BWS4: Content Strategy

The final cut of The Big Web Show “Episode 4: Content Strategy,” recorded in front of a live internet audience earlier today, is now online for your viewing pleasure.

Hosted, as always, by Dan Benjamin and me, this episode features Kristina Halvorson, CEO, Brain Traffic and author, Content Strategy for the Web (New Riders, 2010); and Erin Kissane, content strategist, Happy Cog, and author, Incisive.nu. It’s 60 minutes of insights to die for! Brainpower like you’ve never! Don’t miss it.


An Event Apart Seattle

Above: Part of my deck for “Put Your Worst Foot Forward,” a talk on learning from mistakes at An Event Apart Seattle 2010.

Greetings, web design fans. I’m in Seattle doing the final prep for three days of kick-ass design, code, and content. Starting Monday, April 5 and running through Wednesday, April 8, An Event Apart Seattle 2010 features 13 great speakers and 13 sessions, and has been sold out for over a month. A Day Apart, a special one-day learning experience on HTML5 and CSS3, follows the regular conference and is led by Jeremy Keith and Dan Cederholm.

The all-star cast includes …

… And that’s just the first day.

There are also two parties (sponsored by our good friends at Media Temple and MSNBC) and seven more great speakers with topics of interest to all standards-based web designers.

If you can’t be with us, follow the Twitter stream live on A Feed Apart.

What the FAQ?

A List Apart

In Issue No. 303 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, we question the received wisdom about FAQs, and learn that, in the land of the colorblind, contrast is king.

Contrast is King
by LESLIE JENSEN-INMAN

Being colorblind doesn’t mean not seeing color. It means seeing it differently. If colorblindness challenges the colorblind, it also challenges designers. Some of us think designing sites that are colorblind-friendly means sticking with black and white, or close to it. But the opposite is true. Using contrast effectively not only differentiates our site’s design from others, it’s the essential ingredient that can make our content accessible to every viewer, including the colorblind. By understanding contrast, we can create websites that unabashedly revel in color.

Infrequently Asked Questions of FAQs
by R. STEPHEN GRACEY

We take FAQs for granted as part of our sites’ content, but do they really work, or are they a band-aid for poor content? FAQ-hater R. Stephen Gracey explores the history and usability of FAQs. Learn how to collect, track, and analyze real user questions, sales inquiries, and support requests—and use the insights gained thereby to improve your site’s content, not just to write a FAQ. Find out when FAQs are an appropriate part of your content strategy, and discover how to ensure that your FAQ is doing all it should to help your customers.

Illustration © by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart


Content wants to be paid for

Content wants to be free like communism works, like sex is just for fun, like a few days of snow disprove global warming. That the web’s existence makes all content free is a Brooklyn Bridge most of us have bought, but it just ain’t true, as Erin Kissane makes clear in Content is Expensive at Incisive.nu.

Go there, read it, and understand why (just like newspaper reporting and books) web content costs money and must be paid for or subsidized. Either that or it must serve some secondary benefit that brings in the bucks: for instance, a free web design blog might lead to paying web design gigs for its author, or so they say.

Then read Part Two: Paying For It, where Kissane considers each of these methods of subsidizing content “and how they relate to our work as content and editorial strategists.”

(Of course there will always be web content that is purely a labor of love. That is why we love the web. And it’s kind of sad, quite frankly, that you almost can’t write “Shit My Dad Says” or create a LOLcats page purely out of love any more; that even stuff tossed off as a laugh ends up being “monetized.” By the way, whoever came up with that word should be deathetized by beatingization. But I digress.)

A List Apart: Just the Stats

Continuing with our “data, and what we can learn from it” theme, here are A List Apart‘s four most popular individual pages this week (excluding the home page, with 178,270 page views). Pay particular attention to the publication dates:

Article Page Views This Week
Flash and Standards: The Cold War of the Web by Daniel Mall, MARCH 9, 2010 41,035
Drop-Down Menus, Horizontal Style by Nick Rigby, JUNE 29, 2004 40,683
CSS Design: Taming Lists by Mark Newhouse, SEPTEMBER 27, 2002 37,867
[Articles Index Page] 34,630

What do these stats tell us?

For one thing, they tell us that for every reader who viewed A List Apart as a topical periodical publication—that is, for each person who read one of its latest articles—there were two readers who used the magazine as a source of evergreen web design and development content.

Put another way, for every person who uses A List Apart like a magazine or blog, there are two who use it as an encyclopedia of best practices in coding and design.

We’re looking at only seven days worth of statistics, here, but the pattern is consistent from week to week. What it tells the editors is that we’re not in the quick-hit eyeballs and ad sales business (but we knew that), we’re in the professional education business. It reminds us, if we needed reminding, that the mission stated on our Contribute page is still true:

We want to change the way our readers work, whether that means introducing a revolutionary CSS technique with dozens of potential applications, challenging the design community to ditch bad practices, or refuting common wisdom about, say, screen readers.

