Beyond your style guide intentions

5 minute read

As content strategists, we pledge allegiance to our style guides. And we should. Our content, under guide, indivisible, but flexible and adaptable for all: that’s the dream.

Lately, we’re getting better at making the dream come true. Work by teams like those at MailChimp and 18F, for example, has been a step forward for all of us. More of us place socio-political themes beside grammar and mechanics rules. We promise that our content will embody ideals like gender, sex, age, and race equality. And we encourage each other to do the same.

But how do we make sure the socio-political themes in our style guides actually become part of the experiences we create, and not just part of our overall content operations? How do we make sure our audiences—especially those treated unfairly—don’t feel that our style guides are at best lies with good intentions?

Acknowledge style guide limitations

With energy and compassion, we remind our team members (and ourselves) to use gender-neutral pronouns. We emphasize not attaching value to people’s ages. We caution against presumptions. But these are examples of necessary—not sufficient—conditions for success.To make our big, messy, socio-political promises come true, style guides aren't enough. They’re the meta layer that encircles the work we produce. It’s unlikely that most people in our audiences know they exist, let alone read them. And even the strictest guides are only suggestions; they’re not the core content itself.Step 1 is acknowledging that we have a lot more work to do. We can acknowledge that in the guides themselves. Much like contracts specify exceptions and product labels have usage disclaimers, a style guide should state:

  • That it’s a living document
  • That it’s open to perspectives
  • That memorizing it isn’t the goal
  • That it has an interactive component (e.g., an internal Slack channel) for discussions
  • The ways it embodies the team’s values

Demonstrating these is more important than writing them, though. Open tones and emotional language can create balance for documents known for their declarative statements.

Interact, consume, learn, and repeat

We’re equal parts advocate for process and people. Our best work reflects as much of an understanding of senses and feelings as it does tools and methods. To develop and improve that understanding, we need environmental awareness.Environmental awareness means observing and being part of conversations that may have nothing to do with our content. The conversations our audiences have and share—even when not about our subject matter—reveal a lot about how they think, feel, communicate, and react. When user #27451 interacts with content, they do it as a whole person, not as someone limited by our context. We’re responsible for noticing their contextual indicators.

For example, thanks to Twitter, I discovered the satirical Rent-A-Minority.

Pretty much daily now, I read the satirical Rent-A-Minority. Here's a reminder that it has real calls to action:

Bradley Fields (@bradleyfields) February 22, 2016

If a content team behind some unrelated product I use had noticed that reaction, what might they have noticed I was indicating?

  • That matters of race and gender matter to me
  • That I can relate to being “The Only One in the Room”
  • That I appreciate content that challenges hollow diversity initiatives
  • That I thought that kind of content challenged hollow diversity initiatives

These indicators are a wealth of information. They speak to themes I respect (and don’t). They include specific examples that illustrate those themes. They show how I react when I interact with those examples.We don’t always need expensive research, approved in hard-to-get budgets, to track these kinds of indicators. People are talking about their experiences, with courage, in the open. We need to follow their lead. We need social follow lists that aren’t dominated by people who look like us. We need to replace a couple of happy hours each month with community events.We don’t have to agree with or share all the world views we observe. And we’re not limited to only creating work that avoids every imaginable risk. But we can admit that perspectives matter. We can commit to holding ourselves accountable for how they shape our own intuition. It’ll allow us to draw much more reasonable conclusions and tell more relatable stories.

Show more than we tell

Style guides need illustrations. They should provide examples of what we want to embrace or avoid. We need to give depth to our suggestions.

This means pointing out flaws in our own work. It also means pointing out flaws in others’. We have to do so carefully, of course—not as mockery, but as proof of risk. In a section on sexism, for example, we can include advice like not ever promoting anything as “perfect… for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night.” We can and should:

  • Discuss the impact a campaign like that had
  • Cover how it could've affected (or did affect) our own audiences
  • Compare it to similar content we’ve created

We also need to show our teams what’s gotten great responses from our audiences. We can use these cases not only as guideposts but as proof—that our work has had meaning for people before, and that it can again.

Avoid mistakes we’re not allowed to make

We have to get the easy things right. We have to accept that there are absolute no’s. We have to guard against considering our wit an exception to established rules.If we're in an editorial meeting and someone has the courage to say a pitch is offensive, we can't be the person whose feedback begins with, “But what if we—.” Our job description doesn’t include spinning insensitivity. And we should speak up when someone else thinks theirs does.It’s also tempting to create experiences just so we can measure real impacts. But we shouldn’t stir reactions just to explore our intuitions. We should experiment with ideas and themes, but we may not turn people into experiments. When considering an idea, we’re not allowed to test it by requiring that our audiences react in ways we don’t need training to predict. That’s not user research; it’s laziness.

Transcend the rise of the machines

As hard as it is to achieve our good intentions, we can create help. We can use machines to create some distance between bad inclinations and the interactions we build. Maya Benari created an inclusivity reminder via Slack bot for 18F. The Hemingway app can analyze structure, approach, and accessibility in real time.Depending on the kindness of robots can only get us so far, of course. Google Analytics, for example, boxes gender demographics as Male, Female, or Unknown. That’s not exactly holistic. User research based only on robot-generated analytics may give us information about people, but it’s also—almost certainly—giving us mischaracterizations.

When sifting through (what can often be) spreadsheets full of these mischaracterizations, though, we can still find useful suggestions. For example, if we want our content to have gender-neutral appeal but our data categorizes the vast majority of people using our content as members of one group, we can build a plan:

  • Evaluate whether our team is built to communicate diverse perspectives
  • Test our content—in focus groups, surveys, etc.—with people who don’t identify as the majority group
  • Test our content with people who do identify as the majority group
  • Compare what we learn people want to our content strategy’s core values
  • Examine how well our style guide speaks specifically to where people’s wants and our values intersect

Do the hard work first, last, and often

We may get better tools and tips, but not shortcuts. There’s no single script to write. There’s no one perfect hire to make. There’s commitment, effort, and pursuit.Style guides have to reflect an ongoing responsibility of service. Our work requires that much. Our audiences deserve it.


Content Style Guides Checklist

A free checklist to help you plan, create, disseminate and maintain a content style guide.

About the author

Bradley Fields

Bradley is a content strategist at the Drupal Association. He believes content is conversation and wants to help people have better ones. He's worked mostly on large sites with deep content catalogs and varied audiences. It's meant bringing structure to complexity. But it's also meant not letting story get lost in the order of things.

Want to connect? Find him on Twitter.

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