97 UX Things

Marli Mesibov - Design for Content First

August 17, 2021 Marli Mesibov & Dan Berlin Season 1 Episode 11
97 UX Things
Marli Mesibov - Design for Content First
Show Notes Transcript

Marli Mesibov discusses her chapter on designing for content first.

Dan Berlin:

Hi everyone and welcome to another edition of the 97 UX Things podcast. Dan Berlin here, your host and book editor. I'm joined this week by Marli Mesibov who wrote the chapter Desig for Content First. Welcome Marli.

Marli Mesibov:

Thanks, Dan.

Dan Berlin:

So can you take a moment and introduce yourself, please?

Marli Mesibov:

Sure. I'm Marli Mesibov. I am a Content Strategist. I work at Verily Life Sciences, which is a health and technology company within the Alphabet family. There, I oversee content for a couple of our health platforms. I focus on, as I tell my young nieces, I make the words that the Doctors say makes sense to the human beings.

Dan Berlin:

Nice. That sounds like quite the challenge.

Marli Mesibov:

Depends on the doctor. But yeah.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. Cool. And so can you tell folks about your career trajectory? How did you discover UX and how did you wind up where you are today?

Marli Mesibov:

Sure. So for me personally, it's funny, because there's kind of two stories to the career trajectory. There's the how I got into UX, which is what you directly asked. And that was a complete coincidence. I was about as lucky can be. I had bounced around. I started in theater and I was stage managing. And I worked in some films and commercials as a PA. And a friend said, you could actually sleep at night and have better hours and see your friends who don't work in those fields if you tried out software instead. And the first job I got in software, I was working for somebody who wanted to get into this UX idea. And he knew something about it. But everybody he was finding to hire was not in UX. So he basically hired talented people and said, "You know how to write, you know how to design, you know how to manage stuff. Here's a bunch of conferences, let's go to them and learn what we're doing when it comes to this whole user centered idea." And he was right. If you hire people who are interested in and invested in that idea of being user centered, we started going to I think UIE since, and is going to date me, but maybe UIE 15..., 13... was the first one I went to. And I went to that conference and Kristina Halvorson was giving a talk. I'll never forget this. She was talking about the voice and tone that comes through on the Ben and Jerry's website. She showed how key words that they use become a part of a personality. Then she showed us a Terms and Conditions page that was just so clearly not in that same voice. And I went, "Yes, words that make people think and make people feel, that's me. That's what I want to do." And then the other side of that is, at the same time, I'd been interested for a long time in working in healthcare. I'd thought for a while about going to medical school. Of course, I don't do well with needles, so that was pretty much straight out. My brother went to medical school to become a registered nurse. It's something that I care deeply about. And while working with first Digitas and later with Mad*Pow, I got to work with a bunch of different health care organizations. And it just opened up for me that that's the area that desperately needs... I mean, it's such a high priority thing. If we're gonna quote Princess Bride here, "If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything." And it's so complicated. We do have a very broken system. If there's anywhere that really needs a content strategist, people to understand what's the personality that goes along with these words, what's the message we're truly trying to get across, and how do we do that, it's health care.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. You mentioned getting into the field by realizing that, "Hey, I can write and I can design and this is the way to do it." How did you get into the design portion of that? So maybe you were a good writer to begin with, but then how did you turn that into the more design world?

Marli Mesibov:

Yeah, that's a great question. Something that really I struggled with in my teens and early 20s was the idea that I wasn't really creative. I had always loved to write, but it came so naturally to me that I assumed that anybody could do it. And there weren't a lot of roles that I saw, where somebody who liked writing and was super organized could be creative. I interned at a children's educational software company and I was a copy editor. After three months, they were like, "Yeah, we're done. Everything's been copy edited." Whereas the designers were there full time. They always needed illustrators, and animators, and I can barely draw a stick figure. But when I got into UX, and realize that so often with UX, while you do find true artists, you also find that some of our big D design is communication, and is working collaboratively with people who do the more artistic design work to get ideas across and to think through experiences. So I would say, I'm still certainly not... I'm never going to win an award. I've never even really been good. I would never sign myself up as a UX designer, right? But, UX was the first area that I found I could really be part of a creative team, because the content is such an integral part. Content isn't just the words on the page. It's the videos and it's the message and it's the way that we structure the information. It's the way we communicate.

