Words Drive Action: An Interview with Gerry McGovern

by Christine Perfetti

Gerry is a world-renowned content-management expert and author of the books, “Content Critical” and “The Web Content Style Guide”. User Interface Engineering’s Christine Perfetti and Josh Porter recently talked with Gerry about the importance of an editorial perspective in a web development process. Here is what Gerry had to say about his experiences.

UIE: In your book, “Content Critical” you describe the web as a medium for publishing content and recommend that designers view their site as a publication. Is the web-publishing model a change in mindset for most designers?

Gerry McGovern: My focus is business websites with commercial or strategic objectives. For these types of websites, a publishing approach works very well.

Publishing is about getting the right content to the right person at the right time at the right cost. It’s about selecting the best content and editing it really well, so that it makes compelling reading.

Some designers take a volume approach to content. “Let’s get clever software and organize as much content as possible,” this thinking goes. Some take a strong graphical design approach, emphasizing the visual. My approach doesn’t ignore the software or the visuals, but focuses fundamentally on the words on the page. That’s because, it is words that drive actions on a web page.

What new factors must designers consider when they start to view their site as a publication?

I think we need designers who think like editors. We need to ask questions such as: What’s our most important content? What content do we have that people really want to read and can’t find anywhere else?

The huge challenge today is that there is so much content. Some people think that all you need to do is make content available on the intranet and staff will read it. But, that’s not true. How are you going to create a website where it’s easy to find the right content? When people find that content, you want to make sure that it’s laid out in a way that is easy to read.

The content itself must be compelling. It must drive action. After someone reads your content, how more likely will they be to want to buy your product? If a member of staff reads a new product description, how better will they be able to explain that product to a prospective customer?

In your full-day seminar at User Interface 11, you’ll discuss a publishing strategy methodology for delivering content. What does this strategy involve?

There are two core elements in a publishing strategy. The first is defining your publishing processes. The core publishing processes are: create, edit, and publish. The second core element is your information architecture, which focuses on how you organize and lay out the content you publish.

What do you see as the ideal make-up for a web publishing team?

To be a success, I believe that the person in charge of a web publishing team must have an editorial perspective. They have to champion the reader of the content. They have to truly understand the needs of that reader, and be able to publish content relevant to that reader.

It sounds basic, but a good publishing team requires good editors and good writers. You need people who can write short, snappy, compelling content. You need people who can come up with headings that will make readers want to click for more.

There are lots of technical skills you require too, of course. There are graphical design skills. But, if you don’t have quality content skills in your team, you’re in trouble.

In both your book and your full-day seminar, you stress the importance of content standards. Why do you feel a standards-based approach is the best way to design an information architecture?

All mature disciplines have core standards and rules. As information architecture matures, core standards are being established. For example, navigation tends to go on the left; the organization logo in the top left corner; the name of the homepage tends to be ‘Home.’

Picasso introduced a unique style to art. But, Picasso knew the basic rules of painting inside out. Before James Joyce experimented, he developed an intimate knowledge of grammar and style. So, yes, there are times you can bend and break the rules. However, first you need to understand the rules and standards of your discipline.

Anyone interested in becoming an information architect should first and foremost have a deep understanding of the core standards and rules of the discipline.

Is XML the solution to all of our problems regarding content standards?

No. XML is a powerful toolkit for metadata standards. But, if you don’t choose the right metadata, XML is useless. XML can only work when there is a common approach to metadata.

In your work, you emphasize the importance of metadata for information architecture. In your experience, why do some people still not recognize that importance of a proper plan for metadata? What advice would you give to designers that must convince stakeholders that metadata is essential?

If your content isn’t read, what good is it? Before content can be read, it has to be found. Quality metadata increases the chance that your content will be found by the person who needs to find it.

Metadata delivers essential information such as: who, what, when. Who wrote it? What is it about (the summary)? What subject is it under (the classification)? When was it published?

Information overload is one of the most critical problems that we all face everyday. How is your content going to be found and read? Well, having quality metadata significantly increases its chances.

Are there any companies you’ve worked with that have successfully standardized web design across the organization?

The type of work I get is around helping large organizations develop best practices in how they publish their content on the Web. I certainly find that there is an increasing interest in achieving a standardized web design process. It’s more cost-effective, it’s easier to manage and it’s what the reader wants.

I’m presently working with a number of organizations to streamline their publishing processes. It makes so much sense. However, what needs to be understood here is that having standardized publishing processes does not necessarily mean controlling the content people create at a local level.

The optimal publishing solution is to have central standards but local publishing of content. The department or group is given authority to publish the content they think is right, once basic rules of the road are applied.

In your full-day seminar, you’ll talk about how “Navigation is Critical”. One of the navigation principles you advocate is for designers to follow web conventions. In your opinion, why are web conventions so important?

In the last month, I have been in France, Malaysia and Singapore. At home in Ireland, I’m used to seeing the sign for a motorway with two lines and a bridge across. It’s the exact same sign in France, Malaysia and Singapore.

People instinctively see the Web as one giant place that they navigate around. They’re used to looking for a set of important links that run across the top of the page. They’re used to finding ‘Home’ as the first link in this set of links.

Now, if you’re designing a website, wouldn’t you want to put the ‘Home’ link in the position where people are used to finding it? Implementing web convention means that the person who visits your website has less to learn in order to successfully navigate around your website.

Some people may take issue with your argument. Some say that a site’s layout should depend on the type of content on the site—not web conventions.

I disagree. Black text on a white background is easier to read. 10-point font is easier to read than 8-point font. That’s true whether you are American, Irish or French. It’s true whether you are writing about software or traditional Irish music.

Documents should have headings and summaries. Documents should have short sentences, short line-lengths and paragraphs. Documents themselves should be short because people like to scan read.

There are fundamental rules of content that have been developed over centuries. It is professional to understand these rules. A web designer can learn a lot from print publishing.

In fact, web content rules are more rigid than print publishing rules. That’s because it’s up to 25 percent more difficult to read on a screen than from print.

Speaking of fundamental rules, you advocate placing the search engine prominently on every page of your web site. Yet, you also mention that most sites have search engines that fail users. (In our research we’ve also found that the search engine very rarely helps users find the content they’re looking for on web sites). With on-site search engines failing so often, why should it be so prominent on a site?

User Interface Engineering’s research on Search use has been very enlightening and certainly gave me some new perspectives. If I remember right, your research on apparel websites found that the best ones didn’t even offer Search. [Editor’s note: two of the top three (out of 13 sites) didn’t offer Search.]

Certainly, for some websites, Search is much less useful than for others. However, Search is still a fundamental activity for many people on the Web. What I have found, again and again, is that many websites have awful search functions.

We talked about metadata earlier. Without quality metadata, you can’t have quality Search. If Search is important to your readers, you need to spend the time to design it properly. I’ll be looking at basic rules of search design in my information architecture workshop.

About the Author

Christine Perfetti picked up on these approaches, refined them, and started using them in her daily work at leading companies like Acquia and Carbonite. Not only has she built successful design teams who’ve created business-changing products, but she’s transformed a design team from a siloed group into collaborative partners. Her ability to bridge gaps and fuse product management with engineering will be evident in this talk.

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