Confab Intensive 2016

Content Strategy in the Pacific Northwest

Granary Square

The path to Confab

The day I found out I was going to Confab was, although clichéd, a complete roller coaster of emotions.

I’d started the slow ascent. The reading up on all the speakers, getting the time away approved and researching the host city (Seattle, this year). I was now teetered on the edge of making the plunge - just waiting for my accommodation to come through. The final step before I could enjoy the high and start the countdown to September.

So as my phone vibrated with a notification from AirBnB, I prepared myself to take off with excitement. But instead of the thrill I had expected, the rollercoaster of planning this trip had shifted firmly into reverse, sending me hurtling backwards at a frightening pace.

The acceptance message plastered across my screen simply read:




Cue vomit. Cue tears. Cue doubt. To hell with cliché, this really was a rollercoaster after all.

It took a while, but I composed myself eventually and opted to let it slide. The accommodation was too good to turn down, out in the trendy and ultra-cool area of Capitol Hill.

Now, having just about recovered from the grotesque pun, it turns out Eric, my host, had been completely and utterly right.

So, how was the conference?

Confab is like a huge watering hole for content information.

Just as the many different species of the savannah join up to drink together, you’ve got your Content Strategists, UX professionals, Information Architects and more all slurping away, gleaning information most relevant to them and their field.

(From my experience, coffee hole is probably more appropriate).

And with the speakers sharing just as many walks of life, the hugely varied programme of workshops meant there really was something for everyone. From research methods to content modelling to video content production and more.  

The conference was split into 2 workshops a day at 3 hours each. So speakers were challenged with fitting in a lot in a short amount of time. But they were all activity-based, allowing us participants to get our hands dirty and practice what they were preaching. This definitely helped the process of absorbing so much information so fast.

Over the 3 days, I carried out stakeholder interviews, user interviews, messaging card-sort exercises, empathy mapping, domain modelling, content modelling, sketching, mind mapping, guerrilla user research, visual content audits and more.

And that’s what’s so great about Confab. Even now I’m struggling to comprehend how I fitted all that in. But I’ve come away from it all with a toolbox overflowing with new ideas and activities for solving our client’s content problems.

So, what workshops did you do?

The following will be an overview of what happened in each workshop I attended. If this isn’t the detail you’re after, why not get in touch with us to speak about your content anyway. You’ve made it this far, so you must be sorta interested? Kinda?


Day 1 - the AM session

Content-first design with Steph Hay, Head of Content Strategy at Capital One


"Words are our lowest-cost, lowest-risk way to design..." - @steph_hay #ConfabINT

— Head (@wearehead) September 19, 2016


Key takeaway: writing, editing and designing a conversation before an interface can be a lo-fi, low-cost and low-risk way of prototyping content. It also means you can begin the design process with real content - which can all too often be a pipe dream.

The main activity was an exercise for finding out the language your customers use.

We used a simple Google Doc to script out a conversation between user and call centre (business rep) to identify specific pieces of content we’d need to satisfy the user goals.

It was completely based on human conversation, aimed at uncovering specificity - a step in creating a greater experience. A powerful tool that’s as lo-fi as it gets.  

A photo of a conversation mapping exercise

Day 1 - the PM session

Visual tools for content planning & production with Scott Kubie, Senior Content Strategist at Brain Traffic & Michael Metts, Senior UX Designer at The Nerdery


The content design studio. Content strategists are designers, so don't be afraid to get sketching (even w/ words) #ConfabINT

— Head (@wearehead) September 19, 2016


Key takeaway: your content strategy will not speak for itself, so sometimes visual tools are required to fully engage your audiences, comfort your stakeholders and demonstrate scope. And more to the point, Content Strategists should never be afraid to knuckle down with a pad and pen - we’re designers after all, so get sketching. If you’re not exactly Van Gogh, sketch with words.

The main activities in this workshop focussed on stepping away from the MacBooks and picking up sharpies, post-its and paper.

Using an example site, we used a technique called visual message analysis. This involved marking up print-outs of the website. We chunked the content up into components and labelled it - what is it actually saying, minus the marketing fluff?

This exercise complements the auditing process and helps get to the root of what your content is saying - all in an easily digestible way.

Following that, we used a persuasion planner to split content ideas into three columns: reputation, emotion and facts & figures.

We then spent the rest of the session rapidly sketching up concepts for a redesign based on our persuasion ideas. We were able to quickly iterate on these concepts in a cheap and speedy fashion, all based on analysis of the existing content and its positioning.

Examples of sketching to come up with concepts and test content

Day 2 - the AM session

Tools and techniques for discovery work with Kerry-Anne Gilowey, Content Strategy Consultant

Prioritise your discovery efforts. We content strategists can't do everything! #ConfabINT

— Head (@wearehead) September 20, 2016


Key takeaway: discovery happens throughout the life of a project, so you should be prepared for working assumptions to change and be ready to pivot whenever necessary. Plus, it’s completely normal to go into a project with a bazillion questions. But there are plenty of exercises you can use to get to the bottom of your questions as soon as possible.

