How does a content strategist see the web? This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Karen McGrane, a user-experience expert who writes books, gives speeches, leads workshops, and takes on a variety of web projects with her agency Bond Art + Science. Topics covered include the bold fashions of the dot-com era (many buckles); nightmare pitch meetings involving handcuffs and action figures; introductory email etiquette; and Paul’s formal apology to the International Association for Pawn Shop Owners.
Paul Ford: Well, Rich Ziade!
Rich Ziade: Paul. Ford. I’m brining the deep today.
Paul: That’s great. [super low] Should I do it, too? Should I get in there…
Rich: Don’t get in there.
Paul: OK, I won’t do that.
Rich: Stay out of there.
Paul: All right, this is Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, an agency that builds big, beautiful technology things, a product and design company in New York City. Rich, we’re joined by someone very special.
Rich: I agree, on many levels.
Paul: On many levels, and actually, just kind of an old and supportive friend both to us and to the community of people who care very deeply about making the web open and accessible and I think I would define this person, who obviously the listener, who will have seen the title of the episode, will have NO IDEA who I’m talking about, but I would define this person as someone who is another one of these human beings who combines the humanities and technology very comfortably, and kind of has, for a fairly long career. Would you agree with that?
Paul: So welcome to the podcast to Karen McGrane.
Karen McGrane: Why thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Paul: Is there a middle name in there that we should know about?
Paul: Oh for real? That’s great.
Karen: I know.
Rich: That’s a cool middle name.
Karen: It’s good, right?
Rich: Yeah. Whoooooooa.
Karen: Yeah. I give my mother credit for that.
Paul: She just dropped that in there?
Karen: She did.
Paul: She was like, “Let’s let…just in case.”
Karen: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Did you ever think about just going with that?
Karen: It has crossed my mind. If I need to go into witness protection or something, that’s gonna be my first choice.
Paul: That’s a very…what would Roxanne McGrane do for a living?
Paul: Dance. I also could see her, like, something involving, like, horse racing.
Karen: Oh yeah.
Paul: Like she could be…I don’t know, what do you think she could, like work at the…work at the farm. Like she could be setting stuff up.
Rich: I was going to say own a pawn shop.
Karen: Oh yeah, pawn shop.
Rich: And I mean that in the most positive way possible.
Karen: Wouldn’t that be great?
Karen: Maybe that’s…maybe that’ll be my retirement job.
Paul: There’s fun stuff in there, you just have all that stuff.
Paul: Except I feel that if you own a pawn shop you have to smoke cigarettes.
Karen: OK, well. I can vape, right?
Paul: You could probably vape.
Paul: Yeah but just, a woman who owns a pawn shop [a pawn shop owner’s voice, in Paul’s mind] I figure has this voice. I just can’t…maybe I’m wrong?
Rich: Just a gravelly…
Paul: That’s a, that’s an unfair stereotype of pawn shop owners, and I welcome the letter that I’m about to receive from the International Association for Pawn Shop Owners and representation. Let’s not talk about that anymore. Karen. I feel that everyone should already just know you. It’s…I don’t even want to summarize your career.
Paul: All right.
Karen: Let’s talk about something more interesting.
Paul: Well, OK —
Rich: Even though I’ve known Karen for years, I don’t know…the pre-career Karen. Education, sort of…influences, how’d you get here.
Paul: Well I know she grew up in…Minneapolis.
Rich: That I do know.
Karen: That is correct, yes.
Paul: And you went to Paisley Park at one point, right?
Karen: I lived across the street from Paisley Park.
Paul: Did you watch it get built?
Karen: Uh…it had just opened right when I moved to that house, and it was noisy. Like, you would hear it.
Paul: Really, you’d hear, like, Prince?
Karen: Yeah, you’d hear sounds coming out of it that presumably was Prince. It wasn’t like, you couldn’t just walk up and be like, “Hey, Prince! What’s going on?” It was pretty guarded. But…
Paul: Did you ever wave?
Karen: I would drive people past it, for sure.
Paul: Oh, you would be like, “Yeah, there’s…there’s…”
Karen: Be like, “Hey…yeah!” I mean, it was out in the country, so there wasn’t…there was nothing else…
Rich: Such an unusual setting, the whole…
Paul: It is.
Rich: …thing is weird.
Paul: But you wouldn’t just be out, and be like, “Oh, I’m gonna get some coffee,” and then, like, Apollonia would be mowing the lawn? It wasn’t like that.
Karen: [laughter] You know, I never saw him in Chanhassen…
Karen: But…maybe he’d run down to the corner store? Pick up some milk?
Paul: Sure. I’m sure.
Karen: Why not, right?
Paul: He had to…
Karen: He lived there.
Rich: I think he did do that. Like he would go to Walgreen’s…
Karen: Yeah. He was a fixture in Minneapolis.
Karen: You would see him around all the time.
Rich: Yeah. Like he was, he was going to live a normal life as far as he was concerned.
Paul: Well I don’t…what he defined as normal.
Paul: So OK, so you’re living across the street from Paisley Park, hanging out, figuring your life out. So then what happened?
Karen: So my origin story is that, well, I should say this: the school district that I went to, I went to the same Hopkins school district my entire educational pre-college years, and they were really into computers.
Karen: In the very early days, we had…you know, old Apple green screen computers in the library at a time when I don’t think schools had them that much.
Paul: They weren’t old then. They were still pretty new.
Karen: They were pretty new, yeah. They were modern and…so I just, I think I lived in a world where computers were always there, in a way that I think we talk about the kids today having that access and that opportunity, I just had it with, like, really old DOS machines.
Paul: Right. So you’re like, I’ll play a little Zorg. I’ll do some…
Karen: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: I’ll do some puzzles.
Karen: So that really led me to a place where I wanted to, I was like, this computer thing, this web thing. 1995, seems like this, this seems really interesting. But that was not a career path for people in ’94, really? It was a weird thing.
Rich: There was no industry then.
