15. November 2018

Starting Your Own Business Step 2:
Take a Look at the Competition

Welcome to the next step in creating your own content strategy. So far, you've defined your offer and your target audience. You know what you want to do and for whom. Now lets take a look at your competition.

Photo: Andrew Neel

Examining your competition does not mean you plan to copy them or will try to offer exactly the same (nor the exact opposite). This exercise will give you an overview of what’s out there in your field and it will probably inspire you. Your competition might well turn out to be your mentors. I've created a worksheet for your competitive analysis. Just download the spreadsheet for yourself to fill out.

This exercise will be as big or small as you want it to be. Pick at least three businesses in your field but not more than ten. Analyse their offers first and the content they offer second. You might find a blog or a newsletter or a really helpful ebook. What you see might inspire you to use a similar content type for your very own ideas. You might see things you would do completely differently. In the end, you will have gathered a lot of information about your market niche. Stay tuned for the third and last part of this series in four weeks.

18. Oktober 2018

Starting Your Own Business Step 1:
Define Your Offer & Your Customers

I'm a content strategist with a heart for small businesses, no: tiny businesses. I love the one-woman/man show. People who have an idea and dare to put themselves out there hoping to make a living off of their idea. Strategy-wise these solopreneurs often feel a bit lost though. Which is only natural if they are not setting out as business coaches. If you are starting out with your own business and need some strategy advice, this post is for you. 

What is a Content Strategy and Why Do You Need One?   

A content strategy is about finding out what content you need to reach your goals, how to produce it, where to publish it and how to manage it. You might also analyze your competition in the process. You could call it a business strategy that will immediately advise the best content output for your business. 

This sounds like it calls for a lot of reflection time, and it does. Like most solopreneurs, you will probably not have the time to sit down and work it out all before you start your venture. This is why I split the "sit down and write stuff down" part in three and will publish one step each month. You can define a content strategy at any step of your journey: Before you launch your business, while starting out or even years in when you are looking for ways to grow.

Step 1: Put Down Your Offer and Reflect on Your Customers

I've put together this reflection sheet for you that you can download and fill out. You don't like to write? Just record your thoughts with your phone. Or create a collage. If you have a specific product you might wonder why you should think about it. It will help you get a clearer picture of your own business and goals. Give it a go and stay tuned for the next step in the series. 

2. Juni 2018

Designing a Website? Be a Little Bit Lazy

The other day I watched a talk given by Ethan Marcotte at the Web Conference An Event Apart. It's titled "Laziness in the Time of Responsive Design". He got me at lazy. Yes, I do go to work every day, my apartment is fairly clean and I do my master's on the side BUT I'm also always on the search of possibilities that will make any of these areas of life a little less crowded. Did Ethan Marcotte deliver on his promise to show new ways of being lazy at work? Yes and no.

Let Go of the Idea of Controlling the Web Experience 

Here comes the lazy part. It's about letting go of the wish to be in full control of what the user of your website will see. What sounds so Zen is owed to the number of different devices we access the web on today. While in print you control exactly what goes where and what the reader will see, on the web you can't anymore. Not only are there countless different formats but also many different input mechanisms: keyboard, touch, speech or a combination of these.

What do you do as a web designer who has lost the control his print colleagues have? You let go. As designer Trent Walton beautifully put it: "I traded the control I had in Photoshop for a new kind of control – using flexible grids, flexible images, and media queries to build not a page, but a network of content that can be rearranged at any screen size to best convey a message." Today you can't plan out the whole experience but you can design the chunks of content which will make up the whole. These chunks will then be inserted into the grid of a site. Thus a website will look differently to many readers but it's up to the web designer to make sure all content is presented within a grid system that adapts well to all kinds of formats. And this is where laziness ends.

Design Your Website Grid Wisely 

Web designers need to mainly be concerned about the grid that holds their designs. Grid layouts offer an amazing amount of possibilities but they're not trivial to code nicely. When done perfectly, as a reader you will never think: "Oh, this website was meant to be read on desktop." or "That's a weird break here on this site." The grid will adapt seamlessly on any device, following Trent Walton's maxim: "Like cars designed to perform in extreme heat or on icy roads, websites should be built to face the reality of the web's inherent variability." 

