Content as Conversation with Ginny Redish

January 31, 2017 by UX-RADIO


Ginny Redish is a world-renowned specialist in plain language, writing for the web and user experience (UX) research and design. She set up one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America and is the author of Letting Go of the Words—Writing Web Content that Works. In this podcast she shares her passion to help us understand content as conversation.


Welcome to UX Radio, the podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience and design. Ginny Redish is a world-renowned specialist in plain language, writing for the web, and user experience research and design. She is a world-renowned specialist in plain language, writing for the web and user experience, research and design.  She setup one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America and is the author of letting go of the words, writing web content that works.  In this podcast she shares her passion to help us understand content as conversation.

Lara:  Thank you so much for being a guest today on UX Radio.

Ginny:  Happy to be here.

Lara:  Tell us a little bit about how you got started. You have such a fascinating history and it would be great for you to share that with the audience.

Ginny:  I’m older than many people in the field. So when I started there really wasn’t a profession of usability, there certainly wasn’t content strategy, there wasn’t the web.    I’m a linguist by training, I’ve always been really interested in clarity and communication. And I had an opportunity some years ago to create an organization that we called the Document Design Center.

The name later got changed to the Information Design Center because after a while it wasn’t only about printed documents but it did start that way with printed documents.  And the goal was to make sure that human beings could use what other human beings created which is in fact what we still do, whatever the medium we are working in.

Lara:  So that was with the American Institutes for Research or what’s called AIR, a think tank in Washington, DC.  So how did you get connected with them?

Ginny:  They use the initials AIR. And I was hired by AIR because of work that I had done on issues of language policy. So the first project that I did for them was to deal with the question of teaching literacy in schools. But then the government decided   that they would be interested in understanding why government documents are so difficult for people to understand.  And they put out a proposal that somebody should actually go and research that topic. And I guess I was in the right place at the right time at AIR and we put together a team that was AIR, Carnegie Mellon University because part of this was to create new curriculum, new graduate and undergraduate degree programs. And also with a design firm in NY called  Siegel+Gale that still does a lot of plain language work.

Lara:  Great, and you had quite a big team there, didn’t you?

Ginny:  What happened was we worked on government documents for the first few years with the government funding. But I think one of the reasons that we got to be the people to do this project was that we promised, AIR promised, that they  create a center that would go on doing it even beyond the government. And that was the Document Design Center.  And in the early 80s when the personal computer came out, I’ve told this story several times, a VP of IBM called me up and said we are about to put a computer on the desk of every executive in America. And we only know how to talk to systems people in the backroom, we don’t know how to talk to end users, these executives on their desk, ‘come and help up.’   So my team turned from government documents to manuals and help systems for software. And that business just exploded in the 1980s to the point where at one point I had 45 writers working for me for IBM, HP, Sony, lots of the major software companies.  That was the 1980s and that’s when usability came in and we actually started the usability lab.

Lara:  So IBM had its own lab and then you setup one of the first independent usability test labs in North America. So what prompted you to setup your own lab?

Ginny:  Actually it was IBM that prompted us because they told us that they would really like to have an independent vendor so that they weren’t testing their own manuals and software themselves.    That was the impetus and the initial funding. And then we spread that to work for many clients in doing that. And then in the early late 80s, early 90s, Janice James who is somebody you should probably also talk to, Janice was head of usability for American Airlines and for Saber which is the travel reservation system that many airlines use.  And she had a usability lab and she wanted to have people learn how to use and do usability. And she hired me and Joe Dumas at AIR to help her with that training.

And she also started the Usability Professionals Association which is now the User Experience Professionals Association. And so through our collaboration,  the three of us Janice, James, Joe Dumas and I, we really spread usability and the idea of doing usability testing because Joe and I wrote the first book about it based on the training we developed with Janice and for Janice.

Lara:  Give us a visual of what that looked like.

Ginny:  Find the old book that Joe and I wrote, first edition ’93 and second revised edition in ’99. It has pictures of labs in the back. And it was a two room lab, nowadays people are building three room labs. But it had a room that the participant was in which we could setup in many different ways.    In fact I can remember doing a usability test of a portable telephone in which we set it up so that part of it seemed like the living room and part of it seemed like the outdoor patio because we wanted people to get the sense that you could pick up the phone  from the kitchen and walk out to the patio.