Although Kerry gave us a great introduction to many techniques for uncovering the information you need, we focussed our efforts on stakeholder interviewing and a brand messaging card-sort.

We split into partners and interviewed each other about our work. What is your role? What types of content does your team produce? Who do you report to? What is your content publishing process? Are there any bottlenecks? And more.

Maintaining a conversational tone was key to getting the best answers and even uncovering new answers to new questions we hadn’t even thought of.

In the messaging card-sort, each table had a brand and adjective cards. We had to split the cards into “We are” and “We are not”.

Carrying this out with stakeholders allows you to grasp the brand’s existing tone and where they want to be. You can then use this as part of your auditing criteria or as a basis for any tone of voice work.

A card sorting exercise

Day 2 - the PM session

Guerrilla user research for content strategy with Misty Weaver, Lecturer at UW Information School


"Time on page and bounce rates - it’s all meaningless unless you have qualitative data" #ConfabINT

— Head (@wearehead) September 20, 2016


Key takeaway: that tweet sums it up nicely really. The benefit of conducting guerrilla user research to get your qualitative data is that it can be done on the fly at a low-cost (sometimes just a cup of coffee) with optional buy-in. And you still get more trustworthy and useful information than secondary data.

a cup of coffee

In this workshop we interviewed in groups about our experiences “pants shopping”.

Narrowly avoiding a classic UK/US mix-up, we interviewed about the highs and lows of buying pants and plotted the data onto an empathy map. This helped categorise the information into what our user was feeling, doing, hearing, seeing and thinking when they were pants shopping.

This can then help inform user journeys. But alas, you can only fit so much into 3 hours.

Day 3 - the AM session

Designing the editorial experience with Juliette Cezzar, Assistant Professor and Associate Director at New School's Parsons School of Design

Unfortunately technical problems caused too severe a disruption to this workshop to really go into any detail.

One thing it did hammer home was that users hate ambiguity. So when we think about content and design, different examples of the same content type should use the same design and layout patterns. This helps the user truly orientate themselves within the experience.

Think about newspapers: every day the content changes but you can tell newspaper from newspaper. And you can tell the sports section from the fashion section.

Even if the columns were filled with the dreaded lorem ipsum (I can’t believe I’ve used the L-word and the I-word in an article about Confab), you’d still be able to tell where you were.

Day 3 - the PM session

Designing future-friendly content with Mike Atherton, Content Strategist at Facebook & Carrie Hane, Principal Strategist at Tanzen

"Understanding how developers, writers and computers think will make you a better designer" #ConfabINT

— Head (@wearehead) September 21, 2016


Key takeaway: by planning structured content, you can create a product that is future-friendly and suitable for any interface or channel - present or future. This is because it doesn’t trap your content as one complete blob in a Wordpress-style singular wysiwyg field. Instead, it chunks it up to make it adaptable and scalable and turns it into data that can be used by third-party APIs like Google.


The process you use for this approach involves domain modelling and content modelling.

Domain modelling explores the relationships between different subjects (or domains) identified through standard UX research. All way before even thinking about the interface.

We modelled for a website about a conference. So the subjects were the likes of: event, venue, location, hotel, sponsor, session, talk, person, etc. As you begin to group them you draw the links between them i.e. person →  has →  role or venue → is located in → location.

domain model diagram

Once our domain model was complete, we started content modelling. We broke the subject down further to the properties. So if we use the subject "person" as an example, each one has a name, picture, bio, website URL, twitter handle, company and a job title etc.

We even found that some subjects worked better as properties rather than subjects in their own right. So we were already iterating.

This modelling should then feed into your content planning and CMS configuration. But we didn’t quite get that far in the workshop. Thankfully the wonderful speakers have documented it superbly here. I urge you to check it out if this subject interests you. 

A content model diagram

And that was it...

3 day's worth of learning, refreshing and refining techniques for practicing content strategy. 

Where some conferences can fatigue as easily as inform, the hands-on, activity based sessions were the perfect formula for keeping us all motivated and added a rare level of clarity to all the fantastic points being made.

But as Kristina Halvorson, founder of Confab, tweeted at the event, the real beauty of it all is spending three days "with a bunch of smart, kind people who want to build a better web".  

Because at the end of the day that's what we as Content Strategists, as UI Designers, as Developers, as UXers all want - to fight tooth and nail for a better web for our clients and our own sanity.

And Content Strategy, like the other disciplines has its distinct part to play.

Now, I just feel a little better equipped to go about doing it.  

by Ryan Cordell

Content Strategist