Connected TV: Where are we now?

Jake Keyes   September 24, 2013

 Don’t touch that dial. Photo by x-ray delta one

The Breakdown: Maybe one day we’ll arrive at some kind of perfect, connected, when-and-where-we-want-it  TV experience. One where we only pay for the content we want, and it’s all on a single sleek device, and each household saves around $70 a month. But we’re nowhere close to that. We’re living in a time of television device/content chaos. So, we thought we’d to do a quick informal survey among the CS community here at Razorfish, to answer these questions: How do you watch TV right now? And how is that working for you?

As the responses rolled in, we found a fascinating range of frustration, disorder, and ingenuity.

Michael Barnwell

I use an iPad connected to my TV to stream Netflix shows and movies, or use my desktop and laptop to watch Amazon Prime selections. I almost never use my phone to watch anything. More and more, I watch TV series after they’ve run, rather than waiting for each new show.

While shows have always been episodic, the ability now to watch episode after episode in one sitting makes viewing more like the experience of burying yourself in a sprawling novel—you decided when and if to stop. I’m guessing that writing might catch up with the way people are viewing shows these days—there could be short, intense episodes followed by longer, more elaborated episodes, breaking free of the conventional arcs of time-slotted stories. Subscriptions to streaming services, I suppose, will support this kind of viewing.

Jake Keyes

I just moved to a new apartment. I was able to carry my entire TV setup in two trips: one for the TV, which is about as light as the bag I carry to work every day. And a second trip for a plastic bag holding HDMI cords and gadgets. I have an Apple TV, a PS3, and a Mohu Leaf antenna for basic broadcast channels. And that’s about it. I remember past moves, even five years ago, when a large LCD TV was a two-person job, not to mention the confusion of the DVD player, wired TV speakers, laptop adapters, a couple of surge protectors, color coded three-headed A/V cables, and so on. In sheer weight and number of plugs, things have definitely gotten simpler.

Now the complexity is in the content sourcing. Once you’ve made the jump from a traditional cable bundle, you have to just make it up as you go, pulling from iTunes, HBO Go, Hulu, and shadier places if necessary. What’s most interesting to me is that there’s no universal solution. No two cord-cutters watch TV in the same way.

Rachel Lovinger

I have a pretty crazy set of devices and services for watching TV content.

My main sources of content are network/cable broadcast and Hulu. But I also have a variety of ways of time- and location-shifting them. For cable I use my DVR or On Demand (OD) channels included in my Time Warner Cable subscription. I can watch Hulu on my TV at home via either Apple TV or Wii, or I can watch it anywhere via iPad or laptop. I could also watch my DVR or Cable channels anywhere using SlingBox, on either iPad or laptop. I also have a Simple.TV which records over-the-air network channels (via a digital antennae), to a cloud DVR service, which I can watch online from anywhere.

I can’t say I have a single favorite – I like different approaches for different reasons. At home I prefer watching on my TV (rather than laptop or iPad), and the DVR gives me the most control, in terms of what’s available and skipping commercials. But if I record shows in HD it runs out of space pretty quickly. So, often I record things on the DVR mainly as a reminder, and then watch the shows on HD OD channels or Hulu, if they’re available. I could watch any of these on the iPad when away from home, but unless the wifi signal is excellent it’s usually too slow and frustrating. The Simple.TV is an interesting experiment, but the UI is still very much a work in progress, so it mainly serves as a backup to my other approaches. It came in handy when TWC & CBS were feuding this summer, as it allowed me to continue to watch The Late Late Show while the channel was being blocked by TWC.

I guess you could say I’m kind of a TV nut. I don’t intentionally save shows up to binge on them, but they do tend to pile up a little. Then, because I have so many different ways to watch them, I find I have trouble keeping track of where each show was saved, and what I had and hadn’t watched, and then remembering to clear episodes off of other platforms after I’d watched them. I had to make a spreadsheet to track my TV shows!

Robert Stribley

I rarely watch TV and I don’t have cable. Like many people, what I have instead is the Internet. I don’t miss TV at all. Having to endure the ads when watching commercial TV now is shocking.

Instead, I am sometimes confronted with the twin problems of device diversity and choice paralysis. Problem is, no one device gives me everything I want. I’m not saying no such device exists. Just that my peculiar arrangement gets me most of what I want, but not everything.

I’ve long had a Roku and now a Google Chromecast. I can stream Netflix, Amazon Instant and Vimeo video via my Roku. And now I can stream most of that plus Youtube via Chromecast (as well as native music and video from my laptop via Chrome). However, I can’t watch Amazon Instant Video via Chromecast yet (a Silverlight problem, apparently) and my Roku is sometimes flaky with the same (a Time Warner problem, probably). Of course, I can watch all of those things on my big screen now, but I can also watch them on my laptop and to some degree my iPad and iPhone. I can watch most shows soon after they air. And buying episodes individually is actually cheaper than cable. Plus Netflix is killing it with the binge TV lately. Hello House of Cards! Hello Arrested Development! Hello Orange Is the New Black! So why would I bother with cable? If my cable provider allowed me to purchase HBO a la carte, I might get sucked in, but like many other stubborn folks, I refuse to pay for a raft of programming I’ll never watch.

That said, I do currently have one exception to my 21st-century viewing habits. How am I staying on top of the last few tensioned-filled episodes of Breaking Bad? I watch it at a local bar. As it airs.

Mia Gant

I exclusively watch TV shows on Netflix because our TV set-up in our common area consists of a giant, hideous non-flat-screen TV that is covered in a super unhealthy layer of dust. At one point, someone plugged a Wii into it and went through the process of setting up the Netflix app, but other than that it has no cable connection and barely picks up any of the local channels. To add to that, each of us has an unusually spacious bedroom, so really we all seem to prefer to not hang out in the common space, which is why our TV setup in there is old and decrepit.