Then the second room was the observation work room that had all the technology and there was one way glass between them so that the people could actually watch what was happening in the participant’s room. A lot of that has gone away today because of the connections that you can make so you don’t have to have the one way glass. You can feed from one room to another without actually having the glass etc.

Lara:  I still like the glass because you can still see their expressions on their face. But also if you feed it from another room, you can have a camera as well.

Ginny:  Even then we were taking picture in picture so that we would have a picture of the participant’s face in the corner of the screen, capturing the screen of what the participant was looking at. But what’s so different today with the wonderful logging programs and various systems that exist is that it’s all seamless.

I remember that day the person operating the tape recorder and the person operating the computer would have to sync so that the logging program and the tape recording would be at the same place if you wanted to look up a particular piece of the action.

Lara:  It sounds exciting to be a part of that, to launch something that amazing.

Ginny:  It was fun to get things started. But I think it’s also fabulous today that there are so many usability professionals, user experience professionals, design professionals, people give themselves many different names and yet they are all working on the same problem and that is making products work for people and actually involving those people somehow in studying before you design and participating in the design and doing evaluations throughout the process. And that we are doing it in so many different media today, on small phones, that we have eye tracking track.    Eye tracking always existed but it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d want an ordinary person to do for you back 30 years ago when in order to capture what someone was doing and where their eyes were going, you had to make them keep their head absolutely still and put it in a chin holder and that sort of thing.  And today obviously we can do eye tracking without bothering the participant.

Lara:  Sure, and a lot of those tools have improved a lot. So when you talk about making the product work for people, for me it makes me think of all the work you’ve done with plain language and going back to your linguistics.  So talk about the connection there.

Ginny:  Making the product work for people has many different aspects and they all are intertwined. So the language, the information design, the visual design, the organization of the information, just making sure you have the right information, they are all really important.    And I think that’s what has brought us to the whole notion of strategy, whether it’s UX strategy, content strategy, that I hope we’ll talk about in a little while. But yes, my personal passion in all of this and I do always like to work in teams with people who have the complementary skills,  my personal passion of course is the language and the content.  And part of making it work for people is that they have to be able to find what they need, understand what they find and then be able to use it  appropriately and language is a really critical part of that.

Lara:  So you mentioned content strategy, let’s talk about your definition of content strategy.

Ginny:  When I do workshops and I do a lot of training, I like to say, content strategy are both nouns, and nouns aren’t nearly as informative as verbs.  We should use verbs.  So content strategy to me means thinking strategically about the content that you are going to put out in whatever medium you are going to put it out in. In fact in many cases in multiple media with the same content.

So to me content  strategy, because we are thinking at a strategy level, is about in one place governance which is Lisa Welchman’s specialty and I hope you are talking with her because I know she is coming out with a Rosenfeld Media book about that.  What governance means is that it is not the situation where just everybody and anybody puts up their content and nobody is thinking about it at the big picture level. I work with a lot of organizations in which when I go in to help them, and I just had this yesterday, I’m working with one group in a particular organization and

on a particular topic, helping them with their web content on it. And I wasn’t quite sure about some of the things I was reading, so I went and Google’d the topic and discovered a page in the same organization’s website but in another division on the same topic that I later learned was totally out of date but there it was.  Content strategy would say that at some level, somebody knows about both of those things and knows which is right and takes down the one that’s out of date.

So that’s governance.  Content strategy is also about issues of what you are going to write, who is going to write it, again just thinking strategically about how you are going to accomplish your goals.  And my friend who is a content strategist, likes to think about content strategy as aligning your content goals with business goals.  And that’s also part of content strategy.

And my personal part of this and when I’m often invited for example, Kristina Halvorson’s Confab workshops, I’m kind of the content person.    So I’ve been talking to you just now about the strategy side of content strategy and that’s really important because that’s what lifted content strategy beyond just content.   But the other word is content. And content is about what are your messages? What tone? What voice? What style? You can have different voices and styles for different audiences or different parts or different media but that it done purposefully and doesn’t just happen.  So having style guides, voice guides, tone guides, message guides, that’s all part of content strategy.

Lara:  What do you think is the biggest challenge that organizations face when they are trying to either develop or revise their content?

