Castles made of Sand – The practical value of IA & UX (and how to explain it to clients)

 

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I took on a project recently that I am pretty excited about.

I’m working for a start-up company with some incredibly clever aerospace engineers who’ve invented a new type of torque coupling (see slides for an image!) which is present in most vehicle engines.

While the technical nuances of this revolutionary invention escape me, they assure me it makes engines more eco-friendly and safe.

They all quit very well paid jobs to form the business. They have years of engineering experience between them. They clearly know their shit.

What they don’t know shit about, is digital, which is why they hired me.

However, I have had great difficulty explaining that before we get to the exciting (read: pretty) bits of building their new website we need to consider IA and UX. They just don’t see the value in it.

It’s a scenario many people in the web industry will know well. The engineers know they need to be online, and they know they need to digitally market their product because their competitors do. But they think digital marketing and SEO copywriting is all a load of fluff and nonsense. They also have no clue whatsoever how websites actually work beyond what you can see. They don’t need to.

I recently did a talk about explaining the value of IA & UX to clients at SWUX Bristol based on working with these engineers – you can view the slides here.

These guys aren’t fans of digital, and are even less keen on marketers. They make ‘proper’ things. Tangible and very complicated parts that keep aeroplanes in the air. They work from CAD diagrams, test materials under different strains to ensure they don’t fail.

If they fail, people die.

Comparatively, digital marketing does seem a bit lame.

The problem is that given the nature of their invention, the site needs to contain a hell of a lot of information, and will need to track a lot of data. From demonstration videos to technical specs to material and safety data spanning four very different industries to a catalogue of various parts and information on their applications – this project is going to be a big job.

I gathered all the information I could, learned about the industries they are going to sell to, and split what we needed to include into sections. Then I made a low-fi wireframe of the site.

I sent the frame to the engineers and told them not to worry about images or final copy at this stage, but to click things, see if they could find all the information sections they thought their customers needed and expected to see, where they would expect to find it.

I told them to note down what worked and what didn’t, not to discuss this with each other, and to bring the notes to our next meeting.

Simple, right?

Well no. It wasn’t at all.

I tried to explain that the section titles were merely an indicator of what sort of content would be included. I explained that the content blocks could be repeated on different pages, and that there were different paths people could use to reach pages.

I explained that the placeholder ‘image’ squares could be videos, pictures, diagrams – we just needed to work out what resources we would need. I explained this was a big job, which is why we needed to get the user journeys and IA right at the initial stage.

They didn’t get it at all. I spent over an hour unable to get them to move away from the homepage, and to stop asking why all the information (and an animated gif logo – eek) shouldn’t be on the homepage.

They wanted to know what the banner image would look like, whether we should have this or that title, and I couldn’t get their heads around the concept of content blocks. They would only think in terms of pages. When I decided it might be easier to show them the user journeys off screen, I got the post-it’s out.

That sealed my doom as another trendy marketing tosser.

I decided to take a different tack at our next meeting. I explained that like any physical architecture, we needed a blueprint from which to work. I explained that it’s wasn’t marketing, it was technical. I explained that if the measurements and materials specified in the blueprint were wrong, the builders could knock something up that may look great for a moment, but would soon fall over.

They hadn’t in fact realised that there were builders required at all. However, by explaining the process in terms they were familiar and comfortable with, they got it.

The materials testing engineer was the first to really see merit in this approach. He realised my job was in nature, pretty similar to his (minus the threat of physical crashes); testing, tweaking, improving iteratively so you know that by the time you put the plane in the air, you know it won’t fall out of the sky.

He convinced the MD to stop thinking about the logo, and just give me the facts. Plain and simple. He finally understood that whatever journey you map, all roads lead to home (digitally speaking) and that this process meant finding the most simple, logical and well sign-posted route from A to B.

So I’ve made some tweaks to my blueprint based on engineering expertise, and we are nearly ready to call in the builders. In a world where people expect to be wowed by quick results, and where marketing is often a dirty word (and let’s face it, a lot of it is fluff), we need to go back to basics, and to remember to talk to people without the jargon.

It can be easy to just agree with what the client wants, but the truth is, they often don’t really know what they need. IA is something marketers, writers, designers and project managers should consider before they kick off any project.

Information architecture may not be sexy, but it’s the blueprint that all the shiny stuff is built around.

All sites are different, and levels of complexity will obviously vary, but not matter what information you need to include, you should consider IA. It may not be exciting or nice to look at, but it’s well worth paying for.