Paul: Well it was a career path for the people who made the software?
Paul: But not for the people who made the media on top of it. It was very…that was a bunch of weird hacky, like, experimenters.
Karen: Yeah. So I found a graduate school program at Rensselaer Polytechnic, which is in glorious Troy, New York. And they had a program in their communications department in HCI.
Paul: You know, this was one of those programs that I think, if you are not in this world you may not know about, but that’s like, when I hear you say “RPI,” I am like, “Oh yeah, that’s — ”
Karen: It was a good program.
Paul: Yeah, and it’s like, I put that in there. It’s like, around, like a Carnegie Mellon…
Paul: Like it has a very good rep. Actually, why is that rep good? Is it just, like, it’s been around forever.
Karen: It’s been around for a long time. I personally liked it because it tried to look at the problems through the lens of communication and not just through the lens of software development.
Karen: Yeah. Like a lot of these programs were in the computer science program.
Karen: And that gives you a whole different perspective on the problem than if you’re looking at it through traditional communication and rhetoric.
Karen: So…I don’t, it was a good…I feel lucky…
Paul: They’ve always had a good humanities program, too.
Karen: Yes, exactly.
Paul: Or like, a technical, the technical school’s like a really good one…anyway, it’s just, it’s an interesting place, because a lot of signal comes out of it.
Paul: And it graduates, actually, weird, interesting people.
Karen: Yeah. When I was there, they launched what they called their EMACs program, which was Electronic Media Arts and Communications —
Paul: Terrible —
Karen: It’s an undergraduate program.
Paul: A terrible name.
Rich: Paul’s upset.
Paul: It’s a disaster. [laughter]
Karen: But I can remember helping them work on some of the program materials for the undergraduate program, and it was great, because you really got the sense of, oh, they’re going to start bringing in, like, just armies of undergrads to teach this stuff and learn this stuff. So…
Paul: Right. We should explain, too: Emacs, for those who aren’t wearing a pocket protector right now, is the name of a very famous text editor that programmers use to ply their trade. So. It’s an unfortunate combination, it’s a name-space collision in the technical industry.
Rich: Like 11 people are upset about this.
Paul: [long, long sigh] But I’m one of them.
Paul: All right, so. It sounds like you just were then thrust into the internet industry?
Rich: Did you go to New York?
Karen: Those were such good years, those were…I can remember being in grad school, and like, news would go around the computer lab that a new Netscape beta had been released, and everybody would be like, “Oh, I’m gonna download this — ”
Paul: From that FTP server.
Karen: So exciting.
Karen: So once I finished grad school, yes, I moved to New York.
Rich: You just had a job already, or just felt like New York, things were happening there, let me go?
Karen: Well, I interviewed at a handful of agencies in New York.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Karen: And I can remember interviewing with one agency that I was like, I’m a user experience person, and they were like, “What is that?” And I said, “Well, I figure out these things, and I have these processes,” and they were like, “Do you code HTML?” And I said, “Well, I can code a little HTML, but that would be a dumb reason for you to hire me. You shouldn’t hire me to do that.” And they were quite insistent that the only thing that they wanted was people who could code HTML. [laughter] So I happened to interview at Razorfish, and they were first and foremost the only agency that when I said I was a user experience person, were like, “Great! That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”
Paul: They were the cool, hip agency.
Karen: But coincidentally, the guys that ran it kind of came from the next town over where I grew up in Minnesota, so…when your job interview gets to the point where somebody’s like, “Hey, where’d you go to high school? No, like, what high school did you go to?” You’ve got the job then.
Paul: Nice. And that corridor of, like, upstate New York college, coming on down to the city, kind of getting your bearings, you probably already had a couple friends —
Paul: Who’d already graduated.
Paul: It’s important for people to understand that, like, that world, if you go to one of the colleges that kind of feeds into New York City, you have friends when you show up.
Paul: Who can then be like, “Well here’s how you rent an apartment, and here’s…”
Paul: That’s an unbelievable advan — I had that, too.
Paul: I would just go upstate, and you’d show up, and there were like, 10 people I knew.
Karen: Yup. I can think of half a dozen people from my program at RPI that either now work at Razorfish or worked at Razorfish at some point.
Paul: So you’re at Razorfish, you’re a UX professional in a day when no one knew what that was.
Karen: Nope. First one hired.
Paul: What kind of clients did you have?
Karen: My very first project was for Citibank.
Paul: OK, so you are, you’re young —
Paul: You’re in your twenties, right?
Karen: Right. I’m…20…what, 26, at that point?
Paul: But actually a grown-up for the industry then?
Karen: Right. I had a graduate degree, so I knew what I was doing.
Karen: And so Citibank wanted to — you maybe remember this — there was this era when all of the banks decided that they were going to start up an online-only bank?
Paul: Oh yeah.
Paul: Well they’re doing that again today, but yeah. There are —
Rich: They’re kind of still at it. [laughter]
Paul: There’s just no new ideas in this business.
Paul: They’re gonna do the online-only bank, except it was going to be cash, not Bitcoin.
Karen: Actual cash. So Citi had this idea called Citi-FI, and they wanted to build an online bank, so they hired me to build their bank for them.
Paul: These were the days, too, where literally giant organizations would come to Razorfish with barrels of money, that Razorfish would then immediately set on fire.
Paul: That was my… [laughter] It was so good. It was…
Karen: I thought working in New York was so amazing. I was like, “Finally, this is what a real job is like.” And then maybe only, like, three years later, in retrospect, I look back on it, and I was like, “Oh, that was the craziest thing ever.” No one’s job is really like that!
Paul: No, and I remember going to a party that Yahoo threw that had a volcano. In New York City. Nothing made sense.
Rich: Also it’s also kind of driven by…it’s not driven by, well this is a good business plan. It’s more driven by paranoia. It’s like, “Look, we heard they were doing something across the street, so we have to then do something.”
Rich: They were so terrified of being caught flat footed, and, you know, two years behind, because Chase Bank had a new embossed button.