I personally like to veg in my bed after work and stream Netflix from my 21″ iMac, which has functioned as my “TV” since I got it in early 2011. (I know, what an expensive TV, huh?) Regardless, that iMac is the closest thing I have to a SmartTV and so it is also where I consume most of my viewable content. My routine is to take my wireless mouse and wireless keyboard across the room to my bed and MacGyver the whole thing into an elaborate remote system that has somehow come to feel totally natural to me now.

I mainly stream Netflix, but occasionally in the mornings I’ll live stream Pix11, The Today Show, or GMA while I’m getting ready for work. I also have an iPad Mini, which has enabled me to stream Netflix during those random times I get inspired to cook extensively in the kitchen.

My favorite setup, however, is to veg in bed with the previously mentioned 21″ iMac streaming The League (or some comparable, snackable episodic comedy) while I surf on the iPad Mini. This enables me to watch the show AND enhance that viewing experience by looking up characters/actors on IMDb or wading through related #hasthtags and Twitter conversations. On this flip side, this also means I’m probably completely distracted and immersed in something totally unrelated from the show I’m supposed to be watching.


SXSW 2014 Panel Picker: Voting Early and, Well, Once

Elizabeth S. Bennett   August 28, 2013

 (Game not over until you win. Photo by spookyAMD)

It’s late summer and time again to vote for SXSW 2014 speakers!  We’d like to offer some suggestions culled from the more than 500 presentation, workshop and panel ideas submitted by our interactive brethren and sistren. Sign in and vote with the ever-popular Panel Picker.

First, please check out (and vote for!) Razorfish’s content, design and tech-oriented panels:

  • Content Modelling: Designing Structured Content – A workshop co-led by Rachel Lovinger. Learn how to create content models that communicate a shared understanding of the content requirements, align the design vision with editorial needs, convey them in a tech-ready form, and bring your strategy for structured content to life.
  • Mismatched: What’s Wrong With Recognizing Patterns  – Frequent Scatter/Gather contributor Robert Stribley, fresh off his first SXSW appearance this year, will talk about how, faced with a daily onslaught of data, we make decisions every moment based on the patterns we recognize. But what can go wrong with the way we identify these patterns?
  • Technology’s Public Relations Crisis – Presentation Layer Engineer Elizabeth Fuller will put a humorous spin on our society’s misconceptions about scientific & technological progress and offer some solutions along the way.
  • Passions and Platforms: Digital Love & Basketball  –  Media Technology Specialist Tricia Andrew will talk about her journey through fandom, as a die-hard Oklahoma City Thunder fan (despite growing up with the Knicks and living within a stone’s throw of the new Barclay Center). Tricia will describe how she went from simple consumer to Thunder brand evangelist, and offer tips for transforming your own customers. [Editor’s note: We’ve seen Tricia give a version of this talk in the office and it is amazing!]

And here are some other content focused submissions that we hope make the cut:

Content Strategies for Augmented Reality  – Speakers: John Tinnell, University of Colorado, Denver, and Sean Morey, Clemson University

Great Artists Steal: Plan Content With UX Tools – Speaker:  Laura Creekmore, Creek Content

Using Narrative Taxonomy in UX Design – Speakers: Alex O’Neal, TEKsystems

The Data of Happiness: The ROI of Good Content – Speakers: Clay Delk, Volusion, Misty Weaver Content Insight

Assertive Strategy: Content Amid Constraints – Margot Bloomstein, Appropriate, Inc.

Baby Got Backend – Jeff Eaton, Lullabot

Go Home Marketing, You Are Drunk – Kristina Halvorson, Brain Traffic

Content Everywhere: Preparing for Mobile & Beyond – Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Independent

Did we miss your SXSW content submission or another one you want to promote? Let us know by posting a comment.

Shelf Life: How to Handle Dated Content

Robert Stribley   August 5, 2013

(photo by CarbonNYC)

A couple of months ago an obituary for Lena Horne went viral. Thing is, she died three years earlier, on May 9th, 2010. Apparently, many folks didn’t notice the date and posted her obituary on Facebook and Twitter all over again. Similarly, on June 28th, a story about how Anonymous discovered Ron Paul’s connections with Storm Front went viral on Twitter – despite having been written on February 2nd, 2012.

These examples highlight a tricky content strategy issue. When you read an old article couched within a new design, the presentation can fool you into thinking it’s new. And this happens regularly: outdated stories go viral years later, when someone posts them thinking they’re new. Of course, this probably wouldn’t happen with print. Newspapers age, yellow, they change in their style. If you pick up a paper from even a year ago, you’re probably not going to mistake it for today’s paper. Digital, though? No difference. In fact, a really old article might be presented within a totally modern interface. Online, this issue applies most obviously to news articles, but you can imagine it applying to other content as well: policies and procedural information on an Intranet, for example. And even content that may retain its value, like human interest stories and blog posts, has links, which become outdated.

I’ve fallen prey to this problem myself. Recently, someone posted a Mashable article about birds creating tweets by pecking at pork fat on a keyboard. That turned out to be so old that the referenced site and Twitter account are now inactive. So I deleted the tweet. The story was still interesting, but I’d framed it as a current story, so it didn’t make sense.

Noted then: although stories go out of date, removing them altogether isn’t always the answer. Still, they would benefit from some sort of thoughtful content governance. Here are some content strategy and experience considerations for handling dated content.

