Karen McGrane: CS Forum podcast episode 4

In this podcast from CS Forum 2011, Karen McGrane talks to Randall Snare about business skills for content strategists, change management, and the history of computing.

In the fourth episode of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Karen McGrane, one of our headline speakers.

“So much of user experience work in general, whether it’s interaction design or content strategy or information architecture, is really change management.”

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This is episode 4 of the CS Forum podcast. I’m Randall Snare, and today I’m talking to Karen McGrane, who’s one of our headline 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. You should come. Find out more at csforum.eu and register using code PODCAST04 before the 19 April for a £50 discount on the early-bird rate.

Randall: I’m talking to Karen McGrane, who’s one of our keynote speakers at the Content Strategy Forum.

Karen: Hi there.

Randall: Hi. She has been working on as an interaction designer and a content strategist for about 15 years. And she’s a Senior Partner at Bond Art and Science in New York City and a lecturer in Interaction Design at the School of Visual Arts. So welcome Karen. Thanks for talking with me.

Karen: Thanks for having me.

Randall: So about six months ago we and a bunch of other content strategists had this giant content strategy dinner. And I remember you saying that the things that you taught at the School of Visual Arts in the Interaction Design Program came from like deep within you. So I wonder what it is that’s so emotional about this topic, or maybe not emotional, but so intuitive and ingrained.

Karen: So the class that I teach at SVA in, during the fall semester is called Design Management. And I, to me it’s really business skills for interaction designers or user experience professionals of all stripes and sorts. And most of what I teach comes from, I really believe, it comes from such an honest place inside of me based really on my experiences running the user experience practice at Razorfish for ten years. And so while I was there I managed information architects and content strategists and user researchers and director-level user experience designers. And really learned a lot about how clients engage with agencies, learned a lot about managing people, different roles, different tasks. And so a lot of what I teach is just, “What is it that you’re going to do on a project? How is that going to make money? How are you going to have to interact with other people?”

And I think so much of user experience work in general, whether it’s interaction design or content strategy or information architecture, a lot of it is really change management. It’s really helping organizations adjust to the fact that, like, “Oh, hey guess what? This Internet thing, it’s not going away.”

And ten or 15 years in to it I think you’re really starting to see things crumble in organizations where they’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. We can’t treat the website like it’s this little annex, like oh, it’s the brochure,” or if you know, “Oh, we have to redesign our office lobby every 20 years which is the same thing as redesigning the website.” And then, “Once we’ve got that problem sorted out we don’t have to think about it again.”

Randall: Why do you think it took so long?

Karen: Well, I just think it’s a slow evolutionary process.

Randall: Yeah.

Karen: I don’t think, I think for many businesses it’s not like they wake up one day going, “Oh, wait a minute. The light bulb went on. We get it.” It’s more like you just have this ongoing pain. You have different reorganizations that happen. You have different business initiatives and you start realizing like, “Oh, wait a minute. We are actually going to have to change the way that we work. We’re going to have to change the way our businesses structured in order to support the web or support our digital initiatives effectively.” And so I think if you’re working as a content strategist or you’re working in any sort of user experience digital space, so much of the work that you’re going to do it’s not necessarily about actual execution, actual tactics. I think so much of it is about, “How do you get your ideas implemented? How do you gain influence within an organization? How do you persuade people that what you want to accomplish is actually meaningful?”

And so that, you know, that to me, that’s business and to some extent strategy and levers around finance and budget and management are good levers to use. But a lot of it is really just understanding people and understanding organizational change and really trying to figure out what’s going to be persuasive.

Randall: So is there a method for that? Is it packaged in a nice little method? Like what is it that you teach in the class to help them deal with this phenomenal change they’re going to have to do?

Karen: It’s a fifteen-week course, and we cover everything from project management to hiring, to how to write an RFP, or how to write a proposal. One of my favorite assignments is I ask the students to identify a job that they might like to have like “Pick, go out, find a job posting for a company that you might like to work for and come back with an org chart that shows what this job is and how it relates to the rest of the organization.” And one of the things that I talk about is, “You could find a very, very similar job posting. Something that what they say they expect of you is almost identical. Like if you’re hiring for an information architect they might say, “We want you to make site maps and wireframes and contribute to these sorts of activities.”

But where that job fits in the organization, like who does that job report to? If it’s a financial services company and you’re reporting into the technology group, like if your manager is a manager of IT. Versus if you’re working at an ad agency and you’re reporting into the creative group. Even though the job requirements might be almost identical, you’re experience of working at that job is going to be wildly different. How you’re going to persuade people.

What, the values of the company and how you explain to people why you’re making decisions is going to be completely different. And so I don’t think that org charts are destiny and certainly they’re not the only way that you understand the power structure within an organization.