Paul: I have a hypothesis too —
Rich: On their site, that they didn’t have.
Paul: Everybody’s terrified that they don’t know something, that they go, and they go to these companies where young people are working, and young people are just, like, naturally cool with clear skin and cooler clothing, and they’re narcissists, so they just kind of tell you, “Oh yeah, absolutely, I’ll solve this for you.” Right?
Paul: Like, no 27-year-old will be like, “There’s a large, serious — ”
Rich: Let’s take a deep breath here. [laughter and deep breath noises]
Paul: “Boy there’s like…honestly what I see is a chain of risks that we need to evaluate before we even get down to a prototype phase.”
Rich: Yeah. No.
Paul: No one ever says that.
Paul: You go like, “Absolutely, we’re gonna start with brand.” That’s the sort of thing a 26-year-old says, and they’re just like, “Well, I guess that’s what we’ve got to do.” It’s just a perfect…
Paul: …system for extracting money from giant brands. I’m all for it.
Karen: Yeah. I would love someday, maybe you all want to throw an event one night where we can all give a five or ten minute presentation on what we saw at the revolution.
Paul: Ah, yeah.
Karen: Because I got stories from those years.
Rich: Boy, don’t we all.
Paul: We, uh….yeah, we kind of throw that every night, that event. [laughter] That’s called Rich and me working together, but no, we should. That would be amazing and terrifying. All right, so you have a great agency experience, you see capitalism, you’re like, right up to the face of the wall.
Karen: I learned things.
Karen: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: What was the behavior like?
Karen: From, like, the clients?
Paul: Yeah, just sort of, like, what were they?
Karen: You know, I look back, especially from what, I started there in ’97, so ’98, ’99, 2000, before the crash…
Karen: It was just…bananas.
Karen: I can remember, like, I did one meeting once in the Disney boardroom, with —
Karen: Eisner and Bob Iger, and like, half a dozen Disney execs, and like, me. And my wireframes. [laughter]
Paul: And what was your go-to outfit at that point?
Karen: That’s a good question. You know, I think, like, for California, it was very casual.
Paul: OK, OK, so you —
Karen: I think I had a, I can remember I had a couple of white suits that I would wear.
Paul: Yeah. You know, for the listeners too, like, I realize I just asked a woman that question, but this was actually, the men, too — there was a very specific, like, cyber agency uniform —
Paul: That if you, you kind of had to opt in to.
Paul: So OK, so you get on the plane, and you’d be like, “No wait, I’m going off to California. I better wind it back.” But like, if you worked at Razorfish, you had a certain look.
Karen: I think that’s true…even today, in the agencies, right?
Paul: It is, except it was novel. It was just, like, it was cyber. Every — there were sharp edges. Remember, the men all had those big black clunky shoes, suddenly?
Karen: All those, like, Prada, like, moon boot things?
Paul: Yeah. A lot of buckles, here and there.
Karen: Mmmm hmmm.
Rich: This is very judgmental.
Paul: No! This was —
Karen: No! It was, I’m saying this —
Rich: These were talented people —
Karen: In a sort of positive way, like, I was just in Paris, and I have to say, I was genuinely disappointed, because I didn’t see a single person wearing anything fashionable that made me kind of like, do a double take.
Karen: This was Paris. And I…yes, I feel like there was an era that, we’ve all…
Rich: It was the future.
Karen: Gladly adapted to more casual dress, but there was a time when you dressed up for things.
Paul: Right. Unless you went to California, and then you wound it back a little bit.
Karen: And then you had to…you had to hit their mark.
Karen: You don’t want to be the person showing up for the meeting in California wearing the blue suit and the blue jacket and the khaki pants. Don’t be that guy.
Paul: I’m sorry for interrupting. You’re in a board room with people who are actually some of the most powerful people in the entire entertainment industry, ever.
Karen: Pretty much. To this day.
Paul: It’s them and you.
Karen: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: What happens?
Karen: So this was, this was, this was a good meeting. So I was working on Go.com.
Paul: Tell people what Go is, because —
Karen: Go is, so Go, in this era, everybody wanted a search engine or a portal.
Karen: So Excite was big, remember Excite?
Karen: So Disney bought Infoseek.
Karen: And turned it into a portal called Go.com.
Karen: It was gonna be your start page for the internet. They hired Razorfish, they hired McKinsey. And Go…
Rich: Pulled out the big guns.
Karen: Got into a trademark dispute with GoTo.com, because GoTo.com had a green stoplight, and Go had a green stoplight. And it turns out that that was a trademark violation. Now there’s only one place that Disney likes to be in a trademark dispute, and that is on the side of the angels, and Disney basically got, you know, yelled at by the judge and told that they had to go through and de-brand the entire website.
Paul: No more traffic lights.
Karen: No more traffic lights. So they hired Razorfish to do explorations of logos. So we made logo explorations. We had hund…thousands. Literally.
Rich: I can’t imagine.
Karen: Just books and books and books.
Paul: But also this is, this is another thing, like: no one’s coming to us, particularly, for a logo.
Paul: We’re a —
Karen: But in this era…
Paul: But in this era it was just, like, we’ll do your brand, we’ll do your website. They were trying to, like, nudge in on advertising agency territory.
Karen: Yes. It was, they were very aggressively trying to be more of a creative agency.
Paul: But also there wasn’t the idea that you could have a shop that could go and build products. Like, that didn’t exist then.
Karen: No. It was very much still…I think legacy of print, right?
Karen: We were building some brochures that kind of had some creative to them. So we get in this meeting, we think we’re going to present logo directions to Eisner. This is not what happens. Eisner pulls out a bunch of photographs of green things in his neighborhood. “This is a green park bench.”
Rich: Oh boy.
Karen: “This is a green dumpster.”
Rich: Oh boy.
