Episode 12: Laura Trujillo and Ashlee Harris, City of Austin - User Research and Creating Empathy

January 22, 2019

Kristina welcomes Laura Trujillo and Ashlee Harris to talk about their work making the City of Austin’s website content easier and more accessible for residents. They share their tried-and-true techniques for conducting user research, getting buy-in from stakeholders (hint: “funshops”), and creating empathy for their users.

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About this week’s guests

Laura Trujillo

Ashlee Harris is a Public Information Specialist Senior with the City of Austin’s Communications and Public Information Office. Internally, her role has been as a content strategist. She’s been the lead strategist managing the City’s current website, austintexas.gov, for the past five years. Previously, she worked in digital project management and marketing for a veterinary publishing company. She’s also freelanced as a copywriter and project manager for several special projects. As an African American woman, Harris prides herself on working on high-impact projects that have positive outcomes for communities of color. Follow her on Medium: medium.com/@ashlee.harris.

Ashlee Harris

Laura Trujillo is a Content Strategist within the City of Austin’s Communication and Technology Management Department. She has served as the lead Content Strategist on project teams for departments across the City of Austin, leading internal and external community engagement to develop new standards for conducting field research, evaluating user needs, and writing resident-centered content with a focus on accessibility and equity. With a background in writing and teaching, Laura is an advocate for helping others learn how to implement writing and strategy into their work. She also is the Editor in Chief for the team’s Medium channel, Civiqueso, and the discipline lead within The Office of Design and Delivery. Follow her on Twitter at @LauraCTrujillo and on Medium: medium.com/@laura.c.trujillo_18.



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Hey everybody, thanks for joining me again on The Content Strategy Podcast. I have two—TWO, double the fun—guests today and they are going to share with us all kinds of amazing information about working for the City of Austin. Laura Trujillo is a content strategist within the City of Austin’s Communication and Technology Management Department and she serves as the lead content strategist in project teams for departments across the City of Austin.

We also have with us Ashlee Harris. Ashlee is a public information specialist senior with the City of Austin’s Communications and Public Information Office. Internally her role has also been as a content strategist. Welcome Laura and Ashlee.

Laura: Hi.

Ashlee: Thank you.

Laura: Thanks for having us.

Kristina: It has been a long, circuitous journey to get us here involving completing trashing our old podcasting recording platform and moving to a new one, so your patience is much appreciated. I would love to start out by hearing a little bit about how you both came to content strategy as your current practice. Laura, let’s start with you. Tell me all about it.

Laura: Great. Well it started, I guess, with my interest in rhetoric and the power of words. Then I found myself at a design firm in Washington DC working closely with designers and developers and just kind of inserted myself into projects saying, “I think this information could be organized a little bit better,” and they kept me in the office. That was the start of it and it just kept building from there. Came back to Texas for grad school and then—

Kristina: What did you go to grad school for?

Laura: Rhetoric and composition.

Kristina: Okay.

Laura: At Texas State.

Kristina: Wow. Great.

Laura: It was pretty great, yeah.

Kristina: I’m sorry, people who go to grad school for really interesting topics like that and complete their ... I’m just jealous and also blown away that just … grad school as an adult just seems crazy pants to me because adulting is so hard in the first place, so congratulations.

Laura: Yes, thank you. It was a lot. My first day of school we had a conversation about whether or not a bookshelf was actually in the room, based on how we were describing the bookshelf, “Is it in the room? Does it actually exist?” There was a moment where I was like, “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.” But I stuck it out and it’s really great, and that really helped get me to this role with the city. Again, with thinking about how words are organized, how information is organized, and then teaching people about that.

Kristina: Great.

Laura: And then I came here, and then I met Ashlee and all my dreams came true.

Ashlee: Aww.

Kristina: Ashlee, let’s hear about how you came to your dynamic duo relationship with Laura, which we’re gonna hear about in just a minute.

