Considering a UX Career? Clean Your Refrigerator!

If you are thinking about a career in User Experience (UX) you may be drowning in all the areas you can specialize. How do you decide? User research? Content strategy? Visual design? Code! Metrics? Service design? Information architecture? Search Engine Optimization?

Apply UX Techniques to everyday activities

Every day you have an opportunity to try different UX techniques. I’m not going to suggest building your own mobile app, redesigning a well-known website, or designing a t-shirt for a cause. Those are terrific ways to establish your portfolio once you know what you want to do.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to try an unconventional, low-cost, and beneficial activity that will help you explore UX specialties like content strategy, information architecture, and user research:  Clean and organize your refrigerator.

What does cleaning your refrigerator have to do with a User Experience career!?!?!

The first steps in cleaning your refrigerator are a lot like conducting a content inventory and audit.

You have to decide where to put everything you have left.  Use top task analysis to decide.

Wrap up your efforts by talking to users (i.e., the people who use the refrigerator). That user research will help you decide if you need to change where you put things.


I am not a domestic diva. If you do not know how to clean a refrigerator, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag — And Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha by Jolie Kerr, is required reading. Instructions begin on page 21. Organization tips are on page 24.

Try it! It’s practically free.

I hard cleaned our refrigerator a few weeks ago following Jolie Kerr’s instructions and photographed the journey.

I pull everything out to see what lurked inside. We had just returned from vacation so there wasn’t a lot of rotten* food to throw out.  A content inventory is a similar process but foul odor isn’t involved. This photo was taken after I washed the inside.

* A content audit is used to look for ROTten content. That’s Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial content that isn’t supporting business or user goals.

Once the inventory and audit is complete, top task analysis begins. What do we use most often? Can the taller child reach the milk when it’s on the door shelf? Will I have enough room for leftovers weeks from now?

This was my first guess.

I put all the food back in. I thoughtfully considered the placement of every single item and how it would impact my family. I grouped similar items and arranged them based on bottle height. In UX terms, I created a navigation scheme.

Then I stepped back and proudly showed my family what I had accomplished! Martha might even be proud of me!

(Let’s not kid ourselves. Martha wouldn’t but Jolie Kerr @joliekerr might!)

My husband wasn’t 100% happy. He thought we used Yellow Mustard more often than Dijon. I disagreed. I used Dijon Mustard in loads of recipes.

In the end, thanks to this user research, I concluded I was applying Self Design and that’s how the Yellow Mustard got moved to the front of the shelf.

Discovering your UX career path

If you clean your refrigerator you might discover more than just moldy, forgotten, supremely smelly cheese:

  • You might love discovering what is inside the refrigerator; especially the rotten stuff. If you do, you might love content inventories and audits. (An unnatural love of spreadsheets also helps.)
  • You might delight in adjusting the shelves and arrange all those bottles; especially if you have several varieties of mustard and BBQ sauce.  If you do, you might love developing navigation schemes and taxonomies.
  • You might empathize with your partner and appreciate how important it is to find the Yellow Mustard.  If you do, you might love user research.

Epilogue: What happened to the yellow mustard?

There’s a saying that, “user research is free.”  It’s true. The moment you put your product out in the wild people judge it, ignore it, use it, abuse it, stick with it, love it, or abandon it.

A cleaned and organized refrigerator is no different.

Three weeks later look where the Yellow Mustard ended up!  In a place of supreme prominence, the door shelf by the milk. It’s almost like a client demanding an odd little something for the homepage.

inside of refrigerator

P.S. We ran out of Dijon Mustard.

What I’m Reading This Week

Week Reading List

The Branding Gods (Mostly) Love Google’s New Logo

It’s interesting. I heard lots of people saying how much they disliked it. I like it. It’s better than Yahoo’s revamped logo.

UX Infographics: 9 to Pin to Your Wall

My favorite is the Disciplines of User Experience Design by envis precisely because it captures how broad the term has become.

The Monk With Sweaty Palms

A reminder that we are all important and more similar than we think.