  • Maintain an editorial calendar (seems obvious, right!), which includes an archive date for content, where necessary. We’re talking online archive, here, not the traditional print world archive. And I don’t mean some sort of digital vault where content goes to die. More of a status or state for content, which keeps the content readily findable. (In some cases this might mean a separate but still visible section of the site.)
  • Provide clear rules for how content will archived once it reaches a certain age. The archive date should trigger an action for each particular piece of content. In the journalistic arena, content likely needs to be maintained, but its presentation might change. In the corporate world for example, content – even “news” – might be moved to an archive section; it might even be removed completely from the site.
  • Schedule a review of evergreen content, so you can consider whether it needs to be updated or revised, if not archived.
  • Design a more prominent date stamp. The date is important regardless of whether the story is old or new. Even the time is important on certain breaking news days.
  • Design a different style of date stamp for older content and/or add a label to be placed before the date stamp, such as “From Our Archive.” An archive banner with a unique color might even be appropriate.
  • Create a somewhat different look and feel to be utilized for “Archive” articles or content once they reach a certain age. That visual difference shouldn’t be the only thing to indicate that content is older, but coupled with a more prominent date stamp, it could provide a visual cue, which regular visitors begin to recognize when they happen upon older content.

Each of these changes may not work for every organization. Some evergreen content needn’t be archived at all, and sometimes old content simply becomes inaccurate and should be removed. Nonetheless it behooves brands to be more clear and more creative with how they tackle this issue. The result – a cemented sense of trust with content consumers – makes it well worth the effort.

A Few Lingering Thoughts on An Event Apart

Hawk Thompson   June 21, 2013

 Photo by zeldman

I have a confession to make: I attended An Event Apart more than two months ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

Sure, the fact that it was my family’s first trip to Seattle might be part of the reason (it being my six-month-old daughter’s first big trip ever may also factor into the equation). But more than the AirBnB rental in Queen Anne, dinner at the Walrus and the Carpenter or anything else about the trip, the reason #AEASEA is branded on my brain has to do with how the conference confounded my expectations in the best possible way.

Simply put, An Event Apart elevates the conference-going experience. A decade-plus SXSW veteran (love you SX), I’ve survived enough hype-fueled madness to know to plan for the worst and to expect a good amount of stress at the very least. As its name implies, An Event Apart is cut from different cloth. Attendees have the same agenda — three days, twelve speakers, no overlap — so there’s little need to wait in line or jockey for position. Perhaps because of this, each speaker is able to hold the autdience’s attention and every talk feels like part of a conversation.

The ethos behind A List Apart helps bring everything together. United by common beliefs, collaborative projects like Editorially, mutual business interests like A Book Apart and, of course, the ubiquitous Zeldman, the speakers exude a camaraderie that’s contagious. This shared enthusiasm keeps everyone feeling convivial and fuels discussions between talks.

A List Apart attracts tremendously talented people who work together to weave cohesive narratives. Take Karen McGrane — a content strategy hero of mine for a number of reasons, her brilliant book Content Strategy for Mobile (read our review here) chief among them. What struck me in the context of the conference was how compatible Karen’s approach to creating mobile-friendly content was with Luke Wroblewski’s mobile-first mandate, Ethan Marcotte’s rationale for responsible responsive design and Jared Spool’s celebration of UX generalists. Taken as a whole, these talks all draw from a deep well of experience to rally the audience to join forces and future-proof the web in anticipation of whatever challenge comes next.

Looking back, it’s clear that everyone involved with An Event Apart is invested in creating truly stellar online experiences for all users that can stand the test of time. While it wasn’t surprising that common themes emerged over the course of the conference, it was delightful to experience this emergence firsthand. I left Seattle with five big takeaways and one strong urge to return in the near future.


Testing, Testing, One-Two-Three

Elizabeth S. Bennett   May 14, 2013

 A series of tubes. (photo by nezume_you)

Here you are. You’ve developed a digital strategy that includes building out the content on your (or your client’s) website and mobile platforms. You’re excited. and fairly certain based on business goals, the competitive environment, and what you know about your target audience that your plan is a good one. Now it’s time to test out the vision with real people to make sure you’re on the right path.

Your goal is to get a good sense of how and whether people respond to your content. What’s the best way to go about evaluating all those words and images?

In my experience there is absolutely no substitution for listening to how real people respond to and interact with your site/experience. That’s not to say you can’t gather some useful information from surveys and other quantitative means at certain junctures, but you will never know your customers/audience/visitors until you listen to their experience in their own words.

Having said that, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do with these real people when they turn up at your testing facility. How are you going to ensure that you’re eliciting valuable and reliable responses?

There are many approaches to user testing, and it’s important to be thoughtful about which path to take. I’ll be looking specifically at three approaches to testing content and when each one best applies. I’ll also explore the inherent risk in testing content, namely the impulse to zero in on the tone and style or format of the content at the heart of your experience, at the expense of broader learnings.

Testing the Experience

One approach is to focus on the experience. I doing so, problems (or successes) with content should become evident. With this method, you’ll provide some context for the respondent, observe them interacting with the experience, ask open-ended questions, and pick up on verbal cues and body language that invite investigation. Patterns of behavior will emerge and you’ll get a sense of how the experience is and isn’t meeting expectations.

Strengths: Provides a comprehensive customer perspective on the experience. If done well, findings will include what is and isn’t working with the strategy, design, content and interactions.

Drawbacks: May not yield precise degree of detail you or your client is seeking about the content.

When it works best: Really any time, but it’s a particularly good approach when the strategy and experience hasn’t yet been vetted by real customers. It’s also good for testing a complex experience where gaining a foothold on the big picture should be a prerequisite for testing the content.

You might say I cut my teeth on this method back in the day, when I was a consultant at Creative Good, a customer experience consulting firm. I corresponded recently with Mark Hurst, the company’s president and founder, and I asked him how he and his colleagues would test a content concept. He said he never thinks about content as its own phenomenon.