Ashlee: I mean, really it started for me with my passion in filmmaking and screenwriting. I’ve just been writing since I was a kid, and I got my degree in journalism and broadcasting from Oklahoma State. Out of school I started working for a publishing company, and they published veterinary medical journals. While working for that company, this was years ago, they used Drupal. Basically every month, myself and another content strategist, we had to copy their content out of the print publication which they basically put into InDesign, copy every single word, and then paste it into Drupal, and that was a really interesting experience, but—

Kristina: How diplomatic of you.

Ashlee: But basically that introduced me to Drupal, and then I applied for a job at the city because they were looking for someone to help with website administration, and the City of Austin was and is using Drupal. That’s how I landed my job with the city, and I’ve been with the city for five years now and have really expanded my knowledge and my career in content strategy from there.

Kristina: Every time I ask people, “So, tell me how you came to content strategy,” either they explicitly say, “Well, it was a long and winding path,” or, “I have an interesting, diverse background,” and I continue to hear just about these crazy paths to content strategy and it’s so exciting and just makes for interesting conversations with everybody I talk to in the community. Already you guys are really cool. Thanks for being on my podcast.

Laura: Thanks for having us.

Kristina: You work in different departments at the City of Austin?

Laura: Yes.

Ashlee: Yes.

Kristina: Okay, tell me about your specific roles.

Ashlee: For me, my title is public information specialist senior, and so that particular title across the city varies on what it is you do. Some people are solely focused on marketing efforts, some people are focused on social media, and then there’s a few people and myself, really, one of three in the city that really we are focused on content strategy, and it’s not really a lot of the public information work per se. But yes, I work in the Communications and Public Information Office which is, as I said, more focused on marketing efforts, community engagement, video production, so we do a wide variety of work. Laura can talk more about the Communications and Technology Management Department.

Kristina: Okay wait, but I have a question for you.

Ashlee: Yeah.

Kristina: You say you do content strategy with those platforms and content types. What does that mean?

Ashlee: My role has shifted quite a bit. It started off where I was doing the day-to-day maintenance of AustinTexas.gov, which is the city’s website that is on Drupal. That was really a lot of just administrative work, updating the homepage, of unpublishing old content, of helping city staff troubleshoot different issues or bugs that they ran into, it was a lot of variety of that kind of work. Then, just over the years, that role has shifted with just different staff changes and just my growth into being more strategy of trying to help city staff change the way that they write content so that it’s more so meeting the needs of all the different types of residents that we’re serving.

That’s what led me to Laura because the city started down the venture of working on this city’s website redesign, where we’re really just completely changing our strategy altogether, and so that project came about with a collaboration between my department and Laura’s department.

Kristina: Laura, why don’t you tell me what your department does?

Laura: Sure, so Communication and Technology Management isn’t very glamorous, but it’s like the IT department for the city, so really supporting the city in all of their tech needs, security needs, and then with that, I think, the best practices that Ashlee has been doing in her role, CTM is the acronym, has been incorporating that. Our office, within Communication and Technology Management, focuses on more of the design thinking so there’s content strategists. We have a lot of developers and user experience designers.

Ashlee, I don’t know if you called it an adventure, but that’s so true of starting this adventure of redesigning the website for the city we went and spoke to content authors in the city, and then also residents to see how we could better help them manage their content. We asked the Public Information Office, “Is there anyone that you think that should work on this project?” And they said, “Well, Ashlee, of course.”

Kristina: Ashlee of course, of course.

Laura: Of course. Stupid not to. Ashlee really brought really great perspective and institutional knowledge of how the city works, and helped guide us through some sticky situations, and then we were able to build up the information architecture based on doing research. I’m sure I jumped way ahead but that’s, in a nutshell, what we’ve started doing it.

Kristina: I actually want to talk to you a little bit about the research, because I will say that the number one challenge that content strategy teams that I work with come up against is that they just don’t know a whole lot about their users, for one reason or another. Tell me about the specific methods that you used, because you said that you spoke both with website users about their information needs, and then you also talked to the content authors within the city about what their needs were. Let’s talk about how you connected with the users first.

Ashlee: Okay, I’ll take the content author approach and then you can talk about the resident.