Ginny:  Silos. The biggest problem is the content belongs to different people. Sometimes content that ought to be together belongs to different people and they don’t even know about each other.

I’ll tell you another story, I was doing a workshop a few years ago for an organization where they had invited people from many parts of the organization to come to the workshop. And I had selected with help, which I always do, with help from the person in the organization and together we had selected some examples to make as examples as exercises, practices in the class. And I had picked a practice from one part of the organization and as I handed it out, somebody in the room said, ‘I’ve never seen this and this topic belongs to us.’ And again it was two different parts of the organization, each having information about the same topic out there on the website and neither knowing about the others.   So to me that’s not the only one but it’s one of the major points, the point of content strategy is to bring it all  together and have the organization either have one voice or know purposefully what its different voices are for different situations.

Lara:  So what advice do you give that organization on how to accomplish that?

Ginny:  Putting together a cross agency, cross organization task force that has people from all the parts of the organization and the commitment from the very highest level to get out of the silos. And to have content strategy, have an organization that understands that the website is the organizations. And to find ways to collaborate.

Lara:  That’s great. One of the things that you had mentioned in our previous conversation was creating a successful conversation. I really love that phrase and I’d love for you to expand on that.

Ginny:  As you know, my book Letting Go of the Words, Writing Web Content that Works, it’s all about content as conversation. That’s really the theme of the book and I think I emphasized it even more in the second edition that came out in 2012 than I did in the first 2007 edition. So your whole goal particularly in the website but I think in everything you communicate, I think all of communication is conversations. And so to have a successful conversation, the first thing you have to do is realize that a conversation requires two sides, it’s not a monologue. And therefore it isn’t about content, it isn’t about what you or the organization have to say. It’s about who is going to come to your website where it’s about who is going to come to the website and what is it that they need to know?

So a successful conversation allows people to find what they need, understand what they find and use it appropriately. And that means you have to understand who is coming and understand a lot about them and particularly what they want and need to know.

Lara:  So typically in some of the projects where you consult, do you come up with personas per se from the information you already know? Or hopefully they’ve already defined those people and have user tested that before. But let’s say an organization has not even defined their personas, what process do you go through in your consulting to help them with that?

Ginny:  The first thing that we need to do is go and get the data to create reasonable personas for their information. If I can get them to go out and speaking about Janice  James again, when she was at American Airlines, one of the projects she had me do along with one of her internal staff people, we went and sat in travel agencies to understand what the work travel agents they do, the pressures they were under, the problems that they had who they were etc.. So if I can get the client to go out and do user research, that’s the very best. But you know that doesn’t always happen, they don’t have the budget, they don’t have the time etc.    So then we start looking for   internal information, like who answers the phone calls? That’s often a great source of information. Or what kind of feedback are they getting through contact us or other things?    A lot of my clients use a service that puts up a little survey on the website and asks people questions. And there is often extremely useful information not only in the basic questions that this company puts up but in the questions they ask about demographics or what people were looking for.    Or sometimes if they aren’t doing that, I get them to put up a little survey that will capture some of that information.    Now of course that only captures people who actually come to the website and sometimes your most important persona is the person who should be coming but isn’t yet coming.    So we have to think about who they want to be their customers.

So there are lots of ways of getting at data. But I’ll go even further and I know that some people in the persona community really don’t approve of what I’m about to say but I think it is useful. And that is, if I have a client who has only thought about content from their own internal, this is what we have to say and they don’t have personas and they aren’t about to go out and do the research to get the data, I will let them create what I’ll call assumptive personas just by thinking through the conversation. And I have several examples that I use in workshops where it is actually pretty obvious just from the content who the content is for.

I’ll give you an example I often use in workshops, it’s from a health situation and it’s about making an appointment. Well you don’t need to do a lot of research to know that the person who is going to a website to find out how to make an appointment to see a doctor is going to be anxious, is going to be worried, could be in a situation and in fact in this particular example, there is information on what if you need an appointment today.  I have your picture in the persona and a scenario for that. And with that persona and scenario, you can look at what was their original page as I won’t show it to you because I can’t because we are on Skype. But also they have since changed it from the way it was when I first picked it up. And that information for the persona that we usually come up with is some mother with a sick baby who wants to go see the pediatrician right now. And it’s at the bottom of paragraphs and paragraphs of text.  So you don’t need to do a lot of  free work on data to say if these people had a persona in mind they wouldn’t have organized the information the way they did.   And so I do let people do personas and scenarios even without the data when I know that they are doing that will fundamentally change their outlook on their content.

