Today I want to share a process that my team and I have been evolving to create effective content more collaboratively.
The evergreen state college, public liberal arts college with about 5000 students.
Meetings are terrible because they’re boring. They’re boring because nothing gets done. Or because one person is doing all the talking. When people are writing together in meetings, usually they’re all staring at a piece of paper that already has all the words, and nitpicking the heck out of every comma.
So you think: let’s just do all of this by email! But people have a harder time understanding nuance and complexity, or they get attached to their words. And then you have to have a meeting anyway where all of that horrible stuff happens.
Over the last two years, our team has come up with a process that’s more fun than normal meetings and more productive and flexible than email.
We believe in being user-focus and in iterating through both process and the work itself. We also really enjoy each other’s company and enhance each other’s strengths.
The process in brief is what we call Work Sessions. Here’s the overview.
When we revamp a section of our website, we gather a group of people in that area for regular working meetings.
We start by discovering the audience and goals.
Then we get them to talk about those goals and write lots of notes, which we share during the meetings themselves.
Inbetween sessions, we craft the notes into initial content and start working out the IA.
As we go, we organize and refine the content, until the audience’s goals can be met by the content.
As a team, we’ve revamped about 20 site sections using this process.
It’s a process that we’ve come to in several iterations over the last two years. Here’s why I think it works:
We engage everyone on the team, and we encourage empathy for the site user
Putting work into the meetings helps people feel like they aren’t wasting time.
Putting focus on the process as much as product gives us more control over the voice and tone of the site as a whole.
We’re also building common frames of reference: the clients get a better feel for what makes good web content, and we get to understand what they do, why they do it, and how it interacts with other content on the website.
And ultimately, we serve the needs of the people who the college serves. This is an email I got on Tuesday about a site we worked on earlier this year. This particular client was really nervous going in.
The other tool that we’ve had is a little trickier. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been rolling out a responsive redesign. If you’re interested in that, Justin & I were on the RWD podcast. What it gave us, in the process of revising site content, is a carrot. [expand this metaphor]
If you come talk to us, you’ll get this nice site.
The old design was pretty old, and the new design was new and cool and pretty. We had originally talked about just dumping all of the old content into the new template, but as we worked with our first conversions, we discovered that it was a terrible idea to move yucky old content into pretty new templates. So for the most part, to get your site in the new template, you have to come work with us.
You may not have that good of a carrot. In a few months, we won’t either. We’re about to change content management systems, and at that point everybody does get dumped in the new design.
But I have some theories about how to encourage people to work with you. First of all, start with someone who knows their website needs work and who already likes your team. Ask them to be a pilot project or a guinea pig. That was part of how we started doing this process even before the redesign.
You may also have less exciting carrots and or sticks. Another one of our early projects, no one on that team had access to our CMS yet. If you have something that they want, you have an opening to at least try.
And if it goes well, they’ll tell people.
There’s a formal definition of active listening, but what I mean mostly is engaging your clients and paying attention.
[more bullet points]
Eye contact. Lots and lots of eye contact. Patience Multiple team members working together, good cop bad cop? Let them talk amongst themselves Don’t be hangry.
Also, fast typing. Something here about therapy?
I don’t know if this slide actually goes in the audience and goals section?
Also notes from http://www.elainenelson.org/2015/10/11/communication/
We meeting in a conference room with a big screen on one wall, and at least one of us always has a laptop to take notes. The notes go on the big screen. That means everyone in the room can see them, make sure they’re being heard, and see if there’s anything we’ve missed. It reinforces the listening and questioning, and feels like something is being created through the process of the meeting.
Other reason to have more team members, one person catching up typing, other is keeping everyone engaged.
Once you’ve got all of your tools assembled and a project lined up, you’re almost ready but it’s important to kick it off right with the right mix of people.
The first most important thing is getting the right people in the room; not too many (5 seems to be about max, not including us) and not too few.
If you have someone around you who’s good at sussing out interpersonal stuff, get them involved in picking participants and navigating amongst them. Thankfully, this is one of Susan’s strengths!