Laura: Perfect.

Ashlee: Okay. As far as content authors, like Laura was saying, I’ve been at the city for five years so I’ve had to deal with essentially all of the people across all the different departments that are responsible for managing content for their particular department websites.

Kristina: About how many people is that would you say?

Ashlee: Okay, well at least every department has one person that’s the main point of contact, so there’s about 50 departments and offices total at the city, so I always have at least one person that I know that I talk to that they know my name. But then different departments have a variety of different approaches and workflows. Some departments may only have that one person, and that may be that 15% of their job is content management. Then some departments have 30 people that can create content and edit content on their site. Parks and Recreation, for instance, because they have so many recreation centers and parks, of course, and pools, they have just more people because they have so much more content. It just really ranges, but I would say anywhere from 50 to 300 people I’ve had to communicate with in one moment or another.

But, because I knew that those people existed, the approach we decided to take was to try to go out and actually do desk interviews with different city staff to really understand what are the pain points that they’re currently experiencing with using the content management system, what are some of the issues that they’re seeing with trying to keep content up to date, and with the approaches, so writing content. We picked really three different departments to focus on, so one that was really small that, like I said, only had one person creating content, and he was only updating content every three months. He actually had to call me every three months to get a reminder of how to use the content management system.

Kristina: Whoa.

Ashlee: Yeah, then we had a group in the middle where they had a few people, maybe five people editing content, and they would do it maybe once a week. Then we had a department, it was Parks and Rec so it was a large department with huge amount of content authors, and they’re updating content every day. We wanted to see that different range of departments across the city and we sat down and talked with them to really get their feedback and understand what are their needs. And what we were finding from across all of those different departments was one, that people didn’t feel like they had the training that they needed to be successful, but they also didn’t have the authority. Because some people knew that writing at an 11th grade level just doesn’t make sense for residents, but when they would try to push back against maybe some management or executives, they were just getting pushback and they didn’t have any kind of documentation to say, “Hey, this is what the city is doing and this is why I’m doing it this way,” and they wouldn’t always be able to win that battle.

We found out, and we also found out that just the using the content management system as it is, it’s just not very intuitive and people, like I said, forget. That was the core start of a lot of the research we did around working with city staff. And then eventually we did some paper prototypes with them after we came up with a new design for the content management system and had them go through that, so just a lot of that kind of work. I don’t want to ramble too long, but that’s the gist of the start of the research with city staff, in particular.

Kristina: Well, and let me ask you this. Did you actually set up in-person interviews people? Were you doing email surveys? How were your collecting their input?

Ashlee: Yeah, it was in-person interviews. We would go to their desk at their office and sit down with them.

Kristina: That’s the way to do it.

Ashlee: Yeah.

Laura: Mm-hmm.

Kristina: If only organizations all felt that it was a priority, gave people the time to do it, but that’s a whole other rant that I can go on another time.

Ashlee: One of the things that I thought was so beneficial about that is you can really tell, it’s almost like a therapy session for people—

Kristina: Oh, for sure.

Ashlee: ... and they’re like, “Someone actually cares about my job and why it’s difficult.” I was like here to hear, my opinion about it, and people just appreciated that so much, it gave us so many insights that I don’t think an email survey could ever have captured.

Kristina: And you know what’s so interesting to me about that? We joke all the time that we’re secretly content therapists and that’s really what should be on our business cards—

Ashlee: Yeah.

Kristina: ... but what’s so interesting to me about that, is that process, and we talk about this a lot with the interview process, is that it is really a dual benefit. First, yes you are collecting information that’s going to inform the decisions that you make in your project, and on larger strategic initiatives. But you’re also building that trust and really almost helping that person feel better about their roles, and about their jobs, and their contributions. It’s really something else.

Ashlee: Mm-hmm. Definitely.

Laura: It was nice to validate for them some of their blockers and their pain points to say, “You’re not alone with this.”

Kristina: Exactly, exactly. Laura, you led the efforts then to gather input from residents and from users of the website?