Paul: [dying of laughter]
Karen: “These are some green trees.” So then he’s like, “OK, so I got the Disney Imagineering team to brainstorm some concepts.” So he pulls out, you know, like, everything’s on boards in those days, so he pulls out this 18×24 board of a dog wearing goggles. [explosion of laughter]
Karen: And so, like, all the executives are like, “Oh yeah, that’s great. That’s really great. Great concept.” So then, it gets better. He pulls out another board of a monkey wearing a diaper holding a road sign, and he says, “This is Bobo, your guide to the information superhighway.”
Rich: Ohhhhh no no no no.
Rich: That is incredible.
Paul: So it’s you guys who have to please the client, and it’s an old-school advertising culture, like, “Whatever he wants, we gotta go.”
Karen: Yes. Everybody’s sitting there like, “Yes, these are all wonderful ideas.”
Rich: “Yeah, look at that monkey.”
Karen: So then finally some of, one executive says, “Hey, what if we set the word ‘go’ in the Disney font, in the Disney typescript, do you think the judge is going to have a problem with that?” And that is their logo today.
Paul: Ohhhhhhhh. Poor Bobo.
Karen: Poor Bobo.
Paul: He was right about the internet. It really did, it was going to become a monkey in a diaper.
Karen: It was a dog with goggles. Goggles are funny.
Paul: They are funny.
Rich: There needs to be a name for this, where you’ve been asked to do something, and come up with ideas or concepts, or take something in a particular direction, and you work on it. Sometimes it’s an entire team working on it. Only to go to the meeting with the stuff you’ve been working on and then have the client tell you that they had an idea.
Karen: Just completely hijack the meeting.
Paul: Oh yeah.
Rich: It’s the strangest thing.
Karen: In a wild and unpredictable direction.
Rich: It’s the strangest…like…
Paul: Rich, can you remember the worst pitch you were ever part of? I have a very clear memory.
Rich: Um….I need to think.
Paul: OK. Can I tell my terrible —
Karen: I would like to hear this story.
Rich: …while I think.
Paul: OK. So this was a competitor to Razorfish, a company called iXL.
Karen: I was going to say, I bet this was iXL.
Paul: And we were pitching Sega for some sort of portal. And the idea was, like, we needed our pitches to stand out, so I was in the strategic solutions group, something like that. [laughter] And we started to put these pitches together, put this pitch together, put this pitch together, and somebody was like, “We’ve got to make this get over the top.” And…
Karen: And these things are always, like, multi-week, all-nighter…
Karen: Extravaganzas of like, people…
Rich: Oh yeah.
Karen: Spraying glue, and like…
Paul: We really, and we needed this brand like we needed something. And so they went out, and this guy hired an artist to get two black cases, like, that you’d use to transport ammunition. And filled them with foam, and then put different toys in them, with labels on the toys, using the logo of this…Sega. I think it was called Heat.net, it was like an online gaming portal, early days…
Rich: I think I remember this.
Paul: The idea was each one was labeled, so it was like a little, it was like, this is your strategic advisor, and that was the little He-Man character, with a little label. This is your competition targeting tool, and it would be a tiny laser pointer. And there were, like, 18 of these, and the way the meeting was supposed to go was that they’d give a little talk, hand out the little Kinkos-reproduced booklets. Then the guy running the meeting would go, “Jack, the key.” Jack would take the key out of his mouth —
Karen: Oooh. That’s a nice touch.
Paul: Hand it to me. I would take the handcuffed-to-my-wrist briefcase, hand it over, he would open up the briefcase, and then start to hand out and pass around the different creatures and devices to emphasize how strategic we were. And the way it actually went was he went, “Jack, the key,” and everyone — you just, you know how you feel a room just, like, go, “Uhhhh.”
Paul: [air sucked out of the room noise] And your back just starts to tingle? So “Jack, the key,” and then they watched Jack take the key out of his mouth, and then I’m there wearing, like, some blazer, and I, I slam the briefcase onto the giant, like, glass and rubber table, because it was a dot-com start-up, and nothing shattered or anything, but it was just this incredibly loud noise. Everyone recoiled. [laughter] It took, like a minute and a half to open the briefcase. [laughter]
Paul: You just started to, like, kind of — it was like some sort of really, it was the end of a movie, like he just starts to pull out the different toys and characters, and be like, “Com-com-co…this was competitive, and this is a pointer.” And then he goes, “Let’s move on from this. We’ll give you guys the briefcase.” And we went back. And we didn’t get that. That was that.
Rich: That didn’t go well.
Paul: That was not good.
Paul: Did you ever have a bad pitch?
Rich: You know, I never pitched like this.
Paul: Oh God.
Rich: That’s the thing.
Karen: Those were the days.
Paul: No, Karen, I’ve only really perfect experiences.
Rich: No, no, I mean, I had an agency that didn’t —
Karen: Are you kidding me?
Rich: That never came from the creative angle. I had an agency that really came from, sort of, the, “I think I see a half a billion dollars, right there, wedged between those two boxes.”
Paul: Oh, so I see —
Rich: “Help me move the boxes out of the way.” [laughter] That was essentially my, my, it was a very different game.
Paul: So they would just send you home if they didn’t like you.
Rich: Oh, it was like, “Could you do it?” And then they’d let you talk for about three minutes, and you had, you bas — if you’re not running alongside them, they sniffed you out fast. It’s like, OK, you’re not understanding me right now, and I’m busy. And that would be that. So you pretty much had to, had to know, be in lock-step with what they were thinking about, and what they wanted. Like, this wasn’t about how do we win over teenagers. This was about money.
Rich: And building tools that were going to give somebody an advantage over somebody else, potentially. So less romantic. Unfortunately I don’t have as many stories as a result.
Paul: So what’s the big difference between how we all got work then, and the kind of work we did…now. Like, what do you do now? We’ll skip ahead a little bit. You’ve had your own agency for many, many years. You have a decentralized team. You work under Bond Art + Science.
Karen: That’s correct.