You want people in these meetings…
Who know the content. Not just the words on the existing pages, but the underlying information.
So for the advising site, Kitty. For recreation, we have operations staff and the clubs advisor.
Who interact with the audience and this is sensitive – people who have sympathy for their audience. There’s a lot of people who are burnt out by the problems of the people they supposedly serve. If you can get someone with compassion over someone with disdain, do it.
Who edit the content regularly. You want them to understand the decision-making that’s going to happen, because they’re going to have to carry it forward.
MPA story. (be detailed)
Who can make decisions. Decision-makers can be hard to get. And this is the place where we’ve had the most noticeable issues.
Decision makers are hard to schedule because they’re already in a ton of meetings, but they can also completely stop the entire process if they’re not engaged.
Decision maker IN THE ROOM as much as possible.
The VP said she would delegate to a set of gift officers, but then
There’s a project where we’d gotten a really solid structure and hierarchy, but because the big cheese was new and hadn’t been involved, we had to stop and re-evaluate everything when we thought we were about to launch.
On another project, we thought there was communication going on between the designated person and the next person up, but it turns out that higher-up was more skeptical than anyone realized and the project ground to a halt.
Related to the problem of decision makers is the problem of client teams that have problems of their own.
If the team you’re working with is having internal communication issues, you’re going to have a bad time. And frankly, this process may not help. It’s given us a few things to point at when clients are in conflict with each other – I’ll try to highlight those as I go – but there’s only so much you can do.
Happily, there are lots of teams that are not broken; sometimes they disagree but they’re at least all trying to go in the same direction.
Describe the recreation team.
Once we know who’s going to be in the process, we start with a kickoff meeting. You may already have a whole process around kickoffs, so here’s a few things that I think are relevant to our process works overall.
After a few missteps, we’ve discovered that it’s necessary to give our clients a frame of reference to reduce their anxiety.
We make sure everybody knows everybody else, and I talk through what’s going to happen before and after their revamped site launches. We remind them that our meetings will include doing things and not just talking about doing things. We remind them that it’s going to be a rough and iterative process; that we don’t know exactly what the end is going to be like. This can be really different from what they’re used to, especially if it’s a group that works with really strict and formal process in their work.
We explain the roles of our team within the process. This turned out to be really important because Justin sits in the meetings but doesn’t look like he’s participating. So I say something like, “it may look like Justin’s tuning us out, but he’s actually listening to everything and looking for images and other ways to visually highlight your content.” Which is true; he comes up with great photos from our archives!
Then we explain the parts of our design and how they work, and we show them what it looks like on different devices. That gives them our internal lingo for the template and a little understanding of why things are the way they are.
Here’s a few other little things that we discovered we ought to be collecting at the beginning so we could plan for them.
At least skim the details, if not reading.
Finally we talk about scheduling. Everybody’s busy, and if you’ve made an effort to get the right people, they’re probably extra-busy. But we do want the meetings to be close enough together that everybody doesn’t forget where we left off. Usually we pick a “good enough” time for a repeating meeting for either every week or every other week, depending on timelines. The meetings should be one hour. Otherwise, it’s just too long to engage that intensely.
This is also a good time to talk about: Who will approve things? Who can’t be in the room but still needs to be involved? What’s the best way to involve them?
So that’s the first meeting. If we’re fast, sometimes we can move to the next step right away, otherwise, we start at the next meeting.
All of our content development is organized in a in a way to help us and them think not about ourselves, but about the people who actually need this content.
And what we get out of this phase of the process is quite seriously THE MOST IMPORTANT PART.
We’ve evolved a worksheet to accomplish that in developing the site content by first identifying who needs this content and what they want out of it.
We ask the clients to identify three audiences: a primary audience, a secondary audience, and a tertiary audience. We’ll use these three groups to help identify, organize, and prioritize the key content for their site.
Then we’ll ask them to articulate the goals of people in each audience: what do they need from the site? What do they care about most? What questions do they ask?
Finally we’ll ask what goals the clients have for their audience: what do they want those people to do or understand?
