Truth, Credibility, and the Value of Slowing Down

Earlier in 2018, Margot Bloomstein and I traded some comments on her 2019 SXSW PanelPicker® proposal about expertise, credibility, and taking the long view. I’ve been thinking about the ideas we expressed ever since then. So Margot and I hopped on a call last week to talk more about these ideas. Here are some of the things we talked about.

Carrie: This all started when I was doing research for my 2018 IA Summit (now IA Conference) talk, The Future of Information. Since I’d seen your work on “slow content” I reached out to find out what you could share to support the charge to SLOW DOWN when designing content. You’re also speaking about how to identify and design for slow experiences this coming year at An Event Apart, in Seattle, Washington DC, and San Francisco. In addition, you are working on a new topic: Designing for Trust. How did that come about?

Margot: It started when I saw people were bringing their own interpretations of fact and knowledge to experiences that were not always grounded in facts. You may be looking for truth and discern greater meaning and interpretation from multiple sources. And maybe you find a version of the truth in the middle, somewhere between two versions of the facts. But the concept of both-siderism is not necessarily appropriate or fair, because false equivalency seeks to placate with something that’s just that: false.

Outside of political engagements, how does that relate to consumer interaction with brands, to consumer purchasing decisions, to how we get information about governments services? Data interpretation is a necessary part of understanding. Think back to the continuum of data interpreted into information, contextualized into knowledge, and then integrated as wisdom. It’s so relevant now.

The average person needs to know how to make sense of numbers and data points. People used to look at experts for knowledge and wisdom. So, my washing machine is making this sound, let me call a repair service to fix it. Or I’m experiencing these symptoms; let me see my doctor to diagnose and treat this problem. But over the past decade we’ve seen a transition for how we seek out and validate information. Instead of looking to outside experts and evaluating expertise, we started to turn away from those very people to ask instead, “what do other people like me think?” Before you visit a doctor, do you google your symptoms or check Facebook to see if something’s going around your neighborhood? Before you plan a trip, do you check user reviews for hotels and restaurants? That’s fine; our filter bubbles can reflect our interests and serve us well – until they don’t.

When we look to people just like us, we start to build filter bubbles based on who we know and who looks like us – echo chambers. These echo chambers confirm existing perspective and mindset and the way you think of yourself. In the last election cycle, we started to see the downside to those filter bubbles: we missed out on news and opinions proffered to people with different perspectives and online preferences. So now, we increasingly turn inward to our own instincts. We went from expertise to homophily – the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others – to self-determination.

This can be particularly dangerous when we ignore what experts tell us. Consider the impact to public health when people don’t trust the vaccine recommendations of the CDC and Surgeon General. People do what feels right based on existing beliefs. It’s a cycle of self-validation and confirmation that limits the entry of new information.

C: Was this an evolution from “slow content”?

M: Slow content and trust in content are related topics. When people start turning inward for their versions of the truth, when we have time and space to mull over information and revisit existing perspectives, we walk the line that looks like confirmation bias but is really about cultural predisposition. That can be part of the problem. When people invest more time in continuing to consume more information that fits with their existing mindsets, the cycle becomes like the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail.

Slow content and a slower user experience can be part of the solution. In my research, we found media and publishing companies investing in long-form content to support people doing research or deepening personal expertise about the topic. When companies give users the opportunity to slow down to sit with a detailed diagram, or a photo gallery that shows a comprehensive and deep perspective on a topic, or long-form articles with background information on maybe a product they are considering buying, they help to fit into the process. Giving people more information builds a user’s confidence, and that reflects back in a form of trust.

C: That makes me think of my own experience of home improvement as a homeowner and how I choose contractors. I almost always pick the company who educates me the most.

M: Isn’t it interesting that the company that has invested the most in content, the conversation, in educating you in your options is the one you choose? You translate knowledge into time, and I think that’s what a lot of people do when they are deciding who to trust.

I got to sit down with the Chief Content Officer at America’s Test Kitchen, Jack Bishop. They are known for producing a lot of content. Through offering a comprehensive array of resources for research, they’ve established rapport and the language of trust. They have a range of “fast” and “slow” content types. And because their longform copy doesn’t cut valuable information, it’s like a photo essay or a monograph or coffee table book. You may trust it more because it tells a richer, more complete story.

Content doesn’t have to be long to build trust, however. When GOV.UK was whittling down their design, they went from around 75,000 pieces of content to about 3,000. They focused on what only the government could focus on. Rather than publish multiple pages and different perspectives on each topic, they offer the canonical version of each topic government addresses, like how to apply for tax benefits. They didn’t produce more content, but did produce complete content – everything you need to know in just a few paragraphs.

C: How does this run counter to SEO?

When it comes to SEO, producing more content is good for search results but not always good for searchers. Let’s put human needs before search engine results! Sometimes it’s better to have one complete version rather than scads of pages, optimized for clicks and ad revenue.

C: What are some ways you’ve successfully slowed people down and shifted them to more comprehensive and slow experiences?

M: In my experience, some clients have so much content and want to know how to wrangle it. Others are going through the website redesign and ask, “Where should we be writing more?” I try to pull them back to first principles stuff. What are you trying to communicate? And to whom? And what do you have now and is it any good? Sometimes they’ll use the language of content strategy and tell me about the content audit they conducted and how much of each type of content they have.

Then I ask, “So you know what you have, but is it good?” They talk in terms of whether it’s current. But does it communicate your message architecture? Does it communicate the qualities you want to come through visually and verbally in all your content? I use the message architecture as a qualitative yardstick to determine if content is any good, as opposed to being free of typos or less than a year old.
And I try to tie it back to money. Often that means working on a phased basis. We don’t know if we’ll be writing more content until we audit what they have. Maybe they don’t need more content, but rather an editor or an information designer to present information visually. If my client is accountable to a budget, they think in terms of the business decision, and think in terms of what sort of investment should I be making in their business needs.

Then we talk about the audit process. It is a question of needing more or different? Is it different in terms of tone? Is it different in terms of the content types you need? Or is it different in terms of the internal structure of the content types? Those are different questions with different outcomes and different resources and budgets to resolve the outcomes.

C: I don’t do the audit until after the content model, which isn’t limited to the website.

M: So you create a prescriptive model so they aren’t confined to what they currently have? That makes so much sense! That seems like the difference between making a weeknight meal and using what is in the refrigerator and someone who is planning a dinner party for Saturday and creating the meal and shopping list. Are you creating the menu first or working with what you have? Both are perfectly valid, but both have their purpose.

C: I like that analogy. I’ve also been thinking about the Great British Baking show as a structured content analogy. The contestants all start with the same ingredients and have to produce the same thing. But they all turn out differently.

M: And think about the different audiences. If you’re trying to win over Mary Berry, you might be able to do something different than if you are baking with Paul in mind. If your audience is saying, “I really like cinnamon,” you make it a key ingredient. But maybe they want something more deconstructed so you sprinkle it on the top as a grace note.

And think about an Events section of a website. We know that all events have a title, a date, a description, and a photo. But some orgs have a message architecture that is all about being current. So they should lead with the dates. Others are all about diversity, so the photos of the events should be prominent, responding to the audience that’s thinking, “Show me I’ll be accepted at your events.” What are you trying to communicate through your events management system? What are you trying to communicate through your content – and is it enough to engage at a level of trust?

Margot Bloomstein is a brand and content strategist and the author of Content Strategy at Work: Real-world Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project.