Hurst says that when his team members speak with the customers of clients one-on-one, they don’t set out to test a visual concept and then a content concept. “Those aren’t separate things in our worldview. Instead we look at the user experience overall, one unified experience that is created by the visual and the interactive and the content and a constellation of other factors.”

It can be much harder to sell the big picture testing scenario to clients who often think about their digital experiences as separate pieces in a puzzle, says Hurst, especially when there are multiple business owners responsible for content. But if you immediately zoom in on a sliver of the experience, it can have the opposite effect of sharpening your focus, Hurst says. “You’re cutting out a whole spectrum of observation and knowledge that you could be getting.”

Testing the Content

 As the name suggests, this testing approach is focused exclusively on the content – be it prose, labels, marketing messages, or digital assets. The idea here is to invite testing respondents to comment exclusively on content with some specific goals in mind, like assessing tone and voice, article length, video style, navigation labels, etc.

Strengths:  Opportunity to probe deeply into content elements, editorial strategy, tone/style, and basically anything you have questions or concerns about.

Drawbacks: Chance you may miss out on crucial strategy/experience findings by focusing exclusively on content.

When it works best: You’ve already vetted the strategy and experience with your target audience and believe it to be ironclad, but you have further questions about how successfully the content is supporting the strategy; you accept that this method is more of a usability study rather than a research method that could influence the overall direction of your site, app, etc. You might also use this approach when your experience and content are still in the concept stage to get an initial read on how customers or visitors respond to your vision.

Colleen Jones, principal at Content Science, a digital content strategy consultancy, and author of a recent content credibility study, says that you can definitely conduct targeted testing on content by “focusing test protocol (questions and tasks) on content issues instead of design and experience issues.” As an example, Jones says that instead of ending a task at finding content, you can end it with answering a question that requires both finding and understanding the content. Or, she says, you can focus the task on understanding the content only.

With content as the focus, Jones explains that the overall experience is a secondary matter. “If the experience causes or exacerbates content problems,” Jones says, “then you can still observe and note that. But, the experience isn’t the focus.”

Sometimes Jones tests content at a very detailed level, such as sample text, imagery, or video. “We have tested samples of text content that reflect different approaches to voice. One sample was lighter and more humorous in tone than the other.”

Jones says the approaches above have been very successful for her clients. For instance, she worked with a health start-up to test and evaluate tone of voice on their site. “We had to experiment with the right techniques in protocol to bring out real response and get at issues we’re interested in without biasing the results,” she explains. “You want responses to be as organic as possible.”

My experience is that when homing in on content – or really any single component of an experience – there’s a risk that important findings won’t emerge. Let’s say you and your client have agreed to test a site’s Videos page.  You might get some very useful feedback about videos, but you could be inhibiting respondents from providing other perhaps more valuable feedback. If you haven’t established the environment for broader observations,  respondents might not have the opportunity to say how much they dislike the homepage or that they’re super excited about something on a competitor’s site. That’s why I only recommend using this approach if you’ve already vetted a site’s overall strategy and experience through qualitative testing.

Testing the Content in the Course of Testing the Experience

This is a pretty straightforward hybrid between testing the overall experience and testing content in isolation. You and your client can feel confident that you did a thorough job of testing the experience and you still get to satisfy your or their need to zoom in on content questions and concerns.

If you’re hankering to ask overtly about content, this is your opportunity to do some investigating without making content the sole focus of your testing. My recommendation would be to test the overall experience, like in the first scenario, but set aside some time at the end of each interview, say one-third of the total time allotted, to inquire about the most pressing content questions. Best to keep the questions open-ended to elicit the most organic responses. 

Strengths:  Opportunity to dig deeper into content elements while gaining critical information about the overall experience

Drawbacks: When time with respondents is often precious, it could be that you miss out on important strategy/experience findings in an effort to glean content insights. 

When it works best: When broad experience testing isn’t going to address the content questions you need answered. In order to move ahead with your work and validate the experience, it’s vital to know what users think of the content.

I recommend this approach if it’s not the first time you’re testing the experience. If it is and you or your client think it’s critical to call out some specific content questions, I would keep them to a minimum and develop your research plan around testing the overall experience with the expectation that any glaring content problems will arise when you let customers engage with the experience as a whole. 

Choosing and Selling the Best Approach 

As the content expert in the room, it will be up to you to educate your client about different approaches to testing content as well as to advocate for the one you think is best suited to the occasion. It will be helpful to have some case studies at the ready to illustrate how and when each one works best.

Speaking of case studies, we’d love to hear from you about your experience with testing content and if you have anything to add to the above approaches and when to use them. Thanks for adding your comments to this post.

Confab Crosses the Atlantic

Cameron Siewert   April 5, 2013

All of the lights. (photo by Cameron Siewert)

For the first time in its hugely successful 3-year run, Confab has gone international. I attended the premier Confab London conference last week, and the themes that emerged from two days of talks transcended cultural considerations, framing content strategy in a context that was sometimes well-established, sometimes surprising, but entirely universal.

Tapping Into Emotion

Kate Kiefer Lee of MailChimp said it most succinctly: Content not only makes people do things; it makes people feel things. When considering what content is appropriate for a given experience, we should think about what customers might be feeling when they arrive— and how we want them to feel upon interacting with our content or completing a task. In copywriting, this is about knowing the difference between voice and tone. But it’s also about planning content with empathy and giving customers the content they need at each moment to feel more confident, better understood, and more connected to our brands.