The worksheet is also a way of demonstrating that our meetings will always be working meetings. As we’re talking through it, I have the Word document projected so everyone can see as I type and review that I’ve captured what they said and that they haven’t missed anything they wanted to include.
This is also where we start using our question-asking and our active listening skills. Because this is the foundation, it’s important to help them think critically and come to an agreement about who their audiences are and what they need.
We used to get a lot of “our audience is everybody” but what has happened more recently is that people don’t want to prioritize, or that they have five or six audiences.
We ask them for just three audiences in order so we can all prioritize content later based on a shared frame of reference. If something has to be bumped out of the navigation or off of the home page, or if something gets highlighted, we want a good reason why. Knowing whose use is most critical helps; so if they get stuck, we remind them why we want them to choose.
You may be able to help them by thinking behaviorally instead of demographically. For the giving to Evergreen site, “donors” was really too broad to use for prioritizing; they decided to have “top of the funnel donors” as their primary audience because those folks were most likely to have the web as their primary point of contact, rather than a phone call, letter, or visit.
For recreation, we talked through all the different people who use their spaces and services, before landing on “people who want to use the rec center” – students also appear as a secondary audience for some specialized information.
We don’t say this up front, but often the tertiary audience ends up being a grab-bag of one-offs. But it’s ok, because they’re at the bottom of the list!
Once the audiences are set, which takes a meeting or two depending on the site and the clients, we start identifying goals.
Again, to build that sense of empathy – and to make the site most useful – we start with the goals of the audience. These are the Actually Frequently Asked Questions. You and I know that we don’t want these to end up as an FAQ document, but it’s a helpful way to start understanding the concerns of the people using the site.
There’s also multiple levels of goals: the meta-goal of “Get into a class that I want” vs “What do I do if I need a faculty signature?” Encourage them to think big and small. Also, “do you get that a lot?” is a remarkably useful question.
When you move into the clients’ goals, often we find that their goal for the audience is that everybody read and understand all the rules and policies. Which is never going to happen. Bring up EULAs if you need to, and help them focus on how their goals help the audience.
Rework this to also: “engage” – “sign up for our newsletter” – “read the blog”
Two questions that I use are “What could they do that would make them more successful?” and “What do you wish they would ask?”
Finally, don’t be afraid to push back on vague or process-oriented suggestions for goals. “…in order to…?” can be helpful in helping them think a little bigger.
This usually takes another session or two. Sometimes we finish up the audience in our second work session, get into the primary audience goals, and then finish goals at the third session.
Of course all of this is happening assuming that the clients know their audience pretty well. If you’ll remember, that’s part of why we try to be smart about which people we include.
But we always use analytics as an effective addition to the process, because we can see what people are doing with what they’ve got. In particular, we pay attention to top pages visited and landing pages, as well as the navigation paths to and from those pages. Justin’s favorite example comes from asking some folks in a program “do people ask how much it costs?” The response was “not really”, but when we looked at the analytics, that was one of the top pages. So obviously it’s important, even if no one asks in person or by email.
We already have a process to do monthly usability testing [with this an it’s awesome], so sometimes we’ll do that with a site after or in the middle of discovering audience and goals. This turns out to be especially useful if the client thinks the site is fine and we’re pretty sure it’s terrible. There’s nothing like seeing people struggle to accomplish a goal that you’ve said was really important!
In at least one very lucky situation, we were able to interview an audience member and get a completely fresh perspective. I would love to do this more often, if only there were more hours in the day.
And every so often, we’ll have a site whose audience overlaps pretty strongly with a project we’ve already worked on, and we can dip back into our old work for ideas.
[add screenshot of Just Enough Research]
Now that we’ve figured out the audience and goals together, we can actually figure out the content! So most of the rest of the meeting process – which is usually a couple of months, and we usually have two to four of them going on at a time – will be filled with asking lots of questions and going deeper into their frame of reference.
If I say “talk to me like I’m five” it cuts through the jargon.