Paul: And so how does work come in now? What are the, what does it feel like now, compared to sitting in the room with the people from Disney showing you a picture of a monkey with a diaper.
Karen: I rarely do pitches or even respond to RFPs anymore.
Karen: It’s very much, people call me because they have a specific problem and I am the person who solves that problem. And so most of it is purely someone calls me up, and they’re like, “Hey, we gotta…we need this thing. How would you recommend that we approach it?” I tell them what I think. They say, “Yeah, that sounds really smart. Here, let’s do a project together.”
Paul: So two questions: how do they come to know you?
Karen: So I wrote a book called Content Strategy for Mobile. You may be familiar with it because you wrote the foreword.
Paul: That’s right.
Karen: Came out in 2012.
Paul: I remember it.
Karen: You may not have read it, but I —
Paul: I did! I read it!
Karen: Did you read it?
Paul: I, there’s a certain responsibility that one incurs when one writes a foreword.
Rich: It’s very good. It’s a quick read, but it’s very good.
Karen: It’s a quick read. It outlines my point of view on —
Paul: Don’t steal my thunder for having read it! You’re like, “It’s a quick read. Whatever.” [laughter]
Rich: You’d better pull a quote fast. [laughter]
Paul: It’s a good and thoughtful book. It was very novel at the moment. It was just sort of, nobody was thinking that way, and it’s very much sort of, it set the trend for a lot of what we now know as responsive design, and…
Paul: So people have maybe read the book?
Karen: Yes. I think most of the work that I do is variations on themes coming out of that book, like we…we need to replatform our CMS, we need to think about how we’re going to publish to different devices. We’re interested in being able to do contextual targeting, or personalization, even. And all those things are great ideas that the marketing team has ginned up, but actually to make that happen is going to require a substantial amount of content structure and information architecture work.
Paul: I mean, that’s what I’m wondering. People are coming to you with specific requests and kind of no plan, and a lot of times you have to tell them, yeah, this is going to be like a team of four over the next 18 years who are going to have to do this if you want to do this right. Like, how do you break the news?
Karen: Like, personalization is real hot these days. I guess personalization’s been hot for 15 years, but…
Karen: I think there’s a lot of marketing teams out there, especially when they’re confronting the multi-device future, and they want to have magical moments that happen in-store, or they want to personalize the experience based on what they know about the customer —
Rich: Careful with your tone, Karen. Your future clients may be listening.
Karen: I…I…[laughter] I hope they are listening to me.
Paul: This is so funny, like, just to pause, this is all — all three of us are now, we’ve hit the point in our career where we are expected to deliver bad news, rather than good news.
Karen: I feel like with that exact issue, there’s often some marketer that’s all hot on this idea, and then there’s a whole team of people underneath them who are like, “Uh….we can’t actually deliver on that, unless we do all these other things, and…”
Karen: So those are the people who will, will bring me in. And I feel like I’m very articulate at this point about saying, “Hey, if this is your vision, that’s great. I’m gonna help you get closer to that vision, but…we’re gonna have to do these other things.”
Karen: And if what I deliver is helping push them in that direction, but also a more structured, more maintainable architecture and content repository, I’ve done my job.
Paul: How do you deliver that news? Just calmly? Professionally? With eye contact?
Karen: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s like, OK, I get what you want, and I’m going to help you get there, and I know what you’re talking about, but also these things have to happen. And do they often get bored and wander off at some point? Sure.
Rich: That’s quite similar to our conversations.
Paul: Well that’s the thing: it’s very hard to have the courage of your convictions, but then once you get over the other side, you’re like, “Yeah, I’m never going back. I’m never going to just sell.”
Paul: “I’m going to just tell people what it’s really gonna take to do this, and if it takes them four months to realize I was right, that’s OK.”
Rich: Well, so you’ll have hopefully built a reputation where if you’re telling someone, “Hey listen, this might be a little tough to swallow, but A, B, and C.” Like, huh, you know what, I mean, this is not a person that is trying to finagle something out of me here. This is reality. And I may never speak to them again, but at least I just heard reality.
Rich: You know?
Karen: I mean, I think marketing…there’s this idea that it should help attract the right clients to you, but it should also repel the wrong clients.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Karen: And straight talk about what I think repels people that I don’t want to work with?
Karen: I’m doing my job right.
Paul: It’s hard to accept that. You have to get to, like, a place of stability before you can do that.
Karen: Right. It’s a luxury.
Paul: It is, right? OK, so there’s writing. There’s speaking.
Karen: Yes. I do a lot of speaking.
Paul: You do a lot of speaking. Probably more than almost anyone I know.
Rich: You’re almost, like, a professional speaker, I mean, it’s…
Karen: It’s probably a quarter of my time.
Rich: That’s a meaningful amount.
Karen: Which is a good chunk, but…
Rich: Can it be more? Is that even possible?
Karen: Mmmm…I would not want it to be more.
Karen: Every year I want it to be slightly less, and every year it’s not ever slightly less.
Rich: It’s not? [laughter]
Paul: And you like to work, still.
Karen: I do.
Paul: And that’s the one thing, whenever I see you, I mean, you’re like, just before we started recording, you were telling me that you are still kind of intimately involved in making the websites, right?
Karen: Yes. I have web projects right now where websites are happening under my direction.
Paul: Exactly. And —
Karen: It’s a pain. Man, it’s a pain in the ass.
Paul: I think that, listeners may not know, that’s actually very unusual for someone who has…Karen’s range of experience and also sort of her position in the industry? Most people, they haven’t looked at a piece of HTML in four or five years. And…you keep your hands dirty.
Karen: I do. I try to.
Paul: What’s the point of that for you? Like, what’s that get you?
Karen: I think, I think we all…look at our, I’m hoping to have another 20 years in this industry, and —
Karen: You’ve gotta keep your hands dirty. You really do. Because I think otherwise you start to lose your grip on what’s actually happening and you just become —
Rich: Well don’t just sit still, right? I mean, it’s not —
Karen: Yeah, you become someone who pontificates.
