Lessons in business, content and design from my first visit to America

Sonja Jefferson

Four big lessons Sonja Jefferson took back from her trip to Chicago as a speaker for the HOW Interactive Design conference 2015.

The Bean Chicago HOW InteractiveThe best and biggest inspiration often comes when you remove yourself from the day to day, don’t you find?

On Monday I gave a talk on content strategy at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in Chicago – I know, Chicago! Check me! I’ve never visited the United States before so I was seriously excited about this. The trip came after 5 months of working heads down on a very intense project so it was also a great chance to look up and out.

Mid air, mid Atlantic with a bit of time to reflect on the way home I’m still buzzing from the experience. There are many ideas I’m taking away from this trip – for my business, for our content, for our clients, for the future – and I thought you might find some of them useful too.

Here are four biggies I’ll be taking back home from Chicago.

1. Showcase messy reality – that’s what people really want to hear

HOW Interactive Design was not your average business conference where ‘experts’ take centre stage and lecture on best practice, leaving the audience feeling awed but inadequate.

My clever friend Chris Butler of Newfangled Web was programme director for the HOW Chicago event, asking us speakers to present real life case studies: messy, behind the scenes, less than perfect stories, showcasing where things go wrong as much as what goes right.

The messy reality of content strategy

The messy reality of content strategy

With so much polished advice out there these days a view into the scruffy reality of projects is a tonic, and the audience clearly appreciated it.

Something to remember for events and presentation in the future there – thanks Chris.

2. Web-driven change is a very human challenge

This was an interactive design conference so the focus was on web, but the challenges front of mind for the speakers and audience were less technical and far more human.

Gracious, intelligent and open-minded, the HOW conference attendees included designers and leaders from Facebook, Google, Salesforce and Airbnb to the US government and the amazing National Public Radio and also creative agencies, freelancers, a weather company, even a cast iron cookware manufacturer – a great mix of people and a delight to spend a few days with.

Despite their varied industries, most of the challenges they described and questions they asked focused on the same issue – change: how to convince leadership that change is necessary, how to drive new thinking through, how to bring people with you on the journey to transformation.

Web-driven change is a very human issue.

My own presentation focused on the change challenge when it comes to content marketing. I told the story of our fabulous client Project One. Together with Ultimate their chosen design agency we’ve been helping to create and implement a winning content strategy to transform this consultancy company’s marketing, communication and brand and support long term business growth.

A year of content driven change at Project One

A year of content-driven change at Project One

What has made this particular project so fascinating is that the team at Project One specialises in driving real change for their own clients. We’ve learned so much from them about how to move people towards sustainable change, and it was great to have an opportunity to reflect and share this.

3. Get everyone in the room

Design, content, marketing, UX, development, sales, leadership, and of course the end customer too – if you want to make a difference, then cross-specialism collaboration is key.

We heard inspiring stories of small mixed teams solving big and complex challenges – breaking down the silos with egos put aside.

Emily Brick, senior product designer at Buzzfeed kicked off what became the conference’s big theme in her talk on small-team collaboration. I really liked her ‘show don’t tell’ message as she described how this approach has engaged Buzzfeed’s editorial teams in new product features, and made their lives easier in the process.

I know first hand how important this collaborative working ethos is in content-led transformation. Design and content teams have to work closely together with a business’ leaders and in-house subject matter experts to make and sustain the change.

Content AND design, always

Content AND design, always

This is exactly how it’s worked at Project One. I’ve rarely worked on a project with such close and trusted collaboration between all parties, and this makes a successful outcome far easier to achieve, and the process is a lot more fun too.

‘Get everyone in the room’ is a great mantra.

4. It’s not about you

The older I get, the more projects I work on, the more I realise that this customer-led approach is THE secret of successful design/marketing/communication. Good design is not about you – it’s in service of the user.

At the HOW conference we heard examples of projects winning with this ‘other-focused’ approach.

It’s only successful when it’s led right from the top. We got lessons in leadership from Russ Unger, director of experience design at 18F- a team of top-notch designers building better digital government services for citizens. Russ told us that the CEO of the US (er, Obama) is 100% behind user-centred design. How about your CEO?

Ian Fitzpatrick showed us how his agency worked this way to change New Balance brand perceptions and make their trainers relevant to a younger audience. He gave us some of the best soundbites at the event too:

“Be the amplifier, not the sound track.”

“Be generous to a fault. What do these kids need?”

“Make it so damn easy for people to show up and do what they already have to do.”

“Don’t make them ‘engage’ with your brand.” Who ever wants that? “Lower the friction.”

And in my favourite talk, Daniel Newman – deputy creative director at NPR (that’s National Public Radio for us Brits) gave us insight into the development of the very successful NPR app with loads of ideas for delivering valuable content – audio or otherwise.

Here’s a company with a clear customer-focused purpose, continually watching and learning how their content is received so they can make it even better over time. I was heartened by Daniel’s data on ‘Skip Rates’. Audio content that was more self-referential – it talked about the company in headline and summary – was far more likely to get skipped by listeners. Content that immediately explained why the topic mattered to the listener was more likely to be clicked, listened and appreciated.

A nice bit of proof that if we want our content to connect, make it not about us – put the customer, the reader, the listener first.

Those are my big takeaways from my time* at HOW Design in Chicago (did I tell you, I went to CHICAGO!). Perhaps you’ll find them useful when it comes to your content too.

I’d also like to take back home a bit of Chicago spirit – a bold city with a big vision, determination and palpable drive. Just what we need as we work to bring our vision for Valuable Content to reality.

A few thank you’s for an amazing trip:

  • Big thanks to Chris Butler, Bridgid Agricola and Amy Conover for getting me out there and putting on a first class event.
  • To the fabulous HOW audience – good luck with the content and your careers and do keep in touch.
  • To Geoff Mason, Project One and their design partners Ultimate for letting me tell their story (and being such great collaborators along the way).
  • To Lizzie and Sharon for the creativity behind the presentation I gave – the Land of Content map went down a storm.
  • Thanks to Tim Belonax of Airbnb for his talk on side projects – you’ve really got me thinking.
  • And finally, to lovely Nicky for showing me around the city – the perfect guide. And to Jim for the lovely photo of the Bean too.

* I had to leave the conference before the end so didn’t get to see the later talks. Bit sad about that, so if you attended the event and heard these later ones do let me know if there were any related themes that came through strongly.

Thanks HOW!

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