Every website faces two key questions: 1. What content do we have at hand? 2. What content should we produce? Answering those questions is the domain of the content strategist. Alas, real content strategy gets as little respect today as information architecture did in 1995. MacIntyre defines the roles, tools, and value of this emerging user experience specialist.
It’s time to stop pretending content is somebody else’s problem. If content strategy is all that stands between us and the next fix-it-later copy draft or beautifully polished but meaningless site launch, it’s time to take up the torch—time to make content matter. Halvorson tells how to understand, learn, practice, and plan for content strategy.
Most clients are good clients, and some clients are great clients. But some jobs are just never going to work out well. Herewith, a few indicators that a project may be headed to the toilet. Guarantee: All incidents taken from life.
Client asks who designed your website.
Client shows you around the factory, introducing you to all his employees. Then, behind closed doors, tells you: “If you do a bad job with this website, I’m going to have to let these people go.”
Client takes six months to respond to your proposal, but doesn’t change his due date.
At beginning of get-acquainted meeting, client informs you that someone has just bought his company.
Client, who manufactures Russian nesting dolls, demands to know how many Russian nesting doll sites you have designed.
At meeting to which you have traveled at your own expense, client informs you that he doesn’t have a budget per se, but is open to “trading services.”
Client can’t articulate a single desired user goal. He also can’t articulate a business strategy, an online strategy, a reason for the site’s existence, or a goal or metric for improving the website. In spite of all that, client has designed his own heavily detailed wireframes.
As get-acquainted meeting is about to wrap, the guy at the end of the table, who has been quiet for an hour and 55 minutes, suddenly opens his mouth.
Leaning forward intensely, client tells you he knows his current site “sucks” and admits quite frankly that he doesn’t know what to do about it. He asks how you would approach such a problem. As you begin to speak, he starts flipping through messages on his Blackberry.
Client announces that he is a “vision guy,” and will not be involved in the “minutia” of designing the website. He announces that his employee, the client contact, will be “fully empowered” to approve each deliverable.
On the eve of delivery, the previously uninvolved “vision guy” sends drawings of his idea of what the web layout should look like. These drawings have nothing to do with the user research you conducted, nor with the approved recommendations, nor with the approved wireframes, nor with the approved final design, nor with the approved final additional page layouts, nor with the approved HTML templates that you are now integrating into the CMS.
Your favorite client, for whom you have done fine work in the past, gets a new boss.
The client wants web 2.0 features but cannot articulate a business strategy or user goal.
Shortly before you ship, the company fires your client. An overwhelmed assistant takes the delivery. The new site never launches. Two years later, a new person in your old client’s job emails you to invite you to redesign the site.
Client sends a 40-page RFP, including committee-approved flow diagrams created in Microsoft Art.
Client tells you he has conducted a usability study with his wife.
Client begins first meeting by making a big show of telling you that you are the expert. You are in charge, he says: he will defer to you in all things, because you understand the web and he does not. (Trust your uncle Jeffrey: this man will micromanage every hair on the project’s head.)
As approved, stripped-down “social networking web application” site is about to ship, a previously uninvolved marketing guy starts telling you, your client, and your client’s boss that the minimalist look “doesn’t knock me out.” A discussion of what the site’s 18-year-old users want, backed by research, does not dent the determination of the 52-year-old marketing guy to demand a rethink of the approved design to be more appealing to his aesthetic sensibility.
While back-end work is finishing, client rethinks the architecture.
Client wants the best. Once you tell him what the best costs, he asks if you can scale back. You craft a scaled-back proposal, but, without disclosing a budget or even hinting at what might be viable for him, the client asks if you can scale it down further. After you’ve put 40 hours into back-and-forth negotiation, client asks if you can’t design just the home page in Photoshop.
IA is about selling ideas effectively, designing with accuracy, and working with complex interactivity to guide different types of customers through website experiences. The more your client knows about IA’s processes and deliverables, the likelier the project is to succeed.
Agile development was made for tough economic times, but does not fit comfortably into the research-heavy, iteration-focused process designers trust to deliver user- and brand-based sites. How can we update our thinking and methods to take advantage of what agile offers?