Side Note: Regularly Take Out the Trash on Your Site

All of us producing content for the web are guilty of hoarding it. We don't want to throw out stuff that is still perfectly fine. Instead we hide non-priority content on level four of our navigation and hope for the best. Level four in your navigation is like the dark corner of your closet that never sees light and which you keep ignoring because you know it would take weeks to clean it out. And you don't need that corner so badly anyway, so... Guess what: As soon as you make your site responsive and cleverly hide your navigation behind a hamburger, your user will suffer from your mess. Ever opened a navigation on your smartphone and almost got stabbed by a navigation with a thousand sub navigation items where you totally got lost? Don't do that to your readers. Be nice and tidy up. Is really all of your content helpful? I don't think so either. Deactivate sites your user doesn't need and put your favorite content up on your portfolio if it makes you feel better. 

If you are a web designer and want to get more specific technical information on how it's done, watch the whole talk. It will be worth your time. 

29. Mai 2018

UX Design: The Invisible Magic
Behind Everything We Use

This semester of my master's program is a lot about user experience. Makes perfectly sense if you study content strategy. I expected a lot about font size, white space and button colors – the graphic designer in me would have loved that. To my surprise the whole subject went a lot deeper, five levels deep to be exact.

The Five Elements of User Experience

The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett, Illustration: Sarolta Hershey
When I look at an app or a website or anything for that matter, I first evaluate the thing in front of me by its appearance. If it's pretty, it has much better chances to be brought home. OF COURSE, I will check its functionality but you will often see me swearing under my breath because of the "stupid" vacuum cleaner or my fitness tracker, because I checked usability too late.

If you do UX properly you start out with answering the questions: What and for whom? Do you really know? Have you talked to your prospective users? Do you know what they need? Which of their problems are you trying to solve anyways? And what answers will your solution provide?

You work your way up from there. It's a long way, and it's stony, and it will rain often, and you will be hungry and cold, and you'll have to start over many times... Huh, UX design starts to sound a lot like Lord of the Rings! But if you follow the good path you will earn applause and fame and you will be showered with flower petals – not. If you really succeed, no one will ever take notice of your existence. Everything you've done will be taken for granted and only a small group of UX geeks will lay down flowers at your grave.

My Fitness Tracker Doesn't Speak Human or: How I learned to value great User Experience

Like many people, I skip manuals when it comes to software. I have become used to help text when I hover over buttons, I know that most apps and websites will use the same wording for similar things. As I've learned the language of the web, most functionalities have become self-explanatory. Be it on my phone or my laptop – most times I find what I am looking for fast. 

Only when this expectation is disappointed do I become aware of the great work of UX designers – or the lack of it. Last week, I was looking for the function on my fitness tracker that would light up the display when I raise my wrist into reading position. I skipped through all possibilities that would even faintly make sense to me and eventually gave up. Googling the manual I found out that I have to go to "Device" and click "Wake-up gesture". I would have looked under "Display". That I would have still found. My native language of German made it impossible for me though. There it says "Aktivierungsgeste" (translates to "activation gesture"). Just in case you wondered: That expression doesn't mean a thing in German.

Stumbling over this odd wording I skipped through all of the settings and came to the conclusion that they did not build a navigation that felt natural. It looks a lot more like the manufacturer had developed a huge set of great functions and then had trouble squeezing it all into a tiny navigation. After learning about UX design I wondered whether they had done proper user research and whether they had thoroughly tested the fitness tracker. We are talking about a big and well-known brand here, and still I think they probably skimped on some testing in order to get the product to market faster.

An Ode to the Unknown UX Designer

Now, when I come accross an application or a website that simply works, I grin broadly and silently thank the smart designer in the background. I will never know his name but will stay forever grateful.