As we go about soliciting and reviewing potential ALA content, we must keep uppermost in our minds how people use our site, because its value lies in the hardiness of our best articles. Web professionals trust us to have the information they need to do their jobs better and deliver the best possible experience to their clients’ customers (and thus the best value to their clients). These stats reinforce what we already know, and help us stay true to our core purpose and values.

This emphasis on the evergreen over the topical also helps us as we strategize means of deepening our relationship with the web design community and add or change features to do so.

I’m barely scratching the surface of what the data tells us, but the little I have teased out so far is already very useful—and that’s the point. The more you look, the more you can learn. What’s in your logs?


Love Me Long Time

Those who say web users don’t spend time reading web pages haven’t met readers like you folks. According to Google Analytics, zeldman.com fans spent five minutes, fifty-five seconds reading the relatively short post, “My Love/Hate Affair With Typekit.” If Jakob Nielsen is right, and readers take in no more than 20% of the words on a page, y’all took a hella long time to read 190 words.

But generalized findings like Jakob’s are merely one data point in a universe of possibilities. Every site is a special snowflake, with stats and usage patterns all its own. Faced with an unfamiliar shopping site, we may indeed give it little more than a cursory scan before closing the window and returning to Google to fine-tune the search that led us there. But when we visit a familiar site to read, then read we do—as anyone with a good blog and a decent set of analytics tools can tell you.

Here are a few recent average times readers spent poring over various zeldman.com posts:

Post Title Average Time Spent
My Love/Hate Affair With Typekit 5:55
Crowdsourcing Dickens 3:36
20 Signs You Don’t Want That Web Design Project 7:52
Ed Bott’s Lament 4:22
Gowalla My Dreams 4:41
IE9 Preview 4:37

Morals of the story:

  1. Don’t use Peter’s stats to paint Paul.
  2. If you want people to spend time reading your site, give them better content.

Crowdsourcing Dickens

As an experiment in new new media thinking, I recently crowdsourced a new new literature version of Charles Dickens’s musty old old old lit chestnut, Great Expectations—the familiar tale of Pip, Ms Havisham, the convict Magwitch, et al.

Creative excellence and spin-worthy results required a pool of 10,000 people who had never read Great Expectations. Fortunately, I had access to 10,000 recent American college graduates, so that was no problem.

To add a dab of pseudoscience and appeal obliquely to the copyleft crowd, I remixed the new work’s leading literary themes with the top 20 Google search queries, using an algorithm I found in the mens room at Penn Station.

The result was a work of pure modern genius, coming soon to an iPad near you. (Profits from the sale will be used to support Smashing Magazine’s footer and sidebar elements.)

Gone was the fusty old title. Gone were the cobwebbed wedding cake and other dare I say emo images. It was goodbye to outdated characters like Joe the blacksmith and the beautiful Estella, farewell to the love story and the whole careful parallel between that thing and that other thing.

Gone too was the tired old indictment of the Victorian class system, and by implication of all economic and social systems that separate man from his brothers in Christ, yada yada. As more than one of my young test subjects volunteered in a follow-up survey, “Heard it.”

In place of these obsolete narrative elements, the students and the prioritized Google searches created, or dare I say curated, a tale as fresh as today’s algorithmically generated headlines.

The results are summarized in the table below.

Old Great Expectations New Great Expectations
On Christmas Eve, Pip, an orphan being raised by his sister, encounters the convict Magwitch on the marshes. n/a
The convict compels Pip to steal food from his sister’s table, and a file from her husband the blacksmith’s shop. Pip thereby shares the convict’s guilt and sin—but his kindness warms the convict’s heart. Guy on girl
Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, abuses him. Her husband loves Pip but is unable to protect him or offer him a future beyond blacksmithing. Girl on girl (multiple entries)
Pip meets Miss Havisham, an old woman abandoned on her wedding day, who sits in her decrepit house, wearing a yellowing wedding gown, her only companion the beautiful and mysterious girl Estella. Pip falls in love with Estella, but Miss Havisham has trained the girl to break men’s hearts. Guy on guy
Pip visits Miss Havisham until his apprenticeship with Joe the blacksmith begins. Pip hates being a blacksmith and worries that Estella will see him as common. Two girls, one guy
Mrs Joe suffers a heart attack that leaves her mute. A kind girl named Biddy comes to take care of Mrs Joe. After Mrs Joe’s death, Biddy and Joe will marry. Meanwhile, Pip comes into an unexpected inheritance and moves to London, where he studies with a tutor and lives with his friend Herbert. Dragons
Pip believes Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that she intends him to marry Estella, whom he still adores. Day by day, Estella grows more cruel. Pip never tells her of his love for her. Wizards
One stormy night, Pip discovers that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but the convict Magwitch. The news crushes Pip, but he dutifully allows Magwitch to live with him—worrying, all the while, because Magwitch is a wanted man who will be hanged if discovered. Explosions
Miss Havisham repents having wasted her life and perverted Estella. She is caught in a fire. Pip heroically saves her but she later dies from her burns. Soon afterwards, Pip and Herbert try to help Magwitch escape, but Magwitch’s old enemy Compeyson—who happens to be the man who abandoned Miss Havisham at the altar—betrays Magwitch to the authorities. Magwitch and Compeyson struggle. Compeyson dies and Magwitch is taken to prison. Gunfights
Pip now realizes that Magwitch is a decent man and tries to make Magwitch’s last years happy ones. He also discovers that Magwitch is Estella’s father. Magwitch dies in prison shortly before he was to be executed. Pip tells the dying Magwitch of his love for Estella. Fistfights
Pip becomes ill and is nursed back to health by Joe, whom Pip recognizes as a good man in spite of his lack of education and “class.” Pip goes into business overseas with Herbert. Eventually he returns to England and visits Joe, who has married Biddy. They have a child named Pip. As the book ends, the middle-aged Pip makes one last visit to Miss Havisham’s house, where he discovers an older and wiser Estella. There is the implication that Pip and Estella may finally be together. Anal

