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Future Practice Interview: Ginny Redish


As part of our Future Practice webinar series, we’re interviewing presenters to give you a preview of what they’ll cover. Next up is Ginny Redish on content as conversation. Ginny’s long list of accomplishments include co-authoring (with JoAnn Hackos) the classic User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, her soon-to-be-considered-classic Letting Go of the Words, and serving as a mentor to many in the field.

Her webinar Shifting Your Focus: Content as Conversation (four-minute preview) takes place on May 28, 2009, 1-2pm EST. Use code RMWBNR for a 20% discount off your ticket purchase.

Lou Rosenfeld: Ginny, I’m really looking forward to your webinar. Let’s start with a fundamental question: why is content such an overlooked aspect of the user experience?

Ginny Redish: That’s a very good question, Lou. I’m not sure why. For a long time, content was typically left for last and given so little thought. I’m happy to say that the situation is changing. Content and content strategy are hot topics now, as you can tell from the great response you had last month to Kristina Halvorson’s webinar on Content Strategy.

Content is critical to every web site.

I recently talked with Rahel Bailie. Rahel makes the important point that web content is a major asset for organizations, just like finances, hardware, software, and widgets. Organizations inventory and manage their finances, their hardware, their software, and their widgets. Their web content needs just as much attention.

People come to web sites for the content. Great IA is critical—to get people to the content. Great design is critical—to get people to the content. But in the end, it’s the content that is necessary to satisfy site visitors’ conversations.

Lou Rosenfeld: What do you mean by content as conversation?

Ginny Redish: Every use of your web site is, in fact, a conversation started by your site visitor. Just think of your recent web experiences. Why did you go to whatever web site you went to?

A brief case in point: my husband and I went to see a play last night. After we got in the car, we realized that we didn’t know exactly where the theater is. He pulled out his iPhone, went to the theater’s web site, and got the address so we could put it into the car’s GPS. He wasn’t interested in surfing the Internet. He wasn’t interested in spending time on the web site. He was just asking the theater’s web site: “Where is this theater? How do I get there?”

Site visitors may be asking “What rate can you give me for a car loan?” “What colors does that shirt come in?” “How likely am I to get this flu?” “What happened in the news today?” “What are the bloggers saying about content strategy?” “How do I sign up for Ginny’s webinar?”—and so on. Site visitors come asking questions. Your site content has to satisfy your site visitors’ needs by answering those questions.

Lou Rosenfeld: How does content as conversation relate to content strategy?

Ginny Redish: Content strategy means thinking strategically about your content. It means planning the content, coordinating content over the entire web site, and managing content over time.

As Kristina says, it means answering all sorts of questions about your web content. Those questions include how to select content, how to organize specific information within a topic as well as how to organize topics into a coherent web site. Those questions include what style, tone, and vocabulary to use in the content.

In asking everyone working on the web site to think of content as conversation, I am suggesting a successful strategy for selecting, organizing, and writing the content. Thinking about content as conversation helps writers chose a style, tone, and vocabulary that are part of a successful content strategy.

Lou Rosenfeld: Why is thinking of web content as conversation so important?

Ginny Redish: Too many web sites today are still “all about me.” They focus on news about the organization. Content owners think “I have these points to make” rather than “I’m communicating with a person who came to my web site with a need, a goal, a question in mind.”

Kristina quoted an extremely important point that Jesse James Garrett makes in The Elements of User Experience: “The single most important thing most Web sites can offer to their users is content that those users will find valuable.”

Thinking of content as conversation is the way to know what content your web site visitors will value. They value content that satisfies their needs, their goals, their questions, the conversations they want to start with your web site.

Lou Rosenfeld: Can you give us examples of some of the guidelines from content as conversation that you will discuss in the webinar?

Ginny Redish: In the webinar, we’ll look at many guidelines and examples. Here are just a few:

Don’t hog the conversation. If you write dense paragraphs of text and web content that goes on and on without breaks, you are hogging the conversation. You are saying “listen to me, listen to me, don’t interrupt me.” Many readers will give up. When I do usability testing, dense paragraphs often cause my participants to start saying, “yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah,” and then stop reading.

Take turns. Successful conversations allow each person to take a turn. In web content, headings are the site visitor’s turns in the conversation. That’s why good web pages break the information with well-written headings. And that’s why questions make wonderful headings for many types of web content.

Market when the site visitor is ready for it. On paper, you start the conversation; so you can put your marketing messages right in front of people. On web sites, site visitors come very focused on their needs, their conversation. You have to satisfy that conversation before your site visitors are ready to hear marketing messages that are not directly related to their need.

Respect your site visitors’ time. On the web, there’s always another web site, somewhere else to go, something else to do. Writing with simple, common words in short, straightforward sentences or bulleted lists or even fragments helps all of us grasp the information. We all read simple, short, common words quickly and easily; and high-literacy readers are often the busiest and least patient of your site visitors. Writing plain English is a way to respect your busy site visitors’ time.

Lou Rosenfeld: Is there any evidence that shifting focus to these guidelines makes a difference?

Ginny Redish: In the webinar, I’ll review an example I have in Letting Go of the Words where following these guidelines was the only change that substantially improved conversion rates. Adding pictures didn’t do it. Changing the design didn’t do it. Only changing the style, tone, and vocabulary in the introductory text made a difference.

Lou Rosenfeld: Will your seminar cover the same material as your book or take the discussion of content as conversation further?

Ginny Redish: In the webinar, I’ll go beyond what I covered about content as conversation in Letting Go of the Words.

Yes, I introduced content as conversation there, and the book includes lots of guidelines and many, many examples of web sites. However, in the workshops that I’ve taught for companies and government agencies since I wrote the book, I’ve come to realize that the concept of content as conversation is even more powerful than what I wrote about in Letting Go of the Words.

Content as conversation helps us frame and explain many of the guidelines, and I’ll use it that way in the webinar. Content as conversation connects very well to content strategy, and I’ll make and explain that connection in the webinar. Furthermore, although I’ll use some examples from the book, I’ll also have new examples for the webinar.

I hope lots of your web site visitors will join us for the webinar, Lou. In addition to what I have to say, webinar participants will have a chance to ask their questions.

Lou Rosenfeld: I’m sure it’ll be a great conversation; thanks Ginny!