I met Marie Girard through an article where she beautifully and bravely compared content strategy and design to … alchemy. Yes, alchemy!
Here is an excerpt from her An Alchemist’s Quest: Designing the Enterprise Content Model:
This is where the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone that turns raw content matter into gold took us thus far. The practice is maturing and more and more content alchemists are joining the quest. Content strategists who want to demonstrate the value of content must get interested in information architecture so that they can build their Philosopher’s Stone and turn their content into a manageable business asset.
Currently working as a customer experience manager at IBM, Marie is also an assistant professor in the department of applied languages at Paris Diderot University. No wonder she brings together so many seemingly disparate disciplines – design and writing to highlight just two of them. Content alchemists, Marie believes, manipulate content so that it can be easily processed by machines, but the quest is for the essence of human communication.
And if all that is not magical enough, here’s something for the right formula: Marie loves yoga. And only that, but she has tied yoga and language for us in one of her answers.
So, without further ado, meet Marie yourself and enjoy the magnificent way she sees and does content strategy.
Marie, can we say that in today’s environment with all that content around us, user experience is in many ways reader experience? Where do these two converge and where do their paths diverge?
Yes, we’ve got so much content around us it can become overwhelming! Especially in this digital era, we spend our time processing symbols to make sense of our environment. I’m thinking about text, but we also have many pictograms that play just the same role. And, you know, putting things into perspective, humans have been using the written word for about 5000 years, which is a very short time compared to our nearly 200000-year old use of language.
We’re not really wired to process that much text, when we’ve evolved as a species through spoken storytelling and face-to-face training. And neuroscience shows that memory and understanding is mainly about physical, relational experience, emotions, and the sense of smell!
Text is not going away, but if we really want it to be understood and remembered, we should integrate it better with physical and emotional experience. This convergence may happen with the “physicalization” of the digital world, where digital experiences become part of our physical life.
Currently you work at IBM as customer experience manager. What does facilitating design thinking activities across silos involve?
Let me define “silos” first. Silos are organizational structures that do not communicate well with other structures. I don’t believe silos are about the organizational structure as such. They really are an internal communication problem. This lack of communication is harmful because its results in inconsistent customer experience and duplication of effort.
Design thinking is a collaborative problem-solving practice that brings people to communicate differently. It’s a way of breaking through the traditional communication barriers between functions, by providing a collaboration space where it is safe to challenge the status quo with new ideas. Facilitating design thinking activities across silos involves creating this safe space and convincing stakeholders to collaborate around a shared objective.
How does a small company or even a freelance person create a content model and should they bother at all?
The content model is the backbone of any sound communication strategy. Even for an individual to communicate effectively, it is important to think about what you communicate, for what purpose, and where you’re going to communicate it. You need to think about the units of meaning that will be carried through your content, and how these units will interplay.
How can a small company do that? Ask the question: what do I want people to *do* with my content? Do I want them to have fun, to change their habits and try something new, to perform a task, to self-educate? And then, what context are they in, and when will be the best time to interact with them?
You can organize these intentions and the words to describe them as a content model. You can then choose to program it as a UML diagram, or a data graph. This is the extra step necessary if you want the model to scale, so it is not mandatory for a freelancer or small company.
Is there a recipe that one can follow in order to make every content piece thoughtful, targeted, and measured?
Yes! I believe there is such a recipe, that you can put in place in audits – for existing content – or through project management – for new content. It’s originally a growth hacking practice called ICE score – for Impact, Confidence, and Ease(see The Practical Advantage Of The ICE Score As A Test Prioritization Framework). When you require that score for any piece of content, you encourage authors to think about the impact on their targeted audience, the confidence they have in how the content will address a need and how that can be measured, and the amount of effort that will be required to create the content. It’s a way of asking content authors to stop and think before they publish. The score helps prioritize content efforts.
In the light of content alchemists, what about the immeasurable, that beautiful, mystic part of any experience which is intangible but crucial an element of communication. How do you design for that one?
Oh wow, I love that question: how to you design for the mystical part of an experience? Alchemists manipulate matter for a quest that goes beyond matter, to the essence of things – the ontology ;-). So it’s more than just chemistry. Similarly, content alchemists manipulate content so that it can be easily processed by machines, but the quest is for the essence of human communication. You design for the mystic part of experience by keeping the focus on the quest.
Where do design and writing meet and how did you meet them in your life?
It seems I’ve always been asked to make a choice between the two, and I’m happy that my content modeling practice eventually brings them together. I was writing stories and drawing as a kid, and had to choose between art and literature. Later, I traded a career in industrial design for language studies. Then, I chose a professional training in technical writing over one in marketing and web design. Still today, design and language curriculums remain separate – so students keep having to make a choice between two disciplines that are completely interrelated. I see design as creating the context for people to understand, decide, and act. Language is an integral part of that context.
You love and practice yoga, and I am tempted to ask you this question: How do you design (set up the needed processes and structures) for balance and dynamics and their “dance” when it comes to content?
One of the most important texts of the yoga tradition is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
Patanjali was actually a grammarian – so the ties between yoga and language are strong! By the way, the yoga tradition defines wisdom as knowledge that goes beyond word-concepts… we’re not that far from content alchemy here!