What I Learned and Why You Might Attend UX STRAT

I am going to shamelessly promote the 2015 USA UX STRAT conference being held September 8 –  10, 2015 in Athens, Georgia because I loved the 2014 conference so much.  A year later I’m still using the things I learned and am in touch with people I met.

Why You Should Go In a Nutshell

  1. The Perks
  2. The Content
  3. The Logistics

The Perks

Travel.  I got to go to Boulder, Colorado and pot had recently been legalized.  Understand that this was a drug free conference.  Paul Bryan (@paulbryan) made that very clear during his opening remarks.  Thanks to Paul, we all knew exactly where the dispensaries were located and that they were open until 7:00 PM.

Accommodations.  The conference hotel, Hotel Boulderado, is part of the Historic Hotels of America!  And it’s haunted. Go through the slides below to see a picture of my room.  It freakin’ looks haunted.  Am I right?

People.  Every once in a while you attend a conference and you just feel like “these are my people”.  That was UX STRAT for me.  Filled with seasoned practitioners who love UX as much as I do and are working to solve wicked problems.  And we all seem to have interesting backgrounds. I met a former comedian, a burlesque dancer, and someone working with the Mutual UFO network!

The Content

Sometimes you go to conferences and some of the speakers are a little m’eh.  That honestly didn’t happen at UX STRAT.  Everyone brought good stuff to the table.  Here are few of the speakers who made a lasting impression on me:

Inspiration.  One year later, I still hear Fabio Sergio (@freegorifero) daring me and everyone in the UX STRAT audience to, “develop solutions that let people dream what they can be.”

Tactical Methods.  One year later, I am still using and adapting Dan Klyn’s (@danklyn) technique for resolving strategic tension in the design process.  He calls them “performance continuums”, and I accidentally began calling them “tension bands”.  Read or listen to Dan describe this approach over on Jared Spool’s site.

Humor.  Also, Dan is really funny while making a great point.  Like how he used a clip from the movie Zoolander to describe why wireframes and other models suck if you introduce them too early.

Strategic Directions.  I went to UX STRAT because I have never had a chance to see Jon Kolko (@jkolko) speak, but I’ve been a fan of his work for many years.  Jon helped me discover that when I grow up, I might want to be a product manager.

Side Note:  Just getting to read his book Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Build Products that People Love.  Highly recommend!

The Seat.  Though the speakers did not plan it, they all talked to The Seat.  Not like that time when Clint Eastwood talked to an empty seat at the 2012 Republican National Convention.  No, they talked about The Seat like this:

  • Ashley Halsey Hemingway (@halsey_) talked about how she brought her own seat.  (By the way, I hear she’s leading a workshop at UX STRAT 2015.)
  • Dr. Laura Granka (@lauragranka) talked about how you could win The Seat.
  • Matthew Holloway told a great story about crashing a meeting to claim The Seat.

They were all referring to The Seat in the boardroom.  To succeed, UX needs a seat at the highest level and once you have The Seat, you have to keep proving the value of UX over and over again.

Our Future. Theo Forbath (@TheoForbath) described how digital winners would need strong user experiences, and he poignantly reminded us that “innovation is uncomfortable”.

You’ll find the slides from UX STRAT 2014 over on SlideShare.

The Logistics

UX STRAT is a single track conference.  You won’t miss any speakers.  It’s also small.  Capped at 400-500 people total you can really get to know the people there and have meaningful conversations.  And the speakers?  They’re required to stick around. You might run into Todd Wilkens (@toddwilkens) at breakfast like I did and get a couple minutes to chat.  He’s the nicest guy!  And the way his team is injecting design thinking into IBM almost made me buy stock in the company.

Not Convinced Yet?  Two More Reasons…

Premium Content!  Ronnie Batista’s presentation began just before happy hour.  And you know it’s going to be a special talk when someone opens with, “Sometimes people don’t get my style…”  I get Ronnie’s style. But I also got his message and for that you simply had to be there.  You won’t find the complete slide deck on SlideShare.

Premium Swag!  I am a sucker for a t-shirt and coffee mug. You had to work to win these items.  Now I rock the UX STRAT t-shirt on the weekends.

