21 June 2011 ❧ Destry Wion
Listen to the latest podcast from our series featuring CS Forum speakers. This week, Richard Ingram talks to Destry about content strategy infographics, the diverse backgrounds of the content strategy community, and what web accessibility really means.
In the eighth episode of of the Content Strategy Forum podcast, we interview Richard Ingram, one of our featured speakers.
When we look beyond compliance, get testing with real users and the people who are actually going to use the website, actually are going to use the content… [accessibility] suddenly goes from just being compliance into a design goal.
Destry Wion: Welcome again to another episode in the CS Forum 2011 podcast series. I’m Destry Wion and this is, in fact, the 8th podcast in our series.
If you’ve been listening to our series, then you know each cast offers a discount code that’s good for a limited time, and this one is no different. Register by 1 July 2011 at csforum.eu, using code—podcast08—and get £50 off the standard registration rate. If you can’t use it, make sure somebody else does before July 1st.
Today I’m talking with CS Forum 11 speaker, Richard Ingram, who is making a splash these days with his Content Strategy infographics. Richard is a co-founding brother of Ingserv, a web and accessibility agency in Hastings UK, and a co-organiser of the recently formed London Content Strategy Meetup group, along with Elizabeth McGuane and Jonathan Kahn.
He’s standing by so without further ado, let’s say hello.
Destry Wion: Richard, thank you so much for taking some time with us today.
Richard Ingram: Oh, excellent. Oh, Hello. How are you?
Destry: Yes. How’s the weather in your neck of the woods? Hastings, right?
Richard: Yeah. It’s not too bad, actually. We’ve had one of those days where it’s raining one moment and it’s sunny the next, so I’ve kind of had this Anglepoise lamp which I keep having to turn off and turn on at regular intervals today. So it’s been one of those days.
Destry: Well, we’re getting the same thing over here in France, and I think I know where it’s coming from.
Destry: Well, Richard, for those people who have not had the pleasure yet, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Richard: Right. Gosh.
Destry: Where do you work? What do you do? How did you fall into this thing, content strategy?
Richard: I work at IngServ, which is a very small web partnership which is made up of three brothers of which I am one. And, like you said, we’re based on the English seaside town of Hastings. Since we sort of first took ourselves seriously, which was about five years ago, we’ve worked with some fantastic clients from many different sectors, public and private. But mostly, mainly, regional development projects. And my personal background is that I actually used to be a computer games journalist.
Richard: I started writing and reporting for gaming websites in the late 1990s when I was about 16 or 17, which was about the same time I started building websites. And for someone of that age, getting paid to play computer games was quite something. And, for a long while, I guess I considered myself to be a web writer, part information architect. I mean, I was already performing audits, designing site maps, wire frames. But the difference being was that the content was being developed concurrently, mainly because I had a hand in writing it. I suppose, in terms of exposure to content strategy, it began with Rachel Lovinger’s “Boxes and Arrows” article, and I think a lot of people have probably said that over the years. But the main difference is that I read it for the first time I think it was about two years after she’d published it. I mean, there’s always been a tremendous amount of overlap between the project responsibilities of a content strategist and an information architect.
Destry: Absolutely, yeah.
Richard: Because, most of the time, we’re kind of working to solve similar problems, really. And, in fact, this is something that I’ve tried to get across and illustrate in a few of my diagrams. I think the first diagram I did was a collaboration with a content strategist and it was incredible the amount of nodes and arrows that were pointing to the information architect and the flow that went between the two. So, yeah, reading about this discipline called content strategy kind of allowed me to neatly fuse my roles together.
Destry: I see, yeah. Interesting.
Richard: I mean, it’s strange, but I kind of still stop short of calling myself a content strategist. Not really sure why. I suppose it’s because I’m kind of just recently acutely aware of just how long others have been doing this fantastic work for, some people since the late ’90s. And I still kind of feel I’ve got to serve my apprenticeship for a little while longer.
Destry: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
Richard: Yeah, I’m kind of hoping one day I’m going to wake up and feel comfortable with it all, really.
Destry: Right. Well, you’re creating quite a splash these days with your content strategy diagrams, and I really like how they make you think about the relationships between the different fields, like you were talking about. I can understand you’re not comfortable with that label, “content strategist,” but I relate with “information designer,” I consider myself that a little bit. And, in your situation, I really see the data visualization track of information design. Do you have… You know of Edward Tufte, I’m sure.
Destry: Is he a little bit of an influence in your work at all?
Richard: Sure. He certainly takes his place among the people I have a tremendous amount of respect for. And there are a few others, people like Hans Rosling, whose TED talks are always great to watch. He takes something like a diagram and makes it into almost like a performance, a real event, and it’s tremendous. There’s also David McCandless, as well. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the book “Information is Beautiful.”
Destry: I’ve heard of the book, yes. I have not read it.
Richard: Well, to be honest, you don’t read it, you just look at it. It’s just fantastic. He’s got a blog of the same name, as well, which is a great resource for great info-graphics.