About the magazine
A List Apart explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices. Issue No. 273 was edited by Krista Stevens with Erin Kissane and Carolyn Wood; produced by Erin Lynch; art-directed by Jason Santa Maria; illustrated by Kevin Cornell; technical-edited by Aaron Gustafson, Ethan Marcotte, Daniel Mall, and Eric Meyer; and published by Happy Cog.
We bought our apartment in December 2007, securing it with what might have been the last mortgage ever issued in the U.S.
The apartment was completely renovated, from its dark wood floors to its schmancy new super-quiet dishwasher.
Over the summer, the formerly super-quiet dishwasher began to emit a high-decibel grinding noise 15 or 20 minutes into its cleaning cycle. It sounded like two airplanes whirring their propellors into each other. Or like giant lawnmowers attacking garbage cans.
We couldn’t find anything loose in the dishwasher — no stray steak knife caught in the motor, for instance.
We used the dishwasher a few more times. The result was the same. After 15 or 20 minutes of cleaning, the thing began setting up a drone that would have sent Thurston Moore reaching for earplugs.
The machine didn’t break, and it did clean dishes, but the noise was beyond bearing, and it seemed to us that the dishwasher must surely be damaging itself.
When you buy a renovated apartment, everything is probably under warranty, but you don’t get the paperwork or any information from the seller.
It took weeks of research and a few dozen phone calls, but eventually the wife got the dope. Our stuff was under warranty and a repair guy would come. No, not that day. Not that week. The month was looking dicey. How did Autumn sound?
We rediscovered the romance of washing dishes by hand—it really is quite therapeutic—and tranquilly waited for the great day to arrive.
Today was the great day, and I volunteered to work at home and wait for the repair guy.
Around 11:30, he showed up. He was polite, professional, and spoke mostly Chinese.
He spent about twenty minutes taking things apart and putting them together, then he called me over to explain what he had done.
I don’t speak Chinese (although I’m sure my daughter will) and he didn’t speak much English, so it wasn’t what you’d call perfect client-vendor communication. But through gestures, sounds, and a technical drawing he dashed off rather deftly on a paper towel, the repair guy gave me to understand that he hadn’t found anything wrong, so there probably wasn’t anything wrong.
He showed me that when you first turn on the water, you don’t hear a noise.
I agreed, but pointed out that the noise kicks in after 15 or 20 minutes.
He indicated that he didn’t have 15 or 20 minutes to wait for it, but if there was a noise, it probably didn’t indicate a mechanical problem, because there was no sign of damage to the machine.
On the paper towel, he drew the parts he had checked for damage, and pointed to their locations inside the machine. Since no parts were damaged, no damage had been done, and there was nothing he could do to diagnose or fix the problem.
I asked if he had found anything that might account for the noise, but the question only led to more drawing.
Eventually, through mime, more drawings, and remarkably well-timed nods, he communicated that he understood that the noise was not normal or desirable. He also conveyed that when we hear the noise, we should let the machine keep running, because eventually something might break, and then he or someone like him could fix it.
Of late nearly everything I buy has been defective in one way or another, and my service experiences, like this one, leave the matter perpetually unresolved. Recently, too, I have had several unrelated medical problems, and a visit to the doctor or doctors never quite seems to set things right. It is as if everything is broken, and everyone knows it, and we perpetually postpone the reckoning.
It’s back, it’s improved, and it’s hungry for your data. It’s A List Apart’s second annual survey for people who make websites.
Last year nearly 33,000 of you took the survey, enabling us to begin figuring out what kinds of job titles, salaries, and work situations are common in our field.
This year’s survey corrects many of last year’s mistakes, with more detailed and numerous questions for freelance contractors and owners of (or partners in) small web businesses. There are also better international categories, and many other improvements recommended by those who took the survey last year.
Please take the survey and encourage your friends and colleagues who make websites to do likewise.
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[tags]survey, web design survey, webdesign, webdevelopment, professional, alistapart[/tags]
Here it comes again
Coming Tuesday 29 July to A List Apart: the second annual survey for people who make websites.