Read, Watch, and Learn List


Life’s Work: Marc Newson

I design 85% of the stuff that comes out of my studio because that’s the part of my job I like.”  Sticking with his passion when he could have made a different choice.

The Rapidly Disappearing Business of Design

Watching Adaptive Path get acquired by Capital One was both exciting and sad.  It was the end of an era for User Experience; one that I’m really happy I got to be a part of.


An oldie but goodie.


Material Design – Google Design Guidelines


Performing isn’t only about the acrobatics and the high notes: It’s staying in the moment, connecting with the audience in an authentic way, and making yourself real to them through the music.

– Idina Menzel

Replace the word ‘Performing’ with ‘Design’ and ‘music’ with ‘experience’ and you’ve got an equally powerful quote.

Selecting Fonts that Look Good Together

In my next life I want to come back as a typographer.  And a rodeo barrel racer. But let’s focus on fonts and typography today.

As a kid I loved writing my friends’ names in huge block letters on envelopes.  I would spend hours coloring patterns into the letters I had drawn.  Today, tired of the built-in font themes that Microsoft offers, I could spend hours finding new and interesting font combinations to use in the PowerPoint presentations I create.

How to Mix, Combine, and Pair Fonts

Web designers don’t need to look far to learn how to mix, combine, and pair fonts. Here are a few:

Show Me Fonts that Look Good Together

But when you’re in a hurry sometimes you just need to see combinations that work.  Again, there are plenty of articles showing font combinations for print and web design:

Recently I discovered  It’s my favorite new-to-me resource.  Similar to other sites where designers can contribute samples of their work, focuses on the typography used in the work.  I love being able to see which fonts a designer has used in their headings and body copy.  Often I can use these or similar font combinations in my PowerPoint presentations.

Download the Fonts (Preferably Free Fonts)

I don’t always have the fonts I need installed on my computer.  In some cases, I don’t have the budget to buy the font either.  Here are three sources I use to locate and download fonts:

Adding New Font Combinations to PowerPoint

Follow these instructions if you’re not sure how to install a new font in Windows.

In PowerPoint 2010, you’ll find the built-in font themes on the Design tab, in the Themes group, under the Fonts drop down.  The default built-in Office theme uses Calibri for both the headings and the body.  Read how to create your own font theme using the new font(s) you downloaded.

Can you see the fonts that I see?

Important!  Other computers may not have the new font you installed on your computer.  If you are not giving the presentation from your own computer, or if you need to share your presentation make sure you embed the new font.  Learn how to embed fonts in your presentation here.

Iterating JJG’s Nine Pillars

Jesse James Garrett published The Nine Pillars of Successful Web Teams in July 2003.  Ten years later his diagram of the nine pillars [PDF] is still displayed on the wall of my office.  It has influenced me that much.

The Nine Pillars as a Process Map

Jesse probably didn’t intend the diagram to be used as a process map, but that’s how I’ve been using it for years.

At a high level the pillars describe the process of creating an online experience from start to finish. It works with my in-house teams because they can see things like:

  • User experience is part of strategy.
  • Content strategy is just as important as technology and site strategy.
  • The broad concepts — strategy, technology, content, design — overlap and influence each other.
  • Two clear phases in the development process — a thinking (strategic) phase and a doing (tactical) phase.

10 Years Later:  Should the Pillars Change?

Two years ago I asked Jesse via Twitter if he would revise the pillars. His response, “I guess today I would add some sort of business dimension and maybe expand project management to include ongoing operations.”

I cherished that tiny interaction because I didn’t expect any acknowledgement, let alone a meaningful answer.

JJG's Twitter Response

For Your Consideration: The Nine Pillars – Iterated

I want to incorporate Jesse’s ideas.  I’m trying to address a specific problem I see every day:

People get very excited about creating new online experiences — be it a website, a social media channel, etc. — but there is little acknowledgement that once the experience exists it has to be nurtured, sustained, and improved upon.

Online experiences remind me of puppies.  Everyone is so excited to get a puppy.  They are so cute!  But if you’re not prepared, you quickly come to realize they have jaws and claws and they aren’t so cute when they eat your shoes.  Neglected, they can become a real problem.  Then you have to call in dog experts like my good friends at Applejack K-9 Academy.

