Jina Chan

Content Marketer & Writer in the Emerald City


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What I’ve Been Reading: The Rise of Cosmetic Gynecology and the Uber-Brand

 

A couple of things I’ve read recently really blew my mind. The first one was a long-form piece in Refinery29 with the eyebrow-raising title, “The ‘Vagina Whisperer’ Will See You Now,” by Amelia Harnish.

It describes the fast-growing trend of cosmetic gynecology, which addresses problems from the strictly cosmetic to those that cause functional problems. A substantial percentage of women (about two-thirds of middle-aged women) suffer from problems like incontinence.

The author’s journey reminds me of my own: when I first started working in content for healthcare, I thought that a lot of cosmetic procedures were vain and superficial. But I’ve come to see that there are real problems that affect women’s quality of life, and that in many cases they’re not being addressed by mainstream medicine or covered by insurance.

To hear Dr. Marashi describe it while he’s actually doing the procedure, women choose this surgery mostly for functional reasons: to make sex better, the way it was before they had a baby or three, and to stop peeing their pants (even just a little bit) when they sneeze or lift weights. So, why on earth is the best way Dr. Marashi can think to market himself a grotesque showcase that frames everything in terms of how the vagina looks? More importantly: Why is this woman paying out-of-pocket for a one-time tune-up for her perineal body, when her partner could easily get insurance to cover his lifetime supply of Viagra?

A lot of this has to do with the insurance companies and doctors as arbiters of what is a “real” problem, instead of listening to women themselves.

The truth is that gynecologists have always done vaginoplasties and labiaplasties, but historically they would only do them for women with “true” medical problems, such as uterine prolapse (when the pelvic muscles collapse completely and the uterus descends into the vagina) or labial hypertrophy, which is when the labia minora or majora are extremely long or uneven. Outside of that, most doctors deemed them unnecessary, says Marco Pelosi, III, MD, a pioneer in the field. “There has always been a chasm between what doctors consider a problem and what women consider a problem when it comes to their sex lives,” he says.

But is it us as women who are really deciding? On the one hand, why shouldn’t a woman have her body the way she wants it? But on the other hand, where does this urge to change our bodies come from? The culture that surrounds us also shapes our desires and what we see as ideal.

“I tell my patients: ‘All vaginas, all labias, they’re all beautiful in their own way,’” [Dr. Marashi] says. “I always tell people, ‘Do not ever do this for anybody else. You own your vagina.’”

As right as he is about that, it’s impossible to completely untangle the desire for these procedures from the pressures women face simply being alive in a youth- and beauty-obsessed culture. What’s also impossible to ignore, though, is that women’s sexual function has never gotten the same amount of research — or respect — as men’s.

The entire piece is well worth reading; I highly recommend it.

 

The other thing I couldn’t stop highlighting was the transcript of Kara Swisher’s interview with Professor Scott Galloway on Recode Decode. It has so many great things in it, for example the “perfect storm in retail,” with too many square feet of stores, stagnant middle-class wages, and people spending more money on coffee and experiences.

(Although, as a side note, while Starbucks does a great job of experience-based marketing, I think they’re also hurting from the retail slowdown. Because people mainly stop at Starbucks when they’re already out and about, and if they’re not going to the mall, then they’re not stopping for coffee either.)

And of course, Prof. Galloway made the news for predicting Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. But the main point that struck me was the end of branding. “When you start buying via Alexa you’re effectively obviating…the billions of dollars and decades brands have spent on things like eye-level packaging,” says Galloway. “A lot of people don’t even hear the pricing or know the pricing when they order on Alexa…”

The four P’s of marketing are price, product, promotion, and place. If what Galloway says is correct, Alexa is making price and promotion irrelevant, as well as many product aspects (packaging, branding, and returns). Amazon and e-commerce in general already made place irrelevant to the buyer.

Galloway still sees a future for stores, especially those like Apple and Sephora: “People are no longer going to stores for product, they’re going for people. If they’re going to go in a store they want amazing service, amazing expertise, insight, navigation to the right product right away.” This is very similar to what retail analyst Kevin Hillstrom has been saying on Twitter:

As well as what Jonathan Salem Baskin has been writing for years. Baskin says that brands are a twentieth-century invention, but to me, a brand answers a fundamental human question. People want to know who they’re buying from. In the past, the answer has been “Johnson & Johnson” or “Unilever”—in the future, the answer may be simply “Amazon.” Perhaps if the uber-brand is strong enough, nobody will care about the “little guys” who are actually making the product.