Paul: Then you’re holding up a picture of a monkey in a diaper.
Karen: And then you’re like, “But it’s a dog, wearing goggles. It’s funny.”
Paul: Yeah. I mean, it’s true, it is funny. It’s a funny story. It’s still working.
Karen: It is.
Paul: He was right. 20 years later…
Paul: How does the conference stuff translate into business for you? Does it? I always wonder about that.
Karen: I think of it as my marketing. It’s marketing that I get paid to do, and I enjoy doing it, and…much like with any advertising, you don’t know which parts of it work, but people know who I am, and then every once in a while some random person emails me and they’re like, “Hey, we’ve got a big project, it’s perfect for you.”
Paul: That’s really it — so it’s like a couple months, there’s some time, you like, you’re up on stage…
Rich: It could be anything. It could be…
Karen: It could be years.
Rich: It could be years. It could be…not that person that attended the conference. It could be they heard about a challenge in the other group and they say, “Hey, you know, I was at a talk about four months ago…” It could be that disconnected.
Paul: “My friend sent me this YouTube video.” Yeah.
Rich: It could be…
Rich: It’s one of the trickiest things, and I think one of the least satisfying things to do, is to say, well, how do you think that meet-up went?
Paul: It’s really tricky, right? Because —
Rich: Don’t, don’t bother keeping score of that. Like, what do you mean? Like did I sign deals out of that meet-up? Don’t do that. It’s not the point. The point is to, to raise profile, and to be in the conversations out there.
Paul: Well you also get a very clear sense when you’re doing a lot of stuff if it’s going better this month than it was last month. You’re in a position where you’re going, like, I might wind down speaking. Obviously you can’t. Like, I think your business would suffer, right? Your next 20 years…
Karen: It’d be tough, yeah.
Paul: Yeah. But at the same time, you kind of know, like, OK, I was doing this five years ago, I’m doing this now, and this feels like…like I’m reaching more people, that I’m better at my craft, and…
Karen: Yes. I would say…five years ago, I maybe gave one or two talks a year?
Karen: And now I give 25?
Rich: That’s a lot.
Karen: And — I’ve had years where I gave 40 or more.
Rich: That’s incredible.
Karen: And…I definitely think that’s probably been the biggest driver of me doing the kind of work I want to do. Like, I’m not…I’m not responding to RFPs for “can you make our website” anymore. I’m only doing work that somebody basically comes to me and says, “Hey, this seems like the perfect project for you.” And it is.
Paul: There’s an observation here, which is that, most people who are that accessible and are that…out in the world, are sort of native social connectors, who don’t necessarily do a lot of hands-on stuff. Like, that is very unusual. It’s very unusual for a practitioner to be that engaged with the community.
Karen: I’m not a connector. I mean, I feel like for me, that’s a skill that I…have learned how to do—
Paul: I feel the same way.
Karen: I’m not a natural at it.
Rich: That’s funny, because you, I mean, just our example, you’ve connected me with some of the most important professional relationships I’ve ever had.
Paul: But consciously.
Karen: I enjoyed that. Yeah, and I guess it’s like, I think there’s people who just do that really naturally?
Karen: Like that’s their…they’re extroverted by nature? I am, I am not.
Karen: I think about it, and…
Rich: You’re careful about it. You’re not just saying, “Hey! You all should hang out.”
Karen: “You should have lunch.”
Paul: No, I’ve noticed it with the intro notes, because I see I’m the same way. Your thought about who goes into, into this conversation, and how this conversation could go.
Paul: And what success would look like, and it’s not random. Like, if Karen introduces you to someone, it’s because she really feels that you should meet and talk with this person.
Karen: Yeah. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time, right? I mean, I don’t like it when people are like, “Oh, you should have coffee with this person.”
Karen: I’m like, “Why am I having coffee with this person?” Like…
Rich: I also don’t want to be that person, who’s just…
Karen: Has coffee?
Rich: No. The person who’s like, just, for shits, just loves introducing people to people because they think that’s a great way to, like…
Paul: It is a little —
Rich: Raise their own profile. It’s just…
Paul: It’s a little rough sometimes.
Rich: It’s a little smarmy.
Paul: It’s tough when you get the, like, “you two should meet” email out of the blue, and then…
Rich: That I would never do.
Paul: No! Sometimes those are meaningful, too. It’s just, like…
Rich: No, but I would clear — I would say, “Hey, I think you might want to meet this person. How do you feel about an intro?” And then go from there…I don’t know.
Paul: What about, why don’t we build a web platform for easier introductions, where actually we could set up the template. “You two should meet.” You know?
Rich: Like Tinder for professional contacts?
Paul: Yeah, and it’s like, “You two should meet. I feel that you should meet. Here are the reasons why, and here’s what I think — here’s some things I think you should do.”
Paul: And then they have, would have to, like, both opt in, and then…yeah, it would be great!
Rich: That’s interesting. I have the name for it: Jumping to BCC. [laughter] That’s the name. You know, I have this visualization in my mind about Jumping to BCC, of like, someone sort of…walking backwards out of a room. [laughter]
Karen: Slowly sliding through the door.
Rich: It’s such a strange…exit. It’s the strangest exit.
Paul: What people really want to do, I mean what you want is an email client that can let you BCC yourself out of existence right away, like, you’re just like, “I’m not in this conversation.”
Rich: Right. Give me your quick sort of survey of what you think, you know, you’ve had a career that’s had to adjust, at least I have as well, and I think Paul has as well. The web and technology has forced us to kind of continue to morph professionally.
Rich: Over time. And you have a unique perspective — I’ve had to do it from my perspective, but talk a little bit about what you think’s happened that has required you to morph over time, and where you think you’ll have to continue to morph. Like, you talked about it before, about having to keep your hands dirty. I think it’s, part of that is because the damn stuff doesn’t sit still. I mean, we’re more on the technical side, and we thought a framework was going to change the world a year ago, and it’s gone.