Dan Berlin:

It's interesting what you said just now, it's actually a theme that's been happening throughout this podcast of the work is never one. There's an older mindset; e put something out into the orld and now it's done. I think his first came up in Jon obinson's episode. But the way ou just described it is the ame thing for content. In the ld way of thinking about it. It as copy editing and now we're one. But now, you've got ontent Strategy.

Marli Mesibov:

Yeah, very much so.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. Great. Let's turn to your chapter. Design for Content First. Can you tell us about that, please?

Marli Mesibov:

Yeah, this is something that is very near and dear to my heart. The first, I don't know, at an agency was that the first 20 projects, the first 100 projects that you touch? Again, I was very lucky. I wasn't just lucky that I happened to hear Kristina Halvorson speak. I wasn't just lucky that I was hired by somebody who was willing to give me a chance, who was willing to train me, I was also lucky with the timing. That talk was the first time that there had been a content talk at a UX conference. It was the year before the first Confab conference happened, which at the time was one of the first content strategy conferences to ever exist. It is still one of the most sought after, one of the absolute best content strategy conferences. And so I was able to find this core group of people who were figuring it out as they went along. The common theme was that people had found a problem and they were figuring out how to solve it. So the first 20 or 100 projects that I touched as a quote content person, which was sometimes a copywriter, and was sometimes a project manager who had this weird interest in making the words sound good. The reason I wasn't working as a content strategist yet, the reason most places weren't hiring content strategists, is because nobody was interested in paying money to think about content upfront, right? They would hire a design team and then at the very end, they would say, "Wait, these templates don't work for the content that we have somebody fix it." And this term started going around, this idea that we have to be content first. And it meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But over the years, I've identified that it can mean something very proactive, because you can be content first in mindset. Meaning from the second that you first look at designs, you're thinking in terms of what needs to be a template, what content do I have that needs to be accounted for, what does my audience need to see and read and hear that is going to help them accomplish this goal? But it can also mean a very specific set of steps. And I think that there's still to this day a gap for a lot of teams. They say, "Okay, we think content first, but we still end up at the end of the project, scrambling for time to do our reviews and it turns out that we need a subject matter expert, or it turns out that we didn't account for that template." And turns out that all the good mindsets in the world are not nearly as helpful as having a bit of a checklist to go by, a couple steps. So when I wrote this chapter, I wanted to do my part to put those steps into something concrete and say, "Great, you want to be content first, you want to design content first, you've got the mindset, you know it's important, fantastic. Here's what you have to do."

Dan Berlin:

Yep. It's interesting that when content first came about, I think the previous thing that we were thinking about was mobile first. And so we switched from mobile first to content first. Since then, though, it has stuck in terms of what is first? To your point, we have to start with those templates. What is the content and build around that? So it's interesting that did stick.

Marli Mesibov:

Yeah. I also think there's sometimes a misconception. That even the content team gets really overwhelmed. "Content first? You want me to write everything before we ever start?" And like, no, no, no, we just need to identify what are the priorities going to be, we need to do an audit and say what exists today that you're going to have to account for? Is this a redesign? Is this totally fresh stuff? Or is it a mix thereof? If this is an app, are we partnering with other organizations that have content already? If it's a dashboard what does the user research tell us about what people need and what they're trying to do? What's our mental model? Right? Are we trying to be more transactional? Or are we trying to be educational? Informational? Are we a place where you come for five minutes a day or place where you spend an hour once a week? I think designers may sometimes fear that this means that they're just coloring in the boxes. But that's not it at all. It's making sure that the designer has all of this great information to allow them to be super creative and super innovative. Because they know what constraints there are and they know what those goals are, what the what the messages need to be, what content needs to be accounted for.

Dan Berlin:

Yep, focusing on the right thing, which is the key message that we want users to have.

Marli Mesibov:

Exactly.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah. How about those steps? Can you dig in a little bit about those steps? And what designers can do to be more mindful of content strategy?