Lara:  And even with assumptive personas, depending on the amount of information you know about your consumer, you can then validate that with the user testing.

Ginny:  Of course and that’s the whole point about assumptive personas, that every time you have any information that you go back and say were we right in the assumptive persona and change the personas to match what you are learning about your users.    You also just made a very important comment that I should’ve picked  up before and that is another way to get a lot of good information early on is to do usability testing of whatever it is you are going to change because you learn a lot about what is working out and what isn’t working well. And you’ll learn a lot about people which can help you as you move into the design process.    So usability testing is not only something you do later, it isn’t even something that you need to wait for a new draft of if you have something to start with, usability testing before is also a terrific technique.

Lara:  And I think in today’s agile world, we even user test paper prototypes.  So everything has in a good way moved the process up in the sequence of things to begin that earlier in the process.

Ginny:  I’m so happy to realize that that is what has been happening over the last couple of decades because when we started, the idea that most people out there had was that you did it all and then you tested it. I’ve been pushing for 30 years to say no, it was the same thing, the content people will wait and we’ll do all of the design and at the end we’ll bring in some writers and put the content in, everything we’ve already done.    And of course we all know it doesn’t work well that way. We all have to be part of the team from the beginning. And I’m really glad to see so much more of that happening now than was true decades ago.

Lara:  I totally agree. And it’s so much more fun to work collaboratively like that and to be able to pivot when you need to and make changes when you find out something is not working well.

Ginny:  Exactly. And that is so important and I think there is a lot more of that going on in school classes. And it’s interesting that in the field of technical communication, school classes were university classes which for a long time have been project based with real clients and real collaboration. And computer science classes were really not for a long time, it was really about each student creating algorithms. I think, I’m not terribly tied into the computer science educational community, but I think there is more project work and more team collaboration because I think that coming out of school, knowing how to work in teams is a really important skill. And people hiring people should really be looking for people who are comfortable, respecting other people’s skills and working together collaboratively.  It’s interesting because when I do workshops, I always have as part of the day, people doing peer review for each other because we’ve all learned in school that to share an early draft was cheating and to let someone else help you with your work was cheating. But in the workplace, collaboration and teamwork is really absolutely essential.

Lara:  Sometimes the peer review can be a vulnerable state as well. But I think it’s so critical and it’s good to get people comfortable with that.

Ginny:  Exactly. You have to be able to put your ego in the drawer. That’s another thing that I have to really work with clients on also because we should have pride in authorship. And I know we all do have a lot of pride in our authorship but if we realize that it’s all about content as conversation and it isn’t about my voice or your voice, it’s about satisfying the customer, then that allows us to put our ego in  the drawer and think about it from a point of view of how can we all together succeed? And we succeed when our readers succeed in finding, understanding and using.    Again I wish there was more of that when people come into the workforce knowing.

Lara:  And I think for corporate executives or in organizations, when you come back with the results of your user testing, that really helps them empathize with the users and frames things in a new light.

Ginny:  I’ve volunteered and been part of making those things happen and I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it as well as feeling that it helps the community and it helps other people in the community help other people. So it’s kind of pay it forward which I think is great. You mentioned the Center for Plain Language so I should talk for a moment about that. There are several organizations each of which is quite small but I think it’s a really important thing. And if people are interested in clear writing, not only on the web but clear writing is really critical in everything that we   do, all of the material that we live our lives with from instructions to  forms to  voting. And in the Clinton administration, a group got together of people from many different agencies who were concerned with reinventing government in plain language. It was headed by a woman named Anneta Cheek who at that time was at the Federal Aviation Administration. And it still exists, it’s called and they are actually responsible for the guidelines that we do. And the US has a federal law that everything that comes out of the government should be in plain language.  I know everything hasn’t happened to make sure that happened. But what it does do is it gives you as a citizen the right to take a government document and say to whoever is giving it to you, ‘I don’t understand this, it violates the law because it’s not in plain language.’