Practicing the Art of the Quest

We talk a lot about storytelling. Matt Thompson of NPR ratcheted it up a notch, calling on content strategists to turn our stories into quests that our customers can rally around. Rather than selling customers on the end of the story—the product or service—we should take them on a journey, galvanizing them with the mission behind our clients’ products and services, or the benefits and solutions they offer. As we all know, getting involved in the story is much more powerful than simply knowing what happens at the end.

Expanding on Accessibility

We’ve long considered accessibility a key to successful and enduring content. Wiep Hamstra spoke about the foundational importance of accessibility, comparing it to the base of a mountain whose peak represents a culmination of smart UX, relevant, adaptive content, and responsive design.

But Karen McGrane took the concept of accessibility a bit further in her presentation on the mobile content mandate, stating the importance of adaptive content as a means of reaching a large (and growing) percentage of the global population whose Internet usage happens primarily—or only—on mobile devices. Accessibility isn’t just about reaching handicapped or disabled users; it’s about our responsibility to make content available and accessible to everyone in equal measure.

Getting Back to our Roots

For many of us, writing was (and maybe still is) our entrée into the world of content strategy. And for all the innovative ideas and creative concepts that were presented throughout Confab London, the one that echoed the loudest and most frequently was the mantra, “It’s just good writing.”

How to write for mobile? There isn’t a special trick to it, said Karen McGrane. Good writing is just good writing—and often, the writing we find on mobile websites, with its brevity, clarity, and clear calls to action, is just better all around.

Writing for the web? That’s really just about good writing too, no matter the medium, said Ginny Redish, who confessed that she wanted to include the post-script “And this all applies to print, too,” in Letting Go of the Words. (Her publisher didn’t go for it.) When it comes to optimizing the text content on our clients’ websites, it’s a critical part of our jobs to know what constitutes great writing—for everyone, across every channel—and how to bring it to the forefront.

Broad Inspiration

One week later, what resonates most with me is the breadth of thinking these themes reflected. In our discipline, every intellectual curiosity—from socioeconomics to basic psychology to old-fashioned love of the written word — is relevant and even essential to making our work more insightful and effective. Content strategy isn’t just about text and images, after all — it’s about understanding, empathizing with, and engaging real people with complex motivations. And our job descriptions will continue to evolve to reflect a greater sense of how all those factors come together across diverse cultural contexts, informing better, clearer, more universal content experiences.


SXSW 2013: Twitter, Transparency, and Data Storytelling

Robert Stribley   March 21, 2013

The signal and the noise (photo by stribs)

Last week I attended South by Southwest (SXSW) for the first time. As a “South By” virgin, I was determined to make the most of my experience. I went expecting to have to sift through many talks to find some gems that matched my particular interests. Instead, I found myself confronting a tsunami of interesting panels, presentations, and interviews. I was often faced with choice paralysis.  Fortunately, I managed to attend many excellent presentations, though it took some serious, daily research and planning to do so. And I managed to avoid attending too many stinkers (and there were some). Here’s just a handful of the subjects and themes from presentations that really resonated with me.

Transparency & Versioning

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan and Eric Price, an MIT grad student, hosted a discussion on “Version-Controlling the News.” In the real-time arena of digital news-gathering, it’s easy to see how a story posted moments ago could quickly become outdated and need to be revised as facts stream in. However, most news organizations (and content publishers in general) aren’t particularly effective at communicating the hows and whys behind those sometimes myriad changes. Sullivan and Price argued for more transparency in versioning such content and for granting users access to the previous versions of stories, so they can evaluate them for themselves. 

Additional considerations: What happens when a new story changes so much it’s not the same story? Shouldn’t both be displayed? Sometimes a story starts out with one set of authors, but the assigned authors change. Even the direction, tone and theme of stories can change significantly after they’ve already been published. With that in mind, Price developed NewsDiffs, which tracks and archives changes in articles after publication — currently within The Times,, Politico and Increasingly, then, we need to provide readers with access to previous versions of content, highlighting the rationale at least for the more significant changes. (Spelling errors, missing commas, grammatical errors, etc, are not as vital, though these can still be catalogued as a second, less significant but nonetheless visible category of changes). Apply this concept to content everywhere. As readers better understand versioning, it’s not hard to understand why they’d demanded it, and how content versioning (and usable experiences coupled to it) will become key in maintaining brand transparency.

Crafting Stories from Data

“Big data” was a big theme at SXSW this year, and one very engaging panel, “Journalism by #s,” examined the role of data in journalism. Participants described how journalists can discover new stories without leaving their desks. The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker, for example, explained how his brother broke a groundbreaking Nature story about the core temperature of plants, simply by examing existing data, available to anyone on the Internet. James Grimaldi (also of the WSJ) drummed home the importance of knowing the tools at your disposal: Every journalist should be familiar with data-oriented applications like Excel and Access. (You can certainly count me among those writers who have come to appreciate the redeeming organizational features of an ostensibly boring application like Excel.) 

On the other hand, Grimaldi said, we also bear a responsibility for the context within which we present data and the accompanying details. When NY paper The Journal News decided to publish a list of gun owners with their addresses, it did no one any favors. Grimald called the effort a “disaster” and “a data dump with little analysis.” Data when exposed like this no longer lives within a moral vacuum.

Sure, this session was conducted by journalists, but as content strategists it’s not difficult to imagine how any company we’re working with could have a wealth of data (about the company, about consumers, about users) which is rich with stories, just waiting to be discovered. It’s up to us to dig for them — or, at least, to train our clients how to dig for them.

