Managing By Design

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I manage user experience (UX) designers. Depending upon said asker’s familiarity with the software design and development universe, their response is anything from, “You what now?” to “Ooh! That must be interesting.” I explain to the former something like, “I help to create an engaging, supportive and compelling place for designers to work.”

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Making Content Strategy Practical

A few weeks ago, I helped lead a workshop at the 2016 Information Architecture Summit called “Practical Content Strategy.” If you’ve never heard of content strategy before, you’ve probably done it without realizing it.

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Profiles in Nerdery: Fred Beecher, UX Education Advocate

Every month we feature one of our Nerds and have them share a little bit about themselves and what they love to do both inside and outside of The Nerdery. Today we’re highlighting Fred Beecher, Director of User Experience and Design.

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Converging on Diversity: Expanding the Horizons of UX Education

Fred Beecher is The Nerdery’s Director of User Experience and Design. He has been training UX designers since 2007 and in 2013 he started our UX Apprenticeship program. He is co-chairing the 2016 Interaction Design Education Summit, which will take place February 28-29 in Helsinki, Finland.
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The Science of Successful Bars: How Customer Experience Relates to Digital User Experience

Bar RescueHave you watched the show Bar Rescue? It resonated with me since I was a former bartender and now user experience designer. There are so many comparisons to be drawn when creating customer experiences in a bar and digital user experiences.

Bar Rescue features the boisterous and successful bar consultant Jon Taffer and his team of top chefs, mixologists, interior designers and other experts. The premise of the show is to renovate and transform failing bars into successful bars.  They do this by diagnosing problems and using methods and tactics similar to the user experience process.

In this article, we will cover these similarities in three phases—Discovery, Definition and Design.

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Don’t Let the Buzz Fool You: Trends May Not Be Your Friends

Every year, articles appear in the blogosphere touting new UX trends or technologies. Some trends have merit and value. Here at The Nerdery we love to constantly push boundaries. However, sometimes when companies implement a trend, they put the cart before the horse. No matter what tactics you choose to employ, it’s always best to start with defining the problem you need to solve for the opportunity at hand.

Many of these trends appear engaging and beautiful on the surface. Designers and stakeholders may have the best of intentions when implementing the latest trends. However, blindly implementing trends can also fail miserably without a sound strategy.

Here are examples of trends or tactics that may have their downsides:

Parallax Scrolling

Parallax scrolling is a technique used where background imagery moves at a slower speed than images in the foreground, creating the illusion of depth. It can be very successful in the right situations and when implemented well.

User Experience Design considerations:

• If users need to find content quickly, scrolling through large volumes of content may deter impatient users. The Crate and Barrel parallax site requires users spend about 15 seconds browsing Christmas tree ornaments.
• If there is a large volume of content, it may be difficult to find hidden content and it may be difficult to search the site.
• If users are unsavvy, they may also be confused by the moving parts and animation.

Technical considerations:

• Content may take longer to load, if developed on one page.
• Depending on the way it’s built, parallax sites may limit search engine optimization.
• Parallax sites add a level of complexity for responsive design.

When Parallax works:

Parallax sites can be effective if you are providing users with linear experiences like stories or walking through a process. It’s also important to include sticky navigation to allow users to skip ahead to topics of greater interest, if applicable.


I love games and appreciate how they can be used to engage users. However, Gamification is not as simple as slapping on badges, leaderboards, points and “gamifying” your website with rewards. Some big brands have failed using gamification and companies continue to waste money while providing poorer user experiences.

Audiences and customers vary in their contexts, motivations, interests and desires. People are complex. Without user research and a sound strategy, you may be designing a product that users will not find valuable or impactful.

Oftentimes, games are built with the goal to increase user engagement. But engagement can be achieved in a variety of ways.  Games are just a means to an end.  We must first justify the means.

Think about the Harry Potter books. There are no badges, leaderboards, nor even pictures, yet children and adults spend countless hours of engaged reading.  It’s due to the story, relatable characters, themes and other content that conjures emotions. Engagement can come in many forms.