But looking at how a company decides to organize itself. What do they call its departments? Which group seems to have the power? Like where, in an ad agency, it’s always the creative group. Knowing that and kind of knowing where you’re going to fit in will give you huge insights to figuring out like, “How am I actually going to affect change within this business?”

Randall: That’s really interesting. That brings me to my next question, actually. You wrote recently on your website about the history of interaction design. And how much of that is about this like evolution of integrating with organizations?

Karen: I have been, the history of technology and, I think to me the history of how people interact with computers and how we invented these machines that we can talk to. And then we realized the machines were really hard to talk to. So we made them easier to talk to. That, to me, is just such a fascinating aspect of very recent human history. And I kind of imagine that 100 years from now or 500 years from now, we’ll have, humanity will have such a different perspective on all the things that we’re living through. Because this is really kind of an amazing time. And I just think it’s sort of sad that you don’t know who invented the computer or the things that were happening during World War II, the, all of the different, competing initiatives in the US and Britain and Germany. Those names, even though they’re very recent names, they’re kind of lost to history.

And so it’s a subject that I just love talking about because I think it tells us so much about how we think and how we behave. Based on what we learned about how to teach computers how to respond to us more effectively.

I think, when I teach this class, some of the early stuff about like early mainframe history and punch cards and things like that, I think it’s fascinating, other people sometimes think it’s kind of boring. But people love the history of, like the user experience field in general or when things like human-computer interaction and the graphical user interface and all that kind of stuff started to happen.

People love the recent history of things like Xerox PARC and Apple Computer. And I might set the history of content strategy almost on like a separate track, an alternate timeline. A lot of the history of principles that apply to content strategy come out of very old traditions in rhetoric and technical communication.

And so much of what I follow or what I practice, what’s relevant to me, is things that I learned in graduate school. About how people read, how you test content, write for a reader. And that’s not even specific to the computer, I don’t think. I think it’s just what makes sense to people in terms of how they read and understand and process information.

And that’s one of the things that’s so exciting to me about content strategy is, it’s bringing a lot of these principles that have been discussed for decades into this new space of the web and digital media and…

Randall: When do you think it converged?

Karen: Well, I have been practicing content strategy, content strategy related activities since the late ’90s. My, when I was hired at Razorfish, my very first job title was “Information Designer/Writer”. And there was another woman who was hired out of the same program that I was at RPI. And she had the same title. And pretty quickly after that we were like, “That’s a stupid title and that’s not what we want to do.” And I said, “I want to run a group called Information Architecture.” And she said she wanted to run a group called “Content Strategy”. And …

Randall: And when was that? What year was that?

Karen: That was ’98. So, a lot of the work that I’ve done in managing user experience over the last 10 or 15 years has sort of encompassed information architecture, interaction design, content strategy and user research as all, or you know, user research usability testing as all very complimentary practices. And to me, it’s like I see them as all sort of a group of skills. And sometimes, when you’re working in big agencies, you really do have to break things down by role. But in my mind I’m like, “I see it more as a continuum of practice.” And some people are really good at word-related activities. And some people are really good at design or layout related activities.

And I like the idea that the field has evolved to let people practice a wide range of things. So I don’t necessarily see hard lines dividing content strategy from information architecture from interaction design. Although sometimes you just have to draw those lines so that everybody can maintain their sanity.

Randall: Yeah. Would it be fair to say then that you see content strategy as a piece operating underneath the umbrella of user experience design?

Karen: I, one of the things I’ll probably include in my talk at the CS Forum is sort of a diagram that shows how I see content strategy and user experience relating. I would set user experience between marketing and technology. Like, if I look at the history of the field, user experience had to come in to sort of mediate between a marketing group and a technology group. And getting both of those entities focused on delivering value for a user. So let’s have user experience people. I think content strategy is sort of a vertical that encompasses marketing and user experience and technology. And I would say there are certainly people who have adopted content strategy as one of their labels that are very heavily focused on the content marketing, you know world.

Randall: Yeah.

Karen: I think the whole world of content management technology, content management systems, and all the tools that we have, all the tools and technology that we have just to sort of wrangle our content, I think that’s a huge area that content strategy plays in as well. So I would not limit content strategy to just the user experience space. But I think, if I reiterate that I think user experience is a mediating force between marketing and technology, I think content strategy is that mediating force between marketing and technology, in the content space.

Randall: That’s really interesting. I think this industry does scream out for diagrams. Or maybe I just love diagrams.

Karen: We all love a good diagram.

Randall: So when did you start calling yourself a content strategist and what were you working on at the time, if you can remember?

