On Cities, Design & Simulations

A few times a year, I will binge on simulator computer games. Whether it’s the latest clone of your favorite SimCity-like game or a game that’ll let me sim hundreds of baseball seasons in a few hours; I find something enjoyable about being able to see the history play out before my eyes in a quick span. 
When it comes to designing cities, things are often too idyllic for the real world. For instance, I don’t ever think to build slums. It doesn’t occur to me where the poor people” live, because I’m too busy worrying about how to raze a particular block to build a stadium akin to real life. While I am complicit in designing a utopia, the game mechanics do not really give you the option of reflecting the world as-is, leaving the human immersing himself (me, in this example) on world building to either imagine a scenario where people in my town do not have access to clean water or where we’ve decided as a community to sell of their public schools to the highest bidder because it makes more financial sense.
I used to worry about sharing too much personal stuff on social media for fear of being deemed less serious. I don’t even tweet many of my articles anymore, because at a certain point, it starts to feel like only the most polished, well-coifed things can be presented for (possible) consumption by a massive few. It’s weird that what used to pass for authenticity now just feels like shouting into one of those abandoned pipes inside a park where you can walk to the other end. Maybe someone will hear you, but chances are, you weren’t loud enough or maybe no one was around when you were shouting.
I’m thinking a lot about innovation, execution and the way we design things. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics. Except, I’m thinking about the everyday challenges that communities face. I care about the sorts of politics that doesn’t make anything other than the local news, because that’s just where my head is. When I have discussions with my friends these days, it’s about the homeless problem in our small city or the glacial pace at which innovation seems to happen, despite so much home and promise.
It’s probably apropos of my generation that we think we have answers to big problems, but the thing about local politics is you can actually go to the board meetings and be heard. You can be involved. Make no mistake, it’s laborious, it doesn’t pay anything and the work is generally anonymous. Nobody will fete you or care too much about it and your gains will be marginal in comparison to the effort expended. 
Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that what we need are more people rolling up our sleeves to give voice to the issues that confound our own communities, all the while we raise hell about whatever grand problems we hope to solve. I’m a firm believer in being able to be outraged by many things at once.
I’ve been reading a lot about redlining lately. I knew about the federal government complicity in ensuring segregation was maintained during the Post-World War II boom of federally secured home mortgages. What I was not aware of, was how pervasive it was and even instances where well-meaning developers wanted to flout the rules to create integrated housing or at least separate-but-equal housing for non-whites; they were prevented by the Federal Housing Administration from doing so under the guise of maintaining order.
What does any of this have to do with design? As I think listen to pitch after pitch, and people tweet their best ideas, there are a dearth of ideas attempting to solve local problems. Everybody wants to scale the mountain of free” money hoping to kick an idea to the stock market, get rich, cash out and then maybe focus on the things they’re passionate about. For all of the grief we give people who play the lottery, the delusions are a lot more similar, except playing the Powerball results in a bit of daydreaming. Whereas building a startup that you’re convinced will change the world” involves a far grander set of delusions that may or may not jibe with reality.
A lot of folks on Twitter have been asking what the responsibility of a designer is. Contemplating an ethical code is a valuable direction, but I’m more interested in the granularity of our everyday experiences. I want to envision a world where we highlight the people doing the unglamorous tasks that make our everyday lives function. 
Who are the people designing interfaces for grocery store self-checkout machines? What about warning microcopy on the back of industrial machines? I have a bunch of questions about so many systems we take for granted, that our conversations defy this reality unless you have people in your life (as I do) so removed from the world you inhabit away from them, that it forces you to stay grounded. 

Why I (finally) published an e-book of my writing

Over the week, I compiled some of my writing into an e-book that’s now for sale. The book Web Management For Regular People was an exercise in sharing what you know. I’ve been lamenting lately, the need to share with wider audiences than just the people who use Twitter or folks who have seen me speak.

It wasn’t about any of that, really. It’s about confidence. No matter how much I stand on stages, how many times I present, the idea of imposter syndrome is a very real one for me. I don’t care how many projects we ship, how many awards my teams win or whether people tell me I’m smart day after day. The fact is, I’m only as good as the last time anything good really happened.

