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CS is (Still) Not (Only) UX … and Why It Matters

by Erin Kissane on June 9th, 2011

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the many kinds of content strategy currently going on in the world and how the diversity within CS gives us the chance to do more interesting things, and to learn from each other. Confab 2011 was just around the corner, and I was hoping we could set aside some of our industry loyalties and learn from each other.

Hippie campfire stuff. With marmots.

Then Confab happened, and there were marketing folks and UX people and publishers and journalists and data designers all speaking and listening and drinking Lorem Sipsums—and there was way more PLUR in the house than I’d dared to hope for.

So I think we’re heading in the right direction. But before I move on from the hippie stuff entirely, I want to clarify some things from the last post. Starting with this whole UX business.

I Come in Peace

First, a disclaimer. User experience (UX) design is a field in flux. Its central terms are in dispute, as are the boundaries of the field itself. There are those who believe that UX design is something very specific, and those who believe that anything that influences a user who has an experience counts. Blessedly, I’m a specialist, so this is not my fight.

For the purposes of my own work and writing, I tend to think of UX design as a kind of design work associated with certain methods, processes, and values. It’s not limited to the web, or even (theoretically, at least) to the digital world.

I’ve spent most of my career working alongside fantastic designers and developers, many of whom consider themselves UX people. That’s my world, and I believe CS is and should remain a critical part of UX design work.

For a long time, I tended to assume that the only “real” content strategy was the kind of content strategy that took place within the framework of UX.

But it turns out that CS doesn’t belong solely to people who do it the way I do it: CS is not a synonym for UX, or even exclusively a subset of UX. And that’s because CS is in contexts and fields both within and outside the purview of UX design. (Using the working provisional pseudo-definition above.)

CS ≠ UX, Take Two

One useful way to think about the relationship between UX and CS may be to consider the relationship between UX and programming/IT work.

Some kinds of programming—notably front-end and UI development—are inextricably entwined with UX design. (Or at least they should be.)

Other kinds of programming and IT work, including a lot of back-end coding, IT architecture (virtual and physical), security, and a host of other activities may well support and be influenced by UX design choices, but aren’t themselves part of UX design. That doesn’t mean that IT work is more or less important than UX work, just that they’re different.

In the same way, a lot of CS takes place within the boundaries of UX design projects and processes. And a lot of it—CS that deals with enterprise-scale data design, the long-term management of publishing processes, old-school marketing/communications planning, and so on—also goes on outside those boundaries.

This Is a Beautiful Thing

My slightly muddled point in the original post was that people are doing CS work within higher education, mass media and publishing, journalism, information science, marketing, and plenty of other fields without engaging in anything that resembles user experience design methods.

And that this is not only OK, but excellent, because it gives us chances to cross-pollinate and learn weird new things and get better at what we do. Developing a big-tent CS community that recognizes the virtues of diversity and niche work benefits us all.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A lot of great posts appeared after Confab, including two from Jonathan Kahn and Sara Wachter-Boettcher, that discuss ways of moving ahead as our community continues to gel. From Jonathan’s call to arms:

Confab showed me that we have a community of people who are spending their time sharing and learning from each other about how to change their organizations so that they can start to get hold of the overwhelming problems associated with content strategy, web strategy, and web governance.

That’s amazing. What I learned at Confab is that all of us can and should do more to broaden the conversation, involve more people, start to get this change train moving. Brain Traffic and others have led the way: now it’s your turn. Start a meetup, host a work lunch, write a blog post, submit a talk to a conference.

And Sara, echoing Relly Annett-Baker’s Confab presentation in suggesting that we need to spend more time and energy collaborating with our counterparts in UX/design teams:

Once you’ve established a bit of voice, it’s time for ears to take over – time to start listening to and collaborating with those people we fought so hard to let us in in the first place.

I’ve been super-lucky to work with content-savvy UX/design teams from the get-go, so I can attest to the benefits of close collaboration. And I think Jonathan’s quite correct to shoo us all out onto the streets to raise hell in our own ways.

I also want to suggest one more course of action: we need to be more aggressive about learning from smart content people who don’t work in the same ways and contexts that we do. And to that end, I have a proposal.

The Summer Blogging Challenge

Some of you may share my fond memories of the summer reading programs run by schools and libraries during summer break. Long, hot afternoons outdoors with a big stack of books are still my favorite way to experience the peak of summer, and I collected a lot of scratch-n-sniff stickers for my trouble.

It’s 100 degrees in New York City today, and I’m issuing a challenge. Between now and the end of August, in the spirit of cross-training, I challenge all of you who are practicing and learning about content strategy to read at least one book or blog series, attend a talk, or otherwise dig into an area of content strategy work that’s well outside of your own expertise. And then to blog about what you’ve learned and how it might affect your approach to your work.

And because I am still ALL about the stickers, yes, there will be (tiny, ridiculous) prizes. Comment here or send a note to @braintraffic on Twitter when your post is up to get in on the bounty. Southern hemisphere readers will receive especially fine (tiny, ridiculous) Winter Blogging Challenge prizes. Special awards will be given for the most prolific reader/poster; gummy rodents may be involved.

GO NERDS.

  • http://www.pybop.com Shelly Bowen

    Yes to hippies. And also rainbows. As a content strategist, sometimes I play orange and sometimes green, but without the other colors (that is, UX and IA and design, etc), I’d be a boring rainbow. (That was the correct interpretation of the Confab logo, right?)

    Thanks for posting and for the challenge! I can’t wait to see what we all discover.

  • http://twitter.com/sara_ann_marie S. Wachter-Boettcher

    Hey Erin —

    I’m belated in this reply, but there are three things I’ve been meaning to tell you.

    First, Oregonians can’t help but love hippie stuff. It’s a fact. Wherever we go in life, we’re always just seconds away from lighting some nag champa and joining a drum circle.

    Second, I’d also suggest that our summer reading lists aren’t limited to that which we can strictly define as “content work.” What about things like Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Web Design (which I’m sure you’d agree is a seriously serious book for those of us working in content, but not one that’s necessarily labeled as such)? It seems to me that there’s much to be gained from finding new, interesting connections between content work and myriad other disciplines, within and beyond UX boundaries (contentious as they are). 

    And, finally, thanks for the shout out. And for the challenge. Looking forward to a summer sticker storm.

  • http://www.webcanon.wordpress.com Jacob McCarthy

    I agree with your statement that, “a big-tent CS community that recognizes the virtues of diversity and niche work benefits us all.” Web-related positions are becoming increasingly situated within other disciplines. When you look at smaller companies, especially colleges and non-profits, the content function might be framed within any number of roles including design, development, UX or communications. That’s a testament to how much we can learn from one another.

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