But I digress.

My point is that most people wouldn’t abandon a puppy, but investments like an online experiences are abandoned daily.  You see it in redundant, outdated, trivial content.  You see it in social spheres when identical messages are distributed via different channels.

My goals for this iteration are to:

  1. Show teams that when you invest in a new online experience, you also need to invest equally (if not more) in sustaining and innovating that experience for the life of the experience.  This gets to Jesse’s point about ongoing operations.
  2. Incorporate the business dimension, which would include things like performance metrics, KPIs, and business intelligence.
The Nine Pillars- Iteration by Megan Ellinger

Building on Jesse James Garrett’s original diagram, I added two sections focused on sustaining and innovating the site experience.


The Sustain phase begins once the site is launched.

Technology Support: Supporting a technical system after implementation requires monitoring.  Software and hardware updates, security and intrusion detection, and backups can’t be glossed over.

Content Management: Content Production continues, but managing and optimizing existing content becomes an equal priority.  Competencies in search engine optimization, taxonomy, ontology, etc. are critical.  And then there’s the really boring but practical aspects of Content Management like link management.

Design Monitoring: Is the design achieving the business goals and KPIs that were established in the Site Strategy phase?  Does the design still serve the audiences it needs to on the devices they use? And if you care about making the experience accessible to persons with impairments, or if you’re required to by law, you have to continuously monitor.


The learning achieved in the Sustain phase is what allows the team to evolve the experience and begin innovating.  You keep what is working, you drop what is not, you conduct more research and find new ways to deliver measurable business results.

Technology Evaluation: It’s changing all the bloody time.  You need people who can think beyond the current industry trends and think about what tomorrow’s trends are likely to be.  You need people who can monitor and evaluate whether your experience is still reaching the people and devices it needs to reach.

Content Evaluation: Content Strategy may change or shift based on findings in the Sustain phase.  You may need to evaluate your content again.  What kinds of content will you continue to invest in, and what content you will not invest in?

Experience Strategy:  In beginning the focus may have been on a single communication channel–the website.  But to truly innovate, you have to consider all your channels to create a cohesive experience.  You’ll need people who can build relationships across the organization and work with others to unify their UX efforts.

What Would You Change?

When I have shown the diagram to a few people I’ve been met with two different reactions:

  • Wow, this is great.
  • Wow, this is complicated.  Too complicate.

I appreciate both comments and I would add some more:

  • It’s okay for it to look complicated.  Planning, building, sustaining, and innovating online experiences is complicated.  Done well, it requires people with a variety of skill sets.  But “too complicated” is a problem.  How do you know when something is really “too” complicated?
  • I like that you can read the diagram from left to right, but the process is not linear.  It’s cyclical.  Sustain and Innovate are feedback loops all by themselves. That isn’t communicate at all. Ideas on how to do that?  I fear it will look like a long spring if I’m not careful.
  • The diagram doesn’t include a time dimension.  Visually it looks like sustain is short, but for some experiences it can be very long.  Is not having a time dimension bad?  I’m not certain.  I worry about adding more to the diagram.  If anything, I’d like to be more like Tim Gunn and take an editing eye to the diagram.

So Mom and Dad, that’s what I’ve been working on.  Thanks for the love and support and if you have suggestions, let me know.

P.S.  Jesse, if you’re bored, I would love a thinking partner!

Using the 960 Grid in PowerPoint Wireframes

Hasn’t someone out there created a PowerPoint template with guides set to the same dimensions as the 960 grid? And haven’t they allowed the world to take it and use it at no cost?

Surely the answer is yes, but when I did a search this afternoon for “960 grid for powerpoint” I couldn’t find it in the top 10.

The grid and guides in Microsoft PowerPoint 2010 and previous versions are really helpful for lining elements up when you’re creating wireframes.  Guides in particular are a feature I don’t see many people using, and it’s sad because you’re missing out.  Let’s fix that right now.