So this was a long time coming, even though the actual execution wasn’t that difficult. I did some light editing (sorry in advance) of the older content, compiled the things that I felt made the most sense and organized them in GitBook and then exported them. I used Calibre to change the cover and make sure things didn’t look wildly insane.

Then I launched.

I could have been even more painstaking, but approaching products like this as a MVP rather than some kind of all-of-nothing proposition is the best thing for my sanity. It’s also akin to the ways that I’ve devolved my slide-making into a simple process with text and very few images. It’s had a positive impact on the ways that I present and it extends to the ways that I hope my writing is able to evolve.

Should I buy your book?

Not if you’ve read my posts in the past. You’ll probably not see a ton of things that are new. On the other hand, you can procure a copy for someone else. I realize a lot of more important people would want to read a paper book, but that’s not going to happen right now. I might consider doing a podcast version, if that would be more useful too.

I’m working on a few other projects this week. I’ve just had a few months where I wasn’t able to really produce much new content. Work kept me pretty much, so did things outside of work and getting more involved locally. I’m ready now to get back to doing the work that I love and sharing it widely.

On writing & the new year

For a while, I’d worked into a solid routine with blogging. Part of the challenge now, is that it’s a lot easier to write on Twitter than it is to form an entire blog post about a topic. Last year, I wanted to increase my productivity on my newsletter and managed it. This year, I’m going old school and back to writing more on the blog. Not only about UX/Digital transformation or whatever, but also about the other things I care about or have a background in.

I’ve learned that being demure about things I’ve accomplished or even as I work out ideas hasn’t served me well. I do wish I had a regular editor for some things, especially on Medium, but I’m slowly working on developing a group of folks who write and read each other’s work. Anyway, I just want to do be a better job of being consistent here.

We have much to talk about in 2017.

Starter Cities

I was having a conversation last night about the idea of a class of cities that exist somewhere between the staid and the ultimately cool. We could deliberate at length about what cities fall into what classes, but my intent was to reflect on the ways communities market themselves.

In sports parlance, there are programs that have an ability to recruit coaches who ply their trade and build a team from nothing into something substantial. They’re informally called “starter programs” and the idea is, a coach will move on after building a program to head elsewhere and try it in a new market, usually for more money than their previous job. These programs exist regardless of how much a mid-tier program tries to do to keep a coach, simply because the money and opportunities being offered are far too great to turn down after years of toiling as an assistant coach to get a head coaching job.

Cities don’t exist in this paradigm, if you consider the rhetoric of most economic development websites. Whether it’s a big city, rural town hours from a highway or something in-between, there exists this fallacy that all people need to launch a huge, successful business is land and/or some kind of warehouse full of infrastructure. Without getting too deep into all of the components that might make a business work well, I’m just wondering if there’s a way for cities to capitalize on whatever their core market is, for a period of time before almost encouraging people to move on.

Smaller cities and states as a whole do a really poor job of engaging expats. I can understand why, to a certain extent. Why would Patdkoota, Illinois want to spend a lot of time heaping praise on its fictional son who has left to success in a much larger city like Chicago or much better. Still, having communities recognizing their place in the landscape of migration, could offer sustainable advantages. For one, you could attract talent that might not otherwise stay. Another benefit is leveraging talent in your community for its benefit.

I’m working on this actively with students who will eventually leave the city, to figure out ways to connect and engage them while they’re here. Starter cities aren’t bad, it can be a good way to reinvent a community as a destination, without blowing money on boondoggles that don’t help you achieve your goals.

Web migration in mid-flight: Content strategy & IA in the margins

I’ve worked on a number of website migration projects over the past decade. At a certain point, you get really good at understanding the pitfalls and developing a roadmap for moving projects forward across the various stages. Most of the time, web migrations — to a new content management system or just a redesign of site architecture — happen with people who are onboard for the entire length of the project. Whether it’s the staff working in a company, a consulting firm or some type of collaboration, the folks involved with making the project launch get to assess the landscape and make key decisions as the process goes on.