Model Site

Blissfully Aware site redesign.

Web designer Joshua Lane, currently best know for doing fancy web stuff at Virb.com, has overhauled his personal site in ways that are aesthetically pleasing and visually instructive.

Like all good site redesigns, this one starts with the content. Whereas the recent zeldman.com redesign emphasizes blog posts (because I write a lot and that’s what people come here for), Lane’s redesign appropriately takes exactly the opposite approach:

There is a much smaller focus on blog posts (since I don’t write often), and a much larger focus on the things I do elsewhere (Twitter, Flickr, Last.fm etc). Individually, I don’t contribute a great deal to each of those services. But collectively, I feel like it’s a good amount of content to showcase (as seen on the home page). And something that feels like a really good representation of “me.”

Not one to ignore the power of web fonts, Lane makes judicious use of Goudy Bookletter 1911 from The League of Movable Type, an open-source type site founded by Caroline and Micah, featuring only “well-made, free & open-source, @font-face ready fonts.” (Read their Manifesto here.)

The great Barry Schwartz based his Goudy Bookletter 1911 on Frederic Goudy’s Kennerley Oldstyle, a font Schwartz admires because it “fits together tightly and evenly with almost no kerning.” Lane inserts Schwartz’s open-source gem via simple, standards-compliant CSS @font-face. Because of its size, it avoids the secret shame of web fonts, looking great in Mac and Windows.

But considered type is far from the redesigned site’s only nicety. Among its additional pleasures are elegant visual balance, judicious use of an underlying horizontal grid, and controlled tension between predictability and variation, ornament and minimalism. Restraint of color palette makes photos, portfolio pieces, and other featured elements pop. And smart CSS3 coding allows the designer to play with color variations whenever he wishes: “the entire color scheme can be changed by replacing a single background color thanks to transparent pngs and rgba text and borders.”

In short, what Lane has wrought is the very model of a modern personal site: solid design that supports content, backed by strategic use of web standards.


Books Not Dead

Headed to SXSW Interactive? Concerned about the future of books, magazines, and websites? Attend “New Publishing and Web Content,” a panel I’m hosting on the creative, strategic, and marketing challenges of traditional and new (internet hybrid) book publishing and online magazine publishing, and how these fields intersect with content strategy and client services.

Joining me in a thoughtful exploration of new and old business models and creative challenges will be people who’ve spent a decade or two butting up against and reinventing these boundaries:

As moderator, my job will be to let these geniuses speak, to occasionally lob the right question to the right genius, and to help field your questions from the audience.

If you work in web or print publishing, or just care about the written word, please join us at 5:00 PM Central Time in Ballroom A.

(What else am I doing at SXSW Interactive? Here’s my schedule so far. I also hope to see some of you at OK Cog’aoke II, SXSW Interactive’s premiere karaoke event and best party, hosted by your friends at Happy Cog.)

A List Apart 300

Issue 300 of A List Apart for people who make websites solves password-related usability problems with a dash of JavaScript, and employs content strategy to help your site do the right thing at the right time:

The Problem with Passwords

by LYLE MULLICAN

Abandoning password masking as Jakob Nielsen suggests could present serious problems, undermining a user’s trust by failing to meet a basic expectation. But with design patterns gleaned from offline applications, plus a dash of JavaScript, we can provide feedback and reduce password errors without compromising the basic user experience or losing our visitors’ trust.

Words that Zing

by COLLEEN JONES

When someone consults a website, there is a precious opportunity not only to provide useful information but also to influence their decision. To make the most of this opportune moment, we must ensure that the site says or does precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. Understanding the rhetorical concept of kairos can help us craft a context for the opportune moment and hit the mark with appropriately zingy text.

Mandy Brown

Our 300th issue also marks the debut of contributing editor Mandy Brown. Mandy is a Creative Director at Etsy. She worked for nearly a decade at the venerable publishing house W. W. Norton & Company, where her work involved everything from book design to web design to writing about design. She writes about the reading experience at A Working Library. We are thrilled to add Mandy to our creative team.


Illustration: Kevin Cornell for A List Apart