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.

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