My experience has fit this traditional stance, but it’s also involved a number of times walking into a website migration already in progress; some of the scenarios include:

  • A half-built website waiting to be completed and migrated.
  • The planning stages of a website migration, but with key tactical decisions mapped out and a lack of flexibility on making critical changes.
  • A new site designed & built, but with no new content to migrate.

Doing research about web migrations already in progress or even the content migration process in general is dicey because every organization works differently. Editorial workflows, governance and staffing for managing technical capabilities are all different and depending on those quirks, advising people in general ways can be difficult.

Common challenges to migration

There exists quite a bit of information about managing things like information architecture or the mechanics of the migration process. But what happens after those parts are complete? Who is responsible for what?

Thinking a lot about the ways that we structure our organizations, the issues with project management of content migration is a lot of responsibilities fall in-between roles. Often, the people leading these initiatives do not the authority in their organizations to execute much of the clout necessary to agitate people in other divisions to handle their responsibilities.

The problem with showing up mid-flight in a web project is a lot of they decisions have already been made. Time is the one thing you can’t buy more of; everyday you waste is another day the project which was behind before you showed up can be launched.

1. Your Project Manager probably has another job.

Website migrations are often hybrid affairs where an in-house staffer is tasked with melding all of the internal resources around the project. This would be fine if this person didn’t have other responsibilities that often overlap with the project itself or in another area entirely. In the odd chance you have people whose responsibilities are only project management, you’re faced with a PM who might have a good handle on the scope of each of the moving parts of the project and thus, ill-equipped to move the ball forward and light a fire under people when necessary.

2. Amok with content debt

If you ignore content long enough, you get a progressive rot of content on the website that can be seemingly impossible to get a handle on. When you’re about to migrate is the best time to revisit processes & come up with a governance structure that makes sense. In a lot of organizations, this is easier said than done, because convincing the right people to allow the focus to be on content can be a battle. Does this mean we ignore the content? No. It’s just worth being aware of the difficulties many organizations face with making sense of their content, much less migrating or being willing to invest resources into make it better.

3. Identify each stage of the process

Every workplace is different. Within those organizations are a variety of complexities that make each phase of the migration process difficult. Much like a maze, it can be easy to get stuck on one aspect of the process to the exclusion of the big picture. If you can target your laser on getting content migrated, you’ll have an easier time later of focusing on the other tasks that might be important to you like improving various aspects of design.

An example of a content migration planning timeline document

Once you’ve reached the stage where you’ve:

  • selected a CMS
  • have an approved design, coded and templates implemented;

the best thing you can do is focus your energy on developing a strategy for all of the moving parts left.

How do you identify those stages? By deciding what’s important and targeting the specific barriers to getting content refined and migrated to your new website. In our example above, the stages are outlined based on the specific areas that need to be tackled by the organization.

Your case might be different, the keys are ensuring that information is presented in an action-oriented, simple fashion that allows anyone viewing the project to understand what tasks will be completed and a rough estimate of how long it should take. If you’re working with multiple staff assigned to tasks, creating an “owner” section of the sheet could be useful.

Not every organization can afford an army of help mounting a content migration. If you’re faced with a situation where you have a small team focused on the task of transferring content, the best skill in your arsenal is going to be an ability to document a roadmap & plan with simple deliverables that get you closer to actually achieving the task at hand — migrating your content.

Keeping organized and establishing ground rules for the various aspects of your project, whether through existing guidelines or new ones you propose, will ensure the smoothest ride until you land on the ground with a new site in tow.

24 Hours of Strategy: A mixtape of sorts

Starting tonight, I’m embarking on a writing project/”mixtape” entitled 24 hours of strategy.

It’s precisely what it sounds like. For 24 hours, I’ll release a strategy-related post every hour. The topics will be all over the map, reflecting on things I’ve been contemplating from my work, travels and conversations with strategists from around the world.

The idea is to get people thinking about big ideas, the ways we do our work and how we can improve processes, the design of organizations and tactics. So much of the conventional wisdom is focused on high-impact organizations that have resources, talent and the right mix of leadership and savvy.