Laura: Yes.

Kristina: Okay, tell me about that.

Laura: I thought that was so cool also. We have, being city employees, have the unique experience of doing market research is just anyone in the city. Really it’s everyone in the city, really. We’d sit down with people at a coffee shop and ask them, “Hey, if you’re trying to find out when your trash and recycling and compost pick-up day is, how would you go about that?” And have them talk us through it. Most people were on their mobile devices, smartphones, a few people on tablets, and just have them think out loud going through the process and we got a lot of great insights, again, that we could take back to the executive team where people were saying, “I just want to know how to access the service. I don’t care necessarily about the mission,” which is kind of hard to hear sometimes.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly.

Laura: It gave us a lot of really great data. And then we have a lot of community coalitions, so reaching out to them, a lot of the immigrant populations, reaching out to them to make sure that their needs were being met as well, because not everyone’s at a coffee shop in the middle of the day, so making sure that we got insight from everyone using the website.

Kristina: And did you just walk up to people in a coffee shop and say, “Hey, can we chat with you for a few minutes?”

Laura: Yeah. We said, “Hey, we’re with the city. We’re doing some research about our website. Do you have a few minutes?” And most people were really happy to chat with us.

Kristina: Yeah, people love to be asked their opinions.

Laura: It’s true, yeah. Some of them did turn into little therapy sessions where they’re like, “I just want to know how to do this,” or, “Why is it like this?” And we didn’t always have answers, but we took that insight and took it back and presented it.

Kristina: It is crazy to me how emotional content choices are.

Laura: Oh yeah.

Kristina: And people are just like ... I mean, it is a usability and IA issue of course, but when the page design is, “Okay, here’s where you need to have three intro paragraphs, and then here’s where you can list your open times,” I mean, that doesn’t give a whole lot of flexibility or input to the person who’s trying to prioritize what information they’re putting on the page. It’s help to hear people say, “No, no, no. This is my priority,” and then we can alter or design that content substance based on that, so that’s great.

Laura: Yeah. We recognize that when the website was redesigned in 2011 ... Ashlee, is that right?

Ashlee: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Laura: At that time it was great. Most users were on desktop, but that’s when mobile was really starting to pick up, and unfortunately it’s not as responsible. We’re leading the charge with mobile first and, I think our users, the residents, are really ... I think it will be really great for them.

Kristina: Let me ask this, as you mentioned that sometimes some user input can be difficult to hear. Tell me about some of the methods that you used to keep people informed about the information that you were gathering, and how you built buy-in from those stakeholders throughout the process?

Laura: Sure. I am a big proponent of writing Medium posts, Medium articles, and the joke in the office is if someone has a good idea, I can be halfway across the office and I’ll just yell out, “Write a Medium post about it,” so really documenting where we are along the way in our learnings, and our failings also, but keeping people, whether it’s stakeholders, other municipalities we’re going through this keeping them aware of what’s going on, what we’re learning, and how it can help people, and also why we made some of the decisions we did.

Kristina: Ashlee, do you contribute to Medium as well?

Ashlee: Yeah, yeah I do. And so I think one of the ways that we really work on building buy-in with stakeholders is just really trying to increase their empathy towards users, because one of the things is just when you’re in the day-to-day grind and you’re just in the office, people get so disconnected from the everyday residents that they’re writing policies for, or building programs for, and it’s easy to forget that these are individual people that they are trying to serve.

A lot of our techniques, even just in our presentations we put together, we use a ton of photos, we use a ton of quotes for them to see that we’re not just saying we did the work, we’re showing you the work that we did. These are the people that we actually talked to. These are the things that they actually said, and putting those faces to those stories are just such an impact, and so when we’re doing presentations, Laura and I can just look out over the crowd and people’s faces are like, “Oh, aha. I get it. These are people, real people.” It’s really just building on that empathy.

