Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Once upon a consult...

Once upon a consult, I had a client who was at once:
  1. in love with the web and the opportunities it could provide his organization,
  2. reasonably savvy about new and creative approaches to using the web,
  3. dealing with enormous gaps of information in his web knowledge that made him unsure of his decisions, and
  4. an ego the size of Cleveland that wouldn't made it very painful for him to admit mistakes.
We were going through a painful redesign of the web site -- the final of three big redesigns in less than a year.

"It has to be right the first time," he said. "Iteration isn't an option."

"Well, with the dynamic environment of the web," I said carefully, "it's actually pretty hard to get everything right...."

He glared at me. I gulped. "OK," I said. "We'll do our best."

"It HAS to be right. The FIRST TIME."

Weeks pass... we go through as exhaustive a design process as we can considering our total lack of a research budget and the short time line. We come up with a different approach that addresses the audiences and goals of the web site, working with the client the whole time. We have thoroughly explained and documented the rationale for what we are doing. We create a mock-up and give it to the client for final approval.

Then the client goes to a conference.

At the last minute, he decides to take the mock-up with him. The conference is about search engine optimization (SEO). Oddly enough, a speaker at the conference uses the client's current site in his presentation -- as a model of what should be done for good SEO. This is, of course, the current site that we are redesigning because it isn't meeting the stated goals set by the client.

After the speech, the client shows the mock-up to one of the speakers -- an SEO expert from Amazon.

The SEO expert doesn't like the mock-up. "It doesn't have enough text," he said. "It doesn't address any of the SEO best practices that we use successfully at Amazon. Don't do it."

The client comes back and confronts me on this person's assessment. "What were you thinking? Don't you know anything about SEO?"

I was floored. I do know about SEO. Early on, however, we had all decided to focus primarily on other concerns. I couldn't speak. I just kept thinking about all of those meetings, all of that documentation... and he still had no idea why we made those design decisions.

"My understanding of the goals was that we were designing for people to successfully interact with the tools on the site, rather than designing for search engines," I croaked out finally. "The design approaches can be pretty different...."

"The guy at Amazon said this is absolutely the wrong way to go. Amazon is a large, successful web site. Why should I believe you over him? We won't be requiring your services any longer." He got up from his chair and walked out of the room.

*******************

I don't tell this tale* as a plea for sympathy (though I'm sure there are one or two of you out there who feel the pain). The fact that "my services were no longer required" was best for all involved. My client no longer trusted that I was giving him good strategic advice and I no longer trusted that he ever listened to a word I said. I would rather this came across as a cautionary tale to well-meaning web consultants and conference speakers across the web industry.

Think before you cut loose with that free advice.

Imagine you are the guy from Amazon. You had just finished a speech and your adrenaline is probably still flowing. There's a good chance (if the speech was toward the end of the day) that you have a drink in your hand. Someone comes up to you out of nowhere and shows you a home page mock-up. He asks you to tell him your opinion of it. Please don't assume that he:

  1. is sensitive to the fact that you are speaking from your own unique, potentially narrow, experience,
  2. is sensitive to the fact that you are speaking from your own, potentially narrow, specialty (such as SEO), or
  3. actually knows that many of the best practices needed to make a web site the best it can be are in conflict with each other and that sometimes you have to choose which are most important.

You aren't thinking about all of the competing goals and audiences for the site. You don't know anything about the strategic goals of the organization. You don't know any of the stakeholders. You don't know what content is or is not available.

You are most likely thinking about dinner.

You just answered a question and you probably forgot about it an hour later.



*This story is based on a real interaction but most of the details have been changed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Are journalists doomed?

There was a time -- not so long ago -- when all that journalists had to worry about was getting credible facts checked and assembling a cohesive story about a topic.

That's harder than it sounds. People are terrible sources of information for a journalist. They forget stuff, they remember important details wrong -- sometimes they just lie in order to get attention or to get the journalist to stop talking to them. Journalists are taught this early on and are expected to wade through a lot of information, follow the consistencies for a thread of truth, and then tease out that thread into a story that is as well-rounded as possible.

Granted, not all journalists actually do this, but this is how they are trained.

We're awash in information from television and Internet -- say nothing of those informative folks in your car pool or standing around the proverbial water cooler. Let's look at H1N1... or breast cancer screening... or the war in Afghanistan. There are lots of very credible-sounding people passionately saying things that are polar opposites of each other. Is one person or group wrong? No. Typically they are both right at some level, but you have to really pick through the details to figure out what applies to you.

Try it. It's really hard to do.

I recently ran across an article on Mashable.com about the eight must-have traits of tomorrow's journalist that made me laugh. You can read the article to get the real traits... I've paraphrased these to serve my own nefariously bloggish purposes.
  1. They need to be entrepreneurial and have enough business savvy to start their own publications when the ones they work for inevitably go under. *smirk* Yeah.. there's some motivation for you.
  2. They need to be a computer programmer with the skills to not only tell a story across different media, but also build and manage the computer platforms the story appears on.
  3. They need to be able to keep a completely open mind about... well... everything. That means encouraging more facts/opinions than fewer while somehow still finding a coherent story to talk about.
  4. Have the skills and experience to tell a story using video, text, graphics, audio and photography -- all at the same time.
  5. Become an online community manager to build and grow a community who think you (the journalist) are the cat's meow. You do that, of course, by routinely engaging in some kind of thoughtful back-and-forth with with the people who follow you -- often one individual at a time. If you do this well, this means thousands of people.
  6. Create and maintain a blog of your own, and also constantly scan the whole Internet to find and identify "the good stuff".
  7. Be "multi-skilled". No shit.
  8. Have and maintain the fundamental journalism skills of good writing, ethics, news judgment, investigation, and verification.
This list is... ummm... how should I put it... COMPLETELY INSANE. Mastering storytelling on every possible media? Tough, but probably doable. Building and maintaining the computer platform that your stories appear on? Oh, please. Creating and growing an online community that is large enough to have any kind of impact in our fragmented information world is sort of a lot of work. You can't do that over a couple of hours a day.

I believe that the industry of journalism is going through some fundamental changes. Many of the basic principles I learned in school -- namely around the disdain of those who aren't professional journalists and the inherent credibility of large publishing organizations -- will be very different in ten years.

I do not believe, however, that a single person will represent these eight traits. Web sites and web communities (as well as small businesses) are built and maintained by teams of people -- even Mashable.com.

I believe they always will be.