Destry: I’ll have to check it out.
Richard: And then there’s Aaron Koblin, as well, who currently heads up Google’s Data Arts team, and he’s done some fantastic work with data before. He uses crowd-sourcing techniques to create some just wonderful moving visualizations.
Destry: Well, why the content strategy focus specifically in your work? Certainly you see an interest there, but do you have other info-graphic work that you’ve done that hasn’t gotten as much attention?
Richard: Not really. I mean, I studied design and communication at a fairly low level, and I kind of put that to bed when I went to university. But I suppose the reason why I defaulted to drawing diagrams to explain content strategy was because I was having problems myself trying to understand parts of it. Usually my diagrams are kind of born out of a desire to solve a problem I’m having, or to put things into alignment in my own head. And so I remember the first diagram I did, I wrote a ton of copy for it, and it was going to be a blog post. And then I thought, “Do you know what? I could cut all that and just draw something?” And so I just started sketching this diagram, and then suddenly I thought, “Well, that gets it across in far simpler terms than I was trying to whittle on with this long blog post.” Yeah, so that’s kind of the reason why it fell with content strategy. It really wasn’t a conscious decision to do it, it was just kind of the best way of —
Destry: It was a learning process.
Richard: It certainly was, yeah.
Destry: God, that’s fantastic.
Richard: And I’m really pleased that other people seem to have been able to use them as well to try and understand certain parts of the practice.
Destry: Well, they certainly have, and, again, they’re making quite a splash. In fact, something came by them that’s probably fairly exciting, right? Kristina Halvorson had you build a raft out of poster tubes and sail to the US for Confab? Tell us about that adventure.
Richard: Yeah. Well, it was very exciting. The idea actually came… I was having dinner with Kristina in January, and a few other content strategists who were speaking at Confab, and I realized I was the only one at the table who wasn’t actually going to Confab. And so the conversation of maybe producing some posters was raised, and I thought, “Well, I think that sounds quite exciting.” We kind of settled on the approaches to the web content strategy one. It was quite well received by the community. It kind of seemed like the natural one to choose.
Destry: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Richard: It was just very exciting watching the reactions from people when they picked it up and unfurled it, and I’ve had some really lovely emails since from people telling me exactly where they’ve hung it. They’ve explained to me the reactions from their coworkers. It has been really, really fun watching the reactions from people.
Destry: Yeah, I’ve seen some backgrounds and like Twitter avatars.
Richard: Yeah. They are particularly pleasing.
Destry: That’s really cool, that’s really cool. It’s like seeing your face on a billboard or something.
Richard: It is, yeah.
Destry: Well, you’ve also recently, a lot of people are checking this out, have put in quite a bit of time on a survey, probably the first comprehensive survey of content strategy or content strategists ever. And there’s been some interesting observations from that that I’ve noticed, like backgrounds and where they’re located. The results are online. You’ve no doubt pored over them pretty good at this point, better than most people. What sort of things have you been noticing of interest?
Richard: Well, I suppose I should just start really by directing just how much fun I had running the survey, and thanking everybody who participated. I ran it anonymously, so people who responded to it didn’t have to give their name, their age or anything like that, or a specific age or the company they were working for.
Richard: I think it’s really helped. I think that people were far more open with me and I think that they made the results… I think this really breathed life into the results. In terms of what I’ve found, it’s helped to confirm a few pre-held beliefs, really. Besides one or two who may have gone directly from education luckily to an agency that already practiced content strategy. I don’t think anyone who practiced it today could actually admit to starting their career doing it, because it wasn’t around.
Destry: Right, yeah.
Richard: When you look at the results, I think it’s just over 60 percent of respondents were aged between 30 and 45.
Destry: Right, yeah.
Richard: So the question is, where did they come from? One of the things I did was I asked the respondents what they were doing five and 10 years ago and how did this relate to what they were doing now. Yeah, actually, what’s interesting is that I’m wondering now if 10 years went back far enough. Because when you read about Razorfish in 1998 hiring content strategists, you think, wow, there were people out there who were doing it well before that, which is very, very exciting. I suppose, not surprisingly, there were quite a few people who arrived with editorial experience. But I suppose, overall, it appears to be true that content strategists require a particular background as such.
Judging from their past experience, everyone will be able to bring something different to that role. We always have people with backgrounds in stage management, radio production, teaching, editors, you name it. It’s incredible, the diversity of the backgrounds of the respondents. I’ve been just really surprised, but at the same time thinking, well, I kind of expected that.
Interviewer: Yeah, well, it’s a very interesting survey. One of the things, a couple of interesting things that rose out of that to me was the low experience that people had with accessibility and localization work.
Destry: I mean, I was looking at the Ingserv website and noticed that you guys have an accessibility focus a little bit.
Destry: How did you feel about that? What did you think about it? Do you think it seems normal that people are just not aware or had had much exposure to that kind of thing?
Richard: I think that the question was, which of the following areas are you competent? I think everyone has a different interpretation of what competency is. Some, for example, ticked a huge amount of the list and kind a thought, “Yeah, I could do that. I’ve done that before; I could do that.”