It’s critical to understand what drives people.  What are the things they need to learn and do?  How are they motivated?  What drives their behaviors?  After a thorough discovery process we can better determine if a gamified system is actually the best tactic to achieve your goals.

Strategy Before Tactics

In general, any tactic without a sound strategy has a greater potential to fail.  It doesn’t matter if it’s mega menus, blogs, social media tools, or infographics – it’s best to begin a project with a discovery process and user research to help align business goals with user goals.

At The Nerdery, we create strategies that help identify and prioritize business goals and user goals. Our discovery process may include workshops, stakeholder interviews, analytics evaluation, user research, surveys, contextual inquiry, personas, and many other methods to create a laser-focused strategy for your business or organization.

Design for People First

It’s certainly important to understand what new technologies and trends are being implemented.  However, instead of designing with the tactics and technology first, we should first consider the people and their motivations and goals. Ultimately, we are designing for people—people who happen to use technology.  If we begin with a solid foundation and target goals, we have a higher likelihood of achieving those goals.

NerdCast #48: Managing and Making User Experience Designers – The UX Apprenticeship Edition

In this episode of the NerdCast I interview Fred Beecher, the Godfather of the UX Apprenticeship Program here at The Nerdery. Hear about his recent article published in Boxes and Arrows, and his thoughts on what it was like creating and growing a UX Apprenticeship program, its curriculum, and the impact it’s had on its participants.

HostRyan Carlson

Guests: Fred Beecher, UX Designer at The Nerdery

Listen Now:

Running Time: 0:23:56 / Subscribe on iTunes


UX Designers Should Be Content Strategists Too

So, content strategy is pretty hot right now. There’s a lot of chatter on the interwebs about it, clients are beginning to ask for it specifically, and people are adding it to their LinkedIn profiles. And here in The Nerdery UX department, we are loving it. Anything to further the understanding of thoughtful and user-centric interactive design, right? Right.

Most recently, before content strategy, “UX” (user experience) and “CX” (customer experience) was getting all the buzz attention, and “information architecture” before that, and many, many more jargon terms before that. “Interaction design” is in there somewhere. But, you see, the thing is…all of these things…they’re kinda the same thing.

Let me clarify: If we, as UX designers, are providing complete UX solutions and setting our clients up to successfully manage their site or application moving forward, then we are providing some form of information architecture, interaction design and content strategy together.

Let’s take a moment to look at each UX discipline on its own.

  • Content Strategy (CS) determines what content is useful to have on the site and how it should be presented. What information do our users need to find on the site? When will they need these pieces of information? What else will they be doing at that time? Answers to these questions will help us determine what format might be most useful for the information to take and where it will be presented, which has a direct impact on IA and IxD decisions.

  • Information Architecture (IA) focuses on bringing organization to a pile of things: information, content, features, pages, etc. We must first identify all of the things going into a project and understand what they are, what value they provide, and how they are related before we go about organizing them. Through organizing all of the components going into a project, we begin to establish meaning around them for our users. So, of course, we also need to understand how our users understand the things being added to a webpage, an App, or software interface. How will they be exploring these things, in what order and why? What will they need to do with the things (content, buttons, dropdowns, images, audio, etc.) once they find them? In answering these questions, we begin to effect some of the interaction design and content strategy decisions.

  • Interaction Design (IxD) establishes user pathways and designs the functional elements that will help users complete tasks. In order to do this effectively, we must understand what tasks our users need to complete, and what information they will need in order to complete those tasks. How will users find and access the information they need? In answering these questions, the information architecture and content strategy decisions come into play.

We begin to see that useful content and interactions, presented in the right way at the right time, rely on all three UX disciplines working in tandem. On their own, each can offer some value but when considered together, they create a unique experience that serves specific user needs and business goals with an exact mix of content, structure, and interaction.

