Q&A: Scott Kubie on Content Strategy, UX, and Design

Scott Kubie, lead content strategist at Wolfram, is an enthusiastic advocate for content strategy, user experience, and the community that surrounds the practice. Scott is also the next subject in our series of Q&As with industry leaders.

Scott Kubie, Lead Content Strategist at Wolfram
Scott Kubie, lead content strategist at Wolfram

Where did this all begin? How did you stumble upon content strategy?

Content Strategy, with a capital “C” and capital “S”, is an area of practice I discovered long after I was already doing the stuff most content strategists do. I’ve been interested in the web and technology since I was very young. Content strategy (and related disciplines like IA and UX) has been an excellent way to apply my strengths in design thinking, editorial strategy, and writing on web projects.

While all disciplines blend together to some degree, I have personally embraced the term content strategy because a lot of smart people are saying smart stuff about the kinds of problems I find interesting under that banner. It’s helpful to know what section of the bookstore to look in, so to speak.

That’s more the why. As for how, I worked on lots of projects that required writing, describing and marketing new ideas and technology products, and building communities. During all that, some timely connections in 2012 helped steer me toward the Information Architecture Summit community, which opened my eyes to all of the formal discussion around these areas of practice and gave me an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

Now that you’ve been embedded in the content strategy and UX communities for a while, have you noticed any trends in where the conversation is heading?

It’s hard to discuss trends in so young a field. There’s lots still being discovered, documented, described and tested out. Personally, I’m finding that many of the content problems organizations struggle with are best addressed through good old-fashioned design thinking.

I’ve also observed that more content strategists are doing design work and more designers are working on content strategy — that’s a good thing! I hope the lessons and tools of content strategy thinking become ever more integral to the design process of anyone working with web content.

That’s a theme we’ve been seeing as well. The discussion seems to have expanded lately, from how to work across the silos of the organization to also talk about how strategists collaborate with peers in design, SEO, analytics, and so on. Each domain brings a unique, and valuable, perspective. It sounds like the design perspective brings a lot to the projects you work on?

I believe the world needs more designers. Lots more. So the work I find most rewarding is teaching what I know about design and content strategy to others and helping them feel more empowered to tackle their own content and website problems.

In particular, concept modeling is a technique I’m fond of and have had some opportunities to speak and lead workshops about. It’s been extremely rewarding to see examples and hear from audience members at talks and workshops who have taken the technique home and immediately put it to work on a big thorny issue they’ve been working with. That “a-ha” moment when the process finally clicks for someone in a workshop is really great.

It’s a great approach to really digging in and picking apart a problem space. What do you think it is that really resonates with people?

“People are resourceful and can adapt to all kinds of situations, be it not enough money, people, time, or even skill. But there’s not any getting around clarity.”

Scott Kubie, Wolfram

The problems people are most aware of tend to be symptoms; bad content, old content, pages that never seem to get updated, “redesign” projects that stretch on for weeks, months, years.

A root cause I often find is lack of clarity around some fundamental consideration. This is the focus of my practice.

People are resourceful and can adapt to all kinds of situations, be it not enough money, people, time, or even skill. But there’s not any getting around clarity. Good intentions and a good work ethic can’t compensate for not understanding the purpose of the project, website, or organization. They can’t compensate for lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities within a team. Fuzzy voices, fuzzy visions, ill- or un-documented governance; these are the problems the teachings of content strategy are well-suited to address.

In terms of content strategy techniques, we’re kind of obsessed with content audits around here. What’s the role of the content audit in your process?

It’s kind of like doing a household budget. I don’t do it as often as I should, because it’s kind of a pain and can even be a little stressful—though not particularly difficult. Doing it, however, tends to reveal all kinds of insights you might not have expected, and gives you a bit more confidence in your decision-making.

I find content auditing particularly useful when trying to understand the information architecture of a site or system that has grown organically (read: unplanned) over many designs and redesigns. There’s a lot to learn from how files, directories, pages and more are named even if the people who originally worked on it didn’t have an explicit content strategy or information architecture in mind.

Design like a Content Strategist from Scott Kubie

You organize a meetup group for “content nerds” in Des Moines that I’ve been lucky enough to attend. How has this group shaped your work?

Having a meetup group is nice because you get to hear directly from “innies,” — a goofy term for internal, typically salaried, designers and content strategists. Many leading voices in content strategy are “outies”: consultants, contractors, agencies. While innies and outies might deal with similar problems and use similar tools, whose logo you have on your business card has a big impact on the strategies and processes you use to tackle those problems. Meeting with the Content Nerds helps me stay aware of just how flimsy a concept “best practices” can be in a field like content strategy.

It’s great to have access to those different perspectives and, if nothing else, a few sympathetic ears. As if that didn’t keep you busy enough, you have a full-day workshop on Communicating Content Strategy coming up at the Midwest UX Conference. What should people know about it?

The first thing to know is that our workshop is one of many excellent options at Midwest UX. For example, Steve Fisher’s AM workshop on Content Modeling sounds quite intriguing.

As for our workshop, I would want people considering attending to know that it will be appropriate for both “designers” and “content people” alike. If you’ve come into content strategy and UX through writing and marketing, our workshop should help you add some tools from the UX toolbelt to your practice. If you’ve come into content strategy through interactive design or graphic design, we’ll have several techniques that will help you use your strengths to solve tricky content problems.

Sounds really useful, sometimes we forget to apply UX thinking to our deliverables. Best of luck with the workshop!

I think it will be a lot of fun, and I hope that my colleague Michael Metts and I have the opportunity to share it with others beyond Midwest UX!

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Q&A: Scott Kubie on Content Strategy, UX, and Design