Confab 2018 – Recap

My first visit to Confab was really enjoyable–definitely makes me feel that I should spread my wings and attend more conferences outside my immediate areas of professional interest. 1 One thing we can say for sure–Katrina Halvorson and Brain Traffic really know how to put on a great event.


  • I really like the mix of single track speakers to multi-track options. It cuts down on FOMO 2 and lessened the chances of my not making it to a talk because of getting waylaid in the transition. It also increased the likelihood of being able to talk about reactions to a speaker with attendees at meals.
  • Nice curation of topics–I left feeling like I was well informed about what is most relevant in content strategy circles at the moment and didn’t encounter much repetition.
  • While most of what I learned wasn’t directly applicable to my “day job” I came away with a better understanding of the people who are creating content and thinking about the words. I think that will make me more empathetic and hopefully a better collaborator in working with them–if that does play out, I will seriously think about attending a conference geared to FEDs. 3
  • The “Introvert” and “Extrovert” lounges were a really nice touch–one that I’m going to recommend we adopt with the IA Summit if we can afford it. (That said, I did note that as the day progressed, the Extrovert lounge came to look more and more like the Introvert lounge.)
  • Food was delicious–really a cut above the typical conference fare, and mealtimes were among the most pleasurable I’ve ever experienced at a conference. Unhurried–plenty of time to eat, people at tables were very approachable and there were lots of bird-of-a-feather options to help promote conversation. 4
  • Great swag, and as a rule I am not a big fan of conference swag, but who can resist rainbow socks? And extra points for not giving us a horrible cheap conference bag that will wind up in the landfill almost immediately.
  • Lots of attention to detail–I liked the slides that reiterated that if you need help grab someone wearing a Confab tee, I never needed to do so, but it was nice reinforcement that help was there if needed.


I’m not going to recap all my notes, but do want to mention some of the points that really stood out to me from the sessions I attended. I wrote up comprehensive notes for Gerry McGovern’s talk, which are here. 

Brittany Dunkins – Strategic Storytelling

  • We need to humanize our strategies. We need empathy for both internal and external audiences.
  • Data is only as good as the framework through which it is collected.
  • Storytelling is sustained by relationships
  • Best channel vs. best format is often a chicken & egg conundrum

Sara Wachter-Boettcher –  Inclusive Content & Ethical Technology

Run, don’t walk to get a copy of Sara’s book Technically Wrong. Her talk was riveting–bringing together a bunch of small things I’ve noticed (and some I haven’t) and highlighting the way that bias is baked into so much of our digital design in ways that subtly (and not so subtly) communicate “this space isn’t for you” or “your concerns are an afterthought” (at best). Her vignette about the twitter feedback from a product leader that said “we talked about getting rid of it but it performs kinda great” was devastating.

Mai Ling Garcia – Style Guides & Inclusion

This was a case study about creating a style guide to help make the website for the City of Oakland more inclusive. Lots of good stuff.

  • Don’t do style guides for grammer–just pick one already published and go with that
  • Do use style guides to address organizational challenges–e.g., Government was designed by old white guys with all their baked in assumptions
  • Do explicitly include the things you want to correct–spell them out
  • Define metrics–how will you know if you’re making progress? They measured more searchable, more usable, more readable (3rd-5th grad reading level)
  • Open comments and expect criticism–there will be complaints that it’s not implemented perfectly

Dayana Kibilds – The Art & Science of Collaboration

  • Definition of collaboration: “to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially with an enemy occupying one’s country” [no wonder it’s so hard!]
  • To be successful need 4 things:
    • Strategist: ID the problem, passionate, believe in common good, vision of how to solve the problem using collaboration
    • Evidence: Data–historical data, projections, experiences, real use cases–>prove that what you say is a problem is a problem
    • Visuals: visually represent your worst use case–don’t use just words, people understand faster when they see a visual and it helps commit to long-term memory. Visuals also inspire action.
    • The Right People: stakeholder group including your biggest advocate, your most adamant naysayers, and a mix of reasonable respected decision makers who are neutral to you–these are the folks who are going to be swayed by your argument
  • Process:
    • Proposal – must look and feel like a draft no matter how much you’ve worked on it
    • Present to core group of stakeholders–get feedback, take notes!
    • Finalize-incorporate ideas–this will lead to the reasonable stakeholders owning the solution a little bit
    • Share with all stakeholders and SMEs with the message that this was created by your peers.

Andrew Schmidt – UX of Button Copy

More than any other talk I attended, this one got me thinking about how we attend to writing the words that are woven into our interfaces and concluding that the answer is too often “not enough” (and an after-thought). One of his important points was that the words need to be “appropriately complicated.”

