Des Traynor: CS Forum podcast episode 7

Listen to the latest podcast from our series featuring CS Forum speakers. This week, Des Traynor talks to Randall about content for web apps, why real life data is often boring, and reality versus fantasy content.

In the seventh episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Des Traynor, one of our invited speakers.

“By not dealing with the realities of what’s going to come to you for free in terms of content… you end up producing a really weak design that falls apart. Because you’ve deluded yourself with your fantasy wireframes or mock-ups.”

Listen now

Download the MP3, or subscribe in iTunes.


This is episode 7 of the CS Forum podcast. I’m Randall Snare, and today I’m talking to Des Traynor, who’s one of our invited speakers at the Content Strategy Forum 2011 in London.

The Forum is from the 5th to the 7th of September in central London. That’s three days of presentations, workshops, and parties. We’re featuring 39 speakers from 11 countries. Early bird rates are still available. Find out more at and register using code PODCAST07 by the 10 May for an additional £50 discount.

Randall Snare: Hi. I’m talking to Des Traynor. He’s one of our speakers at the Content Strategy Forum 2011. Hi, Des.

Des Traynor: Hi, Randall.

Randall: Thanks for talking to me. We’re actually looking at each other, it’s a novelty, because Des is based here in Dublin. So I want to talk about, who are you? And what do you do? And where do you live?

Des: Sure. So I live in Dublin. That’s the easy one. I work with a software-development consultancy called Contrast, where we primarily design interfaces for web applications. What I do in my role in Contrast is I’m the UX lead, effectively. Depending on the client that we work with, that can mean different things. So, if it’s like an early stage startup, it can mean everything from product strategy to how it’s going to go to market, who your competitors are, identifying your users. If it’s helping a large company redesign an existing application, obviously there’s already a market there, so we don’t need to worry about any of that sort of stuff.

So, primarily, then I end up trying to dissolve the existing dashboards, which all look like kind of ’90s-style, gray-and-black messes, and trying to work here is, their demand is “I want this to look as nice as Keynote or my iPhone.” And, obviously, whilst we can do that, that’s not really what’s the problem. Usually the problem is that we’re showing the wrong information, or the design falls apart in some way, shape, or form.

So my role, in that case, is usually just to work with people who actually use the dashboard or the application and piece it back together and make sure it makes sense. And then, obviously, we add visual finesse, which is something that a lot of companies don’t see internally. That’s usually what gets buy-in, believe it or not.

Randall: What kind of companies come to Contrast?

Des: Yes. Two types, mainly. One of them is, very much, it’s early stages, people who’ve seen that we have a web application, that we’ve launched a few web applications. And, in some sense, they want that experience to guide them, because they’ve got maybe some small amount of funding and they want to bring their idea to market. And their idea could be as regular as they want to sell shoes online, or it could be as novel as they want to be like a social network for guitarists to talk to each other. And that’s one side of it, because I think we’re somewhat popular in the startup scene, because I think we’ve been very public about how our own applications have grown and which ones we’ve sold and which ones we’ve abandoned. I think people kind of relate to that.

The other type of clients we get are basically people who’ve seen our work and say, “We’d love it if our apps look like that or if our apps behave like that.” They tend to be large companies who just have very simple requirements. It’s just very simple, like, “Here is our current application. It does not look impressive. We can’t sell it at conferences. Please give us what we can sell.” And that’s effectively it.

Randall: So how do you fit content strategy, or even just content production, into application development, or even software development?

Des: Yeah, that’s a great question, because we learned this very early on, that if you’re designing an application where there’s actual, real data, you need to get that data before you bother trying to design. That sounds like an obvious point to say, but so often, I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, designers will just start sketching it. They’ll think, “Oh, you have a dashboard? OK.” So they start drawing all these squares and graphs and pie charts. And the problem, the temptation when you’re drawing a pie chart is that you’re going draw a sextuple, like six different breakdowns. Or if you’re drawing a sparkline or a graph, you’re always going to have these mad, jagged things that looks like “the patient’s about to die” sort of thing. But in reality, the data never really looks like that.

