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Making the Complex… Still Complex

We often talk about making the complex simple. For years, I thought that the biggest challenge in working on a large scale project was to simplify complexity for our clients. But lately, I’ve recognized a flaw in that way of thinking.

Simplify, simplify

I have a lot of great recommendations for how to simplify complex information. For example…

  • Start with a synopsis
  • Pull out the top 5 areas to focus on
  • Provide details at the end of a presentation, in written form, for those who are interested
  • Color code wherever possible

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reduce 1000+ (and 10,000+) page sites to a few bullet points or a handful of slides. I create excel sheets, word docs, PDFs, and PPTs to share findings and recommendations that address multiple problems with a variety of audiences across dozens of internal teams… and I try to keep it simple enough that we can discuss it in an hour or less.

I thought that was the goal. But now I’m not so sure.

In a recent meeting, things were going great. I’d simplified 17,000 pages to the “core” 800, and focused our conversation around 3 small areas. But my clients were frustrated. Everywhere they looked, they saw loose ends. It felt incomplete. But when they tried to look at the bigger picture, it was all too complicated.

It’s complicated for a reason

At this point, I’d like to share two stories that come to mind when I try to wrap my head around complexity, and why some things feel simple to the content strategist but complicated to the business owners.

  1. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. While this has been disproven over and over, the concept is sound: some things just take time. Half the value of a content audit is simply looking at pages over and over again until the site takes shape in your brain. Once you’re an expert, the small pieces fit easily into the bigger whole. It’s the difference between looking at letters, and seeing a sentence.
  2. Google only looks 3 levels deep on a site. If your site is 5 or 8 levels deep, you’re essentially penalized for appearing overly complex. However, if you’re a particularly complex and detailed site, you will likely go 5 or more levels deep. You’re not appearing complex. You are complex.

Both of these are difficult concepts to remember on a daily basis. When I try to simplify, I am acting as though we can make anyone an expert at a glance. But some things just take time. Particularly as a content strategist at an agency, I’m brought in to complete a task, and it can be difficult for clients to embrace the fact that they will still need to spend time and energy learning about what I did in order to take over when I’m done.

What do we do – if not simplify?

My clients didn’t need a simplified version of the site. They needed easy-to-grasp tools and concepts to help them make sense of their large, complex site. Nothing I did was going to make them experts at a glance, and nothing was going to reduce their site to an easy 10 pages.

In these cases, we can do more harm than good when we oversimplify. Instead, we need to be consultants. We need to make the time to answer questions over and over, while our clients learn to be experts. We need to provide tools, and share organizational techniques, and offer advice. We need to be patient teachers, rather than mere experts.

It’s a different mindset, but if we want our clients to succeed we need to account for the time it takes to master the work.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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