Slide masters are also a great way to save time when you’re creating multiple wireframes.  I wrote about it a long time ago, here.

I find guides more useful than the grid because I can’t customize the grid to the degree I need.  As in, I can’t customize the grid so it mimics the spacing of the 12-column 960 grid.  But with guides, I can!

The thing is, adding and deleting multiple guides is a pain.  To add a new guide, you’ve got to hold down the control key and drag an existing guide. My fingers inevitably hit the wrong buttons and I lose a guide or move the wrong one.

Because it’s a little time-consuming to set up, I thought surely there’s a kindred PowerPoint wireframer out there who has taken the time to add multiple guides that mimic the 12-column 960 grid? Couldn’t find it.

So HERE! Take this!  This is for YOU fellow PowerPoint wireframe designer who adores the 960 grid system created by the awesome Nathan Smith.  If you use this and become rich and famous, please give a shout out to Nathan and I for helping you along the way.

Design well, my friends.

Download the PowerPoint 2010 file with Guides that approximate the 12-column 960 Grid.  Dimension information for the grid and guides is included.  Instructions to show or hide the grid and guides also included at no extra charge.


Creative Commons License
960 Guides for PowerPoint 2010 by Megan Ellinger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at 960-grid-powerpoint-wireframe.

Windows 8 – Cramazing Usability for Novice and Power Teen Users?

I feel like reading Jakob Nielsen articles is a mandatory assignment in the UX field.  So along with everyone else in the community last week I read his latest article, “Windows 8 — Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users.”

The headline says it all.  It didn’t test well and everyone is talking about it–PC World, ZDNet and C|NET just to name a few.

What if Nielsen had tested Windows 8 with a different audience?  Like teens. What would the headline have read?

 “The new design is obviously optimized for touchscreen use (where big targets are helpful), but Microsoft is also imposing this style on its traditional PC users because all of Windows 8 is permeated by the tablet sensibility.

How well does this work for real users performing real tasks? To find out, we invited 12 experienced PC users to test Windows 8 on both regular computers and Microsoft’s new Surface RT tablets.”

Are 12 experienced PC users the primary audience Microsoft is designing Windows 8 for?

(It’s worth mentioning that Nielsen never describes testing novice users in the article though his headline suggests otherwise.)

When we teach usability testing we emphasize the importance of testing with the right audience in addition to the right number of people.  Nielsen even points this out:

“If, for example, you have a site that will be used by both children and parents, then the two groups of users will have sufficiently different behavior that it becomes necessary to test with people from both groups. The same would be true for a system aimed at connecting purchasing agents with sales staff.”

Given the amount of press the article has received in mainstream media, it’s worth thinking about whether the 12 experienced PC users were the right users to test with.

In 2008 Dan Harrelson interviewed Jensen Harris about designing the Microsoft Office Ribbon interface that first appeared in Office 2007.  He described the struggle they faced with user testing:

“With a user base of 400 million Office users, just slightly changing the demographics of a study can vastly influence the results. Do you want beginners, intermediates, or advanced? Advanced with Office or with computers in general? Which version of Office do they currently run? What region of the world are they in? What kind of work do they do? Do you measure the first day they get the new version—or after three weeks—or after three months? Or a year?”   – Jansen Harris

Why would usability testing be any less difficult for the Windows 8 OS?  Yet, here’s Nielsen saying it’s a disappointing experience for both novice and power PC users.  And remember, the article says nothing about testing novice users…

I hated the ribbon release. I could appreciate it from a design perspective, but the transition to using it was excruciating.  I failed basic tasks all day, every day.  If you took 12 users like me, an experienced PC user and an advanced Office user, and conducted a usability test on Microsoft Office 2007, I bet the resulting headline would have included the word disappointing.

What if Nielsen’s Windows 8 study had been conducted with 12 experienced smartphone teen users?

Maybe the headline would have read, “Windows 8 – Cramazing Usability for Novice and Power Teen Users!”

