Arguments for the solo practitioner

Discussing Author Experience easily leads to talking about big investments, solving problems on an enterprise level. Talking with Lisa Maria Martin, we tackled the other side of the challenge: what can the individual who is solely responsible for content and content management in a smaller organisation do?

Lisa Maria Martin

Lisa Maria Martin

Independent Content Strategist

Issues Editor, A List Apart

Site: The future is like pie

Twitter: @redsesame

Rick: Good afternoon.

Lisa Maria: Good evening Rick. How are you?

Rick: I’m well thanks. Somewhat chaotic with a new project throwing a spanner in my plans. How are you today?

Lisa Maria: I’m good, thank you.

Things have been crazy lately. I don’t feel like I’m particularly busy, yet things gets scheduled in such a way that it’s hard to find a good time to sit down and think through things. Frankly, I’m impressed with me for reading your book.

Rick: I appreciate it.

Lisa Maria: I’ve not read another professional book in… six months. I have been travelling every other week for the past three months. I have not been on Twitter nearly as much as I would have liked.

Rick: Now you’re just trying to make me blush. I am honoured.

Lisa Maria: Do you have a game plan for what we’re talking about, or…

Rick: Pick your pet peeve in the overlap between your work and the book, or something that’s missing from the book.

Lisa Maria: Ha! That would be hard. It’s a very thorough book.

Rick: Thank you.

Lisa Maria: What’s on my mind the most when it comes to talking about authoring experience is where the individual practitioner fits into all of this.

There’s a lot to talk about in terms of picking apart the technical side of things, the functionality, the development challenges, the business challenges. There’s so much there. When you look at all of that, where does that leave your solo practitioner at a small non-profit, small government agency, or private sector place? He – or she, I should say – is stuck with a challenging CMS, a platform that’s interfering with workflow. Your solo practitioner doesn’t necessarily have the power to run things up the chain, or make changes.

What are they left with? What can they do?

Rick: That is a very good question. Because that’s what a lot of people are facing.

Lisa Maria: Exactly. I covered that a little in my talk about process at CS Summit. But I didn’t go into a lot of detail; I didn’t have the time or bandwidth to acknowledge a lot of the challenges you bring up in the book.

So, how do we kind of bring those two sides together?

Rick: I could say: talk money. But that’s a subject I want to keep for another session.

So, we have to start by acknowledging how many sides there are to the issue.

There’s the technical side, the platform itself. Then you have the business-finance side, and the business-governance side. You have the authors’ own behaviour.

Lisa Maria: Sure.

Rick: You also have the end users’ side. They are a part of the communication.

Those are the first five; I’m sure there are more.

I covered this in my Content Strategy Applied USA talk on Making the case for Author Experience (see slides). After the background to set the scene, we get to the wheel (slide 15). That is looking at different aspects you get from implementing a good author experience, and who benefits. Inside to out, you have the author, the business financially, the business as workflow, and the end user.

It gets interesting at the end (slide 28); there, we have the totals.

So the argument isn’t “I want to do these things to make my life as the author easier.” The argument really is “These improvements are going to benefit the business and its processes directly. They will make us more efficient. And in the process, we’ll create a better rapport with our audience.”

Lisa Maria: Yeah.

Rick: We have to phrase it based on those direct business benefits.

Lisa Maria: It goes back to the issue of making the case for any of the things we talk about. Making the case for UX. Making the case for content strategy. Making the case for anything that’s looking at improving those processes and improving the end experience for the user. They often go hand in hand.

Rick: Indeed.

Lisa Maria: Still, we end up with a lot of practitioners who feel like their hands are tied. They either feel they aren’t being heard, or they don’t see the way to make their case from their particular position. They are – or feel – too insignificant.

It’s… difficult.

Rick: That position in the organisation, the insignificance… that is perhaps the biggest challenge. It is about personal perception. And I won’t deny, it is reinforced by line managers’ and senior management’s behaviours. (And I am going to need to remember to include this subject when I have that talk about talking money.)

But I believe that if the solo practitioner can approach upper management, even in passing, and catch their attention with something that they care about – not the things they will tell the public they care about, but the ones that really keep them up at night – they will get their foot in the door, to have a longer conversation.

Then, it’s about presenting the value of these improvements to the organisation. And that will usually be about money, because upper management give a rip about the bottom line.

Lisa Maria: I think there are some organisations where money’s not necessarily the selling point. The point is to find management’s real values. And play to those.

Rick: Money’s going to take it in 99% of cases.

Lisa Maria: It is. But I was thinking of my experience in higher education. Money absolutely matters there: higher education is a business. They want tuition. They want donations.

But a lot of times, you can make a good a case without the financial numbers. Talk in terms of reputation; focus on how the brand will benefit. Emphasise how the perception of the university or the school system will benefit through user experience enhancements.

Rick: I can’t argue with that. Organisations like that – and even some small and medium sized organisations – have an understanding of the whole business that extends beyond just the money. They appreciate reputation.

The reason I think it is still such a hard sell is because a good author experience is not cheap.

Lisa Maria: True.

Rick: It’s hard to argue “it’s all for the brand” when you’re asking for more money than the organisation spends on any other project. Depending on the size of the organisation, that might only be a five figure sum, or it could be eight.

Lisa Maria: Pocket change. It’s fine.

Rick: I know. And it’s long term value. But the people who have to pay are trying to rationalise: “That’s a bit steep. Can we do just a little bit of it?”

