16 Dec 2021
These are some of the questions I ask myself when writing pieces to unpack tech news, explain ideas, persuade a reader, present an idea or a plan, make it more interesting.
- Who are the readers, and why should they care?
- What do we want readers to DO after they finish reading?
- What’s the 1 thing? (or: the 3 things?)
- Have I done the “what” and then the “so what”?
- What are the obvious and the less obvious questions?
- Who or what is invisible in this story?
- Who doesn’t this scenario work for?
- How to show the edges?
- What if this story went wrong?
- Does the thing I’m writing about look like something else? (And is this news old news?)
- Is it the opposite of something else?
- How can I reverse it?
- Can I make it absurd?
- What if I make it mundane?
- Add or remove something to make it 10% better?
- Write another draft?
- Who is speaking?
- Who disagrees?
- Can I add some variation?
- Should context or consistency win here? (usually: context)
- Is there a journey inside this?
- Should this go against the wisdom and be “Tell not Show”?
- What if this was fiction instead?
5 Nov 2021
These days it feels like many consultancies say they do “digital transformation”. Partly this is a marketing thing - it has been a useful label that signals that you do more than just build websites etc. And partly it is a doing thing. Digital transformation has been going a few years: slow (and sometimes fast) waves of digital approaches and technology refitting, remaking and reinventing industries, the work done by many in-house and external consultants. Eventually the digital transformation work is everywhere, and may then recede into the background.
In some industries, Covid accelerated the process, forcing companies to do 5 years of digital transformation in 5 months. In that moment, digital change went from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Visible, tangible and essential.
The next big accelerant is climate change. If you thought digital transformation was spiky and disruptive, wait til you see carbon transformation. It is going to feel like the sudden reinvention of many things we take as given today - jobs, education, housing, energy, industry, agriculture, infrastructure, finance, cities, society, the world. They need reinventing because we built them for a world that no longer exists. They need to be remade for the “entropocene”, an era of heightened change that’ll demand more resilience and adaptability, better use of materials and energy, and fairer outcomes for all.
We have to work so hard and so fast at it. We have no choice. If the last decade was about digital transformation, the next few decades are going to be about climate.
(I want more work in this area. I can help you with words - get in touch.)
How to become a digital writer or content designer
13 Oct 2021
A friend messages, asking for some advice on how you become a writer/content designer in tech. This is a good question.
I think writing for digital sits in three overlapping categories. There’s writing that happens inside a product or service, like the words in an interface. This is often called content design, which has become a proper discipline in the last 10 years.
Second, there’s the writing that happens around a product, service or organisation. It is usually called communications or even marketing. Although some people bundle this and content design into a catchall term like customer experience design, or CX.
And third, there’s all the other writing. The writing that explains, explores, persuades, describes, provokes, guides, helps, documents, notifies, updates, communicates, blogs, emails, newsletters, etc.
So, some things you can do to become a digital writer or content designer:
- Training courses: do one of Sarah’s Content Design London courses. Others in the UK do training too:
- Crocstar’s training - Christine led a lot of content design training at GDS.
- Scroll’s training. I don’t know if any of these courses existed when I was starting, but I’ve heard that they’re all very good.
- Doing a journalism course would help you understand stories, what’s interesting, framing and angles. Digital teams often talk about putting user first. Readers first is the same idea, and journalism teaches that.
- Write something that explains something that you’re an expert in to the interested non-expert reader.
- Pick an area of digital/tech that interests you and write some stuff that demonstrates that you have some understanding of that world.
- Pick a thing that is online and show how you’d improve it.
- Tools: for content design, get some time inside Figma or Webflow so 1) you don’t feel scared about making something that looks like a website, and 2) can signal that you’re digital-friendly on a CV. For all kinds of writing (and working with digital teams generally), make sure you’re comfortable in Google Docs, Slack and Miro.
- Put the stuff you write on the internet somewhere and point at it. If you don’t fancy publishing in public, then have something ready to share in a meeting, though I think putting it out there in public is better. (Honestly, I think every bit of paid writing work I’ve done can be traced back to writing in public.)
- Find the people talking about content writing on Twitter and, you know, hang out.
- Start telling people that you’re a writer for digital, or a content designer, or a tech writer. Pick the label you feel comfortable saying. Because someone will reply “Well, I have some stuff that needs writing…”
- Maybe buy a domain name that is your name or close to it, and point it at a read-only Google doc which contains your CV. It shows that you’re “of the internet”. I did this in 5 minutes just now, but I know you’ll do it better.
- These days there are full time jobs doing writing for digital - look for “content designer” or “digital comms”. Eg here: Working in Content (and this advice on starting and progressing your career from the same site looks good).
- In the UK, the content consultancies Crocstar, Scroll and Content Design London (links above) may have work.
