Asking Questions

One of the hardest things to teach in a consulting space is how to ask questions. Yet our work as content strategists requires it: we need to get our clients, our users, and others talking in order to learn about their hopes, dreams, goals, struggles, the words they use, the phrases that confuse them, and so much more.

Yet time and again I witness others – and fall into the trap myself – asking questions that result in blank stares. Here are a few tips to asking questions that work:

Be Direct

We often like to preface questions with “let’s just discuss” or “let’s get a conversation going” to help people feel comfortable. No one wants to start an interrogation. But vague questions are harder to answer than direct ones. Don’t ask “tell me about your audience.” Ask “tell me about your audience’s top challenges.”

Don’t Provide Examples

I’m terrible at this. I often end a question with “such as…” Unfortunately, that means I’ve led the witness. It’s far better to finish the question, take a deep breath, and wait for them to come up with their own examples or directions.

Be Patient

Again, guilty. Actually, that’s why I provide examples! No sooner have I finished a question then I worry they don’t know what I mean. But when I can hold back the “I mean something along the lines of…” or “does that make sense?” and instead wait, productive responses come.

Send Questions in Advance

If you really want to have a conversation, get the questions over first so that the client or user can feel prepared to join or even lead the discussion.

Practice and Prepare

None of this is obvious or automatic. Write a script, with the exact way you want to phrase questions. Ask someone else your questions in advance. Read books such as Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal.

Good luck!


It Depends: How Long Should My Page Be?

One of the most infuriating – and most often used – statements in a UX practitioner’s vocabulary is “it depends.”

While it’s true, there’s no one answer for how long a page should be, how many items should be in a top-level navigation, or how many photos to have on a homepage, there are best practices and guidelines.

This week, UX Planet has published my article “Please Don’t Scroll (and other page length myths),” to explain what page length depends on, and how to make the right decision. Give it a read for some concrete explanations, guidelines, and definitions, such as:

“A concise sentence or paragraph has no unnecessary terms, but contains all the information required to be well understood and valuable.”

Check it out! People Don’t Scroll


Will Alexa Make Us Rude?

AlexaLast night my husband made dinner at a friend’s house. At our house, he often has 3-4 timers running on his phone as he cooks. At our friend’s home, there was Alexa.

As I sat making conversation, I overheard him say “Alexa, please set a timer for 4 minutes.” and I felt a rush of pride for how polite he was. Then I felt ridiculous.

Why should it bother me that other people tell Alexa to set a timer and don’t say please or thank you? Why should anyone care if you thank an algorithm? Continue Reading


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. Continue Reading


Content Strategy Gratitude

I’m grateful for many things, personal and professional. I’ve worked hard to build my career, and been exceptionally lucky to see that pay off. This year, I’m particularly grateful for:

  1. My amazing team of content strategists at Mad*Pow! Dana, Allison, and our newest addition Rick are brilliant strategists, fun to work with, and inspiring to collaborate with.
  2. The Content Strategy Facebook group. This is a caring, inquisitive, fascinating group of people who share relevant articles and get interesting conversations going. I love being part of it.
  3. Our favorite tools: GatherContent, and Mindjet. We’ve started using GatherContent exclusively for tracking workflows during content creation, and I couldn’t be happier. Mindjet is our go-to tool for sitemaps and IA creation, and I highly recommend it.
  4. My Mad*Pow coworkers. Our content strategy team is only as great as the people we work alongside, and luckily we work alongside some spectacular teammates.

What are you grateful for this year?


SEO Experts and Content Strategists: Stop Fighting!

I’m sick of fighting with SEO experts. Not because I dislike them, or because I think they’re wrong or they’re stupid. I’m sick of fighting because I know they’re right.

Every SEO expert I’ve ever met has known more about what Google will respond to than I do. They know more about how to get people to the site, and more about how to get Google Quick Answers, and more about how to make sure our content is what appears when people are searching for topics related to us.

So why are we fighting? Continue Reading


How to Workshop Domain Mapping

“Future-friendly content design starts from sharing a common language with the users we are designing for and the wider team we design with. The space and context we are designing for has inherent terms, relationships, and rules. Our role as UX researchers and designers is to tease out these mental models and resolve them into an overall picture of a subject domain.” – Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton, Designing Future Friendly Content

I recently began work on a project in an area completely foreign to me: construction. Although I’ve owned my own tool kit since my 17th birthday (thanks Mom and Dad!) and I’ve successfully hung paintings in my house, I’m not what you’d call an expert.

Content strategists aren’t expected to be experts in every industry we might ever work in. But the question remains: how do you learn enough to do your job well? Continue Reading