stopit, Golden Principles, and the Golden Bridge

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.

I’m thinking about all this again because of some great nuggets I found about the stopit policies developed at MIT in the early days of managing their online community. There‘s good stuff in the original UseNet post from 1994, and this 2012 paper about building successful online communities.

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.

How I put together my latest workshop

There was a little more to it than this, but not much.
There was a little more to it than this, but not much. (Click to open full-size image in a new tab.)

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

Great little notebook I picked up at a previous conference. I have a couple of these so I used a white Uniball gel pen to give it a title.
Great little notebook I picked up at a previous conference. I have a couple of these so I used a white Uniball gel pen to give it a title.

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.

The horizontal strikeouts on the left page were me working through that particular list while building the deck. The diagonal strikeouts on the right page were me indicating “I’m not going to use this.” That kind of mark can also indicate “I’m done with this.”
The horizontal strikeouts on the left page were me working through that particular list while building the deck. The diagonal strikeouts on the right page were me indicating “I’m not going to use this.” That kind of mark can also indicate “I’m done with this.”
Working through some questions based on words in the workshop title.
Working through some questions based on words in the workshop title.
I tried to keep notes from a given book grouped together so I could remember to source them correctly. This spread captures some ideas from Jim Kalbach’s excellent Mapping Experiences.
I tried to keep notes from a given book grouped together so I could remember to source them correctly. This spread captures some ideas from Jim Kalbach’s excellent Mapping Experiences.

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

I used some of the whiteboard to jot down themes I wanted to focus on.
I used some of the whiteboard to jot down themes I wanted to focus on.

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.

I had a lot of notes on user research approaches, but they ended up not being a good fit for such a short workshop, other than to say “user research is good, do some!”
The eventual slide describing “what users are made of”.
The eventual slide describing “what users are made of”.

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?

iPad, Apple Pencil, and my new friend Arthritis Compression Glove.

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.

Conference diary: Confab 2018

That’s a wrap on Confab 2018! Photo by Sean Tubridy.
That’s a wrap on Confab 2018! Photo by Sean Tubridy.

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!)

The warm-up

Beautiful people in front of beautiful skateboards.
Beautiful people in front of beautiful skateboards.

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.

A crowd gathered at Industrious in downtown Minneapolis for the local content strategy meetup featuring Confab speakers.
A crowd gathered at Industrious in downtown Minneapolis for the local content strategy meetup featuring Confab speakers.

Sunday evening was watching Ida, Andy, Tracy, and the boss lady at the local content strategy meetup.

Workshop day

View from the stage during one of my workshop activities. Big room for a workshop but the A/V setup was great and I never felt like I had to yell.
View from the stage during one of my workshop activities. Big room for a workshop but the A/V setup was great and I never felt like I had to yell.

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.

Confab Run

I gave the crew the option of taking the group photo before or after the run and they loudly opted for before. Bike people tend to go for after, in my experience. Learn something new every day!
I gave the crew the option of taking the group photo before or after the run and they loudly opted for before. Bike people tend to go for after, in my experience. Learn something new every day!

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

I tend not to take a lot of notes but then sometimes I do! It’s a mystery. Some rough sketchnotes from Dayana’s talk and Biz’s talk (both excellent).
I tend not to take a lot of notes but then sometimes I do! It’s a mystery. Some rough sketchnotes from Dayana’s talk and Biz’s talk (both excellent).

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
Trying to get that Everlane sponsorship money. (Photo by Sean Tubridy for Confab Events.)
Trying to get that Everlane sponsorship money. (Photo by Sean Tubridy for Confab Events.)

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.

Final thoughts

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

Sketching a blog post

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. 🤷🏻‍♂️

Markdown in Ulysses share sheet

Was delighted to find that Markdown formatting even works when sending things to Ulysses from other applications. Perhaps this is common for iPad apps but it was the first time I’ve noticed it. Many of my posts start from the camera roll. It’s great to be able to do some quick formatting and position the image relative to the rest of the text, send it right into Ulysses, and never even leave Photos. Very cool.

Tiny habits with Streaks

I tried Streaks (what an awful name) a while back but it didn’t stick, I think because I picked overly-ambitious things to track. The gang was talking about it recently on Do By Friday and I gave it another spin. It’s clicking this time.

This is my current mix:

I’ve been try to pick habits that are accessible throughout the day without having to plan for them. I can just pop Streaks open, pick something, and do it with either just my body, or with my phone or iPad. Playing piano is the trickiest one but there’s a mobile flashcard thing in the Simply Piano app I’ll use in a pinch.

For me the primary advantage is less about building any particular habit as it is about grounding my days in something positive and regular. It’s too easy to just go home from work and start working again all night, or to veg out to Netflix until I fall asleep. A day where I accomplish all or most of these things (and my health stuff on the other screen like taking my vitamins and getting my steps) is a pretty good day, regardless of what else happens.

Sometimes words are best

I like when designers solve problems with words in a straightforward and simple way.

I nearly opened the wrong end of this carton of heavy cream. But then I saw the all-caps instructions to OPEN OTHER END. So I did.

Not hard to imagine a designer using an illustration (which you’d probably decrypt right after screwing it up), or trying to redesign the carton so that the user is inclined to open the correct end. Or to design a new package where opening either end works. But you know what? This gets the job done, cheaply and simply.