The Hottest New Workshop for Technical Writers

Posted on: December 4th, 2018 No Comments
Recently I had the honor and privilege of speaking one on one with Andrea Ames about her newest workshop. She dives into her mission to help content writers learn how to implement Design Thinking into their work environment to solve problems as creatively as possible. Below is the interview and in it Andrea’s contact information. I think this is valuable information for our WebWorks customers. I am also interested in what human problems content teams face today. Read the interview below to get the context of that question.
Christopher Ward All right, let’s start! Andrea, what would you like us to tell our audience about you? Can you introduce yourself, please?
Andrea Ames Sure. So I am a consultant and coach primarily and I help companies essentially do just two things. One is to create a content business from their teams, so create like a little business within the larger organization and I do that through organization design and effectiveness consulting. And the other thing I help companies with is leadership development. Specifically, content leadership and I do that primarily through coaching. I work with execs and managers, but my happy place is leaders without authority, without positional authority. So content strategists, information architects, and lead content engineers. That’s kind of my sweet spot in terms of content leadership development. I also do some work with entrepreneurs, but for the most part, I am doing consulting and coaching
Christopher Ward Awesome! At Lavacon this year, which was in New Orleans, you had given a workshop called Design Thinking. After surveys and feedback from the attendees, you had the number one workshop, Congratulations! My first question to you is what inspired you to create this workshop? What caused the birth?
Andrea Ames Well, when I worked at IBM back in around 2012, there was a guy there who started a big organization-wide push for design focus in IBM. And when I say design, I mean interaction visual design and user experience design. And at the time the content folks were not really pulled into that very much. So, it was primarily focused on pulling designers, developers, and product management together into a product design kind of a focus, so a lot of the content folks frankly felt left out. Design Thinking methodology is like a big part of the methodology that the design initiative was using. And so, I went to one of the design initiative workshops that the design folks were doing and then I said, “This isn’t that hard. I’m just going to do this for the content people.”
And so, I started to bring the design initiative to the content teams and for me, it really became kind of a labor of love. A little bit because design thinking really is a methodology that is not exclusive to designers and it’s not even, I mean, it isn’t design methodology. If you think about design in the context of problem-solving. So if I have a problem and I designed a solution, then it’s a design methodology, but it’s really a problem-solving methodology and so you can take just about any kind of problem and solve it with a design thinking approach. And so, there are a lot of problems that content people wrestle with in terms of designing deliverables, thinking about how they work together as teams, improving their processes, how they work with people outside of the content team.
I mean, they’re just all kinds of issues and understanding how the team is solving business or product design problems is important given how much a part of a product the content is, which is one of those things. Sometimes the people outside the content team don’t always get. So for me, I really wanted the content folks to understand that inside IBM and when I saw how transformational it really was in terms of the thinking of the content folks inside IBM, I thought, man, everybody who works on content who thinks about solving content problems, who’s working within a company trying to solve business problems, everyone should understand this methodology. And so I started teaching it. In fact, the very first time I ever taught was at LavaCon and now it’s something I use in my consulting business and it’s something I teach in my consulting business or use it with my teams just as a method that I use. But I also for some of my clients, I actually teach them how to facilitate design thinking workshops as well so they can use it in their own teams. So that’s, that was kind of the genesis of it.
Christopher Ward Fantastic! In that description, you just talked a lot about titles and positions and teams. Let’s put it on a more personal level. I mean, you’ve got this great program that you’re teaching, so if you’re speaking to that individual, that individual person and you say, ‘Hey, this is the right one for you.’ What does that individual person look like?
Andrea Ames I mean, really it could be anyone. It could be a writer, could be an editor, could be a manager, could be a content strategist. It could be anyone outside the content team, but the folks I work with are primarily on content teams and they’re usually wrestling with problems like we want a content strategy and we don’t know what it should be. You know, you can start with a problem that big but I think the key for me that really brings all this home is that Design Thinking is not about creating products. It’s not about creating solutions. It’s really about solving human problems. So let me give you an example. One of the examples that the IBM folks used in their workshops that I’ve continued to use is that we started off designing a vase.