Marli Mesibov:

Absolutely. Different teams are going to have different variations on this depending on if we're talking a website, an app, a new thing, a redesigned thing, there's a lot of variation. But at its core, the very first thing that everybody in the team needs to gather around is understanding the audience segments and what their top needs are. We can't design something if we don't know who we're designing for and what that audience wants and needs to do. I think a lot of teams traditionally have stopped there and said, "Great, now this informs us." But content first means taking this step farther. I recommend the team prioritize what those needs are by literally assigning each one a number. People will say, "Well, these are all number one." And I'm like, "Well, make them 1A, 1B, 1C and then rename the ABC to 123. They can be very, very close, but ultimately, particularly when we think of things like mobile or Apple watches or all these different ways that content comes across, sometimes you got to prioritize. So if gun to your head, 123456, you can go up to 10, whatever. And then, when you come to a specific screen or space in your flow, you step aside from those needs and you figure out just one or two sentences, a very concise message about what do you want somebody to come away with from this moment, from this screen, from this page from this whatever it is? And it probably isn't, they can do this. It's probably a feeling that they'll have, and it's not usually a feeling about the organization, that they will feel that we're very trustworthy. It will be something more like they will feel ready to make a decision on this. So once you've got that message, use that message to identify which of the needs connect to the message instead of vice versa. We've got our message. We've said this is the area where somebody, the screen, the page, the step, where our audience will feel ready to make a decision and we know that their top needs are building trust, which we get through testimonials and connecting to support. Now that was one and two. And then you can design the page to support the message and those needs. Then at that point, it really fully goes to the UX designer who may say, "The best way to make sure that being able to connect to our support staff all the time is to put that in the sidebar. Or that means that our header should be as close to this message, but in better sort of marketing speak as possible, or we were going to give them 15 choices, but if we want them with the messages that they're really ready, then maybe we want to work on some functionality that will narrow those choices for them." There's a lot of decisions that can come out of that really simple just prioritize the needs, figure out which needs connect to your message, and maybe its needs number eight, nine, and that's okay. You may want to go back and figure out if somewhere you're connecting to need number one. But it's all about just thinking about that message and what we're getting across.

Dan Berlin:

That's really interesting. Coming back to those needs. The user needs are the core of what we're going to focus the content around. When we're doing that initial user research, that strategic research, when we're trying to find out what those needs are, is there a way to approach that in terms of the questions we could be asking users for their needs or a way to be doing that?

Marli Mesibov:

Oh gosh. I feel like you're quizzing me on a project we did a couple years ago. We tried to come up with a list of everything that on the content side I wanted to learn from research you were doing. The short answer is yes, of course. There's always information that we're going to want to learn. I think one of the key things that I always try to learn from those initial items is the difference between... There's this behavior change concept or behavioral economics concept that what people see far away... the metaphor is a city far away, all the buildings look the same size, but as you get up close, some are much higher priority than others. And so I always get really curious, what would somebody tell you that their hypothetical "I would do this, I would want this" is? Then what about when you give them a situation that says right now, what do you want? What do you need? And comparing those two, noticing the difference between what would entice them and what would help them in the moment. I also look a lot for what language somebody uses. We get in the habit internally of referring to organizational groups by their internal monikers and they often don't connect to what our audience refers them as. Recently, Verily renamed our user success team. If you had to guess what the user success team does. Any guesses?

Dan Berlin:

No. Making the user successful and getting more support?

Marli Mesibov:

It's customer support.

Dan Berlin:

Oh, no.

Marli Mesibov:

Right. So it makes sense once you say it, but we realize that we don't want that to trickle into our language, we don't want to start referring to things. And the same thing is true even more important when we're when we're building something, when we're designing something that people are going to need to use particularly in healthcare. When you've got health literacy to consider and people being just incredibly stressed. This can literally be life and death. And even if it's not, it can feel life or death. Right?

Dan Berlin:

You mentioned the the language or even the tone that you're using. How do you capture the way that you want the people who come after you in the design process to convey that language and tone. Is there a way that makes other people understand what you're hoping for?