Getting back to your question about the “dance” – in the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes the right meditation posture as both firm and comfortable. The same goes for content processes and structures. They need to be firm enough to ensure long-term stability, but they should also be comfortable and easy to fit in. It’s a delicate balance. The first step is to become aware of that balance, so that you can adjust and adapt over time.
You are also a professor and work with students. What is it that you see your student missing, or maybe exaggerating about “digital communication” and what do you aspire to teach them?
Yes, I teach content strategy and information architecture at Paris Diderot University. Because my students are language students who are looking for professional training, most of them are quite new to digital communication. What I find most challenging to teach is the importance of having an explicit strategic intent in all forms of communication. In other words, I want students to be able to explain why they chose to write a sentence, or add an image to a presentation, or use a typography, with arguments better than “It’s my job”, “I thought it looked nice”, “It’s what users need”.
As a founding member of Information 4.0 Consortium, please tell me more about the initiative and why 4.0?
The consortium was born from a group of digital communication and training professionals who saw an urgency for our community to catch up with ongoing technology changes. The Information 4.0 Consortium looks at communication in the perspective of broad industrial revolutions. That’s where the 4.0 comes from – we’re now at the 4th industrial revolution.
We think that recent digital technologies bring a wide change similar to the invention of print, with deep-rooted societal and business impact. We aim to take a humanist look at these technological challenges.
You talk about collective intelligence and I love that. At the same time I realize that it is very difficult to organize people to share their thoughts and ideas while working in an enterprise. My question is deceitfully simple here: How do you get everyone onboard when it comes to content strategy and development. Because I believe it is important for everyone to be involved in the content of a company. Not necessarily in the writing process but in the thinking one.
He he, my answer is deceitfully simple too: You get everyone onboard when you invite by inviting them to participate to workshops.
In these workshops, ideas emerge from those who are on the field, know their content, customers, and technology. The real difficulty lies in getting them to come to the workshop. Sometimes this means going to each stakeholder individually, to understand their motives and tie the workshop to their needs.
Once everybody’s in the workshop, you facilitate interactions and let the collective magic happen!
Favorite yoga asana
Mandukasana, the frog pose. It’s great for developing hip flexibility and preparing seated meditation. The frog is a symbol of transformation, too.
Favourite gamestorming approach
Product pinocchio (http://gamestorming.com/product-pinocchio/). It seems silly at first, but considering your product as a character really helps in developing a brand image.
Favourite way of thinking about enterprise content models
As ontologies that are part of enterprise architecture. Content has been overlooked in its role for UX, and another area where it has been overlooked is in organizational performance, facilitating employee collaboration, processes, and decisions.
Who is gonna interview the interviewer?
Marie, here I have a section my guests ask me questions. I will be grateful for a question or two.
Marie: With your experience as a web writer and semantic web specialist, what distinction do you make between content and data?
Teodora: What a beautiful question! Thank you so much.
As you know any distinction is a threat to the interwingularity of things. So let me say that I prefer to think of those as a dance, a constant exchange. A dynamics, changing the facets of the things we see and want to describe.
Honestly I can’t and don’t want to make a distinction. For me these exist together, like god Janus, the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality. He had (has :)) two faces. And in our case, we have the god of interaction: his face of content looks at the user. and his face of data looks at the algorithms.
Marie: Ontologies are fascinating, because they capture concepts created by the human mind. Beyond their intellectual and philosophical interest, what role do you see them they play in our everyday lives?
:) Another deep question, I would like to approach from a playful perspective, very relevant to the context I am in right now. As my son is growing up and his mind is acquiring more and more concepts and connections between those concepts, I have the privilege and immense pleasure to look at definitions and relationships from a magical perspective. Of course, in our everyday live I do try to “build ontologies” in his brain, so that he can reason and work with concepts and relationships and see patterns in the world. And in the same time (and I find that miraculous and important for anyone trying to grasp ontologies) in that process I see that there is something magical in naming which make me, the “building ontologies mom” only a tiny part of what Alexander learns.
This makes me realize that “ontologies”, while very useful and wonderful way for categorizing and making sense of the world, don’t work unless constantly updated and kept in sync with the ecosystem of life. And a two-year old is super good at that – he constantly maps the world and adds new and new ways of understanding and reasoning about what he sees, transversing ontologies in a blink of an eye. And it is interesting, with all that capacity of understanding things – he can very well understand me when my entire heart, mind and soul are explaining, he has hard time grasping the “logic” behind the “ontology” (the set of rules) of social conventions. For example, Alexander gets lost for he cannot (or maybe doesn’t want to) hold in his mind a linear set of instructions and rules, the type of: This is a Subway pass, you use it only once and then stop approaching it to the machine so that it can forever blink and signal :) That set of rules is totally Greek to him. On the other hand, he is able to hold tons of distinct memories, from the place where he first saw a bee, to all the crazy locations he had left his toys at. In a way he is creating ontologies on the go and has hard time, or certain preferences, when presented with readily-available ones.
And that is so beautiful. The ability of the human mind to map the surroundings with a particuliar focus. A living ontology with rules we are yet to discover and bravely try to replicate in a “logical” environment, trying to tame the inspiring mess of life.
Thank you, Marie!