Saving Languages With Content Strategy

Participants on the “Indigenous Tweets, Visible Voices & Technology” panel were all, in one way or another, engaged in enterprises which give an online voice to endangered languages. They discussed strategies for saving or at least preserving languages via content and social platforms, via blogs, podcasts, video, etc. — basically, whatever creative online means made sense for a particular community. Kevin Scannell, founder of the site Indigenous, tracks the use of endangered languages on Twitter, including languages limited to as few as a single voice. He also explained how neither Google nor Facebook are allowing new languages and translations of their platforms to be added, so he’s leading crowd-sourced, unofficial translations of these endangered languages, which can be implemented via Greasemonkey scripts. Similarly, Kara Andrade has worked to develop localized content management systems, which allow Guatemalans to create and disseminate content in their own language. This panel served as a salient reminder for the real-world good we can do as content strategists, when we apply our skills creatively to such issues around us.

Treating Twitter as a Source

Members of the “Global News After the Twitter Revolutions” panel shared how that social platform can serve as a source of valuable information, stressing, of course, the need to ensure individual sources are reliable. NPR’s Andy Carvin explained how he actually searches on expletives in order to find sources close to a breaking events: As in “What the fuck was that?” getting tweeted after an earthquake. He also described his method of building Twitter lists in advance of trackable events like hurricanes, so he’ll have a stream of reliable information from first responders, based on geolocation where possible, as the event unfolds. And he warned of people parroting news terms they don’t fully understand like “breaking news,” “confirmed” or “reports,” which might lead to the spread of misinformation and even hoaxes.

CNN’s Meredith Artley discussed strategies for tweeting at high-traffic times of day. For example, CNNbrk developed the Lunch break tweet, a tweet about something, an interesting story, that isn’t their typical breaking news, but they know Twitter users can enjoy on their lunchtime break, giving a little boost of traffic to CNN. 

There’s a lot more I could share. Data genius Stephen Wolfram proved fascinating in his explanation of how, “Computation is going to become central to every field.” The founder of Architecture for Humanity Cameron Sinclair showed how “resiliency [in damaged communities] is not by chance,” but by design. Certainly a principle we can apply to our own work. And I saw an excellent panel on “Copyright & Disruptive Technologies,” wherein Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh proclaimed, “Don’t sue me for what other people do on my service,” and litigator Andrew Bridges demonstrated the incredible disparity between punishment for copyright violations and other crimes.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are my notes from each of these sessions:


Everything Is Not Important

Robert Stribley   March 15, 2013

The Breakdown: A couple months ago we spoke with our own Robert Stribley about his plans for his SXSW talk. Now he’s back from his Austin adventure and we’re sharing his slides with you. Next week we’ll have more from Robert on his first experience at Southby.

Speaking at SXSW last week gave me the opportunity to share some thoughts on prioritizing content, which I’ve been mulling over for the past few years. These seven principles aren’t all unique to me by any means (and I’m sure the content strategy community can divine many more), but I really enjoyed corralling my thoughts on how to focus on what truly is important within an experience and how, if necessary, to “murder your darlings.”


SXSW 2013 Q&A: Scot Richardson

Jake Keyes   March 8, 2013


The Breakout: SXSW has begun! We hope you’re all enjoying Austin. (For those of you who didn’t make it out this year, check out the rest of our series of Q&As, for insight and commentary from some of the most interesting panelists of 2013.) In this last Q&A in our SXSW 2013 series, we talk to TicketMob Founder/CEO Scot Richardson. In his panel, “Louis C.K. Aftermath: Distribution & Ticketing 2.0“, Scot is joined by comedian Jim Gaffigan to discuss the future of direct-to-fan marketing and sales, for comedy, music, and beyond.

Scatter/Gather: I’m interested in how direct-to-fan distribution might affect the nature of the product being sold. It seems like once an artist or entertainer is able to sell directly to fans, he or she gains a lot of creative control. Is there a trade-off, here, since fewer trained eyeballs see the unfinished work before it is released? In this new model, through which channels will artists find the input and editorial guidance they have always relied upon? 

Scot: I think if you asked most artists, they would deny relying on editorial guidance and would view it more as a pain in the ass that they can finally avoid. While I think that there is some truth to that, and that we will see more unique and less formulaic content when artists have more control, it now becomes part of a manager’s job to help the artist navigate this self-editorial process. I also see a lot of artists choosing a producing partner whom they trust or have a long-standing relationship with, that they feel understands them and can help make these decisions. Artists feel more comfortable with this than, say, a network censure. But I’m sure that networks and record labels, etc., would argue that they understand what sells, and that they will be missed in this process. I feel like it’s too early to tell. It’s really a question of how far artists will push the boundaries of content and how audiences will grow and be able to digest these new formats and presentations of content. 

S/G: Comedians like Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and Jim Gaffigan have had success with self-distribution — but they are already quite well-known. Why might self-distribution and “ticketing 2.0″ appeal to artists and entertainers who are not yet famous (and what special challenges might they face)? 

Scot: The greatest gift to unknown artists with self-distribution is the ability to get it out into the world to be received and not waiting for mass acceptance or the “man in a suit” to approve of you or your art. A small band, comedian, novel writer, or aspiring celebrity chef can release content via various platforms, or put on their own show at a rented space, and even sell their own content online.

This allows some powerful things to happen. First of all, it allows them to build fans to gain a critical mass. This effort may take years, but wasn’t an option in the past, outside of touring and physical bootlegs or CD distribution, which are far less efficient. We’ve seen successes in comedy like Bo Burnham, and succes in music, like Angela Johnson, who went from being a nobody to theater acts to making a great living in a matter of a few short years by putting out great free content for people to find. So this building of fan bases without permission from the classical institutions does happen.

These channels also allow for experimentation, the finding of an artist’s voice and what people like via a feedback channel. Since social media is a two way communication channel it opens up this feedback loop of both positive and negative feedback and where your fans may be. As opposed to printing 1000 CDs and giving them out and hoping to gain fans, you can now put something up online and get comments, compliments, suggestions for improvement, and collaboration opportunities in real-time.