I outlined that problem in the book (p28): if you implement only a small improvement, the returns are negligible. The value isn’t cumulatively additive; it’s multiplicative.

Lisa Maria: Yes.

It’s hard to do just a little bit at a time. All of these systems are interconnected; you can’t change one thing without having to change the other, which makes you have to change yet another thing.

Rick: Exactly. It needs to be viewed as one whole system. Otherwise, any improvement is just a patch job. It doesn’t fix the underlying issue.

Lisa Maria: You were talking about that in the book (p144): the upgradability of things. How it’s impossible to do a little bit, or just upgrade a piece at a time. You really have to overhaul the whole thing.

That, I think, when we’re talking about smaller businesses, is where things get problematic. They often can’t overhaul all at once.

Rick: I know. It feels like one of those intractable problems. The only real solution is bottom-up, but that’s seen as too big. And the surface fixes only cover the crack; they don’t fix them. So the problems will get entrenched deeper over time.

Lisa Maria: I try to advocate for making those little changes. It’s like taking off little bits, any bite you can chew on and not feel so overwhelmed. Money aside, from an individual practitioner perspective – you know, one person in an organisation: the one person responsible for content, the one person doing UX, or the one person who manages the CMS – that individual can feel overwhelmed very quickly, especially when trying to deal with something as daunting as how to manage content. Or how do we change our CMS?

And so, it’s like: “OK, what can you do? What are the little things you can do?” It’s recognising that you can’t change the whole CMS. You can’t buy a new platform. So, asking, “What can I do from my lowly position at the bottom of the corporate ladder, to make my life easier, and the lives of my co-workers easier?”

Rick: I still think the core is that the approach needs to be bottom-up. The improvements need to start with thinking about the whole environment as one system. All the parts of the business interact to make the whole business work. The same applies to the digital platforms that support the business.

This means making changes that no one will see. It means getting the different parts of the system to talk to each other in the same way, so that you can eventually make the more visible changes.

I find building analogies work well for this. The organisation wants you to put up pictures on the walls, but there are constant earthquakes that will knock them off. You could do a quick fix – use duct tape. But then you damage the paint work when replacing the pictures. You will be told to go ahead anyway; the consequences of a duct tape fix aren’t immediate, so they don’t matter.

Or they want a new doorway between rooms, but the whole building would lose structural integrity as a result. And not even duct tape is up to that one.

To properly fix these issues in bite-size pieces, you effectively need to replace the building’s entire foundations, one small piece at a time, without disrupting the people using it. (It would be faster and cheaper to tear it down and build the new one, but they focus on the disruption.) Once that Herculean task is done, though, the building is earthquake-proof. And finally you can put up the pictures they want, or put in the new doorway.

Which comes back to the problem as you outlined it. What can the lone practitioner do? They don’t have the leverage to fix the real problem. They see how absurd fixing it one piece at a time from the bottom is. And they don’t want to implement the duct tape solutions that will do more damage long term.

Lisa Maria: When you talk about a system like that, I completely agree. We need platforms that support the human system, the non-technical stuff. The basic business stuff. That’s where a lot of the work has to happen. We need to lay that good foundation in terms of understanding our workflow, our communication needs. How are we doing this stuff, technology aside?

Set aside what the CMS does; what it could do, what we want it to do. Figure out what the system we’re talking about actually does.

Rick: Yes. Let’s go back to absolute basics. It’s all about communication.

Despite the name, author experience is about supporting organisation-wide business processes. The technology is not the point. I would even say that the quality of the working environment, down to the desk, is more important. (Yes, the technology is critical – it must be the right technology to support everything else – but it is not the driver.)

Lisa Maria: That can be your appendix: the author experience that happens offline.

Rick: Really, it all happens offline. That’s fundamental to the whole thing. We have to treat everything as though it happens offline. We have to think about things in a larger context.

I was involved in a discussion the other day – the #bizheroes discussion on twitter – talking about seasonal content. Should we do it? What is its value?

My preferred example for that is Valentine’s. The whole thing is a marketing excuse that, if you think about it in a larger context, backfires. It’s supposed to be about love. But if you really love someone, you will be showing it every day, 365 days a year. There will be nothing special or excessive you can do for Valentine’s, because you are already doing it every other day.

If you only do it for the special occasion, chances are you don’t really mean it.

Lisa Maria: Yeah. Very true.

Rick: So let’s apply that same logic to our content, our communication. Let’s get the processes right – the human side of it.

In a sense – and this applies equally, if in different ways, to small organisations and large – the problem is the digital frenzy. Many businesses are getting on the digital bandwagon. “We’re a digital business now. Digital is really cool. Let’s do things the digital way.” They forget – or choose to ignore – that there is a business, there are processes. And human business, human processes, got us to the present. Digital couldn’t have done anything without business’ shoulders to stand on.

Digital is the new kid on the block. He can’t change all the rules.

Lisa Maria: Right.

Rick: Digital likes the quick fix. It likes making things now, to fix immediate problems. It even purports to champion A/B testing. But because of that short-term perspective, it doesn’t look at foundations. It doesn’t worry about processes – except where it can disrupt them. It doesn’t A/B test the long term impact of its own philosophy: the cumulative impact of chasing its own tail with endless changes against a slower start to build a process-driven foundation, but smoother sailing down the road.

Counter-intuitive as it may sound in a domain so entrenched in digital, I think that may be the biggest thing the individual practitioner can do: champion thought about process, infrastructure and long term value.

Lisa Maria: You’re right. That’s it in a nutshell. That’s the whole thing, right there.