You see if I were Microsoft I might be thinking about the audience of the future and what their environment might be like. I’d gamble on things like:

  • Touch interfaces becoming the norm everywhere (even in the office)
  • The way teens interact with technology today will be the foundation for tomorrow’s knowledge workers

With these things in mind, you might design differently.  You might take risks and break rules.  That’s what I appreciate about the Windows 8 release, even if Microsoft got some of it wrong.

By the time today’s teens enter the workforce Microsoft will probably have worked out the kinks and heck, they may even be ahead of the game.

Would Nielsen’s negative finding about low information density and overly live tiles that “backfire” be the same if he tested with teens?  With Pew Internet reporting that one in four teens between the ages of 12-17 reporting they own a smart phone and teens sending 60 text messages a day in 2011, it seems this generation is comfortable with less information and frequent updates.  Perhaps the reported “negatives” might not be so negative.

And what about that great line in Nielsen’s article?

“On a regular PC, Windows 8 is Mr. Hyde: a monster that terrorizes poor office workers and strangles their productivity.”

If a group of teens had to work from a tablet or smartphone instead of a regular PC, would their productivity be strangled today?  MIT Technology Review just published an article talking about how mobile computers (smart phones) appear to be reaching mainstream use as fast as, if not faster, than the television.  If this is the environment U.S. teens are growing up in, isn’t it possible they could be more productive on these devices now than those of us who are used to a “regular PC”?

I recognize Microsoft has to sell a product designed for today’s users with today’s technology.  Nielsen presents findings that will negatively impact every audience and they shouldn’t be dismissed.  But I’m gambling that Microsoft released the radical changes seen in Windows 8 at just the right time.  They will work out the kinks and be ready for the next generation of knowledge workers.  Even Nielsen acknowledges that Microsoft has “a history of correcting their mistakes.”


November 28, 2012

One day after I pressed the publish button on this post I learned my friends at Adaptive Path released videos of the talks from UX Week, which I was not able to attend.  If I had been able to attend, I know Jensen Harris’ talk The Story of Windows 8 would have influenced the development of this article further.  I’m 13 minutes in and loving it.

Milton from Office Space, Swingline Staplers, and 10-Year Old UX Conversations

Like Milton from the cult classic, Office Space, I’m being moved to a new office.  I think this will be my eleventh or twelfth office move.

I believe I hold the unofficial record for Least Time Spent in an Office Before Being Told to Move.  One day.

Within hours of moving into a new office, colleagues from a different business unit complained the office space had been allocated to them. I had to move the next day.  I was seven months pregnant.

Yes, I agree Milton, it’s nice to be able to look out a window and see the squirrels, but I could be perfectly happy sitting in the office cafeteria all day.  I don’t mind moving.

(Except that time when I was pregnant. That was not cool. One year later the office I was kicked out of remained unoccupied.)

Moving on a regular basis has its advantages. For instance, I know things like:

  • It takes me exactly three days to complete a move.  Pack, Move, Unpack.
  • Playing Tetris obsessively has benefits.  I can pack everything from my office into 4-5 boxes.
  • It’s a great time to purge and walk down memory lane.

This time I’ve been torn about what to keep and what to recycle.  For instance, I just came across my User Interface 7 East (October 14-17, 2002) and User Interface 8 (October 13-16, 2003) conference materials.

Conference Materials

Ten years have passed and the conference is now in its 17th year. Check out the line up for UI17 taking place in November.

Should I move these two huge stacks of paper, or recycle them?

My gut told me to recycle them.

Surely, I thought, we aren’t talking about the same things now that we were talking about ten years ago, right?

But as I opened the Featured Talks book from User Interface 7 and scanned the table of contents, I was reminded of the old adage, the more things change the more they stay the same.  Here’s a taste of the conversations that were taking place in 2002:

  • Power Writing for the Web: How to Write and Layout Web Contact that Attracts the Impatient Scan-reader, Gerry McGovern
  • Heal Your Web Site: 8 Steps to Cure Progress Paralysis, Peter Merholz
  • Design for Community:  The 3 Golden Rules, Derek M. Powazek
  • Be a Better Designer, Kim Goodwin

These conversations are just as relevant today as they were back then.  Terminology has changed slightly, some of the companies no longer exist, the website examples are hilarious because of how dated they are, and the same goes for the slides themselves.