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Recent blog posts

I’ve been writing a bit lately, just not here.

In October I wrote about The trouble with “know your audience” on my other blog, Storytelling is Everywhere.

And about How to Find Your Authentic Voice for Unthinkable (which is a podcast you should listen to if you’re a content creator).

Then this month I wrote about How top performers use positive psychology (even when things are bad) for I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

I’ll write something here eventually as well. In the wake of the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about how great content matters more than ever: understanding our audience, digging for the truth, using the craft of storytelling to make our information resonate with the audience, and of course fact-checking.


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Confab Intensive 2016

Last month, I volunteered at Confab Intensive. I figured, how often does the content strategy conference come to my hometown? It was fun and busy… and very well-organized. I was so impressed that the Brain Traffic team showed up with signs and flags to tell people how to find their workshop sessions. Having been at UXPA in the same hotel earlier in the year, I can tell you that it’s hard for attendees to find their way around the meeting rooms in the Westin. The food is lovely, though.

My takeaways:

  • Workshops are a great way to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and actual experience.
  • We are all still learning. (Thank goodness; wouldn’t it be boring if we stopped?)
  • Are you tired of all the groups in your organization arguing over who gets space on the homepage? Ida Aalen has the solution with her core model. (I confess, I was kind of unimpressed with the name “core model” until she started talking and I understood what the benefit was.) The idea is well-described in her slides from Confab Intensive 2015 and her article, “The Core Content Model” on A List Apart.
  • You made a beautiful style guide. But nobody uses it. Eileen Webb has a great way to handle that, using the UX principle of providing information in the context where people need it. Her article, “Training the CMS” on A List Apart, sums up the solution well.

 

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The only disappointing thing about the conference was that being in one session meant missing out on another one. I’m kind of sad I missed out on the content-first design session by Steph Hay, since I love her Lean Content talk on “Testing Marketing Copy (Instead of Spinning Your Wheels)”. And I’m also sad I had to miss most of Ahava Leibtag’s talk on governance, since she wrote my favorite book on content strategy.

I enjoyed Tracy Playle’s talk on comedy in content strategy, and I’m looking forward to reading her upcoming book on it. She also has some lovely cards for brainstorming exercises, and I hope she makes them available for sale sometime.

Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton’s talk on content modeling had the best slides. (If you missed it, watch the “How to design future-friendly content” webinar recording on GatherContent.com.) But it left me with some questions: what do you do when you’ve made a content model, put it in your CMS… and now you find there’s some problem with it? Now it takes dev time and budget to fix. So I’ve always hesitated about structured content for that reason. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never worked with a good CMS, so perhaps that’s the real problem.


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A week with 750 fellow UX nerds: UXPA 2016

Last month, I attended the UXPA International conference as a volunteer. (If an international conference in my field is coming to my hometown, I figure I’d better go, even if I don’t have an employer to bankroll my tickets.) It was a lot of fun, though tiring, and I really enjoyed meeting and working with all my fellow volunteers. Some of my shifts were as a “citizen journalist,” so UXPA might eventually use my writeups and photos as part of their marketing materials.

I’ve never been to a UXPA meeting, nor am I a member, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought it might be like the local IA/UX meetups, which tend to have a lot of people in their 20’s and 30’s, and seem to be mostly designers. But at UXPA, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were plenty of folks in the 40-and-up crowd, and that the sessions skewed towards research. There were lots of women; I heard an estimate of 60%. As with tech in general, there wasn’t much ethnic diversity; but we did have attendees from Poland and Costa Rica.

There were only 2 content strategy sessions, and I missed one of them. That was kind of a bummer, but I think there’s still plenty of value at UXPA for a content-minded person. We use a lot of the same tools, like journey maps & user research. And the role of the content strategist has been described as facilitating the work of the UX designer — when we’re brought into the process early enough. One valuable takeaway from Alaine Mackenzie’s talk (on establishing a product content strategy team) was that we need to educate people on when and how to engage with us.