Marli Mesibov:

Yeah. I'm a big fan of guidelines, big fan of documentation, but also sharing documentation in a way that gets people used to using it. There are a couple of great examples out there. 18F, the government UX agency, does a fantastic job with their voice and tone guidelines. And typically, voice and tone gets that voice is personality. Like you, Dan, are the same person, no matter where you are. But your tone is going to be different when you were doing this podcast from when you're catching up with your nephew. Right? And so similarly, an organization, although it's two dimensional, so I often compare it to a character rather than a person. We can't swear that we will always feel the same way about Brad Pitt. But we will always feel the same way... his character in Ocean's 11 is not going to change. It is the moment in time. And your organization is two dimensional in that way, but similarly to our Ocean's 11 Brad Pitt, his tone is different when he talks to Tess than when he talks to, I'm only remembering half the characters in this movie, but George Clooney's character. But again, his voice is the same. And so similarly, your organization... you want to think about what makes a personality. Now the key to what makes really good guidelines and makes them usable, is that you want to constantly be updating it. Anytime that you're creating something you want your team to be thinking about, "What tone am I using right now? And if it's not in here, does that mean that we have a new tone or that I need to readapt?" And every time that you create something that you're proud of, you grab that example and you add it to that page or that section or that area of the wiki on the tone. Because you want that to be a growing set of great examples that when somebody new is coming in and is like, "Well, what does it mean that our tone is parental but not condescending? That can mean a billion different things. Oh, it means that in our email messaging, where we are parental but not condescending, we congratulate people, but we never say I'm sorry for you. If they did poorly, we always say let's see what we can do now."

Dan Berlin:

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. That's super interesting. Any other comments about your chapter before we move on?

Marli Mesibov:

I'm really excited that I was able to be a part of this group, of this fantastic team of people creating these chapters and I really hope that our listeners, that new UX practitioners or or old UX practitioners will share their thoughts and will share how they're doing it differently or what we can build on together. Content Strategy is still a... we're the baby in the room compared to some of these groups have been around a lot longer. And I think that's reflected in our book as well. I know you and I talked about how for every 50 UX designers who would come up with a topic, you would you had to really search and find who are the content strategy practitioners who felt that they had something really concrete. So this isn't the tried and true, everybody's been doing it forever. This is, "Hi, I'm Marli. I've been doing this for a decade. And that's half as long as the people who have been doing it the longest, but it's only half as we've been doing. So you know, tell me how you're doing it. Tell me how we can do it differently. Let's keep building and growing the practice."

Dan Berlin:

Yep. And that's the mantra of UX in general. Critique us. Let's find ways to do this better. It's funny, we do only have five chapters of content in the book, but it'll be interesting to see how that may grow, if we have a v2 one day.

Marli Mesibov:

Yes, please.

Dan Berlin:

Yeah. So how about a piece of advice? Is there a piece of advice you'd like to convey to folks either breaking into UX or who've been doing this for a while?

Marli Mesibov:

I would say go to conferences. I know we've had a tough remote year, but remotely or in person, conferences are one of the best ways to learn. I think there's a lot of schools out there offering various courses. And yet, I've still found that the nice thing about a conference, particularly if you can go in person, is the opportunity to just see such a variety of expertise, and learn from people who are there. Chatting with the person at dinner who it turns out has been focusing on the same kind of project you are and becomes sometimes a lifelong friend. Sometimes just somebody who has that great piece of advice that you need to hear. And I'm a hardcore introvert and have to go hide in my hotel room at the end of the day of a conference and I still have yet to find a better way to learn about UX.

Dan Berlin:

Yep. Well, the good news there is that a lot of the people at the UX conferences are introverts too. So we're in that together. And that's a great point, because another point of that is that you can learn as much from a newcomer than as someone who's been around for a while because of fresh perspectives.

Marli Mesibov:

Oh absolutely, yeah.

Dan Berlin:

Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Marli, it's been a pleasure chatting with you.

Marli Mesibov:

You as well.

Dan Berlin:

And so thanks again for joining me Marli. Marli Mesibov wrote the chapter Design for Content First in the 97 UX Things book. I hope everyone enjoyed this episode and thanks for listening. You've been listening to the 97 UX things podcast, a companion to the book 97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know, published by O'Reilly and available at your local bookshop. All book royalties go to UX nonprofits as well any funds raised by this podcast. The theme music is Moisturize the Situation by Consider the Source. Joshua Berlin is the podcast transcript editor, and I'm your host and book editor Dan Berlin. Please remember to find the needs in your community and fill them with your best work. Thanks for listening