Richard: Whereas others felt, “No, I’m good at this, I’m good at that, but I’m not so good at that so I won’t tick that.”
Destry: That’s interesting how you can even pick that out and put yourself in the minds of how they were even selecting those boxes, yeah.
Richard: A few chose a few they were really good at, they specialized in that particular area. I mean, looking back, I maybe could have phrased the question better, but I wasn’t surprised by those scores for accessibility and localization. I think it just demonstrates that we do need to be having more conversations around these particular areas.
Destry: Absolutely, yeah.
Richard: I mean, the approach that we take to accessibility at Ingserv is that we look beyond just compliance, because for us, accessibility is so much more than creating something for people who are visually impaired. People tend to think of screen-reading compatibility that they’re provided with an accessible website. But they don’t think about, for example, someone with a repetitive strain injury in their hands, which limits their movement with a mouse or something like that. Someone with limited motor movement who requires something like a touch screen or a voice recognition.
Richard: We can do all the things we like to make a site compliant. We can go through the list and make sure we’ve checked all those things. And that’s absolutely fine, that is a level of accessibility. But compliance may suggest that people haven’t really thought about this. So when we look beyond compliance, get testing with real users and the people who are actually going to use the website, actually are going to use the content, actually are going to use the content on a mobile device. It suddenly goes from just being compliance into a design goal.
Destry: Right, absolutely, yeah.
Richard: We firmly believe that it really shouldn’t be a case of arriving. Accessibility shouldn’t be something that you consider after a site is already finished, or after an app is already finished and released. Again, you’re thinking, “Well, we haven’t made it accessible yet, but that’s coming soon.” I mean, we generally do not ask our clients to even ask for it, because we just build it in right from the get-go, really.
Destry: Right, exactly.
Richard: Yeah, I’m not really surprised by the low scores, because it is a tough area. It is a difficult area. It requires a lot of thought. I suppose in a way, I’m thinking, “Well, the people who responded to the survey were just being very obvious.”
Destry: Well, certainly, yeah.
Richard: Which is absolutely great. And what it does is, it just demonstrates that, yeah, we need to be thinking about these areas more.
Destry: Right, yeah. Well, comprehension of content, too, is another very important accessibility concern.
Destry: That is inherently tied to the content and putting content first. I would imagine things like plain language is an important consideration in that, too, and reading level and all those kinds of things. Well, very interesting. I mean, you could, in fact, be an authority speaker or something of the sorts on content strategy and accessibility. I mean, the phones will be ringing now, so prepare yourself.
Well, Richard, one last question, if you don’t mind.
Destry: You talked about this recently in London at the London CS Unpacking Confab — or what was it exactly? Unpacking Confab…?
Richard: I think it was Wrapping Up Confab, Unpacking CS Forum.
Destry: There you go. You should know. I should know that. But especially you should know that. You’re one of the co-organizers of the new meet-up group there. Yeah, that’s exciting.
Richard: That is true, yes.
Destry: Yeah. Well, OK, spill the beans about what you’re going to do at CS Forum in September. I mean, there’s a little bit about it on the website, but share with us like you shared with us like you shared with the lucky bunch in London that night.
Richard: Well, hopefully, what I’m hoping is that it will be the combination of an interesting experiment. I’m hoping that the survey heralds just the start of the community’s participation. In a nutshell, I’ll be attempting to create a diagram, which will try and plot the different routes that we’ve taken to reach the practice of content strategy.
Destry: Yeah, exciting.
Richard: So the survey data will play a part in that, but I do want people to contact me with stories, contact me with their own particular background that they feel could help shape this particular graphic. And shed some light on how diverse skills and experience could be applied to the modern web team.
Destry: Right, OK.
Richard: What I’m really hoping is that it will reveal some of the interesting specializations that are going on under the surface. For example, I specialize in accessibility. I do think that there will be some interesting other areas that may reveal themselves. What I really hope it could possibly do is to serve as a road map for anyone wanting to get into content strategy. So they could look at a particular path that could, that suits them, and it could help them help to practice elements of it.
Destry: Get their head around it a little bit, yeah.
Richard: Either way, it will be fun.
Destry: Yeah, it sounds fantastic and it’s going to be an original info-graphic.
Richard: It certainly will, yeah.
Destry: Well, I’m excited and I know that even if people can’t make it, which would be unfortunate, they’re still going to be looking for this info-graphic. So we’ll have to make it worth their while then. [laughter]
Destry: Richard, thank you very much.
Richard: No, thank you.
Destry: It’s been a pleasure.
Destry: I wish I had time for a few more questions, but that’s how these things go. We’ll talk to you soon and we’ll see you in September. Thank you for your time.
Richard: No, thank you. It’s been fun.
Destry: Thank you for listening to the 8th podcast in the CS Forum 2011 podcast series. Remember to use discount code—podcast08—by July 1st, and get £50 off the standard registration rate for CS Forum this September in London.
Have a great day!