So, I asked everyone to design a vase and you get square ones and brown ones and curvy ones and whatever, and they all hold water and you put flowers in them. And then I asked them to do a second exercise, I asked them to design a better way for people to enjoy flowers in their home. Now when designing a vase, I’m constrained. I’ve already got an idea of what the solution is to this problem. It’s a vase. So now we’re just going to make it look good. We’re going to make it fit into a particular decor. You know, there’s all kinds of things we might still design about that vase, but we’re still designing a vase. When people design a better way for folks to enjoy flowers in their home. They come up with living walls, they come up with windows to a big garden. They come up with refrigerated rooms to keep cut flowers, fresher. They, I mean they come up with all kinds of things that are not vases. And so the idea behind design thinking and the reason that it is so powerful for any kind of question and for any kind of person is that we’re really thinking about human problems. We’re not thinking about technical solutions. And what I find is that the folks that I’m dealing with most in content teams, they are thinking about technical solutions. It’s the way, especially tech companies, tend to work. They have an idea of what the problem is. They jump immediately to a solution. I think engineers, frankly, are particularly prone to this. They’ll hear about a problem a customer is having and they’re already writing code for it. And so, you know, we start off with this is the solution and now we have to design it and it’s like totally backward.
So I think content people get pulled into that, but I think we naturally would prefer not to be in that. We naturally would prefer to really understand what the problem is and figure out what the right solution is to the problem for that human. And so I think it’s especially attractive to content folks because I think they really see technical solutions all day long. They spend their day documenting around those technical solutions and trying to figure out how to make those technical solutions palatable to the poor people who have to use those technical solutions. And instead, I think they would really rather be helping to create something that people are going to go ‘wow, mind blown. This is amazing, right?!’ As opposed to, ‘Oh, here we go, another piece of software that I have to learn and work around and be frustrated with,’ and so on. And I think a lot of content people, technical content people feel like, that’s their job and I think they’d much rather be looking at the human solutions. So it’s a very attractive methodology to the folks that I work with in particular for that reason.
Christopher Ward So the purpose of the Design Thinking workshop, you said the human solution. So is the one thing you want people to understand and receive in your workshop, is it that you shouldn’t restrict your solution at the beginning by staying in those constructs, or are you saying, ‘hey look, to really get a valid solution to a problem you’ve got to pull back from your situation and see what the root of the issue is,’ or is it something else?
Andrea Ames It’s, it’s both of those things. And you know, what I think the real benefit of the methodology is that you know, not only do you need to pull back and think about the human problem as opposed to a technical solution, but the methodology lets you consider lots and lots of options. So, you make sure you’re getting the best outcome. It’s really geared well toward teams, teams solving problems together and coming together. So, here’s another way that I use it. Often, I’ll have an idea in mind when I’m working with a client. I’ll have an idea of what the solution is, and I’ve seen this problem a million times. I know what the right solution is, but you know not everybody agrees or not everybody sees the problem from the same perspective and sometimes all I’m trying to do is essentially change management.
I’m trying to help everybody come together and move forward in the same direction. Design Thinking gives everyone an opportunity to voice their opinion. It gives everyone an opportunity to converge on the same outcome and to be bought into that outcome because they all contributed to it. And so it’s very, very useful for bringing a lot of divergent opinions and thoughts and ideas together and coming out at the end with a very convergent direction. So it can sometimes be solving a problem that doesn’t result in a physical solution, physical product or even a logical product like software, but instead maybe a process outcome or maybe a strategic organizational outcome. And it may be that people have all been giving lip service to this. Yeah, we see, we need to go in that direction but we don’t have the time or whatever. And what Design Thinking can do is bring everyone together and get everyone on the same page. And all moving forward because they all feel invested in the outcome, they’ve all been able to contribute, they’ve all been able to form that outcome, and so they’re all invested in it.
So it’s really about, again, taking a step back, as you said, and looking at the human problems versus attacking things as technical solutions. Also making sure that you’re getting all the right people, giving you all the right input to come out with the one or two or three best outcomes. Having all those people bought in and invested in those outcomes in the end, which can sometimes be the worst part. It can be the hardest part for an organization. They’ve got the right answer, they’ve got a great answer, it’ll be a beautiful product, it’ll be an amazing solution, but only half the team [has] bought into it. And that’s not very useful because you know, you’ve got to get everybody who’s working on it behind it. You’ve got to get everybody moving in the same direction. So it has beautiful, a cultural impact as well as a mechanic.
Christopher Ward It sounds like the workshop is really geared to thinking outside the box. When somebody walks away from the workshop, do you feel like that they should see that sometimes the solutions you’re looking for [don’t] reside just with content and that you need to get other departments in there to help you? Or is it, your whole company is having issues and they’re not looking at content often enough to solve some of those issues?
Andrea Ames Exactly. It could absolutely be both. It’s like the blind men and the elephant, right? Or it’s like every problem is a nail when I have a hammer. So I’m a content person. That’s the solution, obviously content. I’m a UX designer…
Christopher Ward Wait … you’re going to have to explain the blind men and the elephant. I hadn’t heard that one.