Most dashboards what we’ve worked on, our first pass always shows just this fantasy dashboard of sales are through the roof, and customer attrition has disappeared, and our return customers up, and revenues gone, skyrocketed. But most data isn’t like that. And when you design that for the sexy case, you miss out on what the normal case is.

So I always try to advise clients, when I show them a sparkline that’s a horizontal line and say nothing has changed, they’re like, “Well, it doesn’t look very sparkly to me.” But that’s reality. Yeah. You can either disappoint them at the idea stage, when you sort of say, “Here’s where it’s going to go,” which is a much better way to do it than actually present this beautiful Photoshop mock-up and even put dummy data in the live app. But all of that’s really just like a designer’s wet dream, because the reality, when the actual data comes along, is that it’s going to look very boring.

And also, fooling yourself with that, when you’re not intuiting the material early on, you miss out on opportunities. Because you realize, let’s say, we’ve worked on, say, a dashboard for a company, where it’s really important to monitor which sites are online and offline.

Basically, it’s like a Pingdom-style thing, just checks if the server is up or not. And the temptation in those designs is to design five green sites and four red sites, like four are down. The reality is, you only care if something’s down. The idea of a green, or like a really active sort of “Everything’s OK” and have all these charts to prove it, is nonsense.

The dashboard we ended up going with, it shows absolutely nothing. So it’s a black screen, except for when there’s a problem, in which case it appears. Because you don’t need to know.

Randall: Oh, that’s interesting. Yes.

Des: So the other thing was that this is what was being used as what they call information radiators. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term. They like to use large monitors that you just leave around in an office, so people can see. So the idea is, if things are changing, everyone can learn. So there will be one in the elevator. There will be one in the bathroom. They distribute them throughout the company. But what we found is, having the four green bars on the screen all day is actually not very useful. And people just stopped looking at them.

Randall: Yeah.

Des: And the other thing, there’s other things designers are thinking. OK, which is that we use audio when something goes wrong. People, it’s very … because when you’re working in a wire frame, too, you don’t really think of audio. But audio is the most important thing. If the server goes down, that means everyone has to get up from their desks and panic. So what we have is the whole screen goes red, big text appears and a noise plays. And that looks as boring as hell to wire frame.

I showed them a black page and then I showed them a red page. And they were like, “And why are we paying you guys?” I’m like, “Well, this is the right decision, based on the data we’ve looked at. If you want us to stimulate this fantasy thing, then we can. But it’s not really a good solution.”

So that’s specifically with data, but it equally applies to, say, content. Honestly, we’ve all seen cases where people use our mix of design, and it comes out their side, because they basically started designing without thinking about content.

Randall: Yeah.

Des: And if that’s part of the whole cut, UX went through the same phase as well. When they know content strategy is a phase, you shove it at the end of a project, when it’s all been built. You’re like, “OK. Bring in the strategists.”

Randall: Yeah.

Des: These guys march in with clipboards and pens, and start filling in booklets of content. And it’s one of those, again. It’s the whole no design survives first contact of content, yeah. What I see in the applications specifically, because obviously things like labels, and text instructions and web application does not much … content strategy in that, you have to define your tone of voices. Are we going to be OK Cupid or very cute-sie application, or is this a sales dashboard, in which case it’s just very explicit?

In general, once you pass tone of voice, usually if you have to explain an awful lot of stuff in the regular application, you’re probably like the application itself isn’t obvious. But where I do find content falls apart in my applications is when people start saying, “Well, let’s have a reviewing engine.” And you’re like, “No.” And they’re like, “Well, we really want one because we’ve got all this SEO for free.”

And you start to scratch your head. It’s easy when you’re on the consultancy side of things to go with your clients. But you see, the SEO movement did an amazing marketing job of telling people, “We can get you to the top of Google.” Unfortunately, the entire thing is bullshit, but they did a hell of a sales job.

So you get clients requesting these things, because they really believe that on their websites, say, if they’re selling shoes, or false teeth or whatever, dentistry equipment, it just doesn’t matter. Reviews are a very rare thing.

