Narrative content: a Martha Rotter preview

Martha Rotter, a freelance digital strategist in Dublin, is running the Designing Narrative Content workshop at CS Forum. I talked to her about narrative content (speak of the devil) her time at Microsoft and what’s so great about India.

Randall: Your workshop is called Designing narrative content. How do you think the web has changed narrative?

Martha: The web has definitely changed narrative, but not in the way most people expect. People think that because of the web, now everyone has zero attention span and the only way you can get someone to read your work is by putting it in 140-character blurbs on Twitter.

That’s not true.

People continue to have an appetite for reading great content—especially narrative content—but context is very important here. I don’t want to try to read your brilliant 5,000 word article during my six-minute bus commute each day because it’s more work to mentally get back into the story each time I get back on the bus and open it up again. I want to read that later when I’m at home with a cup of tea and have time to digest it all. My six-minute bus commute is perfect for scanning through Twitter & Google Reader & my e-mail because a lot of that content can be absorbed & deleted quickly.

By the way, that commute stuff is a lie, I work from home and have no commute. I still won’t read your 5,000 word essay on my four-second walk into my office, though.

Randall: How do you take context into account when you’re designing?

Martha: There are several contextual things you have control over when you’re designing content.

For example, if I’m using a 3G data connection on my phone, I don’t want the multimedia pieces of the content to download. In fact, I may even appreciate the option to read a “highlights only” version of the article with smaller photos. If I like it, I might continue reading on my large monitor when I get home, and that’s when I want the video and photo slideshow and everything else.

You can also think about what’s going on outside the content. Like the huge, blinking, bouncing ad on the page. Why do we do this to our readers? I slide the browser over to get the ad out of view. Ad revenue may be critical for a lot of news and magazines online, but we should do our readers the favor of designing so advertising can fit in their surroundings and enhance the experience. Cramming in ads annoys readers.

Randall: What kind of work are you doing at the moment?

Martha: After I left Microsoft, I wanted to do a few different things, including working with startups, mobile development, teaching and studying. So I’ve been lecturing in Dublin on web applications, taking courses on data visualisation, computational linguistics and Human computer interaction, as well as working on my own small startup projects. I’ve been busy!

For the last ten or so months, I have been working in the digital publishing space. I am a complete magazine junkie and have been frustrated with the bad attempts at bringing magazines to the web and apps lately. As you may have noticed, I have strong feelings about how I want to be able to continue to read and experience my favourite magazines digitally. I worked with Nomad Editions, where I used a brand new technology called Treesaver, which made their magazines look good on lots of devices, browsers and screen sizes. Nomad has done a great job creating new magazine titles and showing that there is a market for digital-only publications—there’s money to be made there. I’m now working on two additional magazine projects, but they’re still in development so you’ll hear more about them later.

Randall: You’ve had an interesting career. Tell me something poignant, yet hilarious (also touching).

Martha: I worked at Microsoft for 9½ years, and each time I changed roles, it was like a different company. One of the toughest but best lessons I learned was during one of our projects. My colleagues and I began designing a comprehensive testing system which would ensure every line of the code would be tested. After several tough months, we had an all-hands review. I could hardly wait for everyone to see our unprecedented system. Then, the project director crashed the software in under five seconds. I was heartbroken; I thought we tested everything. We tested everything except for how the customer would use it. Since that day, I think about the customer first and have prioritised that experience above everything else.

Another thing I loved about working at Microsoft was the geek culture. Microsoft is full of techies with great senses of humor, who love pranks. We once turned someone’s office into an outhouse. And we turned another office into a teenager’s dream bedroom, complete with pink wall paint and Tiger Beat posters. Another time we hooked up fans to motion detectors so that opening the office door would fill the room with swirling packing peanuts. Everyone I knew had some kind of Nerf weapon in their office, just in case of attack. We also had Food Friday contests where the winner each week selected disgusting things for people to eat the following week. We worked hard but we laughed a lot. Now that I work from home, I suppose I could play pranks on myself but I have a hard time believing it would be as fun.

Randall: What can people expect from your workshop?

Martha: In the web industry, we’re all starting to get a bit nervous about the amount of devices, screen sizes and capabilities of our users’ browsers and phones. Most of us don’t have the time or money to design content for every new screen dimension or every new app store.

My workshop will help us plan for content big and small: so it reaches as many people as possible while being tailored to individual contexts. We’ll talk about customising content and what technology options will best do that. We’ll also cover workflow and production optimisations.

Randall: What do you see next for the web industry? In June, Stephanie Georgopulos wrote a blog post called 5 years from now, there’ll be no such thing as a web page — do you think that’s true? How do you see online content in 5 years time?

Martha: We’re definitely moving away from the idea of “creating a web page.” Sites are getting bigger and more complex, and managing a bunch of static pages is no longer feasible for growing companies. Look at how quickly it all gets out of date!

Jim Boulton’s point was that webpages are moving from being static to being user-generated and interactive. There’s a lot of truth in that. People want to participate, they want to engage and they want to create. But that doesn’t mean that writing and content go away. There will always be avenues for people to share their writing, their ideas, their knowledge. They just might look a bit different than they do today. Content creators have to be open to the idea of publishing to different formats, designing their content differently and being on the lookout for new methods.

I think what people are going to expect from content in five years is a continuous, enhancing version of the curating that is starting to happen now with great apps like Zite. Websites will get better and better at predicting what you will read and what you will like and aim to deliver more of that to you. As a result, better writers and better content will grow their audiences and fans while other, less-valuable or poorly-written content will get filtered out more easily.

What’s next for you in your career?

Martha: One of my colleagues at Microsoft was asked in a job interview where he would be in five years. He said he had no clue because in five years ago, the job he was currently interviewing for would not exist. I love that answer. It’s a great reminder of the fast pace of this industry and the difficulty in predicting the future.

However, I went to a palm reader in India recently and he told me I was about to embark on a very successful career as a personal assistant…

Randall: You travel a lot, and to interesting places. Tell me about an interesting place you’ve been.

Martha: I just got back from a friend’s wedding in India! India is one of my favourite places; it has amazing food, unbelievable scenery, and every city is so different. This time I went to Rajasthan. I fell in love with Udaipur, which is a beautiful city with an enormous palace in the middle of the lake. The palace was used in the James Bond film Octopussy — it was very glamorous. The whole city is full of palaces which are well worth wandering around and enjoying. Because it was monsoon season, everything was green and blooming, and the whole city looked like it was surrounded by a tropical jungle. The food was fantastic everywhere we went, and I came back with lots of new recipes I want to try.