But then also, I think probably one of my favorite Medium posts is a post I did about the city’s inbox. It’s an inbox where residents can basically go to our Contact Us page and email us about literally anything, and so I was responsible for overseeing that inbox every day for the past four years. I’ve seen all types of emails in there, and won’t go into all of them, but some of them are literally just like, “This website sucks,” and, “Why is the city, why are they paying you tax dollars to maintain this sucky website?” I mean, those are things that people have said.

It’s hard to read, but for me it’s more so saddening, because I want people to be able to write us and be like, “This is such an awesome website,” and, “Thank you for making city services so easy to get,” and, “Thank you for sharing with me that there’s a service that exists that I didn’t even know about.” I wrote a Medium post basically talking about and sharing some of those really insightful emails that I received. Probably the most insightful, I would say, that’s really been ... It informed a lot of the work that we’ve been doing around our navigation, is this woman had said that she just moved to Austin, literally just moved, and she was just trying to find information about trash and recycling. She was like, “I’ve been on this website forever, and I just can’t figure out how to find that.”

And really, when we were out talking to residents at coffee shops and libraries, we found out that people, they don’t know what our org chart is. They don’t know that Resource Recovery is the name of the department that manages trash and recycling. They just want to type in “trash and recycling” and find it. Our current site is just structured like our org chart, so people internally may know where to find things, but the public has no idea. We have just been communicating that message out to city staff, and they’re just like, “Oh, that makes so much sense. Okay, we do need to take a different approach to this.” And, like I said, just building that empathy with people has been huge.

Kristina: I’m really interested, you keep talking about how you’re communicating this out, the presentations that you’re giving, where are you able to stand in front of a crowd and talk about user needs? Where is that?Who comes to it? What kind of a meeting is it? How do you call it?

Ashlee: Funshops!

Laura: Funshops!

Kristina: Sorry, funshops?

Laura: Yes.

Kristina: Like F-U-N, funshops?

Laura: Yes, because writing for our users should be fun. It is fun, I think. Ashlee and I created this presentation, it’s a workshop but it’s fun. It’s an interactive workshop where we take people through ... And when I say people, I mean we take city employees through the style guide we created and give them practical ways to implement the style guide rules. We back it up with research, there are games, and we invite really anyone that wants to come.

We’re trying to get executive team members in, so that would be really exciting. But people responsible for content, people who are curious about user research, they’re invited, and while I love many things about it, I love teaching with Ashlee, but I love that it breaks down the silos, because you can have people from seven different departments there and they’ll start out in their little cliques, but then they start interacting and hearing the common problems and common concerns, and figuring out how to work with those problems and how to address those content needs for their users. They really start thinking about who their users are. It’s so exciting. We get great feedback on it.

Kristina: My mouth is hanging open. This is amazing. Ashlee, do you take the lead on gathering the email information of the people that you want to have there? How do you recruit people to come?

Ashlee: No, we definitely do that together, but I just depends on particularly what we’re working on in the moment. For instance, I think the last one that we did together, the last funshop was the Health Department, so the reason that we wanted to do one focused on that group is because we were working on mobile food vendor content and trying to look at building out a process content type so that people can understand all the different steps that you have to go through to get a permit to become a mobile food vendor, or to have a temporary food event.

We decided that okay, we’re working on this content so it would be great to work with the people that are involved in creating this content. And so we had an event at a public health space that they manage, and then we just emailed those people out. We always have a point of contact, so we had one point of contact and she recommended the other people that should come from her department. It’s typically just a lot of collaboration with myself and Laura and then the main point of contact that we have for that department to actually get people to this place.

But the funshops honestly, and not to toot our own horn, but they’ve gone viral across the organization. People are actually excited to come and check them out because they are actually fun, that’s the whole idea. I don’t know Laura if you want to tell Kristina about the bobbing for content game that we played?

Laura: Yeah. We have this game called bobbing for content, and it involves a bucket of water and apples. Each apple represents a piece of content and we’ll differentiate, like, “This is a 30-page PDF that is out of date. Here is a timetable of services, varying services,” and it’s up to the content author to put the apples in the water, or put the content into the bucket really, and then as soon as the water overflows, well you’re out of space. Really trying to get people to think critically about what they’re putting the website because, as it stands now, there are 11,000 pages on the website and 10,000 documents, such as PDFs.

