I went to Confab and it was pretty much the best week of my life.

I went to Confab and it was pretty much the best week of my life.

Look, I was jumping up and down and literally squealing with excitement in anticipation of Confab Minneapolis 2013 – and having been home for a week hasn’t lessened my enthusiasm even a smidgen. It was that good. It. Was. That. Good.

I could go on and on about how bloody brilliant and nice this community is (#confabfeelings), but it wasn’t just the social aspect that made it such an amazing event. It was also – really and truly – a solid, thoughtful, well-executed, just-damn-good conference. Every presentation I saw gave me something to think about, something to influence my work. I adored it.

At the periphery.

The ideas that resonated most with me at Confab were those about borders: edges, limits, silos, overlaps, breakdowns, boundaries. Where are the borders of our industry, and of our individual efforts? Where are we drawing them? How are we crossing them? What happens when they bleed?

So many presentations touched on this one way or another. For example, Jared Spool spoke about creating delightful experiences – that is, not simply creating content that is competent or passable, but pushing further, demanding more, excelling. Once we’ve won the battle of making things suck less, can we make things better? Can we exceed our expectations? That’s a question of boundaries, even if he didn’t put it as such: we can reach higher.

Our hands are not as tied as we think.

Honestly, there’s no shortage of constraints being put on our work. Budget shortfalls. Difficult stakeholders. Even ourselves – we limit our thinking and fall into ruts. Maybe it’s an attempt to feel in control in the face of an ever-changing industry. After all, It helps us to have templates, to automate our processes, to follow a tested narrative. If we can replicate our methods, we’re more nimble, we’re more certain, we’re more confident.

But this tendency towards the rules breeds an unwillingness to push ourselves. We fall into the trap of one-size-fits-all solutions. We parrot popular solutions (make everything responsive, make everything shiny, make everything faster). But the truth is that every project has its own unique needs. Margot Bloomstein’s presentation on slow experiences in content pointed out that not every brand or message demands the same get-them-to-the-checkout-counter approach. At its heart, it was a plea for listening, for occasionally going against the grain, for not being afraid to treat your project like a new opportunity (and not a template). Eileen Webb’s presentation also touched on this thoughtful approach; in her experience with non-profits, the best experiences sometimes require unusual solutions. “Best practices” aren’t always the best fit. But we can’t see that unless we’re willing to reconsider our rules.

Empathy as translation.

Though not a new theme, empathy is an important part of the conversation, and it’s very much about crossing borders. After all, what is empathy but a willingness to open ourselves up to someone else’s experiences? As an industry, we’ve been talking a lot about empathy towards users, and now we’re honing in on stakeholders. We need empathy when we’re trying to break down silos and cross department delineations. Corey Vilhauer spoke about the need for thoughtful curiosity and support when asking others to accept change (“people strategy”). And Jeff Eaton spoke specifically to the ways content strategists can work more effectively (more empathetically) with developers. Can’t we accomplish more when we reach across the table? What can we learn from other departments? How can we speak our coworkers’ languages to create better processes?

Your baby’s ugly.

This blurring of boundaries tends to ruffle feathers. It makes people spiky when we try to change processes or question their content choices, even when we mean well. The truth is, people love their content. Even really bad content. Even atrocious writing. Even pages that no one seems to own – somebody cares about it, even if they don’t come out of the woodwork until we try to change it. We learn that every pixel probably has an opinion behind it, and we need to tread carefully if we want to be effective.

So how do we present ourselves? How do we gently encourage the change that we’re so hyped up about? What are we doing to help our coworkers adjust? Jonathan Kahn talked about the ways we can help create cultural change by listening, asking daring questions, and being vulnerable. And Sarah Richards’s presentation examined the enormous culture shift needed for the British government to embrace plain language, agile process, and user-centered design (“The content strategy isn’t written down. It’s culture. It’s in what we do.”). These are big, border-shaking ideas – and, lo and behold, a national government was able to embrace them, with the right, thoughtful approach.

At the border, guy.

Paul Ford’s closing keynote tied all these notions together: creativity requires constraints. Constraints create territories. Territories create tribes.

I love this. I love the paths we move through, the way it sort of knocks our assumptions aside a bit – we value our creativity, but we don’t like thinking of ourselves as territorial. No! Territoriality is what we’re fighting against! We’re trying to break down silos, not create more within our industry. But it’s a good reminder, as content strategy (and UX, and information architecture, and all the rest) mature and develop and stake claims, that we are just as fallible. We are capable of confusing our constraints for our definitions.

The benefit of territories is shared experience: we can begin to recognize similarities in each other, to create communities, to befriend a group of strangers on Twitter and find yourself singing Pat Benatar at a dive bar in Minneapolis two years later. These things happen. (Oh, god, do they happen.)

The danger of territories is that they separate us from would-be colleagues, exclude new friends, and hold back beginners. They elevate credentials over ideas and execution. They start arguments about how we name things in our industries, who’s “really” practicing what, what deliverables count in each discipline – when we all know that doing the work is what matters.

We can flourish amazingly within constraints. But we can also flourish when we crisscross boundaries, relax, and let go of some of our control. We can produce richer work with more perspectives. We can find unexpected solutions in strange places, consider every problem on its own merit, listen, understand, work across disciplines, and get things done.

Sounds delightful.




I saw several excellent presentations that did not fit this post’s little theme, but deserve mention anyway:

There were also many, many excellent presentations I wasn’t able to see (actually, I didn’t even see all the presentations I mention here, but the slides are SO GOOD, and also I’ve seen some of them at other events!). Here are some other related resources:

Confab Minneapolis 2013, I miss you already.


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