Unfortunately, I’ve been sworn to secrecy on one of the best sessions. It was “UX After Dark,” in which experienced user researchers told their war stories. I would definitely recommend that people check that out at UXPA 2017. It was also nice to hear some Ph.D. researchers who I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to, like Hannah Faye Chua and Jason Buhle (presenting on Chinese vs American website design) and Jessica Cameron (on using social psychology in UX research).

I think that for my current work, the most valuable talk was probably Mike Flynn’s “Who’s Using Our Product?”, about the difficulties of doing user research in the enterprise world. He talked candidly about the different things he had tried to get to know his users, from listening to tech support calls to taking road trips with the field marketing team (tip: have a separate room instead of trying to get into the booth). Actually, I was struck in general by how honest people were in their presentations and how they admitted what hadn’t worked well.

Noteworthy moments:

  • Chris Hass saying that as UX is the hot thing right now, we’ve experienced a great widening. He’s seen this before, with usability research, and it’s going to be followed by a great winnowing.
  • Zachary Sam Zaiss pointing out that data science programs outnumber even UX programs now — speaking of great widenings.
  • Tamara Adlin guilt-tripping us into asking for raises: “Raise your hands, everyone with 2 years or less of experience. Okay, everyone else, if you don’t ask for more, you’re screwing all of them!”
  • Quote from a UX designer and fellow volunteer: “In a nutshell, UX doesn’t understand marketing’s need to sell, and marketing doesn’t understand UX’s need to retain.”
  • The lively discussion of Agile at breakfast one day. How do we as UX professionals fit into the cycle of iterative development? No consensus, but it seems that having a sprint 0 is important.
  • Everyone cracking up at John Whalen’s talk on building buy-in for UX

UXPA_2016_John_Whalen_developer_slide.jpg

I also went on one of the tours offered by local companies to attendees, so I got to see the Moz office and hear about their UX practice. Although I was bummed that their two content strategists took off before I could ask them all about their work.

At this point, I think all of the UXPA presentation slide decks are posted to SlideShare with the hashtag #UXPA2016. They’re very much worth checking out!


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The practitioner experience of content strategy

I’m ten weeks late in blogging about this. We’ve just finished the third and final course in my Storytelling & Content Strategy certificate program, but I haven’t yet blogged about the second class, “The User Experience of Content Strategy.”

It covered the typical deliverables of a content strategist: content audit, content inventory, user journey map, mapping user tasks to content topics, messaging hierarchy, workflow, and content model. I wish I could share with you the deliverables I created during the quarter for my class project, but they were for my contract at Starbucks and covered by NDA.

Since you can’t see them, I can tell you that they were awesome, amazing deliverables. 🙂 No, seriously, I think they were okay, and our instructor was great, very thoughtful and organized (Peter Luyckx of Ready4Content). But I also felt that something was missing during that quarter. I think it was the collaboration described in M.J. Metts’ article, “Practical Content Strategy: Making the Journey.” It’s important to know how to create the deliverables, but ironically, they’re not what you’re really delivering. Content strategy is a collaborative exercise, and the act of co-creation is the real deliverable.

To me, this means that “content strategy” is a bit of a misnomer. It implies being strategic, which is good, but it also creates a mental image of going off and making plans that exist separate from the execution. And in content strategy, the devil’s in the execution. Last month, Kristina Halvorson, one of the founders of content strategy, tweeted this article: “No one should have the word ‘strategy’ in their job title”, by Kevin J. Delaney.

The “content” part has its problems too; using that term means we’re defining the message by its medium. And it makes it feel like an afterthought. Like “just add water,” just add writing, images and video. No big deal! But being contained in a website (or increasingly, an app) isn’t the heart of what content is. Keri Maijala says, “I’m a content strategist. This means I help clients and companies figure out how, when, and why to talk to their audiences.” And that’s really what it’s about: communication.

Some folks in the field prefer to call themselves content designers or communication designers. I’ve heard “content engineer” too, for those who are more focused on the back-end work of content modeling and CMS design. Jessica Collier came up with the lyrical term “narrative UX,” described in her Medium post, “What is Narrative UX?”. Ahava Leibtag in her book The Digital Crown recommended that content teams be called “audience engagement teams,” to reflect the goal rather than the technology. And that’s just what we call ourselves, of course! Other people call us copywriter, senior editor, content manager, content writer, content developer, and project manager.