Rich: And now there’s another one. And everyone is talking about how this one, this is the one that’s got legs. And…I wouldn’t bet against two years from now, we’ll be thinking about things differently. So if you could talk a little bit about, I mean, obviously, 20, 25 years is a long time, but key turning points or milestones that have sort have caused you to shift thinking.
Karen: Yeah. You know, I tell the story that I was due on a project up at Condé and Razorfish had put in a new CMS platform that I will not name, but I will refer to it only as Schminterwoven. And it was terrible, right? Like, it was…I didn’t even mean any disrespect to the team that implemented it, like, it was a bunch of forms, and what happened as a result was that we had all these visions for how the websites were gonna work, and “wouldn’t it be cool if you could browse this way,” and “wouldn’t it be nice if there were these kind of filters.” And then it turned out that the team that was actually going to manage and update the website, all the journalists and magazine staffers and whatnot, hated the CMS so much that they weren’t going to use it. And they revolted, and said no, and…
Rich: They just boycotted the tool.
Karen: They boycotted it, basically. So that meant that in the very immediate term, a lot of things had to be torn out of the front end of the website because there wasn’t anything to drive it, and in the long term, they wound up tearing out all of Interwoven, and I think they’re still cycling through platforms over there.
Rich: That’s unbelievable.
Karen: It was a bad scene. And it really…had a major effect on me. It was like, sort of a lightbulb moment, where it hit me that all my dreams and ambitions for how I wanted websites to work didn’t matter all that much if we didn’t have tools on the backend that worked well for people.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Karen: And all of that kind of got packaged together in writing a book, but I think, for me, it’s almost like having an ability to survey the landscape and try to figure out how you can articulate someone’s pain to them, in a way that makes them recognize, “Oh, that, that thing. That’s what hurts. I didn’t even know that was what was hurting me, and you’ve just described my pain to me so perfectly that now I actually feel like I can fix that pain.”
Paul: So this is, this is the theme, not the plot. That’s interesting.
Paul: This is you saying, like, I have a mission here.
Karen: It’s…I think that’s the thing that I’m always kind of scanning the horizon for.
Karen: And the thing is, with…content management systems, that’s such a big nest of pain, I figure I could, like, roll around in that for the next 20 years.
Rich: You’re fine. [laughter] You’re fine for a while.
Karen: Never gonna deal with that.
Paul: Well you know, one of the things I think about is what can I do to help people find work that’s meaningful rather than, like, take it away? And some of the systems I built have helped make work for writers. I’m very proud of that.
Paul: Right? And that’s taking that pain away, so that they can be more creative. Like, there’s an ethical goal there that you can just focus on. And then the technology doesn’t matter that much.
Karen: Yeah. It’s…I think working with great people and helping them do work that they want to do, or having the technology help facilitate for them, as opposed to making their jobs worse? That’s a great ambition.
Paul: So connect that a little bit for me. One of the, the things that you are best known for now is that you’re partnered with a man named Ethan Marcotte, and you and he, you have a podcast.
Karen: We do.
Paul: How do I, how do I hear that podcast?
Karen: So if you go to responsivewebdesign.com, you will find our podcast, you will find information about the workshops that we do on responsive web design.
Paul: So what I was going to ask you about is responsive web design. [laughter]
Karen: At responsivewebdesign.com…
Paul: You have —
Rich: The format’s cool. You should mention the format. I think it’s kind of neat.
Karen: So every week we interview a client, or you know, a company, about their responsive redesign.
Karen: So we started this out where I was like, “Hey, you know…I would like to have a newsletter. And maybe we could like…” We do workshops, so we’ll go in and spend a day or two with a company helping them get set up to do a successful responsive redesign. I was like, “What if we could tell some of the stories from some of these redesign processes, like how could I start a newsletter?” And I was like, “Well…newsletters are terrible. What if I called these people on the phone and, like, asked them questions? Wait a minute: what if I recorded, I could record that phone call with Skype — wait a minute! That would be a podcast!” [laughter]
Paul: You see —
Rich: A glimpse into Karen’s thoughts.
Paul: Well no I love it —
Karen: 90 episodes later…
Paul: Content production processes just fall out of your brain, right? [laughter] You’re like, “No, wait a minute, this is an audio signal that’s going…ah, wait a minute.”
Karen: I was like, I made a content strategy!
Paul: It happens. It happens all day long. It’s terrible.
Paul: It’s a weekly podcast.
Paul: And you have a business and you do workshops and you advise generally across the media but also other industries as to responsive web design. What is responsive web design?
Karen: So responsive web design is a, it’s often thought of as a front-end technique where you use fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries to have your website fluidly adjust to every size device.
Paul: You see this when you, like, resize a website and you make it really small and suddenly everything kind of like, moves around a little bit but still makes sense?
Rich: Kind of elastic.
Paul: So it works at different size — which means it works on mobile…
Karen: It works on mobile devices, but what it turns out is that the front-end stuff, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s easy, but those concepts are relatively straightforward for companies to wrap their heads around.
Karen: Talented designer-developer can sit down and be like, “Yes, OK.” Like, we can make this happen. Really, the problem for these companies is that they’ve got this huge giant mess of a desktop website and they can’t just squish it down, so…I can remember doing an interview with somebody who was like, “You need to explain to our executives that responsive web design isn’t just beating the website with the media query stick. It’s about, we need to change what we’re publishing, we have to fix our content, we’ve got to change our publishing processes, we’ve got to prototype more…” And so I wrote another book called Going Responsive that talks about kind of the broader organizational and operational changes.
Paul: Somebody else wrote the foreword on that one.
Karen: Somebody else.
Paul: [dejected sigh]
Rich: It wasn’t as good. I just want to say.
Paul: The foreword?
Paul: I don’t…I don’t…
Rich: We can just leave it at that.
Paul: Yeah. No, it was great. It was an excellent foreword. Who wrote that foreword?