There’s something intangible about a well-crafted user experience that is almost impossible to describe. I’ve heard many terms for it – the wiz-bang, the special sauce, the magic layer, to name a few. Supporting user needs and business goals through a complete and succinct user experience has the power to achieve just about anything – to educate people, to bring people together around a common interest or value, to motivate people to take action, and to change behavior. It’s a big part of why I became a UX designer.

When I hear people say, “What about content strategy?” Do we need that?” the answer is always a resounding, “Yes.” But it’s not a separate line item, deliverable, or activity we do in a vacuum, it’s an important part of the larger UX solution we are crafting in combination with thoughtful IA and IxD. Everyone should be thinking about the role of content at every step in the process.

All of the disciplines related to UX have an integral part in almost every project. If you’d like to find out how development and content strategy are connected, check out Frost Simula’s post Does a Developer Need Content Strategy?

Does a Developer Need Content Strategy?

Since the dawn of this buzz word, salespeople in the tech world have been clamoring for some kind of deliverable or line-item that they can attach to “Content Strategy” and thereby affix some value to. What they’re missing is that Content Strategy is simply a design approach. It is one of many methodologies used in the User Experience (UX) process that informs design and development decisions. Developers agree that wireframes, sitemaps, and visual design comps are critical deliverables from the UX process. So when it comes to understanding the value of Content Strategy from a development perspective, perhaps it’s best to first ask “What does Content Strategy provide?”

George Lucas was often asked about the incredible special effects featured in Star Wars. His answer?AnthonyDaniels1

“Special effects are just a tool. A means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing. [When it comes to character development], eventually you actually take a real person and stick them into that character. And that real person brings with him or her an enormous package of reality. Threepio is just a hunk of plastic. And without Tony Daniels in there, it just wouldn’t be anything at all.”

When you strip away the mechanics and the nuts-and-bolts and the presentation of a website, you are left with the content. It is the core product. All of the other functions of a website are simply there to support the content. Branding, animations, style choices, publishing tools, delivery methods; all of these things mean nothing without content for the user to digest.

A Content Strategy is a plan for keeping the website’s content in a clear, unified direction. It is an agreed-upon process that aligns stakeholders, informs design and development decisions, and guides change. A website needs a strategy for content for the same reasons an organization needs core values: to provide a solid direction that all other processes can rally behind.

As a developer, the Content Strategy answers the overarching question of “Why?” Why are we organizing the content like this? Why do we need this process flow? Why is it important for this particular piece of content to have a template, when another one doesn’t? Why does this content need to be associated with that content? Why do we need to coordinate publishing times?

Imagine you are a developer for the “Cogswell Cogs” website. You are given a design. You are given some “lorem ipsum” text, as well as all of the legacy content from their previous website, including a handful of white papers. You know nothing about where this content comes from, how it gets published, when it gets published, how it should relate to other content, or what rules need to frame up the content’s lifecycle.

Without this direction, you do the best you can, creating content types, navigation, and features based on what you see in the sitemap and wireframes. The site may look exactly the way Mr. Cogswell was expecting. But what happens after deployment? How does the content live? Do the Cogswell Cogs employees know how to add and delete content in a meaningful way? Do they know how or why they should be relating one piece of content to another? Does the site’s search function return results in the fashion the user expects? Is there a process flow for how content gets created, edited, and published, and does that process need to be part of the Content Management System (CMS)? This is a very common scenario that often leaves you wondering “Did I really set my client up for success?”

Now imagine that you are a developer for the “Spacely Sprockets” website. You are given a design, real content, and a Content Strategy. You know that two Spacely Sprockets employees will be contributing content to the website on a weekly basis. You know that they want a way to relate articles and blog posts to their sprockets product information. You know that they want to see their search results categorized by sprocket type and sorted by date. You know that they occasionally have events such as the annual Sprocketfest that might need special attention on the website, and that Sprocketfest promotional content will be removed once the event has passed. You know that Mr. Spacely has appointed one of his employees to be the ultimate authority when it comes to content on his website, and that this user should have the appropriate permissions and functions available to them in the CMS.