Our bucket overfloweth and we really like to encourage more critical thinking about what’s going on the website and why is it going out there and who is the user? Again, bringing it back to who needs this.

Ashlee: I want to clarify, no one’s using their teeth to do this.

Laura: Right.

Ashlee: They’re using—

Kristina: Admittedly I’m a little disappointed about that, admittedly. But my mouth is still hanging open. This is incredible. And what’s incredible about that is that I’ve always said that what’s great about the web is that it’s endless publishing space, and what’s horrible about the web is that it’s endless publishing space, and that’s how people do get into that mindset of, “Well, we have this content, let’s put it on the website just in case,” versus that critical decision making. That’s fantastic. What other games do you guys introduce?

Ashlee: We do this scenario game, so we basically literally ... And this where my filmmaking background comes in. I made up this story where ... The people, we’re putting them in a scenario. We’re saying that Austin has an outbreak of this new virus called Virus X and people need to get the vaccine information and, if they don’t get in this very day, that the next vaccine won’t be available for eight weeks. We give people scenarios saying, you are this person so put yourself in the user’s shoes. You have an hourly job that you have to go to work. You can’t afford to take off and come to this city office during city hours. You have an hourly job. Then you ride the bus, for instance, and you have a two-year-old and a one-year-old and one of them is getting sick and you want to figure out, “Okay, how do I get my child to get a vaccine?”

You go on the city’s website and the vaccination information is in a PDF because there’s a ton of PDFs on our website and they’re often crazy long, not organized all the time, and sometimes not very easy to find information. We give them an actual physical PDF packet that we made up, but it also does have some real content in it. It’s, I don’t know, 20 pages long, and we give then one minute, we literally time them, and we say, “Okay, you have one minute to find this information about where to get a vaccination.”

We put them in groups and everyone ... We said, “Go,” and everyone just starts flipping through the pages, reading the content trying figure out, “Okay, where is this vaccination information?” Most of the time people find it, but it’s usually at the end. And while we’re doing the timer, Laura’s saying, “Okay, the bus is about to arrive. You’re gonna have to get on the bus. You don’t have to time to scroll around on the city’s website,” and so it really goes back to, again, the empathy of making people think about the people that we’re serving and all of the different obstacles that we’re potentially putting in their way by having these giant PDFs, or these long pages that they have to read through to find our services. That’s probably one of the other really impactful games that we do.

Laura: Yeah, and it was really great. One time we played this, and our office is located in the old Central Library, so there are bus lines in front of our building. This bus pulled up as we were playing and it took off when it hit the minute, and I was like, “Well, thank you,” that—

Kristina: Bringin’ it home.

Laura: Yeah.

Kristina: Let me ask, who gave you permission to do this? Because this is another thing, is that often times content strategists have these grand ideas or hopes and wishes and dreams about how they can effect the culture of their organization and really get people on board, but they can’t find executive sponsorship, or their manager’s failed to help them prioritize and allocate their time to really get after this stuff. How did you guys pull this off?

Ashlee: I would say the research gave us permission because that was one of the key findings from city staff is they were like, “We need training.” If you are saying, “Okay, we need to improve the way that we’re writing for residents,” great, we’re on board, but we need the training for it. That is how we were able to get okay for a workshop. Then we did a pilot, basically, so we came up with a curriculum, we came up with the presentation decks, we practiced a million times. Laura has the best jokes, and so she would always have these awesome jokes she drops at every presentation. I’m just her wing woman, but we did a pilot where we just had five people from a couple of different departments and we did the presentation, and it was a huge success. Everyone loved it. From that it was really easy to, “Hey, we’ve proven that this is successful. The research shows that this is what was needed, so we’re gonna do it.” I mean, that was really it.

