The relationship between content and design is often that key ingredient that makes people love what you’re offering.

Everything from a simple blog to a company’s flagship software to a retailer’s in-store offerings operates on the principle of wrapping content (words, images, data, products) in a layer of presentation (layout, colors, typography, delivery) and interaction (filtering, searching, exporting, purchasing, responding).

It’s a hard relationship to get right, because the variables are difficult to quantify, and things change so quickly. How do you present the valuable content you have in a way that not only doesn’t scare people away, but keeps them engaged? What does success look like in what Seth Godin calls “attention economy”?

Companies are just beginning to throw massive amounts of resources into creating the right experience for customers. From user experience design to emotional design to material design, the approaches to figuring out how to perfect these experiences—that relationship of content and design—are increasing and giving great insight. It can still be easy to miss the forest for the trees, though, and focus on methods before understanding the foundation.


I like to explain this foundation by using conversation as an analogy. Maybe it’s because it hits home with me, personally.

Your content is what you’re trying to say, but your personality dictates how you’ll say it. It doesn’t matter how true what you’re saying may be if you say it like a jerk, or if you seem too obtuse, or if you’re too verbose.

And I know this because it’s something I’ve been working on personally for a long time. I can give the right answers all I want to, but if I don’t inspire the person I’m talking to to take it to heart, it ends up falling on deaf ears.

Insight is useless without the inspiration to act on it.

If my personality doesn’t do a good job of presenting what I’m saying, it comes across as self-righteous, judgmental, or—worse—irrelevant.

Your content may be valuable, but the presentation of that content will make or break it. It must be designed, and it must be designed well. Designing that presentation of content—the experience—takes a lot of learning, time, and experimentation. Not only do you have to understand the foundation and the methods, but you have to be willing to find out if and how it connects with your audience.

Knowing When You Nail It

People Over Pixels: Meaningful UXYou’ll never get that balance of content and design right the first time. You probably won’t the next 100 times you try, either. You have to make a best effort, be observant, and implement what you learn.

I’ve been giving a new presentation this year called “People Over Pixels: Meaningful UX”. The content is close to my heart, because I show how UX efforts can and should meet business goals and how, in order to do so, you actually have to forget the business goals and focus on people, instead. Then, not only do you meet the business goals you need to meet, but it actually has some incredibly important side effects that improve the lives of people.

I knew it was crucial that this content not just be presented in a standard, bullet point slide deck that I walk through matter-of-factly. So, it works more as a narrative. I wanted to tell a story—one that people could understand they could participate in. I wanted to inspire people to dig into their UX work.

It’s been going well, to be sure. I’ve gotten good reviews and positive feedback from my previous presentations, and I keep getting invited back. That’s good! I take the feedback and tweak the presentation to improve it.

But, last week, I presented this talk at Dreamforce to a theater of folks. The feedback was different. Emphasis mine:

“Do you know if they posted the A/V for [this talk]? I am requiring our team and execs to listen/watch it. Thanks, amazing session!!”

“Cliff gave – by far – the best presentation of the week! It had substance, was engaging, and provided me with ideas I can use as I return to the day-to-day of work.”

“speaker was very engaging and interesting”

“Best, most passionate session I’ve seen in a long time!”

“Speaker was unbelievable. Really awesome job. Most compelling I’ve attended.”

You’ll need to believe me that this isn’t a #humblebrag in disguise, because I want you to see that the words people used of their own volition were about engagement, and they often came coupled with an action. The words matched the way I wanted the story to come across, and the actions matched what I wanted to see happen. I’m less concerned with being right or interesting; I want to compel people to act. I want to inspire them to work hard.

These are the moments you look for. It’s like magic. That certain je ne sais quoi transmitted your content into a design that people embrace. The biggest mistake we can make, though, is assume that this means simply replicating exactly what was done going forward will produce the same results. It won’t. It should, though, spur us onward and teach us that we’re going in the right direction.

Again, for me, personally, getting this kind of feedback has been important to me over the years. Often, my job as a UX Designer is to sit in a room and politely, but clearly, say, “That’s not good enough. We need to do better.” I can speak truth all I want, but if I don’t inspire people to take the feedback and build something better, I’ve failed. So, I follow up with people after meetings (especially if they’re seemingly tense) to ask how I came across and make sure I made sense.

But, when the feedback is different, I take special note. Yes, that means the unabashedly negative stuff, but that’s just telling you what not to do. It’s the different positive feedback that gives you the deepest insight.

For instance, one day Matt Medeiros asked me for feedback on his Conductor plugin, which hadn’t launched then. He asked for for my frank thoughts, and I definitely gave them to him. It wasn’t all positive, but I definitely wanted him to know that I thought he was on the right track. When I saw this tweet right after, I knew I’d nailed it:

In your quest to build experiences that people care about, pay close attention to when inspiration swells up in others. That’s what ideal user experiences are anyway: content that does something for real people so directly and transparently that you hardly notice it was designed at all.

October 23, 2014 — Leave a comment — In Blog, Content, Speaking
Dan Quayle

Dan Quayle says, “Public speaking is very easy.” So, there’s that.

