Status update: I’m joining the Content Strategy Team at Facebook

What would you do?

I got this notebook a few weeks ago on a trip to California. It was cool at the time, but the real meaning didn’t hit home for me until a few days later, when I found myself staring down one of the most amazing and terrifying opportunities of my career.

Going to work for Facebook

There have been different versions of this post over the years. They’re from people I’ve followed, respected, modeled my work after. One day, there’s a tweet. They have some exciting news to share. The first one I can remember was from Amy Thibodeau. Then Tiffany Jones (and Matt) BrownNicole Jones, and a few weeks ago, Jonathan Colman.

I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great content strategists over the last few years. We’ve hung out in Austin, met at conferences, joked on Twitter, shared pictures of our kids and dogs on Facebook. But I’ve never gotten to work alongside one–let alone an entire team.

But today, I’m honored and humbled and excited (and, yes, a little afraid) to say that I’ll be joining their team, as well. In a few short weeks, my family will pack up, go west and stake our claim in the Bay area.

But is there really that much “content” on Facebook?

It’s true, the vast majority of the “content” on Facebook is user generated text, photos, videos and data. But all of that stuff is in there for a reason. People like being there, they like the connections Facebook gives them to their friends, co-workers, high school classmates–and to companies.

Content strategy plays a part in all of that. If you’ve ever tried out a new Facebook feature or layout, read the succinct little instructional messages that tell you how something works, created a Page, changed your settings, or “Liked” something–you’ve benefited from content strategy at Facebook. Want to know why there’s no “Dislike” button? Content strategy. (C’mon, people are negative enough already, without encouragement from their platforms.)

Facebook is more than a container for other people’s content (or even a foam). The Facebook Asset Guide describes it like this:

At Facebook, we build tools that help people to connect with one another and tools that make sharing what they want to share—ideas, stories, and photos—much easier.
By doing this, we are extending people’s capacity to build and maintain relationships.

To do that, Facebook needs a voice that makes people feel comfortable, fosters their relationships and encourages them to share their stories. That’s what I’ll be working on.

But speaking of building and maintaining relationships…

Leaving Austin will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done

Eight years ago, my wife (girlfriend at the time) and I packed our things into my little Ford Ranger and drove from Virginia to Austin with no idea what we were getting into. She was going to UT for grad school, and I was going wherever she was to do… something.

We’ve done pretty well for ourselves here, all things considered:
We made lifelong friends.
We found great jobs.
We adopted two fantastic dogs.
We learned the beauty of breakfast tacos and Texas BBQ.
We survived record heat and drought.
Oh, and we had a kid.

As we weighed the options for our future, I saw this tweet from my friend, Stu Smith:
Love this town

I was lucky enough to be a part of Richard Garriott’s talk (with the Creative Mornings team: Ben Thoma, Brian Thompson, Tiffany Duening and Kelly Hemmeline). The Dribbble community here is overflowing with incredibly talented designers I’m happy to call friends (like Stu, M. Brady Clark, Gerren Lamson and Brendan Pittman). And then the music. God the music.

It was the perfect summation of a long and productive day. Of a long and productive 8 years, really.

What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?

Professionally, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start a career, a family, an adult life.

And now, I can’t imagine a better way way to take the next step in each of those things.

My wife and I have an opportunity to start it all over again, in another city even farther from where we started. But it’s not really all over again. This one will build on what we’ve already done. It’ll extend the networks we’ve already created, and push us even farther than we’ve already pushed ourselves. And it’s not really that far away, because there are so many ways to stay connected to the people and things we love. Like Facebook, for instance.

I’m not afraid.

I can’t wait to get started.

Started

In the meantime, I’ll be connecting with as many people here in Austin as I can, and reaching out to as many people in San Francisco as I can find. Please drop me a note if you’re either one.

(PS. Thanks for reading what has turned into a long, rambling and very self-involved post. It’s hard not to get sentimental in times like these.)

And now for something completely different.

So, I’ve been making furniture.

Well, I’ve made one or two pieces of furniture. But I think they’re pretty damn good for a guy who sits at a keyboard all day.

We lost a 98-year-old pecan tree a couple of years back, and I felt so guilty that I had some of the wood milled into giant slabs. Here’s my latest finished product.