The biggest fault of any young artist is thinking that self-distribution is a path to financial success before they’ve broken. While this may happen occasionally, it’s a mistake to chase lightening in a bottle. Instead, artists should view self-distribution and ticketing 2.0 as a way to put their hard work toward a more productive path of building a career than was previously available. They should build fans, learn what people like about them, do more shows, put out more songs, collaborate more, and put out tons of content on all different platforms. Self-distribution is a path for young artists to make it, not to earn big bucks on the path to making it. You have to be willing to give it away for many years in most cases and trade content for loyalty and the chance to win new fans, until you are at the point where Louis C.K. and Aziz are, where self distribution can be a way to make good money and keep control.  

S/G: Social networks like Twitter and sites like reddit can provide a huge boost to sales of self-distributed media, and can drive interest in self-promoted events. But they can also be fickle, and sometimes buzz can backfire. Do you have any insight as to what risks one might face in social, and how to keep a positive relationship with your fans on the social web? 

Scot: It is certainly a wild world out there and there are thousands of blogs, individuals, and communities where people without a journalism background or even a reputation to protect can and will talk about you and your content. This is both good and bad and certainly a double edged sword.

People in general are quick to judgement and have a mentality where everyone online is trying to break a story or get attention themselves. It becomes a place where the truth is rarely valued as much as speed and shock value. The best way to take this on is to be authentic. Be true to yourself. If you make a mistake, own it and apologize. If someone gives bad information, correct them politely and show as much proof as you can.

I’d also recommend letting your fans do most of the defending. If you have a loyal following and someone accuses your latest song of sucking, you should have 10 people who will jump in and disagree. Social media has allowed walls, publicists and canned interviews to fade away, with people now interested in reality and authenticity. Participate in that and you’ll gain the most. Lastly, have thick skin. Realize that it’s not a perfect system and that it’s not if, but when people will say horrible things from behind their keyboards that will be a reality. 

S/G: One consequence of direct-to-fan marketing is that an artist’s online properties will need to be repurposed. The professional website, which used to be a source for things like tour dates and press photos, must now also take part in e-commerce. From a branding and messaging perspective, what kinds of innovation might we start to see as sites strike a balance between these two purposes? 

Scot: With the rise of platforms like ours (TicketMob) and others like Shopify, YouTube, and Chill, artists are able to customize ecommerce, ticketing, tour dates, and content distribution pages like never before. It used to be that you paid someone to build, create and maintain a website for you. The new norm is paying someone to customize all of these platforms into one cohesive brand and image. A Twitter, YouTube, ticketing, and ecommerce solution should all look and feel like the artist, including the messaging and text.

Artists also need to start thinking like a company. Instead of someone else in charge of selling your things, you need to think about it holistically. Should you do a fan club, give away free tracks, sell packages, respond to customer service requests, customize things, agree to write a custom joke or song for a fee, let your fans vote on your encore (maybe only if they bought a ticket)? Artists have to realize that before they hire an employee of a company: now they are the company. It’s a better model, but it also takes a lot more thought and work. 

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW this year?

As always, the Music and the BBQ! But I also love the keynotes, the panels, the thought leaders and mind expanding one-on-one talks with smart folks from many industries. It is truly the best event that crosses technology with entertainment and every year I feel excited and fired up after going to SXSW.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

SXSW 2013 Q&A: Erin Abler

Rachel Lovinger   March 4, 2013


The Breakout: As we close in on SXSW, we chatted with our own Erin Abler (@connotes), an Information Architect and Content Strategist out of our Philadelphia office, Razorfish Healthware (and is also a contributor to Scatter/Gather). In Erin’s Future15 talk, “Interaction Literacy & Participatory Design,” she’ll be discussing a broader view of literacy that will help us think about – and design for – a much wider range of human experiences.

Scatter/Gather: What is “interaction literacy”?

Erin: “Interaction literacy” is a term I’m using to refer to the ability to recognize and respond to the sensory, experiential, integrative, and interactive elements that comprise a human experience. It’s the day-to-day business of being aware in the world, of interacting with your surroundings and stimuli, making sense of them, and acting in a way that allows you to complete discrete tasks and develop specialized skill sets. As a capability, it means successfully negotiating an interaction – basically, to what degree we’re aided or hampered by the things we’re experiencing. The concept has an inherent focus on how the different parts of an experience help support the skills that build other types of literacy, including textual literacy. From a user research or design perspective, it’s a way to look at what kinds of experiences support or comprise various skill sets, and how best to engage someone based on that knowledge.

I started thinking about this years ago, but with a focus on the different skills involved in storytelling. Most definitions of literacy tend to focus on successful manipulation of specific media – an approach that limits the use of literacy as a concept extending across platforms or types of interactions. (There is something called “transliteracy,” but I find it to be more of a catch-all than a coherent concept, and I couldn’t really get behind it.) Because narrative and participation both involve qualities so fundamental to human experience, and because they are able to cross so many different platforms, I wanted to set down the elements common to any interaction – the better to compare them across various media. Only after months of reading did I start getting a handle on how various literacies really all point back to formative elements of experience. Interaction literacy offers us a way to understand what underlies any form of literacy, regardless of the mode of expression.

S/G: Presumably, like reading literacy, this is a learned skill. How do people become interaction literate?

Erin: Interaction literacy is definitely learned, though I think much less formally than other kinds of literacy. When people tell stories – and when they engage their audience in multiple ways in the process – they are distilling their experiences through narrative. Anytime we choose to tell a story instead of listing facts, we are communicating in a way that is meant to be evocative of experience, and not merely documentary. Storytelling means sharing an experience in a way that allows it to continue to exist as an experience, for both the storyteller and for the audience. If we’re truly going to understand the relationship between the YouTubes of the world and our long history of interacting with one another, we need to develop a better vocabulary for discussing the experience of participation, and the different roles we choose as participants in a given context. That, to me, is the start of a different understanding of the way we build interaction skills – whether with people or with technology.

