I have never been able to separate the design of content from that of experience. My entire career is predicated on the alchemy of these elements. And I have an acute sensitivity where the connections between content and experience break down on teams and in the design of solutions.
Some of this sensitivity stems from my background in theater and filmmaking. In film, there’s a director. The director helps to own the bottom line of the story that must come through, balancing the technology of filmmaking with the artistry of actors and others.
Entering the emerging world of building websites and applications in the early 2000s, I found that this role didn't exist in the various agencies I worked with.
For example, back in 2006, I took a job with a firm that was looking for an ”information architect.” I told them I couldn’t take a role that had such a narrow concept. We agreed the role would be titled “content and experience architect.” While this new title was a mouthful, it more accurately expressed what I would actually be doing. In my gut, I was like, “Why on earth would you want to separate these roles in the first place?”
As a digital product strategist and designer, I never understood how someone could (for very long) only be an information architect, or a UX designer, or a product owner, or a content strategist, or a community architect. To me, they were all essential sub-components of designing a solution that delivered a value-driven outcome and an overall customer experience in the digital space.
Do Not Divide and Conquer
When I decided to go all in on digital, I devoted myself to absorbing the principles and skill sets of many of these specialties.
As I began designing products and experiences—whether eExhibits for the Smithsonian, or a how-to encyclopedia for TakeMeFishing.org, or a futuristic learning management product for Thomson Reuters—I found the relationship between the various research and design disciplines to be highly iterative. The way ingredients are iterative on the flavor, nutrition, and mouthfeel of a dish.
The iterative dynamic requirements and inputs from situation analysis, information architecture, experiential flows, product function, content, testing, etc., were all so immediate and multi-dimensional, that dividing these activities among many individuals would seem to pose dire consequences for the product’s ultimate conceptual integrity, innovativeness, efficiency, and ultimate value delivered.
To me, dividing these activities across multiple brains on a team seemed as absurd as trying to have multiple people create a musical composition. Imagine the music if multiple composers were to divide up the work, with one person focusing only on wind instruments, another on strings, another on percussion, etc. A corpse not so exquisite.
This led me to attempt a comprehensive view of the design of experience across what I thought of as mediation layers, mediating productivity, information, and communication, which needed to consider multimodal ergonomics.
In the context of interaction design, you are designing—ideally, consciously—in all of these layers and contexts simultaneously. Each facet, shown above, can give rise to explicit and specific design input or output considerations. Deficits in consideration of any of them can lead to an inferior product.
Knowing something about how humans function can save you a lot of usability lab time, wasted on designs that should have never been created in the first place. Why reach for a fail-fast rationale when instead you can just get it right the first time? Just asking.
A Comprehensivist Approach
I believe there are mindsets inclined toward more architectural and orchestrational activities versus hyperspecialization—a belief that was heavily reinforced by R. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of the comprehensivist.
A comprehensivist, or comprehensivist approach, is essentially an approach to creativity and problem solving that integrates as many approaches as are relevant to reaching the best design conclusion. Fuller strongly contrasted comprehensivist approaches to specialization.
According to Fuller, our societal obsession with specialization exacerbates the risk of not finding effective solutions for life’s complex design challenges. So if you are into failing fast, try having your project be dominated by specialists. Then you can fail often as well.
Here is an absolutely prescient quote from Fuller that should rattle everyone in our profession concerned with their jobs being replaced by bots.
“Man is going to be displaced altogether as a specialist by the computer. Man himself is being forced to reestablish, employ, and enjoy his innate ‘comprehensivity.’ Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”
Yeah. That’s him talking in 1963. If you’re currently employed as some sort of specialist you are probably doomed. Start diversifying yesterday. Or you will be retired before you have an opportunity to retire.
The Specialist vs. the Generalist
In the world of business, it is common for us to distinguish between the specialist versus the generalist—the generalist often being someone who may do a range of things, possibly none of them very well, or only some of them well. The notions of T-shaped people (with depth in one vertical but competencies and / or strong collaborative capacity across verticals) versus I-shaped people (specialized competencies in one area only) have gotten traction to address these differences.