Maybe, I think, Jared Spool had a quote where something like two percent of Amazon people, two percent of Amazon purchasers write a review.

Randall: Really?

Des: And when you look at it in that guide, that’s a very low number. So you think that when you have 100 products, before you actually have a significant chunk of reviews, you have to submit a lot of sales. And that’s one of those areas where I think people, you can easily design for this fantasy content. As in, “I believe that every customer is going to write and they’re going to give us a five-star rating, and we’re going to have all this.”

But most of the time when you go in these graveyard e-commerce stores, you’ll see the site with no ratings. That’s actually a message worse than we don’t have a rating engine. Saying we have no ratings sounds like no one’s there, no one’s even bought it.

Randall: Yeah.

Des: So it’s actually, by not dealing with the realities of what’s going to come to you for free in terms of content, which is very little, when you don’t take that reality, you end up producing a really, really weak design that falls apart. Because, again, you’ve deluded yourself with your fantasy wire frames or mock-ups.

Randall: So your content strategy is more of a use of the large data set or the strategy side.

Des: Yeah.

Randall: And less the actual production.

Des: Yes.

Randall: Because there seems to be a lot of thought that goes into it.

Des: Yeah, there is. So on that side of things, yeah. I mean, I always have a bit of pragmatism. I have seen clients say like there, “Oh, we’re going to have beautiful product shots.” But OK, I’m not putting a product shot into the screen until you can come back to me with a product shot. Then I get these phone calls like, “Photographers are expensive.” I’m like, “I know, really.” They’re like, “Yeah, to photograph one pair of shoes from three different angles, guess what it cost me? It was half a day’s work.”

And I was like, “So how many shoes did you do, did you save for the other half?” He goes, “Well, we were going to have 8,000 pairs.” I’m like, “So now?” And, “Well now, now we’re going to sell 20 pairs of shoes.” I said, “Or?” He goes, “Or we’re not going to photograph.” I’m like, “Now, you’ve dealt with the realities of content.”

Randall: Yeah.

Des: So it’s so tempting on the UX side of things to be so generous, to say, “Oh, sure, you can have a YouTube, and sure you can have all this.” But they own half the material.

Randall: Yeah.

Des: So it’s so easy for me draw these boxes and put a play button on them. But producing a video, a video tour of your office, is actually quite expensive. And that’s aside from whatever or not it’s a good idea. The other thing is, it sounds like in web applications that’s definitely one side. Then we do the occasional website, but when we do a website it’s usually as part of a marketing drive for a web application we’ve built. So say if we build or something like that, we will have a website that pitches the whole thing.

And we try to be as innovative as possible there because every web app site looks the same. They’re like, top nav and then there’s a big product shot on the right, and then it’s like, “Sign up a free.” With a big red banner button, because eye tracking says that red is attractive. And then they have like two or three kinds of features on the bottom.

We’ve tried to step away from that as best as we can. And we try to encourage our clients to do it. Because it’s just a little bit more memorable. Again, it’s like one of those say, “We’re going to get all these testimonials from customers.” I’m like, “Guess what, to have testimonials, you need to have a great product. Let’s worry about that first.”

Randall: So let’s go back. Have you built the lost dog connection app or is that just…?

Des: It’s in beta.

Randall: Really?

Des: No. [laughter]

…Although what would it be, connecting people with lost dogs?

Randall: Yeah, it would just be an opportunity for me to go collect dogs. So basically I’m your client. Can you talk about some of the web apps that you’ve built that have gotten a lot of attention or that you liked working on?

Des: Yeah. My favorite apps are, for the most part, because we get to play with them much more. There’s no scope, there’s no budget and there’s real revenue. My number one favorite app to play with is Exceptional. It’s a Ruby on Rails based exception tracker. Although we’re opening up to all languages now. What that is is basically, whenever software goes wrong, web software, it tells us and we tell you. The whole process is more automatic than that. The developer will get a text message saying, “Your shopping cart is crashing. Three users have been affected. Here is the users’ details. And here is the line of code that’s causing the problem.” That’s kind of our main app. That’s got a few thousand users and it’s doing quite well for itself. Yeah.