Our approach to this phase has varied quite a bit, partially based on the content, partially based on the psychology of the group. Sometimes there’s so much that we need to cover that it has to be organized ahead of time. When we worked with registration and records, we actually had to break it into two phases because there was so much to cover and their availability was so limited. And some people like to prep ahead. [recreation, HR] Sometimes I’ve just grabbed the list of primary audience goals and started at the top and worked down. In any case, what we’re trying to do is use the same techniques of asking lots of questions and listening carefully.
It can help to decide ahead of time what topic or topics to cover in a given meeting. You may discover that who needs to be there will change for specific topics, and sometimes you’ll want to invite people from other parts of the college. This is great! I’m always surprised by how often we end up introducing people to each other.
When they have lingo, ask them to explain what it means. Don’t be afraid of looking dumb.
You say “and how do they do that?” as a nice way of saying “be more specific.”
[needs some examples, either with this slide or on another one]
Much like the Word document we use in clarifying the audience and goals, we usually have a draft site where I take notes during the meeting itself. So we end up with stream of consiousness notes piling up inside an actual web page.
This has a couple of useful consequences:
It makes us more approachable and ordinary. Some of our clients see what we do as techno-magic, which sometimes it’s nice to be mysterious, but sometimes it’s just nice to be another person who tpyos.
Like with the audience and goals, it can make it go more smoothly to review as we go.
People get comfortable seeing unfinished content inside the shiny new design. Because the site is going to keep changing, we want to reduce anxiety. Many of our clients are accustomed to dealing with print, and we’re reinforcing the fluidity of the web.
One of the terrible things about so many meetings is that they run over. Because I’ve got my laptop open, I’ve got one eye on the time, and when it gets to about a quarter till, we start wrapping it up. That gives enough time to post the last notes, to talk about what we’ll do next time, and to assign any homework. Keep the homework minimal, because most people are terrible at it.
Now we have the rough shape of the information to take away and craft into quality web content. Not just editing the words, but finding the highlights and visuals and discovering how to organize it.
While I’m editing, I’m looking for natural breaks to create pages, to put in subheaders, lists, and links, and to see what points might be missing. Occasionally we’ll also draw in some of the content from their old site.
At the same time, Justin is reviewing for pullquotes and looking for imagery to enhance the message.
We’re also starting to see how topics could be grouped or separated, and what words best encapsulate key concepts.
I try to have something to send to our clients before the next meeting, so they can see the work in progress and correct any errors that may have slipped in. In some cases, this also means reassuring people that it’s ok, that we mean for it to look weird now. One client in particular required several long conversations and some adjustments to the process, with more planning in advance, because they were that uncomfortable.
Keep doing this, working through all the goals related to the primary audience, then secondary, etc.
Something about home page as a special case.
This is also a great point to do usability testing, either as a comparison to where y’all started, or to check that your new content is meeting the stated audience goals.
Sometimes this is where it comes in handy to have that already agreed-upon list of audiences and goals, when the boss wants to push a pet project, gently remind them what they already agreed about.
Some cautionary tales in following up.
A “speed-dating” version Better follow-up, ongoing support
People get to talk about what they do to someone who listens. It’s a meeting that has a visible output. The sites turn out well.
This cheeeeeeeesy graphic was a “gift” to us from one of our clients.
"We love meeting with you"
development for site revamps
I have deep thoughts about nerdy things.
a common frame
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
We also have jargon.
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
We learned it the hard way…
• Is any specific content required by law or
• Are there URLs in print?
• Are there other marketing or social media
projects in progress?
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
at a time
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
• What kinds of jobs could I get with an
• Why do I have to write an academic
• How do I get an article to read for a class?
• Is Evergreen’s campus safe?
• What can I do at the Rec Center if I’m not
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
What would you have someone do if they
were just getting started?
How does it work? No, really: how does it
What do you say when someone comes up
to the counter? On the phone? When you’re
at a party?
How do people get it wrong? Does that
happen a lot?
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
Keep engaged & listening
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
You too can be…
• Invite the right mix of people.
• Understand the audience & goals.
• Ask questions & listen actively.
• Write in haste, edit at leisure.
• Be open and flexible.
Elaine Nelson ★ @epersonae
Elaine Nelson, The Evergreen State College
evergreen.edu ★ elainenelson.org ★ @epersonae