By the way: Can anyone recommend a small fitness tracker that has GPS built in? Thanks in advance.

1. Mai 2018

8 Tools to Stay Organized

Organizing yourself is always important and never easy. You can get away with neglecting it if there isn't too much on your plate. As soon as you have several things in life to juggle it becomes imperative to up your organizational skills. Work and study anyone? Or work and parenting? Or all three? The first step to get organized well is to know what exactly it is you want to get done. I wrote down what's important to me on slips of paper as I like to touch and see my thoughts.

Keep Work, Study & Your Personal Life in Separate Systems

After looking at the many parts of my life that are important to me, I decided to organize them separately. As great as the thought of having everything in one place sounds – Will you be really capable of keeping an overview of dozens and dozens of items at a glance?

Of course many areas in our life overlap, but keeping the organizational part separately helps to keep an overview. At work I use Outlook Tasks, Outlook Calendar and Post it notes. For my master's program on the side I work with Slack, Trello, Asana and Google Calendar. Privately I work with Google Calendar and reminders on my phone. 

Below I will explain the benefits of each of the tools I use to stay organized. This is not a complete list but tools that I have been using for some time and which help me tackle certain challenges.

Make Your Tasks Tangible with Post it Notes

Our development team works agile and many walls are covered with Post it notes. One of the nicest things about that: You can literally grab a task and move it around. I use Post it notes to split up projects into small steps. After a step is completed, I can move it to my "Done" section and concentrate on the next step. That is quite satisfying. I also use different colored notes for different projects to keep them apart.

Post it notes on a wall
Photo: David Travis

See the Tasks for Today in Microsoft Tasks

At work I've added "Tasks" to my Outlook sidebar. It's great for seeing upcoming deadlines and for setting reminders. I can also set alarms for each task so that it will pop up on my screen. Tasks can also be set as recurring so that they will appear again after a set time. This is great for weekly, monthly and quarterly tasks.

Set up More than Meetings in Microsoft Calendar

While this is the calendar for all my meetings and calls at work I will use it for more than that. Block time slots with yourself to prepare for important meetings or for going for a run during lunch break. This way you are blocked for invitations and win back some control over your time. I've seen colleagues insert their leaving time into Outlook so others could see when they would not be available anymore. Smart.

Working with Big Teams in Slack 

Slack is the main communication tool for my master's program. I love how a big group of students can effectively interact in groups, share files and work on projects together. Each subject has its so-called channel and on top we do group work in private conversations. It's worth taking a look.

Working in Slack

Organizing Tasks in Trello

This Kanban-inspired tool 
is our main organization tool from our lecturers to us. All our tasks are organized in cards. They are like Post it notes but better as they have all materials we need linked or attached. This gives us a good general overview of what we need to do and we can also see what will come.

Trello in action
Trello in action

Google Calendar Unites Private Appointments and Study

I've connected my private calendar to that of my university and now I have all courses and private appointments in one calendar. It makes sense for me to combine these two as they both take place outside office hours. That way I can check easily whether I am available for friends in the evening or whether I have an online course.

Asana Lists all My University Tasks

I use this app as my task board for university. While Trello lists all tasks for all students, I only insert the ones from my courses into Asana. Each subject has it's own column and I break down the tasks from Trello into small chunks for me here. I can see what needs to be done for each subject and can tick tasks off.

Asana Board
Asana Board

Reminders on my Phone Save me Daily

If I don't write stuff down, I will forget about them for sure. Need to dress nicely for a business meeting? My phone will remind me in the morning at around the time I know I will get dressed. Have a workout during lunch break? My phone will remind me to pack my workout clothes. Promised a book to a coworker? My phone will tell me. The less I need to remember these days, the better!

These are my go-to tools. How do you stay organized? Do you have simpler solutions? I think I could still improve my strategy.