- Any chance to embed yourself in a digital service team is great for getting a basic understanding on how everything fits together and should work.
A lot of writing for digital happens in teams. So did this post: thanks to Ella Fitzsimmons, Rachel Machin, Molly Whitehead-Jones and Amy McNichol who provided the good ideas.
Public Digital’s website
Public Digital’s new website, Oct 2020
I wrote the words for the new Public Digital website. Public Digital (PD) works with governments and companies that want to become a lot more digital.
Digital. Teams. Work.
“Digital. Teams. Work.” is the crispest headline I could write that would tell the Public Digital story in a PD kind of way - straightforward, to the point. It also needed to be a “promise” - you need to understand what distinctive thing you’d get if you hired PD to help you with your transformation project. Here it is on the home page and here it’s used as a narrative device in Claire Bedoui’s yearnote for PD:
Rooted in our belief that decision-makers should fund teams, not projects, we also articulated our theory of change:
Digital. Teams. Work.
A lot of people in the digital and digital gov industries already know the people at PD or their history building GDS and GOV.UK, and they’ll just pick up the phone. But there are people who don’t know PD well. They’re often potential customers, and are the website’s key audience.
The website is a way to tell them the story, and clearly explain why PD is different to most consultancies. The difference is not a matter of brand but it’s something that actually matters - teams, delivery, remaking organisations for the internet era.
We wanted one headline that could explain the “promise” of PD as sharply and briefly as possible. Imagine a graph with two axes, descriptive-evocative and activity-outcome. A headline like “Public Digital delivers transformation with digital teams” is pretty does-what-it-says-on-the-tin and would sit in the descriptive/activity quarter, and “Public Digital helps you adapt to a changing future” is closer to the value/evocative quarter.
But there’s a problem with headlines like that. They’d be accurate but not distinctive - you could imagine a different consultancy saying the same thing. We got to “Digital. Teams. Work.” by pushing to make it more distinctive.
And because the headline is a bit evocative, the next couple of sentences unpack the promise in plainer language.
Public Digital’s new website, Oct 2020
Elsewhere the work was often about making sure the words are clear and simple (you might say that clarity is part of PD’s distinctive offer). Some organisations might talk about their “Services”, or find some jargon that makes them sound expert. PD just says “What we do”, because their work speaks for itself.
The content designer/writer’s tools are listening, typing, testing and iterating. Do the words, and see if they’re right. Rewrite the sentences. Sometimes writing the words reveals that you need to refine your shared understanding of who you’re speaking to, or how you want to talk about what you do. The understanding develops, the story is adjusted, the words are rewritten. You hit publish. Even then you might rewrite again: you think of better ways to tell the story. Websites are living things.
Of course the words weren’t solely written by me: a team of designers, developers, subject matter experts and project wranglers inside and outside of PD also did the work, and thank you to Mike Bracken and them all. Good team, good project.
How to find your books
rodcorp: Books by colour, blurred
30 Oct 2020
Matt Webb wrote about using an app called Memos to make his bookshelves searchable: find where that book is by searching your photos. Brilliant, though I guess it needs your bookshelves and the photos to stay fairly in sync.
My own book filing scheme used to be by colour, which worked very well when I had plenty of time to look at books, and remember what colour they were. But for a few years recently I’ve filed books by “random stow”, which I do not recommend because it’s not very useful.
Amazon should make a smart camerathing that looks at your shelves, tells you what is where, but also notes that you haven’t moved these books at all in 24 months and they’re worth X on the second hand market click here to make it happen.
2024: Amazon Prime Home team lead Karyn steps around a Freshco grocery delivery drone twitching on the path. It has been jammed by your home’s router for a breach of delivery licence, and will be released shortly. Your Amazon door authenticates Karyn, and she walks into your home. She sets the Dash scanner going in the living area. While it’s looking at your belongings, she disconnects your TV and pops back out to the truck to get a newer one. She reconnects your PrimeFire box to the new screen but puts the Google Chromecast TV dongle to one side, placing a helpful advice sticker on it. The Dash scanner meeps and identifies with a laser light a dozen items in the room that are on your Unwish list. She places these in a cardboard box, and once they’re sold in Amazon’s Seim Anew market your Prime account will be updated with a credit.
Data is a material for building with
I believe that architects and engineers must think of data as a material. Start with visibility: disclose data collection in a way that makes it clear and understandable. The built environment could show the “seams” of its data. Just as some buildings have information displays that indicate energy performance, a building might show how it collects and uses data.
I helped Sarah Gold at Projects by IF write a piece for Icon Magazine about data being a material for building with (the piece doesn’t seem to be online though :( ). The work of Ben Cerveny and Timo Arnall was really useful in thinking about how data relates to the built environment.