I understand there is value to the term “strategy.” I can’t remember where I read it or who it was, but a well-known content strategist wrote that content strategy was started by copywriters who noticed the same problems cropping up again and again and wanted to do something about it. That’s why we try to figure out things like the goal of the content, and brand identity stuff like voice and tone, before we start creating content. That way you don’t end up halfway through a project and suddenly the realize that it just doesn’t sound like how your company wants to represent itself, or the content doesn’t meet the goals it needs to (or that you have no idea if it’s meeting goals because you didn’t establish any KPIs). So it is important to be strategic and know what you want to measure.

I don’t have the answers, of course. But I am having fun thinking about the questions.


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What I learned about content in fall 2015

In my previous post, I mentioned that I took two courses in fall 2015. Here I’m going to talk about the longer one, “Storytelling and Content Strategy.” The course is part of a professional certificate in Storytelling and Content Strategy, which I’m taking through spring 2016.

The storytelling course was a full quarter long (10 weeks). It met online but was live, meaning that you had to be logged in at the right time in order to participate through the comments window. It was a great solution to two problems. On the one hand, even if you’re local (and several classmates were not), it’s hard to get across town for an in-person class in the evening after work. On the other hand, I’ve taken a non-interactive online class through Coursera, and I found that it was hard to stay focused after the first few weeks; I hear this is a common problem. So I thought the online-but-live approach was a good solution to both problems.

Our instructor, Tizzy Asher, was great. It’s odd because I don’t think I’d recognize her on the street, but I felt her enthusiasm for the subject and for sharing it with all of us. We learned so much:

  • the elements of story
  • how to find the story (which I think has changed the way that all of us interact with media and content)
  • analyzing content with the simple but powerful Think-Feel-Do framework
  • The BJ Fogg framework for how content can drive behavior change
  • storyboarding
  • developing voice and tone guides
  • channels
  • presenting your work

And Tizzy found great guest speakers for subjects like guerrilla user research, visual content, enterprise content strategy, and social media.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so engaged with a course, and I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who works with content.

My teammates and I collaborated throughout the quarter on a content proposal for Fitbit Premium, a paid membership for Fitbit users that gives you access to additional data and content. Our group proposal was to deliver content of such high value that it would boost conversion, along with perception and engagement. We put a tremendous amount of thought into it, and I feel proud of the work we did. You can view our presentation slide deck as a PDF, and I believe the recording of our final class (in which each team gave a presentation) is publicly viewable; my teammate Felicia gave our presentation, starting at 1:16.

Group teammates on LinkedIn:

 


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What I learned about UX in fall 2015

In autumn 2015 I took two courses, “User Experience – Level One” from the School of Visual Concepts, and “Content Creation: the Power of Storytelling” from the University of Washington. They were both very good. Both courses focused on a project, which we built week by week and then presented at the end. I’ll talk about the UX class first; a writeup of the content class will follow shortly.

 

The UX course was only 5 weeks long, but I felt it was a great introduction. The instructors, Max Eichbaum and Chad Driesbach, were highly recommended on the SVC website, and with good reason. They have great breadth of experience and a clear love of teaching and encouraging UX newbies. In the lectures, they covered the basics of research, design, prototyping, usability studies, presentation, and critique. The class was held at the SVC campus in downtown Seattle.

We worked together but separately on projects. Each of us was assigned to a group, and each group had a design problem. Mine was paying for street parking. My group shared resources, looked at each other’s prototypes, and did in-class exercises together. But we each did individual work and presented our work separately. It was a nice way to deal with the perennial problem of group projects: our work benefits from multiple perspectives on the problem, but it’s hard to coordinate out-of-class times to work together.

I enjoyed the research and design phases, which I expected to based on work I’ve done for a market research firm and design classes I took in college. As for prototyping, I learned that it’s a lot harder than I had realized. Perhaps it’s just like when a child learns to write, and they find out that some words are spelled with “ie” and others with “ei”, you forgot a comma, etc. — all the little details that trip you up when you’re new to something. My prototype for a mobile app allows you to reserve a parking spot in advance, but it feels pretty crude compared to some of the more polished prototypes that classmates made.