Kristina: I mean, that speaks to the openness and the ability for leadership to say, “Oh, this is not what we thought.” Because I think that one of the things that Erika Hall talks about, I was just talking about her in my last podcast, but one of the things that she talks about is that often times leadership doesn’t want to listen to research because they’re worried that it is going to challenge assumptions and make them look bad. Right? How amazing that the people in charge of your time and resources or whatever were like, “Yup, okay great. Let’s make this thing happen.”

Laura: Yeah, it’s great. I think we are challenging a lot of assumptions, but we’re not trying to make anyone feel bad. We’re all learning and, like I said, at the time these practices and the tools that the city was using were right on par with the rest of the country and the rest of technologies uses and everything. But it’s just making sure that we continue to grow and adapt with what the user needs.

Ashlee: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the benefits of working for a government agency, that challenge of people or leadership not wanting to necessarily do research or accept research, isn’t really an option, because we can’t just say, “Oh, well residents said this and we don’t care.” That’s not a choice. If we find, through research, that this is an issue then we have a responsibility as civil servants to fix it. I think that that’s one of the benefits of working in government is that you have an obligation, a moral obligation to do these things and research really aids in that.

Kristina: I would say that that is a principle that’s shared across the wider user experience in the content strategy community is that there are a moral obligation to meet those needs, those explicitly stated needs of our users. If only organizations everywhere shared that principle.

Ashlee: Yeah.

Laura: Yes.

Kristina: Because of that driving principle, why don’t you talk to me a little bit about changes that you have seen on the website and how people are responding to it?

Laura: Ashlee, go for it.

Ashlee: I was like the current website or after we're redesigning?

Laura: Yeah.

Ashlee: The current website, I think there aren’t a ton of changes because at this point it’s almost too far gone. There’s only so much we can do. I think it’s more so the changes in the culture that we’re seeing that is the biggest impact, I’ll say more than the actual, physical current site. But of just people one, seeing the important of research, seeing the importance of user-centered design, of understanding what those things are and being willing to change. Because that’s one of the things that’s probably the negative part of government, and really any organization, but government in particular, is that change is hard to sometimes make happen. The fact that I’m seeing people being willing to accept these changes and wanting them to happen and helping us promote those changes across the organization has been what I’ve seen as the biggest shift. What about you, Laura?

Laura: What’s exciting to me, in addition to everything that Ashlee said, was that will to learn and that drive to learn and continually improve their skills is very apparent. I have people reaching out saying, “I only write internal facing content, but I want to make sure that my users are getting the most out of it.” That’s really exciting to me. I think a new way of doing something or learning new skills, no matter how long you’ve been in an organization, is always refreshing.

Kristina: Well, and it sounds ultimately like you are shifting the culture in a way that is prepping them for when the website does get redone, or as changes are being rolled out incrementally, however it is that you guys are doing the work, that the new content will be ready and better cared for over time.

Laura: Yes. Yes.

Kristina: And it’s better to get that done before changes so that a lot of times we’re like, “Ta-da! Brand new shiny website,” and then three months, “Oh, it’s crap again.”

Laura: Right, right. Yeah, we’re starting to teach them about iteration and implementing little things and testing them out, going back to the drawing board if necessary. I facilitated a workshop with the library, our library here in Austin is incredible. If you ever come visit, I recommend that be one of your first stops. But the staff is also really engaged and excited about again, “How can we make things better for the users and the in-person experience too?” Which is an interesting way to apply user-centered design. As a content strategist I’m able to see how we can make information easier to access in person too, so that’s another way of our work being shared.

Kristina: That’s very cool. Ashlee, how’s the website redesign coming?

Ashlee: It is coming well. I’ve actually since transitioned off the project, so Laura is holding down the fort in the content realm for that. But the last thing that I was working on I was probably the most excited about. It was, again, around the mobile food vendors and around starting a food truck business, and that was really interesting to me because I have dreams and aspirations of opening a food truck in the future, so I was really interested in understanding the process for someone to actually be able to start a food business. It takes a lot of going through several different PDFs and filling out a PDF form.