S/G: You work with both information architecture and content strategy. How do these two disciplines complement each other to address the unique challenges of designing for greater interaction literacy?

Erin: I don’t think I would’ve traveled this path at all if I hadn’t been deeply invested in both areas of work. I started out with a heavy content strategy focus, thinking about traditional literacy, how text fits with other kinds of content, and what kinds of content ultimately compel people to act. But of course content is so intimately connected to its form and its context that it’s almost impossible to think of it as something that exists on its own terms. (I should point out that I’m using the word “content” very broadly here, to include just about anything that’s created for consumption or communication.) So the broader design picture – of how to explore interaction literacy through elements of experience – necessitates an appreciation for user experience as well as an awareness of what good content is and how it travels.

S/G: Have you seen any examples of great design that address these kinds of issues? If so, what? And if not, why do you think we haven’t seen much of this yet?

Erin: I think we’re headed toward an explosion of content that will underscore the relevance of interaction literacy. At the session I’ll be talking about how powerful creator cultures are in the development of rich interactions. Part of that conversation focuses on participatory design – and not just making your own little tweaks to something here and there, but having component parts that you can recombine infinitely to fit your own needs.

Wikipedia is probably the most recognizable example of a participatory design culture. Roles developed over time based on people’s interests and areas of expertise. Subject area experts adopted oversight of areas they were qualified to review. Over time, a range of capabilities sorted itself out because the setup encouraged iteration. YouTube is another huge platform that people can contribute content to. There you see less emphasis on textual literacy and more on other types of sensory and integrative elements. YouTube has, for the most part, made it easy to launch content that is either original, remixed, or a response to other content.

We’re starting to see more progressive examples now, ones that I think already take aspects of interaction literacy into consideration. Even if not in a very systematic way, these designers are thinking of their users’ skill sets when they devise ways to engage through innovation. One of my favorite examples of this is Twine, which is a device that detects physical inputs like vibration. That’s the total physical product: a little square that you put down wherever you want it to “sense” its environment. Then you go online and set up very basic instructions for it, so that it will communicate in some way when certain events occur. It’s a lovely use of IFTTT: You put Twine on top of your dryer and set up the rule “When vibration stops, text me the message ‘Your laundry is done.’” And there’s a whole online community where you can browse and borrow other people’s rules, or contribute your own, which just raises the bar for more and more innovative uses. What the user is capable of doing is supported on every scale, from the most basic instructions to some pretty complex logic.

Once it hits mainstream, 3D (and thanks to MIT, even 4D) printing is also going to open up some incredible opportunities for people to adapt original inventions for their own specific uses. We just haven’t created a structured way of thinking about those opportunities yet. I don’t think interaction literacy is the whole answer, but it might help frame our thinking about the current proliferation of highly targeted content and customized experiences.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW?

Erin: There’s a diagram I created as part of this project that shows four basic levels of experience. There’s the “sensory,” which corresponds to direct sensory inputs, and the “experiential,” which is more about the cognitive processing of sensory stimuli. An “integrative” experience takes another layer of awareness, incorporating situational, social, linguistic, and interpretive elements. At the “interactive” level, we take all these components and resolves them in some form of action.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent researching and shaping that model. And in the end, it looks very simple – almost self-explanatory. That’s both encouraging to me and a little unnerving – encouraging because I think it should be as simple as possible, and unnerving because I don’t want people to think I’m suggesting something complete or finished. I am not a psychologist or a behaviorist, though I have some education in those areas. I’ll also say for the record that none of these concepts, in and of themselves, is new. It’s the framework that makes them important. So it’s not done, and I’m sure I’m missing some things; but that’s a big part of what’s so exciting about going to SXSW with this. I can absolutely rely on people to take these ideas apart, ask hard questions, and make it better if they think it’s worth their time.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

Razorfish Blogs


  • SXSW Interactive

    March 7 – 11, Austin, TX
    Several of our contributors will be speaking this year. If you’re going, say hi to Rachel, Robert, & Hawk.

  • Confab Minneapolis

    May 7-9, Minneapolis, MN
    The original Confab Event. Rachel will be there doing her Content Modelling workshop with Cleve Gibbon. Get details and we’ll see you there!

  • Intelligent Content Conference Life Sciences & Healthcare

    May 8-9, San Francisco, CA
    Call for Presenters, now open:

  • Confab for Nonprofits

    Jun 16, Chicago, IL
    Another new Confab Event! Early Bird pricing until March 7:

  • Content Strategy Forum

    July 1-3, Frankfurt, Germany
    International Content Strategy workshops & conference: Call for speakers now open!

Search scatter/gather

What is this site, exactly?

Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

This blog reflects the views of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of Razorfish.

What is content strategy?

Oooh, the elevator pitch. Here we go: There is content on the web. You love it. Or you do not love it. Either way, it is out there, and it is growing. Content strategy encompasses the discovery, ideation, implementation and maintenance of all types of digital content—links, tags, metadata, video, whatever. Ultimately, we work closely with information architects and creative types to craft delicious, usable web experiences for our clients.

Why "scatter/gather"?

It’s an iterative data clustering operation that’s designed to enable rich browsing capabilities. “Data clustering” seems rather awesome and relevant to our quest, plus we thought the phrase just sounded really cool.

Privacy Policy | Entries (RSS) |     © Razorfish™ LLC All rights reserved. Company Logo.