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Interview with Responsive Design Expert Sara Wachter-Boettcher


Our new Responsive Design Studio is coming up in just a few weeks! Join us in NYC, April 29-May 1, for three days with three multi-disciplinary experts: Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Jason CranfordTeague and Aaron Gustafson. Early Bird Registration ends this Friday, 3/30 so get your tickets now!

This week we sat down with Sara to pick her brain about Responsive Design tactics. Here’s what she had to say:

Rosenfeld Media: You came from a background in writing and editing. How does that experience apply to the content strategy consulting you do today, and what other skills did you have to learn?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Working in journalism, copywriting, and then web writing, I learned a lot about how to tell stories, set pacing—whether for a quick headline or a slowly unfolding feature—and communicate ideas. I learned to be consistent, yet lively. I learned how to adjust my communication style for my audience.

These are all skills I bring to content strategy work, but content strategy includes much more than just writing and editing, or even planning for writing and editing. It’s about having a clear sense of organizational goals, and defining how content is going to support them: What role will content play in achieving your vision? This takes a whole set of new skills, from interviewing stakeholders and helping them articulate big-picture ideals to identifying workflow problems to facilitating collaboration across groups that haven’t historically gotten along to understanding the systems that support content, like CMSes.

RM: What are some of the challenges you see organizations facing as they go about dealing with content?

SWB: Right now, mobile is such a tremendous challenge for organizations—and not just technically. Trying to make their existing content—which they often have a lot of—mobile-ready and accessible is a massive undertaking. And it’s not just because it’s hard work to clean up existing content and break it down into modular parts. It’s because doing so also means changing how the organization functions. So many of our content problems are really, at their core, organizational issues: departments that don’t talk to one another; leadership that can’t get the staff excited—and invested in—a vision; people creating content for their internal department, rather than for their audience.

You can’t just have people operating in silos creating “their” pages of content; you need people working together across disciplines to see their content as a system of interconnected assets—and that’s a big shift for both content creators and organizational structures.

In fact, the more I’ve worked on content strategy—and specifically on helping organizations adapt for mobile—the more I have come to realize that not only can I not just write all my clients’ content for them, I also can’t just make models and deliver “deliverables.” Instead, I need to spend the bulk of my time negotiating the people problems and political headaches that surround the content. That’s how content becomes sustainable in the long term.

RM:So what are some of the most common misconceptions about mobile content?

SWB: I think the biggest one is still the idea that “No one would want to do that on their phone!” I hear it all the time as an excuse to remove content from a mobile site. It’s often tied to this notion that mobile users are “on the go”—that they only want quick information or are only performing certain tasks. Sure, some mobile users are rushing out the door or performing a quick task while waiting in line, but many studies have shown that people are using mobile devices all over the place: sitting on the couch, from bed, at work, everywhere. Google’s research even shows that more people browse the web on a smartphone from home than anywhere else.

So while you might re-prioritize content if you have actual data that shows mobile users are more likely to want specific things on a mobile device, it’s a huge problem to assume they will never want—and to remove access to—some content based on the device they’re using. As Karen McGrane says, “you don’t get to decide which device they use to access your content. They do.” People are going to use any device that is available to them to do anything they need to do. Why do we want to make choices for them?

RM: It sounds like organizations have a lot of work to do, then. Where should they start?

SWB: The key is to work toward baseline accessibility of content regardless of device, and that starts with revisiting all those legacy assets and cleaning out the gunk. Do you really need 10,000 pages of content? Why? For whom? Does that content need to be so long, or is it full of fluff and repetition? Asking these questions can help you pare all your content down to just what matters most—on mobile or anywhere else. From there, it’s a lot easier to start looking at improving the experience of content in different contexts by adding structure: breaking it into its constituent pieces and parts so it can be reformatted, reused, and reshaped to fit different displays.

RM: Thanks, Sara!

There’s still time to get the Early Bird Discount for our Responsive Design Studio on April 29-May 1 in NYC! Join Sara along with Jason CranfordTeague and Aaron Gustafson for a three-day intensive course that’s interdisciplinary by design (so bring your whole team). Hope to see you there!