This is a joint post by some of the Web Services team who had the pleasure of attending the ContentEd conference at Dynamic Earth early in November.
First up is Danny Cassidy, Web Content Manager
Covid moved ContentEd online in recent years but thankfully this year it came back as an in-person event. As content strategy is cross-discipline by nature, the conference attracts professionals from a variety of different roles in HE. This makes it a great place to meet new people, tap into their knowledge and experience, and ultimately reinforces the sense of community that exists in the sector.
This was my third or possibly fourth ContentEd and this time I attended as a volunteer. It was an opportunity to give something back to the community and also a chance to see what it was like behind the scenes at such a large event.
Danny in a snazzy, yellow ContentEd t-shirt
Despite having volunteer duties, I still had the opportunity to attend some of the keynotes and breakout sessions. Here’s just a couple of highlights.
Agile content: How to adapt Scrum to content management, Rhia Weston
Rhia Weston provided an insight into how her team use Scrum at the Office for National Statistics. In very simple terms, Scrum is about delivering large projects in smaller and more manageable chunks. Instead of delivering the perfect product right out of the gate, it helps teams agree on a minimal viable product (MVP) which is delivered and improved over a series of time-boxed periods called sprints.
Using her passion for running, Rhia showed how there were many similarities between the sport and Scrum, notably in the way that both are adaptable and about improving marginal gains.
In Web Services, we’re very familiar with these concepts as Scrum is the methodology used by our development team to manage the roll out of new functionality and improvements to the University website. If I’m being honest though, I’ve always been a bit sceptical of using Scrum in a university content team. Perhaps it’s because these teams frequent rely on colleagues outside of their team to deliver content, provide input, sign off etc. However, Rhia showed how Scrum could be used in a very pragmatic way to empower a content team. The key takeaways for me were:
- Start small and apply Scrum principles to small content projects to allow team members to become familiar with the key concepts
- Be flexible with some of concepts and adapt to your needs and working environment (for example, sprints can be longer than 2 weeks)
- Make time for team reflection to consider what worked well and what didn’t at the end of each sprint
‘People are not idiots (or how to design better experiences)’, Dana Rock
In her keynote, Dana Rock from Pickle Jar looked at how we could move away from the trap of judging users simply because they haven’t read our communications and use insights to design better experiences for them.
Dana underlined how students’ strongest memories in their journey through university are often at the start and end (freshers’ week and graduation for example). Yet these are frequently when universities fail to provide students with positive experiences in their interactions with them.
There was a telling example of a student getting into trouble with their university after decorating their room with ‘prohibited items’. Understandably, they had failed to see said items buried in a PDF that had been emailed to them along with a deluge of other communications. Feeling overwhelmed and wanting to feel at home, the last thing they wanted to do was read a list of things not to bring. And that’s the point, if we fail to consider someone’s emotional state, it’s not surprising if our communications get overlooked or miss the mark.
Thoughts on ContentEd
Firstly, it was great to attend as a volunteer and I would definitely recommend it to others. As a fairly introverted sort of chap, it forced me to interact and connect with people in a way that I wouldn’t normally do if I attended the conference. The Pickle Jar team were very welcoming and friendly (as were my fellow volunteers) and everyone did incredible job managing and coordinating things so it all ran smoothly.
Someone asked me if I had noticed any recurring themes or trends at ContentEd this year either from the talks or speaking to people. What’s striking to me is how content design is becoming well established as a practice in HE. This came across strongly in many of the presentations and was also evident from a cursory glance at the job titles of the attendees. It’s very heartening and I think it reflects the investment that universities are willing to make in understanding their students and delivering content to meet their needs.
Next, Graeme Cairns (Web Content Designer) provides his thoughts on ContentEd.
Having been a member of the Web Services team for just under a year now, ContentEd was my first conference since I started working for the University. It was also my first opportunity to have an ‘away day’ with my colleagues.
There was a real sense of shared appreciation amongst attendees. We were able to attend such an event in person after years of video call conferences. I’ve participated in several courses via Zoom or Teams this year, but the networking elements aren’t the same. Speaking to other delegates face to face and comparing our shared experiences of HE was beneficial.
It was great to meet so many professionals in similar roles across the sector. I even bumped into a former colleague, so it was great to reinforce old connections as well as making new ones.
The journey to Edinburgh was worthwhile as each of the keynotes and breakout sessions had useful takeaways. I’ve picked a couple of my favourites:
‘It’s not easy being green – Digital does not automatically equal sustainable’, Dougal Scaife
Dougal Scaife is Head of Digital Experience and Engagement at Leeds Beckett University. He presented on many of the misconceptions that exist surrounding digital services and their sustainability.
We all know colleagues who have “go digital, save trees” or other similar slogans in their email signature. But is it the case? Dougal’s breakout session highlighted that it is not as black and white as many think.
Websites are the output of a variety of data. To transfer that data and serve it to the user requires energy. The storing of that data also requires energy. Another consideration is that a significant amount of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is due to the burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation. This means the more data your website comprises, the more energy it uses.
The key takeaways for me as a Content Designer were to:
- Keep my content concise where possible
- Make content easy to find
- Optimise images and video
- Use CSS to avoid excessive inline styling
Dougal’s talk made me think about the large quantity of files we upload to our content management system (CMS) daily, particularly during image-heavy projects such as the DJCAD Degree Showcase. As a team we are introducing digital asset management (DAM) system that will help reduce issues such as unnecessary file duplication. The environmental effect of this is something I will admit had not been a consideration of mine, but it is an unintended bonus!
‘Design for Cognitive Bias – Using mental shortcuts for good instead of evil’, David Dylan Thomas
David’s keynote Design for Cognitive Bias was the last talk of the two-day event and was the most hyped. Delegates had been urged, if possible, to stay for the final presentation, rather than slipping out the back door to catch an earlier train. It was worth hanging around for.
In the Design for Cognitive Bias keynote David conveyed the point that every decision we make is influenced by a subconscious bias. This bias carries into decisions we make during the content design process.
Yet, David argued that acknowledging that these cognitive biases exist is the first step in being able to correct them.
David used a particularly startling example of an AI recruiting tool that Amazon had to abandon as it demonstrated bias towards women. The artificial intelligence system was trained on data submitted by applicants over a 10-year period, much of which came from men. Using the data available to it, the system taught itself that male candidates were preferable.
Of course, this is an extreme example, but it highlighted to me how easy it is for bias to creep into design systems, and how important it is to ensure the content we are designing is fair and accessible to all.
I’ll try to keep at the forefront of my mind how cognitive biases can impact our own experiences and choices, before filtering into our leadership structures and teams, and as a result make their way into content we design and services we deliver.
David used a quote from content and copywriter Mbiyimoh Ghogomu to emphasise how me must take care when creating content: “Language doesn’t just describe reality, it shapes it.”