Randall: Really? That seems to come about based on your life. Like something frustrating…

Des: Yeah. It was built out of an original Contrast need. A guy who doesn’t work Contrast anymore, but David Rice was the guy who originally started off the idea. And it was literally a case of, this is so necessary. The existing solutions at the time were… You could have a plugin that would email you but it didn’t do a great job. When we released, we were the first people in the market. Shortly after, the competitors started arriving out of the woodwork. Because obviously there is value in it. The market’s got quite interesting. Even within rails, there’s too many people, us and another group called Hot Tub. Outside of that, every other programming framework has built their own thing. So it’s been interesting for us to watch from a distance, how one tool we created has kind of caused rip waves across different tech communities. Other apps that we’ve built which have been far more infamous. We built a tool called Quitter, which used to tell you when people stopped following you on Twitter.

Randall: That’s such a cool app.

Des: Ohm, did a kind of a nice, emotive design of a kid crying, like waving at you, bye. So you’d get a little update whenever someone stopped following you on that. That app taught us a lot. Because we got on TechCrunch and all the big blogs very quickly. We ended up with like a quarter of a million sign-ups at one point. The way the app was coded, it didn’t scale particularly well. We were literally… as soon as you signed up, we’d go look at your followers today and we’d go look at them tomorrow. We’d see who was there today that isn’t there tomorrow. That’s your quitters. And doing that… Like, say, when Barack Obama signs up, which he did. And he had moved 1.2 million followers at the time. Going through 1.2 million people each day was just very difficult. So then we build Quitter Pro. We never properly released it. The app does not scale. The best way to do Quitter is to do it on the client. So everyone would run their own, personal Quitter. Because that does scale, more distributed. But we learned a lot.

Because Quitter upset a lot of people, like emotional. Like, “I can’t believe I can’t unfollow people anymore.” That was one side of it. There was issues. It was firing out more emails than it should. Quitting, the way you quite Quitter, was broken for a while. So people couldn’t get out of it. People were basically getting forcibly bad news every day from us. So eventually we took it offline. Then we got it back working, we put it back up. And then we sold on it. That was kind of fun.

Randall: That’s interesting. So just to wrap up, I know that September is a long way away. But do you have an idea of what you’re going to be talking about, what people can expect from you at Content Strategy Forum?

Des: Yeah. I have a few different ideas. I’d like to delve deeper into the content strategy area. It’s quite an area. I know it’s probably like three years old, in terms of being a serious, well-known term, as something people pitch in projects. But I’m sure some people will maintain they’ve done it for 10 years before anyone else. But as a widespread thing it’s quite new. So I’d like to read a bit before so I could actually get a good feeling for what opinions I have, what insights I have that could be relevant. What ideas, I would like to talk about the role of content strategy within designing a web application. Specifically, the idea of a web application that hinges on user generated content. I have some lessons there that’s basically how you could put it… Having done it the right way and the wrong way and see what works and knowing that… Wait until you get an email from somebody saying they’d love to post a review of your products might be a better way to do it than go building this fancy review engine that no one needs. But that’s one set of thoughts.

There’s other opinions I have about, say, like watching the evolution of content strategy. It’s going through a similar path in my opinion to UX used to be a phase. People used to write in our office and say we need some UX. Probably still happens. Whereas we’d like to think that the user experience is not as… what you need is UX as an entire project perspective. It’s not just one two-week gap…

And content strategy is going through an exact movement like that. On the one hand, you’ve got the strategists who are saying, you need to be there from the start. People read what goes on the site, and you kind of listen to at the end, because that’s the most critical piece.

On the flip side you’ve got the sales guys and consultancies who are just sort of saying, “Well, your project requires two weeks of wireframes, two weeks of personas, and three weeks of content. And content starts in April.” Which is the wrong way. But obviously it’ll all mature.

