Despite my darkest fears, the villagers never came after me with torches and pitchforks last week when my article proclaimed that “top X tips lists are beyond worthless”. The biggest criticism came from what was a completely unexpected source; an oversight on my part in the headline. I boldly proclaimed that “top 10 lists suck”, forgetting to insert the word “tips”.

Ah the Humanity!

A bunch of my colleagues tweaked my nose over twitter, due to the ridiculous irony, that on the same day my tip list hater article gets published, a recent team effort by some close colleagues and myself, ended up on Nielsen Norman Group’s top 10 intranets of 2012 list. Ah, the humanity! Truth be told, I was never intending to comment on the tsunami of top 10 lists that inevitably show up at years end. Any close look at the article will show that I never comment on anything else beyond how checklist mentality will prevent people from achieving excellence.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Regardless of my intent, I will endeavor to now set the record straight and explain exactly which top 10 lists suck and which ones don’t.

  1. Top 10 tips lists -- Whether they are tips for making your online experience better or tips for how to get rid of that last bit of belly fat, both of these suck. My fellow writer Rich Blank pegged the phenomenon quite well when he opined that “everything is starting to look and sound like Cosmopolitan Magazine and USA Today headlines”. If pressed hard, I would admit they fall into my definition of garbage in that they do have discernible and meaningful value to at least one group of people (see the He Hate Me list from last weeks article).
  2. Top 10 lists detailing mass media artifacts -- This meme spans across multiple channels like Rolling Stone and VH1 and spikes in frequency along with the turn of the calendar. The seemingly endless parade of imitations of Count Casey “Countdown” Kasem’s countdown to the moment where he counted down to the countdown, are just slightly better than the tips lists but they are still devoid of significant value and meaning. Given that these lists have a modicum of entertainment value, I will begrudgingly admit that they don’t consistently suck, but often do.
  3. Top 10 lists for niche artifacts where the list is a means to highlight excellence in a discipline that is not often in the spotlight -- These lists do not suck and there is a very clear differentiator that explains why: meaning. The Nielsen Norman intranet list is not a vapid 2-page article laden with high-level platitudes like “focus on your customer”. It’s an in-depth and detailed report on not just 10 well-crafted employee experiences, but on the teams that made them possible and the travails the teams encountered along the way. The reason I went postal on the tips articles was that they hold nothing of value to anyone but the complete novice. The NNG report has cutting edge, in depth information that can benefit business, experience and technology professionals of many, if not all levels.

My Kingdom for Some Meaning

The dearth of meaning that pervades the web content ecosphere would be stunning were it not for the long running lack of significant industry value, outside of the academic UX community, being placed on content strategy. I have rarely seen significant corporate appreciation for the tools used to drive meaning into web content. User personas have become standard tools (despite the fact that most agencies use persona generation techniques that would make your average researcher want to go on a mass rampage) and scenarios are increasing in their traction as well:

  1. Experience Strategy -- Usually leveraging personas and multi-channel scenarios, this tool can take several forms (presentation deck, narrative based document) with a balance of narrative description and diagrammatic representation of how the user, the user’s goals and the offerings of the experience relate to each other and evolve, both as context changes and as time passes.
  2. Target Audience Messaging Strategy -- Usually leveraging brand tone and voice along with a target-audience map, a messaging strategy aligns storytelling goals with target audiences and, when used as a guidepost, can craft long-term stickiness and top-of-mind attributes through establishing a realized brand persona and end user relationships that are grounded with meaning.

If the real problem here isn’t necessarily the lack of content strategy but is actually the lack of understanding and embracing the role of content strategists; the new question is: how do we experience professionals move content strategy out of the academic/luxury category of UX services into the mainstream? Well, rather than contradicting my whole premise and enumerate a number of tips for shifting your organization’s perspective, I’ll instead recommend that you round up a good UX team with a grounding in service design, organizational behavior, and of course content strategy, and ask them to solve it for the custom needs of your shop.

And with that, like Count Casey of the countdown used to say: “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars…. And now back to the countdown!”