So  And Annetta retired from the government, in part because she wanted to do more than she could do as a government employee. And obviously plain language expands way beyond the government. And she and several others of us put together an organization that is the Center for Plain Language and the website is  And in fact it was a lot of the work of center that made the plain language law   happen. They also I think do great things.    There are also several international organizations and another thing that I’m involved in at the moment along with many other people is a European project called IC Clear and I believe the website is  And it’s funded by the European Commission to create a new graduate certificate for people who want to be better communicators, better writers. And it’s being done on the user centered design process and people are going to learn how to communicate not just by writing shorter sentences and shorter words but by creating the documents or the communications that work for people.  And I’m quit excited about that and it’s in the prototype stage right now.

Lara:  That’s fantastic. So what advice would you give to UX designers or those in the profession of usability testing?

Ginny:  So first of all it’s interesting that you say UX designers or usability testing because we have a lot of trouble with those words,  don’t we?

Lara:  Yes.

Ginny:  When I did the keynote for the UXPA conference, the theme were communities and the communities that we belong to. And one of the things I said was in all of these fields, have two definitions of what we do. And one is what I’ll call  little u and big u. Little u when people say usability, sometimes they just mean I just do usability testing. And big u would be UX or usability and the meaning UX meaning we create the product that works for people.  So we always have to think about, do you mean design as in what the page looks like? Or do you mean design as in we create the product that works for people?  So if you mean UX designers as people who think of themselves as designing whether it’s creating the visual design or the interaction design or the information design, my most important advice is don’t forget the content. Bring the content in from the very beginning.

Please never design anything with lorem ipsum. That’s my advice to designers. And my advice to people who think of themselves as usability testers is think bigger, think broader and don’t be the usability police which is a no win situation. Get involved with the team from the beginning and think about it again as how do we create the product that works for people with all of the techniques that are useful for doing that?    I guess my advice to all of them is respect each other’s skills and none of us can bring  everything to making a product that works for people. But if we pool our skills and respect each other’s skills and work together, we will be able to do it. So find your niche in whatever team you are part of where you are contributing something that everybody else on the team needs.

Lara:  That’s wonderful. And one last question, what would you like to be your legacy or your lasting contribution to the world?

Ginny:  In one sense the growth of this terrific profession. So anything to do with helping to get it started just because I was in there very early on in helping it to spread and helping everybody to think about people. And think about the conversations that they have. But I guess what I’d really like my contribution to be is content as conversation and remember the content. It’s wonderful to think about navigation and search because if people can’t find it, it might as well not be there. And it’s wonderful to think of all the aspects of design but people don’t come to places for the joy of navigating or searching or to admire the design, they come for information. And everybody has to think about what is the information that people need and want? And how do we make successful conversations out of that?

Lara:  I think you have been called the mother of usability. So you have contributed quite a bit to this field.

Ginny:  I think I’m the mother only because I was there early on.  And it’s wonderful if they all count themselves among my children, to have 1000s of children doing it including yourself and all of your colleagues. So I’m really very pleased and excited that there are so many people today being involved in all of this.

Lara:  Thank you so much for your time today and being a guest on UX Radio.     Ginny:  Thank you very much Lara for having me on UX Radio. I think what you are doing is a wonderful thing for the community, talking about volunteering, here is your contribution and it’s terrific.

Lara:  Thank you so much. Thanks to Steve Crosby for digital development and original score piece by Cameron Michelle.


In 1979, Ginny Redish founded the Document Design Center at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC, which she directed for 13 years. There, Ginny and her interdisciplinary team studied the problems that both writers and readers have with workplace writing. Through many consulting projects, they helped major companies and government agencies communicate clearly both online and in print.

In 1985, Ginny set up one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America. Users came to try out interfaces and documentation from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SAP, Sony, and other clients.
Since 1992, Ginny has been working with private companies and government agencies as a consultant in clear writing and usability.

Most of her work today is helping clients make information-rich web sites meet both business goals and site visitors’ needs. Ginny specializes in content strategy, information design, plain language, usability and user experience research, and writing for the web — including writing for the small screen of tablets and smart phones.
All of Ginny’s research, training, and writing projects are collaborative efforts with a goal of helping client teams hone their skills.

Ginny is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Harvard University.