Karen: Frank Chimero.
Paul: That’s a good guy. That guy wrote a great…
Karen: He’s good people. I really —
Paul: He wrote a very good foreword.
Karen: You set a high bar that I needed someone —
Rich: He’s a very good guy.
Paul: He’s a good person and he did a fine job, Rich.
Rich: He did a fine job. He’s just not Paul Ford.
Paul: Oh just…stop. All right, so, help me understand, then, they have to simplify their world. They have to, like, get their content into some kind of order. How does focusing on the responsive design and pushing people to restructure and reorganize some of what they do, how does that connect to the mission to…make lives easier for content producers?
Karen: Oh, I think so many websites are just filled with so much garbage, and, like, they’re too big, and they’re dense, and nobody knows if what’s on there actually provides any value, and you go in, you pare that down, you clean it up, you prioritize it better, and people then have tools that they can use, you know, they’re thinking about the website in a smarter way.
Paul: So OK, so kind of working backwards from like, if you take this as a principle, not just as a technology — if you take responsive design as, like, you need a simple, elegant approach that works across different platforms?
Paul: And you work backwards from that, all the way to the tools that people use to create the content, you’re gonna have a more humane experience for everybody, including the user.
Karen: Yeah. Yeah, there’s…I think there’s a lot of changes in web design and development, so…more modern content management systems that are more API-driven, rather than being total monolithic packages, the trend toward pattern libraries, or compontentized design systems that, that fits really neatly with the responsive redesign, because if you think about your website as a bunch of little Lego bricks as opposed to one big template, then that compontentized system is sort of inherently responsive, because you can restructure all of those little blocks.
Paul: Gotcha. Now is that, is that the way things are going to go, instead of just, like, setting up one big WordPress? Do you think people will be building all these websites out of little blocks?
Karen: Yeah. I think, I mean, I think if you’re running a relatively good-sized website, that’s definitely how you should be thinking about it. I don’t think WordPress is going to go away, but…
Paul: No, I don’t, either.
Karen: You know, people are like, “Oh, it’s 25% of the web!” And I’m like, well, it’s 25% of the web running a bunch of small-business brochure-wear websites.
Karen: If you’re —
Paul: Well….and major media brands, but OK, OK, OK.
Paul: Suddenly I became a WordPress defender, which has not been my role.
Rich: Run with it, Paul! [laughter]
Paul: So it’s like anything, the world’s gonna get a little more decentralized, a little bit weirder.
Paul: So you apply the simple humane core principle to your day-to-day work.
Karen: I would like to think so, yes. Try to be nice to people.
Paul: That’s working out? I mean, you’re 20 years in, right?
Rich: If you can do that and make money? It’s a pretty good, pretty good deal.
Paul: And you’ve got 20 years to go?
Karen: I’m —
Paul: At least?
Karen: That’s what I’m imagining, right?
Paul: Me, too. All right, so we’re gonna be nice for 20 years.
Karen: You and me. We’re gonna…
Paul: Even Rich.
Karen: Decent human beings.
Rich: Not gonna sign up for this yet. I wanna think this one over.
Paul: I don’t know, seems to be working pretty well for Karen.
Rich: Haha, OK.
Paul: You can be a kind, respectful person and still be professionally respected and good at your job.
Rich: I think we’ve got a theme for this podcast.
Paul: What is that theme?
Rich: Be nice.
Paul: Awwwww. That’s great. I don’t think…we’re not gonna title it that.
Paul: All right, so Karen, if people need to get in touch with you, find out about what you’re doing, what do they do.
Karen: Well if they’re interested in responsive web design, they can go to responsivewebdesign.com. There’s a form there —
Paul: What’s — I’m sorry, what is the URL?
Karen: It’s responsivewebdesign.com.
Rich: Got it.
Paul: OK, thank you. Got it.
Karen: They can also hit me up on Twitter. I’m @karenmcgrane on Twitter. They can find me at karenmcgrane.com.
Paul: And you are, you’re happy to hear from people.
Karen: Within reason.
Paul: OK. So nice — well, we know what the limits are. They have to be respectful. They have to be nice.
Karen: Be kind. Respectful.
Paul: Yeah. Takes a little while to respond, you’re a busy person.
Karen: I have an assistant.
Karen: I often will send her an email, and I’ll write her two words, like, “sounds great but no.” I call it “running it through the Selina filter,” where she then turns those words into even nicer words.
Paul: Let’s publicly thank Selina.
Karen: Selina is the best human on earth. I genuinely believe that.
Paul: And you just, so, Selina, thank you, for making Karen partially possible.
Karen: I like that.
Paul: All right, well, thanks to Karen. Thanks to Selina.
Rich: Thank you, Karen.
Paul: This was a great interview. Thank you so much for coming by.
Karen: Yeah! It’s always a pleasure to talk to y’all.
Paul: Rich, that Karen McGrane is a cool person.
Rich: I just feel calmer, I feel more centered.
Paul: I just, I wish I could work with her every day.
Rich: She’s great.
Paul: She is just the best, and she is, she could —
Rich: Known her for years….
Paul: She couldn’t know more, as far as I can tell. She knows as much about the history of technology and how things work as anybody.
Rich: Yeah. And a great perspective.
Paul: Yeah. Always good to see her. So thank you to Karen. Rich, this is the Track Changes podcast. I hope people will go to iTunes and rate it.
Rich: Five. Stars.
Paul: Five stars, or whatever you heart tells you.
Rich: If you’re gonna rate it three or less, please don’t rate it.
Paul: If you’re gonna, if you have issues with this podcast, you just email us. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich: Yeah. And we’ll fix it.
Paul: Yeah, we want to, we want, this is for you. The listener.
Rich: Unless it’s something like, “Make Rich go away.” Then…
Paul: Eh, it’s still doable. Still on the list.
Rich: That’s true.
Paul: Yeah. Just send that email. email@example.com. We’ll talk to you again soon.
Rich: OK. Bye.