The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public. George Jessel

I was asked to give an internal “lunch and learn” at Pardot on becoming a better public speaker. Folks submitted questions they’d like answered when they signed up, so I structured my presentation around them. I imagine they might help you, too.

1. “Be the UI.”

This simple perspective from Serious Pony puts words to a difficult, but crucial concept: what your content can do for the audience is the most important part of speaking.  So, if you think about your talk as an experience for users, then you can think of yourself as the interface. The best interfaces don’t get in the way of what the user is trying to do.

For me, this manifested in realizing that I didn’t need to become what I perceived to be the “ideal speaker”—which was honestly what kept me from ever trying to speak before. Instead, trusting that what I have to say is valuable for others and allowing my own personality to come through helped me take the leap.

2. Allow me to not introduce myself.

The amount of time I spend introducing myself at the beginning of a talk has diminished with every talk I’ve given. Why? Honestly, no one really cares that much—they’re already there. So long as you’re easily found online, people can do all the “background checks” their heart desires.

Now, what I try to stick to is my name and Twitter handle (it helps folks attribute quotes and start a dialogue), and will expand only if I know I need to. Again, focus on giving the audience value and trust that you’re credible enough to be there.

3. Keep calm and breathe normally.

To calm your nerves and speak confidently, focus on good breathing techniques. You will not believe how much of a difference breathing well makes, no matter how ridiculous that sounds. You won’t sound out of breath, you’ll pause properly, and you’ll think more clearly. I don’t even do this well, yet, honestly, but it helps every time I work on it.

4. Talk slowly and less.

First of all, if you’re not talking so slowly that it feels awkward, you’re talking too fast. I struggle with this, too. Slow down for everyone’s sake! Slow down even more if you’ve got potential a language barrier with the audience. Often, folks are taking notes, and they can’t do that effectively if you’re filling literally every second with five words.

On that point: don’t try to fill up your time slot. Plan on saying less than you think you’ll be able to, and try to stick to big, meaty ideas.

5. Manage the clock by making decent slides.

Instead of constantly trying to do pacing math in my head (“If I’m on slide 14 of 35 and I’ve been talking for 22 of 40 minutes…”), I have my talk split up into 3 or 4 major areas. When I get to them, that’s where I check in to make sure I’m progressing well.

Further, if your slides are designed well (i.e. there’s not seven bullet points on every single one), you can have extra thoughts and quips that are easy to cut out if you run short on time, and the audience is none the wiser. You don’t have to be an artist to make decent slides. Focus on your big ideas, and give words or phrases that are short and easy to write down (or tweet). Michael Hyatt’s got some great tips you should check out.

Ricky Bobby

Slingshot engage(ment).

6. Engage conversationally.

I usually pick a person or so at every corner of the room to make eye contact with and move between them a bit. Whatever it takes to keep you from looking down or towards the back of the room where the ceiling meets the wall is a good plan. Start there.

From eye contact, engage in ways that make you feel comfortable and honest. A buddy of mine (who’s a phenomenal speaker) will ask individual audience members questions—that’d throw me for a loop, so I don’t. Let your personality come out in the way you interact with the audience, your slides, and your delivery.

7. Know what to do in an emergency.

If your slides are good and you know your own material fairly well, you should be able to operate even if you lose your notes (if you have them). Don’t panic! You can handle the inverse, too. If you have your notes (or, at least, a backup printout of all your slides), you can present even if the projector malfunctions or Powerpoint is crashing or the screen collapses or your entire city loses power. You’re the only one who knows what you were going to say, so just adapt.

Further, don’t create tiny emergencies for yourself by saying things like:

  • “I just got my slides together this morning.”
  • “I’ve got a mega hangover.”
  • “We’re running low on time.”
  • “I really should’ve peed.”
  • “I’m nervous.”

Try not to create those situations in the first place, but don’t mention it even if it’s true. As Chris Coyier put it: show the audience some respect.

8. Embrace the awkward.

Did something just go wrong? Did you just burp? Is your fly undone, and you just found out halfway into your presentation? Did you trip and say an inexcusably profane word on stage?

Just laugh, friend. Everyone in the audience is a human being, and the best of them (if not all of them) will understand and laugh right along with you. An accident is much more easily forgive than a poor presentation.

And, because I was asked about it: two things can go wrong with Q&A, and I handle them very differently. If you lose the audience’s attention due to them starting conversations, and you can’t get their attention back, just wrap things up. No reason to stand up there looking out-of-sorts. However, if you get someone who starts shouting out of turn in disagreement, wait patiently to see if they’ll calm down, or end things and offer to answer questions outside the room. Don’t give your time to rude people to can’t talk in turn.


These tips have helped me, but the best thing you can do is to just do it. Do your best, solicit feedback, and make improvements. The first 30 seconds of any talk are still terrifying to me, but that fear goes away quickly and more easily with each go ’round.

If you believe you have something valuable to say, share it.

November 24, 2013 — 4 Comments — In Blog, Speaking