Clients love to write copy. Well, they love to plan to write it, anyhow. On most web design projects, content is the last thing to be considered (and almost always the last thing to be delivered). We’ll spend hours, weeks, even months, doing user scenarios, site maps, wireframes, designs, schemas, and specifications—but content? It’s a disrespected line item in a schedule: “final content delivered.” Pepi Ronalds proposes a solution to this constant cause of project delays.
Landing a new job or client is difficult in this economic climate. Undelivered contractual promises and work environment shortcomings can transform that challenge into a long-term nightmare. Keith LaFerriere shows how to get paid what you’re worth; how to fight for control of your projects using management tools corporate cultures respect (even if they don’t understand your work); and how to tell when it’s time to jump ship.
Launched today, WebAssist Professional’s CSS Menu Writer™ for Dreamweaver takes the pain out of creating standards-compliant horizontal or vertical navigation menus with nested fly-outs.
I got to spend an hour with the program prior to its release, and was impressed with its flexibility and extreme ease of use. For instance, creating primary and secondary menu levels is as simple as pointing to your files and folders. If the client changes the approved site structure after you’ve already created your page templates, no problem: just drag files and folders to their changed locations and CSS Menu Writer will update your navigation.
The program comes with four horizontal and four vertical menus, each in 12 different color schemes—96 menus to start—with unlimited sub-levels. You can easily create Doug-Bowman-style “sliding doors” effects, as well as doing all the obvious stuff you’d expect to be able to do, like changing menu width, height, margin, and padding; swapping backgrounds and images; and saving custom creations as new presets to reedit or share with colleagues. The program also integrates easily with Eric Meyer’s CSS Sculptor.
CSS Menu Writer costs $99.99, but if you buy before May 27, it’s just $74.99.
While employed at a famous New York advertising agency twenty years ago, a partner and I created a TV commercial touting an over-the-counter medicine client’s revolutionary new cold and flu remedy for young children.
Only when the shooting and shouting was over did we learn that the product did not, in fact, exist.
The commercial whose every creative detail we’d had to fight for was never going to run.
The client—the marketing side of a product development group—had a budget of $60,000 to spend. So they spent it, even though the R&D side of the product development group had not been able to deliver the product.
It was not a liquid medicine that needed to be measured. It was not a pill that needed to be chewed or swallowed. It was a pill that dissolved instantly on the tongue. Or would have been, if the engineers had been able to create it.
During weeks of presentation, the client rejected campaigns that would have caught the attention of the nation’s parents. The client bought a safe campaign that called less attention to itself, then set about systematically softening its edges. My partner and I wanted to cast like Fellini or Woody Allen. We brought in amazing children of various backgrounds, their faces rich in character. But the client picked cute blonde girls instead.
And so on. Every decision, however small, required approval. Everything was a fight. A ladies-and-gentlemanly fight. A fight that sounded like polite, mutually respectful discussion. A fight with invisible knives.
We won some and we lost some. For all the back-and-forth with the client, the resulting commercial wasn’t bad at all. The first few times anyone—even the guy delivering sandwiches—saw it, they laughed. Afterwards, they smiled. It could have been okay. It could have gotten my partner and me out of that agency and to a better one.
After the shoot was completed, the client told our account executive that the product did not exist and the commercial was never going to run.
The client had known this going in. So why didn’t they let us win more creative battles? Because they wanted something soft and safe to show the boss who had the power of life and death over their budget.
Why did the boss give them $60,000 to produce a commercial for a product that didn’t exist? Because that’s how corporations work. If they didn’t spend advertising dollars in 1988, they wouldn’t get ad dollars in 1989, when (in theory) they would finally have a product to advertise.
Governments, at least the ones I know of, work the same way. Since last night, the city of New York has been paving 34th Street in places it doesn’t need to be paved. Why do they do this? To justify the budget. In a better world, money set aside to pave streets that don’t need paving would be reassigned to something the city actually needs—like affordable housing, or medical care for poor or homeless people. But cities are corporations—that Mike Bloomberg is New York’s mayor merely confirms this—and few corporations are agile enough to rethink budgetary distributions on the basis of changing needs.
Last week, in an airport, on one of the inescapable widescreen TVs set to CNN (and always set to the wrong resolution) I saw a commercial for a revolutionary children’s medicine product that melts instantly on the tongue.