Tim Brown from IDEO, the folks at McKinsey, and others have done much to popularize this framework over the last decade. Much debate has ensued about which type of person is more valuable, or whether people should become Swiss Army knives, remain specialists, or somewhere in between, such as a generalizing specialist.
As I alluded to earlier, when it comes to designing a solution, the more specialty design inputs are divided between brains, the more there is a penalty paid with regard to the ability for these disciplines to iterate on each other, particularly at their subtlest levels.
This point is explored in some depth in Fast Company. The article describes the author’s discussion with what she calls a “unicorn of the modern knowledge economy,” a polymathic designer named Nicolette Hayes whose range of skills lead the author to say, “What once might’ve been a three- or four-person team is now simply Nicolette.”
And this is exactly what happens when you acquire multiple design competencies. The individual can make a team obsolete, with tremendous advantage for speed and quality of outcome. Of course, there are trade-offs. Sometimes you need the ”the best [whatever] on Earth” to create something extraordinary. And individuals can be blind. Another pair of eyes, teams, and hiveminds have undeniable benefits. But we should absolutely note opportunities for skill consolidation. And above all, we should never stop moving laterally to identify skills and pattern-familiarity from other fields that might be relevant to the solutions we design and to identify other types of skill or organizational stakeholders we can collaborate with to design amazing things through combinations of the unexpected.
Certainly, we can extend the idea of the comprehensivist from the individual to the team level. And ultimately to the societal stakeholder level.
Ideal Skill Overlap
In my view, the ideal skill overlap for modern customer relationship management and customer-focused adaptation involves the following five domains (ovals on the left), and must consider the environmental forces (arrows on the right), not simply to survive, but to innovate and thrive.
I won’t address these in detail, but will summarize as follows:
Relationship management is a primary goal category for the focus of content and customer experience. We are trying to win, nurture, retain, and drive value from relationships, across customer, audience, and societal-facing functions.
Publishing and media are digital and content-driven mandates to achieve excellence at creating content that is effective and contains value as a product, and ensuring that we understand how to distribute it and develop audiences.
Application development is a sibling to content. Just as we create value-added content, we also create value-added applications. And in the digital space, all content is mediated by an application. We often forget this when we talk about content marketing.
Since we are seeking to create content as a product—with intrinsic value that people will actually adopt—we need to approach our value-added content program precisely as a startup would, thus applying a startup methodology. The content has to be relevant, should be crystal clear targeted in perfecting value to the alpha audience, rapid iteration is crucial, planning for scale-up, and so on.
Value-driving sensibilities from civil society services such as non-profits and NGOs are crucial, and upon analysis, often actually underlie successful content marketing programs. Social innovation and social entrepreneurialism are essential value-driving lines of investigation to identify problems to solve that are broader than what we tend to look for as tape manufacturers, or whatever else it is that we do.
Those of us building our careers in a post-digital world are blessed to be at a unique moment in history in which we are privileged to entertain such concepts as “content” and “experience,” let alone create in the fertile space between them. This digitally catalyzed space provides unprecedented agility for those who can strategize and architect solutions that address needs and create new value.
However, as with any strategic and architectural endeavor, it is crucial that we cultivate an insatiable level of curiosity that keeps us moving laterally to acquire new modes of thinking and learn new skills that we can apply in a synthetic manner to fully realize our creative opportunity. You will not be able to master every discipline. But you must develop the courage and curious diligence to gain the intellectual familiarity with other disciplines required for collaboration and dot-connecting solutioning.
In avoiding the cognitive traps of specialization, we must ask ourselves: Are we being comprehensive enough? Have we broken the horizon of our worldview that will enable us to be more capable, more creative, and to discover new opportunities to bring content and experience together in a manner that can change how people see the world (for the better), keep them informed, help them achieve mastery, remove friction in getting things done, delight them, inspire them, and find deeper and fuller meaning in life?
On that note, I can’t wait to share presence with you all in Toronto.
Let’s make it meaningful, together.
About the Author
Carlos Abler is Leader, Content Marketing and Strategy for 3M. Leveraging content as a catalyst for digital transformation, customer-experience, and stakeholder value creation, Carlos supports initiatives that drive maturity across content and customer experience programs, technologies, and human resource development for global conglomerates, small businesses, not-for-profits, and NGOs.More Content by Carlos Abler