Some feelings I have on content strategy, I mean, this is why I wanted to delve deeper and deeper, you can tell a field’s getting serious when you have the emergence of schools of thought. You want the biggest names of content strategy shouldn’t be all singing the same song. There should be disagreements, because that’s how you know you’re getting somewhere. That if there’s two different right ways to do something and they both have their merits.

I’d like to delve deeper and see if that has happened yet. Is everyone singing the “why won’t they listen to us?” song, which is not very practical? Other areas, I suppose, yeah, I suppose I would definitely like to see the emergence of schools of thought and that sort of stuff. It has to move a bit beyond a phase.

I’ve kind of been lucky to be, when I was doing my Ph.D. in Computer Science Education, computer science education itself wasn’t a well-respected field, and we spent time going to conferences holding hands and fighting with ourselves.

And then user experience design went through the same thing. It was like, well, we invented the iPod. And someone who is in the back, “Well, no we didn’t. Apple did that and it had nothing to do with UX guys.” I wonder, will content strategy go through that?

Like, is there a poster child for content strategy? Is great for content strategy? Like, what do the really good ones look like and what do the really bad ones look like? It’s always easy to point at the bad examples, but I’d be interested to know, what is a wonderful example of content strategy? They’re the sort of things that need to happen before it will be promoted out of being just a phase.

Randall: So it needs those SEO salespeople.

Des: Yes. In a sense, yes. But it needs to also have substance. It depends on how you sell it. User experience was sold on, Google will have simplicity dated number one, Apple will have amazing quality design, they’re cornering the market. And design, or user experience design, was to some degree the same skills they brought those things to happen. My concern with SEO is that the black hat techniques are what gets you to number one, allegedly. Google’s stopping a lot of that. So now SEO is meandering its way towards being, it’s a little bit like optimized for conversions, which is something that UX guys would call, help your users to achieve their goals.

Randall: Yeah.

Des: It’s including things like keyword strategy, which I guess, I would hope content strategists would claim as being, yeah, you should write about the stuff that people are searching for. SEO, I feel, is, and I’ll piss off people saying this, but I feel like it’s wandering around grabbing different…it’s like, we’ll have the conversion strategy from UX, and we’ll have the keyword focusing or whatever from content strategy, and we’ll have the marketing ideas about buying ad words that are targeted. And they’re kind of, as a discipline, I wonder, and social media consultancies are kind of going through a similar thing, where they’re not really sure if they’re marketing people or if they’re Web people. And often they don’t do a good job of either, in my experience.

Randall: So I think you should talk about all the things that you think are bullshit.

Des: No, I won’t give a negative talk. I sound like I am saying negative, because I’m being honest and frank, which is something that people sometimes tend not to do in these things. But no, I was happy to see the emergence of content strategy, because most of the time in my early days of designing, I was going back and looking at the site that was launched. I was like, “what is this all crap?” And it wasn’t even crap. It might be crap because of me, is that I didn’t deal with the content correctly or I didn’t design according to what content we had. But it was also just the material produced and the way that they built up the site was all terrible. Because they had a news section, but they had no interesting news, and the last post was 10 years ago.

So it was obviously the process was lacking.

Randall: Yeah.

Des: And just even things like the very wording and the phrasing, and they had a headline like Kids’ Sites, using things like executive missions under “about us” statements. And you’re like, well, “Has anyone thought about this?” So I’m delighted that content strategy has emerged, not as a phase but as a way at which you can sell the idea that most people aren’t really great at writing the words on their website.

Randall: Yeah, no, it’s going to be a big love fest. Although there is room for some skepticism.

Des: Yeah, there’s no skepticism here. It’s more …

Randall: No, skepticism about other things. Not content strategy.

Des: Oh yeah, yeah. OK. Sure, sure, yeah, yeah.

Randall: Well, thanks for talking to me, Des.

Des: No problem.

Randall: And you’ll get to see him next September.

That was episode 7 of the CS Forum podcast, featuring Des Traynor. You can subscribe to future episodes at Don’t forget to register for the conference by the 10 May, using code PODCAST07 to save £50 on the early bird rate.