Table4 Table3 Table2 Table1

This guy is about 63 inches long and 31 inches tall. The wide end is about 26 and the narrow is around 19 inches wide… Perfect for a computer desk or sofa table. $500

If you’re interested in buying one, please send me a note. My wife won’t let me make any more of these until I get at least one out of the garage 🙂

On That Photo From the Vatican with All the Mobile Phones

I’ve been thinking more about that photo we all saw and most of us shared yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, NBC posted an image on Instagram of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, juxtaposing photos from the 2005 announcement of Pope Benedict XVI and the 2013 announcement of Pope Francis. It was accompanied by the caption: “What a difference 8 years makes.”

St. Peter's Square in 2005 vs. 2013 - via NBCNews Instagram

St. Peter’s Square in 2005 vs. 2013 – via NBCNews Instagram

The difference is obvious. In the first, thousands of people look up at the balcony, awaiting the announcement. In the lower right corner, one person holds a small flip phone. In the other, an endless sea of glowing smartphones and tablets, as thousands of people stare intently up at the tiny balconies on the tiny screens floating between them and their new pope.

I saw it first from Eric Meyer and immediately shared the image on Twitter and G+, accompanied by the line “Are you paying attention to mobile?” Brad Frost did almost the exact same a few seconds after me (whoo!).

Those two images, taken in the same spot just 8 years apart, stand as a stark example of the unquestionable presence of the mobile device. These devices are as much a part of our lives as the religion that these people came to celebrate. So much so, that they actually placed their device between themselves and the highest living representative of their faith. That’s not symbolism–that’s the reality of the mobile era.

But I missed the real point of that photo, I think.

When I said “mobile” I meant mobile web–and responsive design, and adaptive content, and apps, and all the other things we typically think of when we read about “mobile.” I’m currently working on several website redesigns and replatforms–all of them going adaptive, responsive, etc. I just installed a responsive template to this blog (from the fantastic people at Creative Market, btw.).

But the more I look at this image, the more I realize it’s not about those things at all. In the context, it extends beyond the screens these people are holding up in front of their faces.

They’re not surfing the web. They’re not downloading apps. They’re certainly not reading my blog. They’re taking photos and video, they’re live chatting, Facetiming, Skyping, Google Hangout-ing. They’re actively sharing their experiences, or recording their experiences with the explicit intention of sharing them with their friends, families, followers, and perfect strangers all over the world.

In that context, this wasn’t about the device, it was about the basic need to share. To be a part of a community. To make connections with other human beings. It was about shared experiences. (Sure, it could be about the lack of shared experiences those people had with others around them. Or maybe it’s about the experience we all shared as we looked at that picture and thought about our lives 8 years ago.) Remember, the person gave us that picture was also staring at a tiny screen in front of their face, between themselves and one of the most impactful events in the world.

In this sense, it’s not about mobile. It’s not even about social. It’s about the way we live our lives, the things we choose to surround ourselves with, and the effects those decisions have on us all. And it’s about the basic need for human connection.

So yes, if you’re building a website, you need to think about mobile devices. Because that’s the way you’ll connect with people and share your story. If you’re planning an event, you need to plan around people’s experiences with and through their devices, because that’s how they’re going to experience it either way. And if you’re taking over as leader of a 2,000-year-old religion, you need to realize that your followers, no matter how dedicated, have a device in their pocket that gives them access to the entire history of human knowledge and realtime updates of every event that’s happening every second in the entire world.

It’s not about mobile, it’s about context. It’s a reminder of how fast things change around us and how little we know about our world 8 years from now. All we can do is strive to keep up with what we need today, and hope it will still be relevant tomorrow.

That’s the context we all work in today.

The Case for Skeuomorphic Content

Over the last few months, a debate has raged over skeuomorphism vs. “flat design.” I won’t rehash the terms or the arguments here, but you can get a good idea from these two posts from Daring Fireball and LayerVault.

But nobody’s talking about the content.

Most of it revolves around Apple and the growing backlash to their skeuomorphic visual styling. There’s been much handwringing about the “calendars with faux leather-stitching, bookshelves with wood veneers, fake glass and paper and brushed chrome.”

