
Tuesday and Wednesday were the session days, and therewereSOMANY good sessions. The schedule was a little different with many more mainstage talks this year, meaning everyone at the conference watches them together, and there was also a Slack team just for attendees. So although it was a much bigger crowd than I’m used to at this kind of event, in some ways it also felt like a closer, more communal experience.
I never know what my practical takeaways are at a conference until I find myself needing them in my work a week or month or two years later. If I had to pick some personal themes, I found myself noticing points about:
The work being more important than the disciplines and tools (Gerry made this point rather explicitly in the first mainstage talk, and it echoed throughout many others)
The value and power of not just writing, but of designing with words
The importance of having a shared understanding of your content and business reality with the people you’re working with
The idea that inclusivity in content and design should be table stakes for any team, and that many teams don’t yet have the right people at that table
Wednesday morning I delivered a talk version of my workshop, focused a bit more on the types of situations each tool was best-suited for. I stole a technique I learned from Ahava at a previous Confab and stood at the entrance to greet attendees as they came in the room. This helped me feel more at ease, and also to redirect a few of Monday’s workshop participants to another session, since the material was going to be so similar. Thanks to Zach (Zack?) on the A/V crew, Jatin, Lynne, Quentin, Tenessa, Lauren, and everyone else I’m forgetting that helped things run smoothly.
This discipline of content strategy is evolving fast. Confab is always a smart crowd but this year it felt like there were more seasoned experts in every room (not just on stage), more people asking more advanced questions, and more casual conversations about content strategy victories, not just challenges. It was a little intimidating, to be honest, but also very encouraging. All that, plus the sheer number of attendees, speaks to a very healthy and growing industry. Can’t wait to see what’s next. (I have a sneaking suspicion something exciting might be coming this fall…)
Addendum: a few things I bookmarked during #Confab2018
Used a couple of Sharpie twin tips and my Baron Fig Mastermind pad to prototype my latest post for the Brain Traffic blog. Normally when I use pen and paper in my writing workflow it’s very messy and haphazard — notes jotted in random places, maybe a partial mind map, maybe a bullet point of outlines. This time I pushed myself to be very deliberate. It only took a few minutes longer than my usual approach but ended up being much more useful.
It was fairly easy to translate it back into an outline, though I ended up restructuring things a bit. The funny thing is I think this sheet does a better job of explaining the main ideas than the post does. Sometimes sentences are overkill. 🤷🏻♂️