There’s a whole bundle of firms, organizations and entities that exist and haven’t figure out what many of us seem to think we know. And that’s a problem. As a consultant, you might figure that it’s a good thing. After all, more work for us, right? Unfortunately, it results in low morale and talent that suffer because people aren’t given the tools they need.

I’ve been in a variety of roles over the years and have felt much of the frustration people feel about the state of digital. It can be hard to articulate the problems when you don’t have the vocabulary, tools & frameworks to initiate change even from your spot in the organizational chart.

The information exists, it’s just a matter of dredging it up and exploring how we can pick the pieces that can best help us do our jobs better. So after doing this for an entire day, maybe there will be something useful to come out of it.

#24hoursofstrategy is mostly a gimmick to force me to write. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, because sometimes when you blog or write publicly you can get too caught up in wondering how people are going to receive what you’re doing. I certainly hope something I write resonates, but the truth is, just having accomplished the output is going to be a triumph for me.

Feel free to follow along on Twitter using the hashtag #24hrsofstrategy or you can tweet me @ronbronson. All of the posts will be posted on Medium, but I’ll also link them here afterwards.

Social media, higher ed & being on every network

Back in 2009, I wrote a post where I confronted the idea that we needed to be everywhere students are. This related to higher education social media and the notion at a lot of institutions with not super well articulated social media strategies that effectively think that every time a new social network crops up, you need to decamp on social network and figure out how to do it.

Last year at Aggregate Conference, University of Michigan Social Media director Nikki Sunstrum talked about their success with Snapchat, but then proceeded to tell the crowd why it wasn’t necessary for them to jump out there.

My position six  years ago hasn’t changed much. I said then institutions had a responsibility to invest in their own institutional web strategy if they really wanted to make an impact and reach people.

The institutional web site has fully arrived as a “marketing tool” on many campuses and the uneasy balance between trying to reach the students of the future, while connecting to their parents, alumni and pretty much anyone else with a rooting interest in the school can be a difficult task at times, especially for smaller schools and community colleges.

You don’t have to go where the students are to reach them, you need to adapt your web strategy to reach them more effectively. There’s no better place to that than on your college’s own web site.

Having managed lots of pages over the years, I can tell you there are few things that I enjoyed more than getting the instant feedback from a Facebook or Twitter. The recent SAE controversy at the University of Oklahoma shows how decisive leadership and deft use of social media by leaders can make all the difference in addressing a crisis.

The real issue here is not every college or university has the resources, team or in-house talent of a major flagship state university. While our stories don’t resonate nationally, they can resonate locally. It’s easy to look at a situation like this and think it’s more reason to double down on social media and to invest more heavily in establishing a robust presence.

After all, it’s where people are right?

You can’t publish a press release on Twitter. You can link to one, sure. But do you have people in place to respond to the legions of comments that your Twitter profile or Facebook page gets? Sure you can pay someone, but will they speak how you want?

The bottom line is there’s a price to being everywhere you want to be. Just saying FOLLOW US ON TWITTER doesn’t really mean a whole lot if you don’t understand what you’re doing there.

You still don’t have to be everywhere.

On digital strategy consulting & problem solving

“What can you get for $5,000?”

The cost of strategy

On the road speaking last year, I was fond of asking people at lunch tables a lot of questions. For whatever reason, people would answer me and it was always informative.

One of my favorite questions was, “If you could apply $5,000 to solve one problem right now within your company’s website what would it be?”

The answers would vary. Sometimes, it was wishing they could change the entire site. Other times, it was simple things. Or least things that seem simple on the surface but are more complicated you drill down further:

  • How do we manage our content so it’s not outdated?
  • I wish our site could do __________.
  • We’re thinking of getting rid of CMS, but don’t know where to start. It’s all too complicated and I can’t wrap my head around all of it.
  • We need a tool to fix this [one off problem or recurring project.]
  • Should we be on Tumblr/Snapchat/Instagram/Ello/This.cm/Friendster/newmyspace?

The problem with consulting

Digital strategy consulting is the Wild West, because there’s no real way to have any idea if anybody knows what they’re talking about. Sure, you can see a portfolio and call a few references. But just because it worked for one company, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Other times, you outgrow consulting relationships like real ones. The relationships become more personal, you start to get attached and it’s hard to breakup even if it’s good for your company’s bottom line to see what else is out there.