It’s difficult if you don’t have time necessarily to go through all that information, and let’s say you wanted help.You’d have to be able to go to the city office during regular city office hours, take off work potentially, and that’s just not necessarily accessible to everyone, especially let’s say that’s just not something you can do now, but your dream is to own this food truck and be an entrepreneur, we’re not making it easy for people to find information.

It’s just really interesting for us as a team, we worked with our visual designer and our UI designer to really figure out, “Okay, how can we display this information so that its steps and guided path for people to understand how to actually start a food truck,” and then, “How can we write this content so it’s not so much legalese or jargon and words that people might not even necessarily understand or know?” Because there’s a whole thing between restricted versus unrestricted permits and things that were just confusing, so that was a really exciting work that I got to work on before I transitioned off the project.

Kristina: Well, and can I just say as a frequent visitor of Austin, that it’s a priority for me that people know how to start their food trucks. I’m grateful that that was identified as a key opportunity for the website to improve. That is really cool. Well, great. Let me ask one last question. As you know, content strategy is, as a practice, still on the rise there are companies everywhere hiring content strategists and there aren’t really very many formal programs for anyone in content strategy, and people are coming at it from all different backgrounds. If you had to give any advice to someone in an adjacent field who's like, “Yeah, I really am thinking content strategy is my thing and I want to get over there.” What advice would you give them?

Laura: That’s a great question, I—

Kristina: That’s my job.

Laura: And you’re excellent at it. I would suggest get comfortable with ambiguity, and I say that because I’m very uncomfortable with it, but leaning into a lot of the research, taking part of the research, and listening to what people need, what information they’re looking for and how they’re going about it, and then using your own ... Relying on best practices, but using your own strategy. Get creative with how you can make the ... What is it? "Bring the known from the unknown," does that make sense?

Kristina: It does. I’m gonna get that tattoo, “Bring the known from the unknown.”

Laura: No, no. Oh no.

Kristina: No, I totally get that. That idea of being comfortable with ambiguity. I think, especially because a lot of content strategists come to the table wanting clearer definition of ... I mean, at a very base level you have this box with the lorem ipsum, let’s talk about what the definition is. What is it that you need there, what is the purpose, who is the user, what are the priorities? I think that is actually really good advice for somebody interested in the work, because there is such a process and a collaboration with other practitioners of we’re all trying to get to this endpoint, and maybe the way there is not a direct path from point A to point B. I think that’s great advice.

Laura: Yeah.

Ashlee: Yeah, I would say if it’s someone that’s in a career and they want to move into content strategy, my advice, because I don’t take this just from my own personal experience, is make friends with a UX designer and a content strategist. And, if you can, work on an outside project on something that’s interesting to you, because that experience is going to make you a better content strategist, because that’s what happened to me. Maybe a year and a half ago, before I knew Laura, I’ve grown exponentially as a content strategist. We started working and it was really her and a UX designer, and the knowledge that I gained from working with those two is just amazing. Like I said, I just grew so much so if you can get that pairing, that’s a really good to start to help you really understand the work that it takes to be a content strategist.

Kristina: Well and I think too, what’s great about that advice is that a lot of times we tend to get stuck in our own swim lanes and think, “Oh, people are so busy and they don’t have time for me. I don’t want to bug them.” But really I think, especially in the content strategy field, people are so welcoming and so excited to share their experience and their best practices, and you’re just gonna make a new friend. Yeah.

Laura: Yeah, and they’re gonna come up with a workshop that’s fun.

Kristina: A funshop!

Laura: Yes.

Kristina: Which is how Brain Traffic will now be rebranding all of our workshops. Content strategy funshops.

Laura: Perfect.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly. Laura and Ashlee, you are both just delightful and smart and resourceful and innovative and I’m so impressed by the work that you’re doing and the changes that you’re bringing to the City of Austin’s communications online, and I just am really appreciative of your taking the time to chat with me today, and to share your experiences and knowledge with our audience. Thank you so much for being here.

Laura: Thank you for having us.

Ashlee: Yeah, thank you for having us.

Laura: Thank you.


Kristina: You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.