Armed with the understanding of how Spacely Sprockets plans to conduct business through their website, you now have the information you need to configure the CMS with accuracy. Using the Content Strategy as a guide, you can be sure that you have left Spacely Sprockets with the tools necessary to maintain their content, and that they are comfortable with their role when it comes to using those tools. You can sleep well, knowing that you have indeed set your client up for success.

So, does a developer need Content Strategy? Absolutely. Consider the following parts of a CMS project.

Content Types – Does all content always need to fit into a repeatable pattern? Or are some types of content so rare that they are better off as custom code?

Taxonomy – How does one type of content relate to another? Is it a parent-child relationship? A one-to-many relationship? A many-to-many relationship? Is it important to create a minimum number of relationships between content pieces? Is it appropriate to use free-tagging?

Navigation – How is the content organized? Does content always have to be nested under a menu? If not, how does the user navigate to the content? How does the content creator associate that content with its navigation?

Search – Is a keyword search enough, or is a faceted search required? What does the search results page look like? Does the user expect to find certain content types represented a certain way on search results pages? Do results need to be categorized or sorted? Should the user have sorting or refining controls on the search results page?

Publishing Process – How many stages are there in the publishing process? How many roles need to be involved? Is it a linear process flow, or something more complex? What kind of business rules need to be adhered to in the publishing process? Is there a schedule for when content should expire? Is expired content archived? Deleted? Re-purposed? Does the content approval process need to be part of the CMS, or should the CMS simply be treated as a publishing platform?

SEO – Do you need to provide special fields for metadata? How does the content creator differentiate between trimmed/summary content and the main content? Does the content creator have control over the number and type of headlines used? How does the content creator control which content appears in which order on a landing page or search results page?

Section 508 – Does the content creator need to handle accessibility? Does the CMS need to provide a way for the content creator to control ARIA attributes? Does the CMS need to provide a way for content creators to add “alt” tags to images or captions to videos? Does the CMS need tools to convert certain types of content (such as MS Word documents or PDFs) into accessible formats?

Multi-Lingual – Does the content creation process need to account for other languages? Other countries? Contexts that combine both a language and a country (such as French and Canada)?  Does the CMS need to provide a way to enter right-to-left (RTL) text (such as Arabic)? Does the site need to support Chinese, Japanese, or Korean (CJK) characters? How will a content creator control these options?

Legacy Content – What does the CMS need to consider in order to support old content? How will the legacy content be imported? What does a content editor need to do to curate legacy content?

All of the above questions can be answered by a well-formed Content Strategy. Without one, as developers we are left to make assumptions about how the end user and the site maintainers will interact with the content. This introduces the serious risk that a website will fall short of its purpose, that it will not be properly maintained, or that it may become stuck in an endless cycle of re-work and scope creep.

Websites can get expensive. Without direction they become stale, misguided, under-utilized, and eventually discarded only to be re-built from the ground up in another expensive endeavor. A solid vision for the role of a website as it relates to an organization can extend its life, bring in new sources of revenue, and even reshape the organization itself.

Developers, we can save ourselves and our clients a world of frustration by agreeing on an action plan for a website’s current development, ongoing maintenance, and future expansion. Whether or not you knew it, that plan is called the Content Strategy. Before diving into your next CMS build, work with your client and your UX engineer to produce a Content Strategy that everyone can agree on, and give your project the clear direction it deserves.

NerdCast #41: Nerdery Lab Experiment No.1 – Finding New Music With TasteMapper


This episode of the NerdCast features Andrew Golaszewski and Kevin Moot, two participants of the inaugural Nerdery Labs Program. They talk about their technology experiment that created data visualizations of the music listening habits of Last.FM users. Learn more about the Nerdery Lab Program, TasteMapper, and the challenges of working with large unstructured data sets and making sense of it all. If you’re a developer, a fan of music, or like hearing about cool applications of technology, this is the episode for you.

HostRyan Carlson

Guests: Kevin Moot, Software Developer & Andrew Golaszewski, Senior User Expereience Designer at The Nerdery

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Running Time: 0:22:03 / Subscribe on iTunes