Review: The Paper Cinema (Puppet Fest)

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Think back to when you were a small child, to a time when you could create exciting worlds of adventure and menace simply with your imagination. The earth was too big to contemplate, and so the tiny intricacies of your small corner of it were intriguing enough to command your undivided attention.

It’s usually impossible to feel that level of excitement and wonder as an adult. The big things get in the way.

That’s one of the many reasons that The Paper Cinema is so unique and wonderful. Last night’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry opener at Watershed (three short ‘films’ animated by paper puppeteers, and projected onto the big screen with incredible technical skill) made me feel like a child again, full of unbridled imagination.

Read more at Bristol 24/7…

Divisive politics are dangerous – why marching felt like the ‘right’ thing to do

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On June 20th, I went on my first protest march – the People’s Assembly Anti Austerity March in London. I have previously blogged about my concerns about the conservative party in the UK under Cameron, mainly in terms of the education system (I went to a school in Lincolnshire, one of then only two counties still operating under Thatcher’s 11+ system, with which I wholly disagree).

When Cameron was re-elected, I was both disappointed, and completely surprised. Part of that surprise may admittedly have come from the fact I now live in Bristol, a fairly left wing and liberal pocket where I hadn’t heard much support for the conservatives.

The planned cuts will not directly affect me in any desperate way, at least not immediately. However I worked my way to my current position though many, many, minimum wage, zero hours contracts and unpaid internships to gain the experience I needed to end up in a digital marketing role that pays me enough not to have to rely on the state for assistance.

I was also lucky enough to sign up for university in the last year before the fees doubled. I certainly couldn’t have afforded to attend otherwise. I’m still paying off student overdrafts I took out to make up for the badly paid pub jobs that funded the rest, and for that I’m aware the tories aren’t to blame.

No party in particular should shoulder soul responsibility. Selfish capitalist leadership that puts misunderstood faith in banks and lending markets beyond their control is the problem. That kind of leadership blindly advertises practicable ideologies that sell an unsustainable dream.

My first full-time job was at a fruit packing factory in Boston, Lincolnshire. Boston is a very woking class town, and much of the employment there is factory work. I was unsurprised to hear that Boston had become a UKIP stronghold, and that Lincolnshire is predominantly conservative.

Returning home a few years ago, the factory where I used to work was operating at half capacity, and most of the remaining workers were Polish. The old boys I had worked with, many of whom had been there most of their adult lives were now, presumably, out of a job. There has been rioting in Boston over the immigration issue, and even my mother, a Caribbean immigrant who came over to pursue a career in nursing in the 70’s was repeating the ‘they come over here, take our jobs’ rhetoric.

A scene from the riot. Photograph: Cameron Wilson. EMN-141206-162842001

The real issue wasn’t being addressed. Polish workers were being exploited for cash in hand jobs that pay less than a decent living wage, and others were being put out of work to make way for them. The sad thing is, the political marketing propaganda had worked – no one I spoke to at home asked why this situation was allowed to happen; all opinions I heard blamed the immigrant workers. People in a bad situation are easier to persuade, and can be, understandably, quick to blame.

What really surprised and upset me though was the effect the Tory PR machine had on people my age, and in a more comfortable position – the ‘aspirational’ middle class.

It was conversations with colleagues in my current employment that made me aware of a different problem. The opinions that had been sold to them, both by political spin and aspirational lifestyle marketing (the kind I used to write, I just quit my job) were pervasive  - marketing and the political agenda have become inseparable from each other.

One colleague in his mid-twenties and working in sales asked if I had ever ‘actually met anyone who has had to queue for a food bank’ and whether I was friends with any of ‘them’. The implication, quite clearly being, that it didn’t effect ‘us’, and therefore, why worry about it. Worse still, that ‘they’ probably deserved the position they were in.

Another colleague backed him up, spouting a deviation of the original American Dream, now rebranded by Cameron as the ‘aspiration nation’ that if ‘they’ worked hard, they’d be where ‘we’ are.

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Both colleagues work very hard (and I am a great believer in working hard if you expect to get anywhere, guilt free) but this opinion came from people who were from a very comfortable background that meant they had never had to financially struggle, or to rely on the state for help. They had never had to work in unskilled and precarious employment.

The biggest worry for me is that I can understand both opinions – those of the factory workers, and those of the aspirational office workers. But only on a personal, individual level.

And that is where the political marketing spiel, whether Tory or New Labour, is really clever.