But, by and large the core messages from 10 years ago remain true.

So I’ve concluded I will take these two huge stacks of paper, along with my own trusty Swingline stapler, to wherever my new office home ends up being.

P.S.  I just hope they don’t ask me to pack up my stuff and move it down to Storage B like Milton had to.


If Lou, Gerry, and Kristina Had a Baby…

There are two things you should know about this post before you go further.

First, I’d like your help.  Please thoughtfully disagree with this approach and tell me why.  References to support your argument are greatly appreciated.  Why am I asking you to disagree?  It helps me learn.  This TED talk explains.

Second, I don’t consider myself a true Information Architect (IA). I never have and I doubt I ever will.  Perhaps a novice IA at most.  That is because I have had the privilege of working with two REAL Information Architects over my career.

What separates us?

Hmmm…advanced Library Science degrees, a passion for metadata, taxonomies, ontologies, search algorithms, and words in general.

I have a healthy respect and understanding of all these things, but I prefer to leave this to Art and Science to others.

Louis Rosenfeld came close to changing my mind about staying a novice when he published Search Analytics for your Site in 2011.  It wasn’t a book review or a recommendation from a colleague that attracted me to the title.  It was the illustrations from the book that he posted on Flickr that got my attention.

This elaborately color coded one was especially interesting to me because even without reading the book I could tell this chart was trying to demonstrate the seasonality of search queries at Michigan State University.

(By the way, we bought the book for our office and love it, Lou.  You should buy it!)

My colleague, Jessica Rasmussen (@jessicapullen), and I were just starting the largest study we had ever been asked to conduct for one of our business units.  They asked us to review the online content about their annual meeting (an international event that attracts upwards of 10,000 people) and make recommendations about what, if anything, they could do to improve it for their audiences.

I wondered if something similar to the Michigan State picture could help our client establish an editorial calendar.

We began using Google Analytics to monitor the top keywords and phrases that were driving traffic to the site.  The amount of content on the site posed a big challenge almost immediately. The annual meeting was just a small section within a much, MUCH larger site.

I had to look well beyond the top 100 keywords and phrases to find terms that were most likely to be associated with the annual meeting.  It was like finding a needle in a haystack, but I had no way of knowing if it was because of the time of year, or something else.

I decided to look through the top 1,000 keywords and phrases every month.  Was that a bad decision?

The annual meeting terms ended up being a tiny percentage of the total queries in the sample each month.  They were part of the “long tail” that Gerry McGovern might suggest you ignore.  But I argued we should stick with it for two reasons:

  1. We knew the annual meeting content served a very important audience for the organization.
  2. They asked us to make recommendations on how they could to improve THIS stuff, not the “long neck” stuff.

So I plowed on.

One year later we did end up with a good picture of seasonality.  We saw keyword spikes that lined up with annual meeting events (e.g., registration opens, deadline for the call for papers, etc.).  I couldn’t wait to show the client, but I needed a deliverable that they could wrap their brains around.  As much as I liked the Michigan State example, I thought it was overwhelming and you couldn’t get the gist at a glance.

My solution was to categorize the keywords and phrases into broader buckets so the client could see the themes at a glance.  I made the deliverable look like a heat map using Excel’s conditional formatting color scales so the client could see the seasonality.  I also included a detailed view that allowed our client to drill down into the juicy bits.  Here’s a portion of the deliverable showing the broad themes and a drill down section:

[Click Image to Enlarge] A portion of the deliverable showing seasonal search queries. I grouped terms into broad categories so the client could see the trends at a glance and also included a way to drill down into the specific keywords and phrases.

Based on this work we could have put together an editorial calendar.  There was just one problem.  It would have been wrong.

We knew it would have been wrong because of all the other research we had been doing for a year.

You see, we got to know the business unit deeply. Jessica conducted extensive audience research at their annual meeting, an intern did a content inventory of their site, we facilitated staff discussions to identify the most frequently asked questions they received, and Jessica monitored a small portion of their support mailboxes to see the questions submitted in the audiences’ own words.  We knew the analytics work was good, but we knew it did not tell a complete story.  By definition, it couldn’t.