But does anyone care that we still call it a “bookshelf”? And if we call it a “bookshelf,” should it in fact look like one? If you’re going to call it a “notepad,” why not make it look like a legal pad?

In a sense, these skeuomorphic designs are direct descendants of skeuomorphic naming conventions. PC’s had a notepad long before they had the ability to make it really look like one. We grew up drawing with a program called “Paint,” and MS Word let us type directly on a mockup of a sheet of loose paper.

LayerVault, at the forefront of the “flat design” movement, still has files, eyedroppers, outposts and signposts.

Is that bad? No. Is it skeuomorphic? Kind of.

Skeuomorphic content helps provide context

Okay, I realize there’s a difference between calling it a “bookshelf” and giving it a crappy wood veneer. And I’m definitely not defending the corintian leather calendar. And I should have said this earlier–LayerVault is BEAUTIFUL. As is Letterpress and the new Gmail app for the iPhone.

Faux corinthian leather is not necessary to understanding the calendar function. But calling it a “calendar” is. Creating a basic layout that looks like a wall calendar kind of is, too.

So while flat design can beautifully strip away the uncessary. Flat content can strip away the inherent meaning of your product.

The case for skeuomorphic content

I work in ecommerce software, where there’s a really strong correlation with the actions, concepts and processes for a traditional retail storefront. We’re also designing complicated, technical workflows for software users who are–on the whole–less technically savvy than you and me.

Managing inventory, processing orders and organizing your store are hard to do in the meatspace, and they can be overwhelming in a new piece of software. So the more familiar and relatable we can make things for our customers, the better.

But there’s a line to be drawn. Sure, we talk about “storefronts” and “shopping carts,” but we don’t put products into “isles” or “stockrooms.”

When there’s an easily understood software term or concept that works, I would prefer to use it. But when we can use a term to create a clear mental model for merchants or shoppers, then I’m happy to port it over from the physical retail world.

This is exactly what I believe Allan Grinstein meant when he introduced us to the term “honest design” on the LayerVault blog.

Designing honestly means recognizing that things you can do with screens and input devices can’t be done with physical objects — more importantly that we shouldn’t try copying them… We borrow metaphors from physical objects but we refrain from copying.

And I hear echoes of it as John Gruber describes the beautifully flat design of Letterpress:

What Letterpress rejects is not depth, but depth as mere decoration. The visual ‘raising’ of a tile as you play it is a natural visual cue, a way of emphasizing what it is you’re moving.

The case against skeuomorphic content

Maybe I’m making an unnecessary stretch by calling this type of content “skeuormorphic.” In fact, the definition quoted from George Basalla’s The Evolution of Technology on the skeuomorph Wikipedia entry describes “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material.”

This type of content serves a purpose in the new material. It provides context for the user. It offers visual cues. It primes users with a clear mental model of what it is they’re supposed to do with that thing. As long as it doesn’t get in the way.

Corinthian leather serves no purpose (though I’d argue it served no real purpose on a physical calendar either).

As simple as possible, but not simpler

In The Lightness of Being, Frank Wilczek quotes a famous piece of advice from Albert Einstein to “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

There’s a fine line between skeuomorphic and cheesy. Between flat and bland. And that’s why I believe this debate has touched such a deep nerve in the design community. It becomes a matter of taste (at least until it’s a matter of data).

Shortly after Grinstein’s post on Flat Design, LayerVault founder Kelly Sutton applied the same philosphy to writing. While discussing of one of my favorite books of all time (William Zinsser’s On Writing Well), Sutton elaborates on their approach to “simplicity and flatness in design as honesty”:

Rule #6: Good design is honest. But interface design shares a similarity with non-fiction writing: At its core, it is meant to be the vessel for something else… Flat Design is no trend. Gloss and ‘lickability’ are the siblings to colloquialisms and weak writing. No emcee upstages the performers. When designing interfaces we must remember that our work is never the story.”

That’s why I like the term “honest” more than “flat”–especially in terms of content. An honest telling can use metaphors and borrowed terminology to help the story along, as long as they don’t get in the way.

If it’s simpler (for the user, not the writer) to call it a “shopping cart” then by all means, let’s call it a shopping cart. But we can leave out the chrome.