They aren’t selling politics that build a stronger national at all. They are creating policies that harm the more vulnerable people they should be democratically representing.

The current Tory policies market an unattainable lifestyle and selfish values in the same way that advertising does.

They appeal to individuals at the detriment of the majority, while (whether naively or deliberately) empowering market forces over whom neither they, or we, have any control or authority. That’s divisive, and it breeds a blame culture.

Divisive politics are dangerous. A strong Britain empowers everyone, from the bottom up.

5 tips for success from aspirational young professionals who made it

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Did you click that? I knew you would. That’s because I work in marketing.

Marketers and PR people can and will try to sell you anything. Half the time, you won’t even notice. You’ll think you read or listened to whatever they’re selling independently, because the speaker genuinely inspired or understood you.

They didn’t.

They know the right things to say to get what they want, and to make you think you thought it all by yourself. That’s how the Conservatives got in again.

I’m not about to rant (well, maybe a little), condemn them as bad people, or condemn anyone as a bad person. I’m not even about to do that bleeding heart liberal thing and say all rich people are bad and we should all concentrate on the poor.

What I am about to do is ask for a bit of common sense before you find safety in groups and pick a side – because that side will have been picked for you by increments though the spreading of an idea that quite deliberately divides the nation unfairly and unnecessarily via  PR masquerading as journalism.

It’s divisive politics made palatable by marketing and PR, it’s dangerous, and it fucks everyone over (yes, even the supporters).

So, as promised, here’s my top 5 ‘tips’ (read: lies) to watch out for. 

They’re not lies from any particular party, but the lies you tell yourself.

1. Work hard

Working hard is commendable, I am a big believer in that. But that depends what you work hard at. Working hard is in no way a guarantee of ‘success’ if you count success in the limited terms being doled out by the current government.

You can work hard at things that benefit people other than yourself and those in your immediate vicinity, and, shock horror, be happy.

 2. Have aspiration

If you are aspiring to make enough money to look after yourself and your family, great. If you are aspiring to have a the best house, an enviable lifestyle, all that shit, you’re fucked.

There will always be someone better off. You will feel increasingly lost and useless as you strive to gain more stuff you don’t need, but you will keep trying, moving pointless goal posts, feeling like you deserve more. You don’t. Comparing yourself will only make you feel bad.

If you aspire to be comfortable and to look after those less fortunate when you can, that’s success.

3. Belong

Do you fit in with your aspirational neighbours?

Do you feel like the people in your office/street judge your clothes, the way you raise your kids? Do you take photos of the food you eat in the best restaurants to prove to them you’ve ‘made it’? Do you worry about your furnishings and whether you shop in the right places?

What use is that to anyone?

It makes you anxious and it makes you buy more stuff. Who wins there?

Not you, or your peers, you anxious lot. The government and corporations win though. That’s why they told you you had to fit in or you’d failed. It’s not a Fight Club anarchy thing I’m preaching here. I’m just saying it’s pretty daft when you think about it.

Stop worrying so much. What’s the worst that could happen?

 4. Have pride

What are you proud of?

Are you proud of being British? Great. Proud of being in a job that pays well, with a house that looks lovely? Wicked.

I’m not slamming that at all. As I said, I work in digital marketing, I worked hard to get here. My first job was sweeping up hair in a hairdressers in Lincolnshire aged 13, which, incidentally, I loved. We all want to do well for ourselves. But don’t for a second let that make you shun anyone else, and think about what it means to do ‘well’.

Pride is great, but not if it makes you selfish or feel above anyone else. People end up in various situations for a multitude of reasons. And not everyone wants the things you are told en masse, to aspire to. That’s fine.

 4. You deserve it

Some people will work hard all their lives and have nothing. This government will make them feel bad about it. Like they aren’t working hard enough.

They will encourage you, who are comfortable, whether by luck or hard work, to blame them.

Don’t.

There are plenty of wonderful, interesting, intelligent people who aren’t like you, and who you may never meet in your comfy position, who deserve just as much as you do. If you manage to get into a position where you can encourage those people you should. Not because they are below you, or need your pity, but because we are all trying and it’s fucking helpful to be encouraged rather than made to feel like a failure.

5. Change your outlook with this one weird tip…

Don’t let this government sell you on quick, click bait headlines and motivational, aspirational toss just because you have a ’proper’ job.

Don’t be sold on this article either. Just have a think. For yourself.