Andrea Ames Oh really? Ok, so there’s like all these blind men and an elephant and one get a hold of the trunk. He was like, oh, it’s a snake. And one’s got a hold of the tail and is like, oh, it’s a branch. One has got a hold of the leg, [he’s] like, oh, it’s a tree. Right? So, if you are only seeing or only sensing one small part of a very big problem, then you may, in fact, be approaching it with your solution not seeing that actually, it’s an elephant, right? It’s not a twig or it’s not a snake, it’s not a tree. I think, yeah, one of them has its ear and I’m trying to remember what they thought it was, you know, it’s, it’s this very colloquial thinking, coming from, you know, I’ve got a hammer, I’m an expert with a hammer. Everything must be a nail.
I personally think what I love about Design Thinking, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Jack Molisani introduced me at LavaCon when I do a keynote, but often he says, “You know one of the earliest times that you and I were together and somebody asked you what you did, your response was I solve customer problems.” And you looked at me and said “Right?”
That’s what I do. I mean as a technical writer or as an information architect, as a content strategist, as a content experience strategist, every job I’ve ever had I felt like my primary role was to solve problems for customers. That’s what hopefully makes my team successful. That’s what’s going to make my business successful. If we can make our customer successful, everybody wins.
Now is that always a content problem? In fact, most of the time it’s not a content problem. Most of the time it’s a design problem or a market problem or a misalignment of product in the market or whatever. So, Design Thinking can really help because you want diversity of input in your team, the team that’s going to help you to see every side, hopefully, and as many sides as possible. Some of the times, to solve a problem, teams even bring customers in. In fact, I know one team who was all customers. They did the Design Thinking workshop and no one from the company participated. It was 20 customers. They were solving their own problems. The lesson learned there is sometimes it’s difficult if you’re in the company, working on these products you think you know the audience and so you’re thinking tends to get kind of constrained.
Being in the company when you think about what’s possible, you worry about things like, we don’t have the money to do that, or we don’t have anybody who can code this way or anybody who can create a visual that way. So we think about all the things we can’t do and customers don’t know anything about our resources. They have no idea if we have the money to solve the problem this way or if we have the resources to solve the problem this way. And so they come up with the best solution they know inside and out, what they are experiencing. They know their own pain really well and when you walk them through these exercises, they come out with these amazing solutions. And in this particular case, it was really incredible. The stuff they came out with like the team was blown away because it was things they had never ever thought of.
And they were like, oh my God, we were designing this big complex thing that would’ve been really, really hard and expensive to implement, but we thought it was the right thing and these guys came up with this other thing we never even thought of and we could do that in two months and we don’t need any more people. Right. So they came up with a much simpler, more elegant solution that satisfied exactly the problems they were having. And the company team was all in this complexity mode, so it’s a really, really interesting process from the perspective that it can open your eyes to a whole different perspective on the problem. So yeah, it can be…. I got totally off track on you, but it’s pretty amazing.
Christopher Ward Sounds amazing! And we did get off track, but it was worth it. We at Webworks think this is information, or at least this theory is something we’d like to expose [to] our client, our customers too because we definitely don’t want them missing the elephant. Where can they find out more about you? More about the workshop and possibly receiving some training from you.
Andrea Ames So my website is But yeah, I think this is a really beneficial workshop. I’m doing this again at the STC conference in May and it’s going to be a pre-conference workshop and is a full day. STC Summit [is] going to be in Denver May 5th through the 8th 2019. I think we’re going to do it on May 4th. It’s Saturday and it’s going to be a full day. STC is subsidizing half the cost of the workshop, so if you pay for an STC registration you get it half off.
You might also be able to just attend the workshop and not the conference, but I am not sure about that. Now that said we’re only taking 48 people, that’s the max we can take and because we’re limiting it, there will be an application process so it’s going to be a little more exclusive. But we are going to be trying to solve some problems around technical communication and professional development. So we’re going to be doing a customer workshop. In other words, we’re going to have a whole bunch of people from our customer group, our audience group solving their own issues. So it’s super awesome.
Christopher Ward That’s fantastic. It was great speaking with you and we will see you at the STC Summit next year.
 WebWorks would like to thank Andrea Ames for taking the time to speak with us. Her workshop, Design Thinking is one you won’t want to miss. If you want to look for her at STC Summit be sure to visit the website, or if you would like to talk to Andrea directly just visit www.idyllpointgroup.comAnswer our question below – What human problems do you think content teams are facing today?

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