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Confab Impressions Part II: Content as Conversations

May 22, 2011

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently attended Confab and was blown away by the quality of the content. Tops on my list of all the great speakers was Ginny Redish, author of Letting Go of the Words–for my money the best text on web writing out there. The book and her Confab talk combine deep linguistic understanding with practical web wisdom to create a compelling model of effective web content.

A picture of Ginny Redish

The venerable Ginny Redish

Her main point is that web content is inherently conversational. It is only effective to the extent that it engages the audience in compelling conversations geared towards the tasks they need to accomplish. In this respect, the web resembles more of a telephone than a book or brochure. When we answer the phone, we engage in a conversation with whoever is on the other end of the line. They typically have a task to complete when they call, and we listen intently to what they need, attempting to give them the info they need in the shortest possible time. Unlike the phone, the web allows us to converse with multiple people at one time and to do it when it is convenient to all parties.

This struck a chord with me, partly because it rings true to my experience and partly because it resonates with one of the foundations of our book. We have often been criticized for insisting on putting a bunch of essentially theoretical stuff in the front of the book rather than getting down to nitty-gritty tactical stuff. I of all the authors insisted on this because I felt the practice of developing web content needed these foundations. Conversational content was such a radical departure from the kinds of things my stakeholders published, I thought it required firmer foundations than “this has worked for me in the past.” Yet it is heady stuff. I have often doubted after the fact that we needed to delve into the foundations in such depth.

I entered the talk with lingering doubts about how we open the book. But I was intensely pleased to witness such a venerable speaker make a case for a complementary point of view.  Frankly, it is the kind of validation we need for more people to pick up our book and take it seriously. And it eased my doubts significantly. But it won’t do simply to tell you that our points of view are complementary. I need to show it. If you’re interested in that demonstration, please read on.

Relevance in Conversations

Our foundation draws from a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, to create a model of relevant web content. Lots of people talk about relevance being the key indicator of effective web content, especially as it relates to search results. But few tell us how to determine whether content is relevant to the target audience. Even Google offers a lame definition. We attempt to provide a more useful one  in our book by drawing on the established linguistics of conversations from the field of pragmatics. In particular, we draw on Relevance Theory to provide a model for how to determine the relevance of a piece of web content.

Using this model, very roughly, a piece of content is relevant to the extent that:

  • It maximizes the change in the mind of the audience
  • It minimizes the effort to produce that change

Typically when we speak of relevance, we refer to the second bullet. Things that are tightly related to what we’re talking about while we converse require little effort for us to make sense of them. But things that require no effort at all are insipid or obvious and don’t really need to be said. To be relevant, information also needs to affect some change in the mind of the audience, to add some new facet to what they already know, or to demonstrate the information from a fresh perspective.

Redish calls this going from known to new. All conversations follow this pattern: You set the context with information the audience accepts and you add to it. In some cases, you argue against what they think they know. In persuasive conversations, you start with common ground and you discuss ways to extend or change the audience’s opinion. A piece of content is relevant to the extent that it does this most efficiently. It doesn’t require a long story or set up. It doesn’t veer off topic into tangential or irrelevant content. It takes the shortest path to get the point across given the established context.

When we think of web content beyond individual conversations, as a matrix of interrelated conversations, this approach makes even more sense. Pages are more or less relevant to other pages to the extent that they effectively go from known to new. If two pages share the same context of known information but one offers new information as well, the second is relevant to the first. In this way, relevance can be used as the basis of effective information architecture. If you think of the tasks your audience want to complete, you give them all and only the information they need to complete their tasks with the least possible effort.

The paradigm of this is the search engine results page, which is loosely about some keywords while each page it links to offers some unique information about the conversations implicit in those words. This is why we define search effectiveness in terms of relevance. If a user bounces off your page from a search referral, she obviously found your content irrelevant to her query. A bounce is like walking away from a conversation or hanging up on someone. It is a sign of exasperation on the part of the audience that the page fundamentally doesn’t get the flow of the implicit conversation.

Your job is to understand what tasks the user has in mind when they type certain queries and gear your experiences towards giving them just what they need to accomplish those tasks. Don’t “hog the conversation” by forcing them to wade through information they don’t need. Don’t be overly minimal in what you provide so they really can’t tell whether they can accomplish their tasks on your page. The more generic the query, the harder it is to glean the flow of the implicit conversation. That’s why we urge you to focus on long-tail queries, which give you more information about the conversation and help you craft appropriate content that fits the conversational flow.

I don’t want to belabor the point. I only wanted to share my joy in finding convergence between our point of view and that of such a revered writer and speaker. Of course, this is only a start. A lot more needs to be done to identify all the connection points and differences between her approach and ours. I will leave that to you if you are so inclined.

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