Will the big house, the great car, the holidays and all that crap genuinely make you sit back and say – I’m relaxed now, I’ve made it, I’m, genuinely happy?

Admit it. Probably not.

If the answer is yes, sorry I wasted your time. They already won.

If you are as worried as I am, I’ll be marching against austerity in London on June 20th. Join in.

Theatre review – Muscovado @Alma Tavern

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An unflinchingly big topic for an unfeasibly small stage, it’s hard to do BurntOut Theatre’s Muscovado the justice it deserves in a short review.

Playwright Matilda Ibini transports us to the sugar-cane plantations of Barbados during the dying throes of slavery, with the Slavery Abolition Act about to be passed. Plantation owners Miss Kitty (Clemmie Reynolds) and her husband, the threatening Captain, are struggling to keep control over their slaves in the face of a rapidly changing social landscape.

Read the full review in Bristol 24/7…

Theatre Review – Under the Dark Moon @Bristol Old Vic

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Sinister, tragic and hopeful in equal measure, Under the Dark Moon sees Bristol’s wonderfully creative Invisible Circus leading us on an adventure through our fears.

Read more in Bristol 24/7…

Theatre Review – Vitomori @Alma Tavern

Vitomori

The latest dig at the ‘popular’ crowd from writer/producer Christopher Cutting, Vitomori tells the tale of a thousand-year-old vampire who has just discovered the power of social media.

Read the full review here

Small Stories: The end. Or is it?

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As some of you know, the little monthly short story event I was running with Sian Wadsworth, Small Stories came to an end in February. My co-host is unfortunately moving on to pastures new, and I took March off to have a bit of a think about what to do next.

It was a great run while it lasted, and we showcased some really great talent – writers, designers and illustrators. I met some brilliant, eccentric and wonderful people, and generally had a brilliant time!

I was also incredibly touched to read comments (thanks especially to @davidjrodger) from writers who were as sad as me about the end.

Happily, plenty of the talented people involved have kept in touch, and have found new homes at other great events; Let me tell you a story Jack, and Stokes Croft Writers to name just a couple.

Given all the great, talented and interesting people I have met along the Small Stories road, it seemed a shame to call it a day. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to put on a monthly event alone, so instead, I have decided to partner up with the wonderful crew at Bristol Festival of Literature to help them organise their event in October.

I am really excited about getting involved, and am certain that this year’s event is going to be a good’un!

We are only in the early planning stages, but rather than let the great social network of writers Small Stories built up go to waste, I suggest us creative types use it as a platform for sharing ideas, arranging meet ups, sharing events & generally keeping the various talented people in the fair city of Bristol in touch.

Keep an eye out for information about Bristol festival of Literature – there will no doubt be brilliant things in store – and you never know, there may even be a one off Small Stories night at the event, for old-time’s sake!

In a nutshell, let’s keep Bristol’s writers inspired!

Thanks, and hopefully speak to y’all soon!

Natalie

If you’ve not heard of Small Stories, there’s some press about it below, and if you have and questions, comments, ideas or events you would like to share, get in touch @SmallStoryBris, follow me on Facebook  or email smallstoriesbristol@gmail.com

Why we started – according to me!

Live illustration at Small Stories

Interview with me and Sian at the start, sob, sob!

Small Stories – Big Books! Sci-Fi author & publishers Jeff & Ann VanderMeer at a special event

Grave robbing, Slutty Girls & Baking!

A little break up story

The last write up!

Review – Jean-Luc Picard & Me

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Review of the rather fab and very talented Ellen Waddell’s show at the Alma Tavern… Ever thought the Captain of the Enterprise was watching over you, giving you guidance?

No. Thought not.

Review for Guide2Bristol here, and interview with Ellen about why on earth she came up with such a unique topic!

An evening with Noel Fielding @Colston Hall – Review

Noel

Come with me now on a journey through time and space. The last time I saw Noel Fielding was 2008 at the hippodrome for the Mighty Boosh live tour. It was my last year at uni.

The after party was at Academy, where Noel’s then girlfriend’s band was playing. He was hammered, and so was I, and tried to crowd surf where there was no crowd, knocked me over and we spent a good few minutes hugging with the shock of both finding ourselves sprawled on the floor.

He then spent fifteen minutes hiding behind a speaker while a visibly unimpressed Julian Barratt tried to get him back on stage. I mention this as time and space are clearly a major consideration in Fielding’s current stand up tour, and times have changed.

Read my review in Guide2Bristol here…