I haven’t ever worked in an environment where we’ve had dedicated UX writers but I had the opportunity to talk to several at this event. Even more than with information architecture, user-interface writing (as opposed to copywriting) strikes me as something that is often going to need to be a skill that generalists develop.

At a conference like Confab it makes sense to have sessions on building a UX writing team but I think there is a need and an opportunity for teaching UX professionals at other events how to become more effective writers of microcopy. And there is lots of opportunity for teaching people how and when to test the effectiveness of words in interaction design.

Ida Aalen – Easy & Affordable User Testing

  • Micro testing: A way to test labels/headlines and copy. Print the headline/label and copy on a sheet and fold so only the headline/intro summary is visible. Ask participants to write down questions they’d expect to be answered by the label/headline. Unfold and have them read the copy–were the questions answered?
  • Can add highlighting to micro testing–ask people to highlight copy that makes confident in green/copy that makes nervous in red
  • Here are some sobering data points on relying on expert evaluation in lieu of user testing:
    • 1 in 3 problems identified in heuristic evals were not problems in usability testing
    • 1 in 2 problems found in user testing were not identified by heuristic evals. 5
  • GREAT TIP on mobile device testing–have them sit at a table “hugging” a laptop; the laptop can capture the mobile screen and it still feels pretty natural for the participant. This is a brilliant hack!

Scott Kubie – User Centered Tools

  • Jeff Patton: break big things into small things and then make small plans
  • Build with bricks or a kit? Both are options now
  • Core Modeling: find the overlap in the Venn diagram of biz goals and user needs
  • Design with stories, document with maps, align with journeys
  • Difference between customer journey maps and experience maps — customer journeys are your relationship with them as a customer vs. experience maps are about the experience of a thing in the world, such as buying a house

Vanessa Roman – How to Eat an Elephant

This was a really enjoyable case study about redesigning a content heavy website that absolutely had recommendations applicable beyond the given scenario. Vanessa Roman was a charming speaker–funny and self-deprecating.

  • Audit and categorize–I do think there was a missed opportunity to talk about automated content auditing tools here; I asked about this at the end of the talk and they didn’t learn about them until too late in their project to benefit from them, but that would have been a really powerful lesson learned to weave into the case study. My favorite tool in this category is Screaming Frog, but another attendee told me to also check out PowerMapper.
  • Data doesn’t have feelings, but your stakeholders do–BIG feelings; content wrangling must include compassion for stakeholders as you lead them to better outcomes. Listen to the worry behind the resistance.
  • WBS-Work Breakdown Structure is a project management technique she recommends for ensuring that there are clearly defined owners/decision makers and that work gets done. This one is new to me, so I’m looking forward to learning more as it certainly seems like something that would resonate with information architects–it looks to me kind of like the IA of a project.

Leah Sand – Content Isn’t Hard, Change Is

This is one of those talks that almost seems too trite and yet ultimately felt like something worth saying yet again. It was a good complement to How to Eat An Elephant, which was practical and execution oriented whereas this talk was more psychological/soft-skill oriented, and yet these are so often glossed over or overlooked. 6

  • I will definitely be reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert sooner rather than later as a result of this talk.
  • The key to change is letting go of fear.
  • Instead of responding compatively to resistance she drew upon her experiences nannying and it helped her be more compassionate/empathetic.
  • Frustration is not an interuption of the process, it IS the process.

Books I will be reading because of this conference:

 Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love by Donna Lichaw 

Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

And if this has made you want to attend Confab next year–save the date for April 24-26. Sign up for updates here.


  1. In 2016 I went to a “big-D” type design conference that was very spendy and felt like a big infomercial for a flavor of design I wasn’t sold on, and perhaps I let that send me back into the arms of the IA Summit a bit too thoroughly.
  2. Fear Of Missing Out
  3. Front-End Developers
  4. Of course, that doesn’t stop me from complaining, because when it comes to food at conferences attendees really are unsufferable: I almost died from the complete absence of iced tea! When there wasn’t iced tea at breaks I soothed myself with the thought that surely there would be iced tea at lunch, but it was not to be!
  5. I’d like to see the source material for this–these numbers are new to me and I’m not skeptical of them but I’m not comfortable repeating them without knowing where they came from.
  6. I enjoyed this talk, but I was a little bit put off by some of the imagery in the deck; it felt a bit tone-deaf at an event that had done such a nice job of exploring bias and inclusion to include shirtless images of Ryan Gosling and Idris Elba–I don’t think the answer to the problem of objectifying women in media is to objectify men, it seems to miss the point that the problem is with the objectification itself, so that was a miss….could I be a bigger wet blanket? Probably not.

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