Remember that a Google Analytics report only shows you the keywords and phrases that were successfully driving traffic to your site in the past.  Assuming they continue to drive traffic to your site, you can think of those words as “working”.

I put quotes around working because you still have to evaluate all the other stuff that Kristina Halvorson, Gerry, Lou, and many others teach, like:

  • Is the content that gets served up what the audience wants and needs?
  • Is it accurate, complete, and written in a way the audience can understand?
  • And on and on it goes…

So what were we going to do?  Give them an incomplete editorial calendar?

We talked to the client and told them the truth:  they needed an editorial calendar, but first they needed to focus their limited resources on surfacing content that wasn’t being found and writing new content that answered the audiences’ most common questions.

(Wanted: Talented writers to perform pro bono work.)

They did not have a big chunk of money set aside for someone with “writing for the web” expertise to work on this full-time.  No, it’s the dedication of passionate staff who will do their very best to improve the content in addition to performing their day job.  To really help our client, they needed to know what content they should focus on improving now, next, and later.  That was where we could make an impact.

Earlier I mentioned our staff sessions to discuss the most frequently asked questions and Jessica’s mailbox monitoring efforts.  The intention was to find common questions, or themes of questions, between what we heard from staff and what we heard from the audience.  If a theme was popular to both staff and the audience, our client should evaluate the content associated with that theme now.

Yet, I didn’t want to lose the value of our search engine analytics work.  So I thought, why not throw the findings into the mix and use the data to help us prioritize further?

For a given theme I asked:

  1. Did staff mention this question or theme?
  2. Did we see the same question or theme in the email monitoring work?
  3. Did we see keywords or phrases related to the question or theme throughout the year?

If the answer was yes to all of these questions, I assigned the priority “NEXT”.

If the answer was yes to the first two questions, but I did NOT see keywords or phrases related to the theme, I gave it a “NOW” priority.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  If you can answer, ‘yes’ to all three questions, shouldn’t that be the highest priority?

My argument is that if I’m NOT seeing keywords and phrases in the Google Analytics report it suggests:

  • People might be trying to find content associated with the question or theme, but they aren’t ending up on the website.
  • People might NOT be trying to find the content associated with the question or theme, but they are contacting staff for the answers, so the desire for that information exists.

This method allowed us to ruthlessly prioritize the questions and themes they should investigate now, next, and later, but our client still needed to know WHAT they should do during that investigation.  We suggested using a simple do-it map to help them make decisions.

Similar to the method before, ask questions:

  1. Is the answer to the question or theme on the site?
  2. Should the answer to the question or theme be on the site?

Use a “do it” map during the evaluation. What’s the deal with the cupcakes and birthday cakes?  Ask Brandon Schauer or read this.

I hope this evaluation process will allow them to quantify the amount of optimization and writing they need to accomplish.  Knowing the scope of the work that needs to be done may help them justify additional funding and decide whether to use in-house resources or supplement the work with consultants.

If Lou, Gerry, and Kristina had a baby…

The work of Louis Rosenfeld, Gerry McGovern, and Kristina Halvorson influenced how I thought through this, but I’m not convinced this method is worth repeating.  I’d like your thoughts.

What I like about this method is that it’s mostly repeatable.  I loved discovering the seasonality of the keywords and phrases. I think my heat map is pretty cool.  This journey reaffirmed my strong feeling that analytics in isolation and user research in isolation don’t give you the fullest picture.  We got a fuller picture because we took the time to blend both kinds of research, but I know we don’t always have that luxury.

What concerns me about this method is how long it took to arrive here.  Maybe it’s because I was figuring this out as I went along, but this method doesn’t feel “good”.  You could combine any number of other methods to arrive at a similar conclusion and they may be faster and cheaper.  I’m concerned this method falls into the insidious category, “Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.”   Do you agree?

So if Lou, Gerry, and Kristina had a baby, I think it might look really ugly in the beginning.  But perhaps with your help and some more experimentation, this ugly duckling can turn into a beautiful swan?