Karen: Maybe this is probably the wrong time to break this to you, but I don’t actually call myself a content strategist. [laughter]

Randall: Oh my God, this interview is over. I’m just kidding.

Karen: I know, exactly. OK. You’re fired. I actually try to be really clear with people about this, like I am not myself, personally, a great content strategist. I am, I think I’m lucky enough, at this point in my career, to be a director level, very senior level, user experience professional. And that in my role, I have to be able to, if not practice everything that I do, at least direct the work of other people. And I do think I’m good at working with content strategists to make sure that they get the information that they need, they get the direction that they need. And maybe most important, to make sure that at all the appropriate potions in the process, they’re collaborating effectively with the other members of the team.

So how does the content strategist need to work with the visual designer? How does the content strategist need to work with the information architect? How do we make sure that content strategy is getting included in any user research or any usability activities that we’re doing? Like, I’m good at doing all that kind of stuff.

And I, personally, my work has been so enriched over the years, because I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who are great content strategists. And that’s why I’m so passionate about talking about it. It’s because, I think when I tell people that, at Razorfish, we’ve had content strategists since 1998 people are, they’re a little bit like, “Whoa, what do you mean?”

And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, snap. We probably should have been talking to you about that. Because you apparently didn’t get the memo that you needed those people.” And so now I’m kind of like, “Oh.” I want to yell really loudly about why it’s so important to have content strategists and their viewpoints included on the projects that we do.

Randall: So what are you working on right now? Is it top secret or can you talk about it?

Karen: I do, I have one project that I’ve been working on for a while that should launch relatively soon, that I’m excited to show people. It is a very heavy, data-driven project. It’s sort of a web app. A lot of the, one thing that I do in my practice is a fair amount of data visualization work. And so this has some shiny charts and graphs in it. That we built all in HTML 5, instead of Flash. So if that’s the kind of thing you’re excited about, which I am. I think it’s really cool. I also do a lot of work in the publishing space. So I, if there’s a project out there where a publisher has a content management system and an ad supported website here they need to figure out how can they get people to come in, engage with their content, keep clicking around so that they get lots of page views. I do a lot of work like that. So I have a couple clients right now that are facing those challenges.

Randall: Cool. Project jealously. I want to ask you about all the conferences you speak at, because you speak a lot. And you’ve spoken in some crazy places. Well, maybe not crazy, just faraway places. That was a very American-centric question. But what are some of the best conferences you’ve spoken at or some great places you’ve been?

Karen: I travel pretty much constantly. Right now I gave up my apartment in New York and I’m traveling around the US for six months. And so I spoke at the Interaction Design Conference in Boulder last month. I’m speaking at the IA Summit, which is coming up just next week. I’m doing a workshop there on content strategy as well as a regular session talk about how we’re all content strategists now. I have, last year I was really lucky to get to speak at conferences all over the world. I got to go to Iceland and speak at the really fantastic Ice Web Conference. And I’d have to say the quality of the speakers at that event was really, overwhelmingly high and I had a great time with all of them.

I got to go to a conference in Buson, Korea, in which they not only put my, a big head shot of me up on the side of the building, but then, as a speaker gift, they gave me this giant brick of Lucite that was also engraved with my face. And so I would totally recommend to you at CS Forum that you might consider that as well, as a speaker gift. Just think about it.

Randall: I think we might make everyone’s faces engraved in chocolate or something. It’s a good idea.

Karen: See? Yeah. I like how you’re thinking about this problem.

Randall: Cool. Can you give anyone a hint of what you’re going to be talking about at the CS Forum in September?

Karen: I am going to be talking broadly about the relationship between content strategy, user experience, marketing and technology. Talking about a framework of how everything fits together. And then also talking about my experience over the years in things like, how you staff a project. How you hire and recruit people. You know, how different organizations think about breaking down roles and tasks across people and projects. I have done, I have quite a bit of experience in hiring people and then figuring out, “OK. Not everybody has the same skill set. And not everybody is good at doing the same things. So how do you think about content strategists as a range of skills and a range of activities? And then figure out what kind of person do you need for a project?”

Randall: Great. I’m really looking forward to that. I’m sure that everyone else is as well.

Karen: Yeah, I’m so excited.

Randall: Thanks again for talking with me Karen. Especially, you’re still in Austin for South By Southwest, is that right?

Karen: I am. South By Southwest just wrapped up last, on Sunday and I have to admit, it was a whirlwind of awesome but I’m really happy to have my life back.

Randall: Well, thanks for making time within that whirlwind.

Karen: Yep. Thank you so much.

Randall: And I can’t wait to see you in September.

Karen: Sounds great, I’m really excited for the CS Forum and especially to get to see all of my content strategy pals.