You get up-charged, upsold and tethered to arrangements that seem never ending when all you really want is someone to level with you. Now for consultants, I realize time is money and it doesn’t really benefit anybody to have a person on the phone calling every ten minutes to nickel and dime you out of house and home.

The problem is, most companies don’t need consistent help. They just need the right advice at the right time and that’s a hard thing to find a provider for.

For years, I’ve been thinking about solving problems. Not clogged toilets or how to figure out your HVAC, but problems revolving around company websites. Site migrations, content problems and everything in-between. I’ve written thousands of pages of copy, trained many hundreds of content authors and have sat through more CMS implementations in the past eight years or so than I can count on two hands.

I’ve also worked with a lot of consultants.

Most of the time, we benefit a great deal from the relationship. But I’m finding more and more companies are simply struggling in the digital space because they don’t know where to go.

It’s a lot like being in the toilet paper aisle at a large supermarket.

How do you begin to determine which brand of toilet paper is the best? You know you need it. But by the time you get it home, it’s too late.

More importantly, who has that kind of time?

At the end of the day, you pick a brand. Consulting works the same way, eventually you pick a partner and you work with somebody. The work has to be done, after all. Usually, you bring people in to help with big problems because you can’t find anyone to help with the small problems. I understand this problem, because as we mentioned before time is money.

An experiment

I’ve spent over a decade in diverse companies and institutions like colleges & universities helping them solve large and small problems related to digital strategy in roles of increasing responsibility. My energy doesn’t abate really, but I have been beleaguered by how little you can get done being on the inside.

For years, I’ve thought to myself there had to be a better way. Talking to people over the past few years, I realize I’m not the only one who feels this way and it led me to a particular idea that’s been nagging at my head of late.

I just want to help.

I get a rush from helping people solve issues that have been on the docket for years. I’ve seen a lot of different ways of doing business and there aren’t too many scenarios I haven’t experienced. I love helping people come up with solutions that have vexed their organizations, because the web is exciting and I think we have a lot of opportunities that get squandered because there aren’t good metrics around the value of investing in digital — especially web properties.

Here’s my proposition: Call or write me with your problems.

No, I’m not asking for your money. A lot of your problems could use a second or third perspective, but you don’t have the resource to solve them, right? Or so you think. Are the issues structural? Political? Are the people (or you?) in charge afraid of what would happen if someone showed up tomorrow; poised to solve major problems that your company has been wrestling with for years with regard to your web properties?

Things like governance or strategy or whatever?

I’m pretty convinced a lot of these big issues could be solved in weeks rather than months or years.

“But we have processes.”

“My [insert senior leader here] would never go for that. We’re too set in our ways.”

“What about [insert person here?]”

I’m not convinced that anybody really want to solve any problem, because the job security involved in leaving things status quo is more comfortable. The beauty of disruptive startup cultures is recognizing you can’t afford to be staid and comfortable. I’m especially interested in startup projects.

Back to the proposition. You need advice about one of the above topics? About to drop five or six figures trying to make magic happen because you think you have to?

What kinds of problems?

  • CMS migrations & implementation questions
  • Web redesign questions (WHERE DO WE F-ING START?)
  • Social media (i.e. We want to mastr Tumblr….)
  • Team & leadership questions (e.g. Our web & marketing folks don’t play nice. Is there a song we can play?)
  • I want to create an app/startup/blah for x. Poke holes in my ridiculousness please.
  • Grab bag.

Call me 718.618.6906 or email me at ron [a] ronbronson.com.

I’m truly curious about the challenges you’re facing. The research will help me test theories and refine my own processes and you get to run something past a source before you pay buckets of money and head down a potentially bad path.

Win win.

I know I can charge for this. I already do in many cases and will continue to do so. But I’m really interested right now in solving problems and helping people think through the issues that vex them professionally. I do this for friends all of the time, but I’m really wanting to cast a wider net and the only way I thought to do it, was to offer it up publicly.

Any takers?