16. März 2018

In Search for Work, Life, Study Balance

Since September I am juggling a job, a master's programme and a life. Please leave a comment if you're in this situation as well, so I know I'm not alone out there. For my part, I'm just starting to learn how to stay sane in the midst all of it. I'll need to cut some aspects of my job – and not my most important relationships. Read on for the painful process that led to this newly found wisdom and I how I plan to execute on it.
open laptop on a wooden desk with magazines, a notebook and pencils
Photo: Jasmin Alber

Looking for New Adventures...

After working as a marketing manager for a few years I was yearning for new input, more knowledge to trigger my brain cells and bring fresh ideas to the table. Content marketing has taken my professional world by storm – and my marketing heart as well. Thus I kept my eyes open for training opportunities in that field. I read dozens of blog articles and eBooks, completed several Hubspot trainings and finally stumbled upon the Content Strategy Master's Programme of the FH Joanneum, the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria. I was instantly intrigued: This programme would go far beyond content marketing. I would broaden my skill set in so many other exciting fields as well – and the best part: This master's programme is designed for people with jobs! Most of the courses would take place online with some presence weeks in beautiful Graz.
I applied right away and was accepted to the small group of 25 students (from 80 applicants if I may add with some pride). The first semester is now over and I'm in the midst of learning my first life lesson – after already learning a lot about content audits, content briefs, buyer personas, copy writing, Markdown, basic coding and so much more.
woman sits at a table and writes into a notebook
Photo: Jasmin Alber

…Without Being Ready to Give up Old Ones

In order to make studying possible I cut my hours at work, from 40 hours a week to 34. I would still work full time when I was in Nuremberg and built up overtime for the presence weeks in Graz. To compensate my absence I got a working student for about two days a week. I thought I was so well organized and that it would work out no prob.
How wrong I was! The courses, home works, group works and presence times hit me in the face hard. Although I love everything we learn and I especially enjoy working things out with my fantastic fellow students, I completely underestimated the work load of it all. At the same time I overestimated the load a working student would be able to take off my shoulders. I got a really bright and hard-working one but he is still a student and I cannot hand over anything strategic.
So I worked, studied and slept, neglecting my friendships, my marriage and myself. It's only two years, I told myself. I can do this for two years. My body didn't think so. I hardly ever get sick. By now that last sentence is past tense.

Learning to Find Balance the Hard Way

I've been sick three times since I started to study six months ago. When I got sick first, I understood that I can't neglect relationships. I knew I had to make time for the most important people in my life and I did. When I got sick the second time I knew it was from stress but ignored it. I could rest when I was dead, right? I've always wanted to be strong – and perfect at everything I do. I don't think it's wrong to be a bit of a perfectionist but I keep forgetting to choose my battles. I want it all, and all at once.
This attitude has brought me to my knees now. As of today I've had a severe cold for 10 days. Last time I was ill this long I was in preschool and suffered from Scarlet fever! A cold never lasts longer than two days with me so I asked my doctor what was wrong. His answer couldn't have been clearer: "Your immune system has been weakened for some reason." Whoops. Call me a moron but I still tried to work from home until I couldn't even get out of bed anymore. I had to promise my husband that I will change my ways so he wouldn't have to make tea for me that often (okay, the reason he wanted my promise was probably a bit more romantic).
woman sitting at a laptop with one hand typing and holding a cup of tea with the other
Photo: Jasmin Alber

Big Plans for Small Changes

As I've said I know I cannot go on in my job pretending I still work full time. Not only is it not true but it really isn't helpful for anyone in the office if I get sick more often and they cannot count on me anymore. For me this will mean a few small changes that are still big steps for me:

1. I'll have to stop being so nosy

I love to know everything that's going in, in every department of the company. I keep up with parts of the intranet that don't even touch my work because I'm so curious. I love to see how other teams work and what they are working on. As much as I enjoy that part, I will have to cut it severely – at least for the time being. I will have to focus on my fields of work and on improving those.

2. I'll have to let go of administrative stuff

I love being in control of my stuff and thus I like to keep files, documents and check lists up-to-date myself. This is something that students could do, though. And it's time to let them do it. It's so easy to write this down but it will be hard. They will probably do it a bit differently than I would and I can be a bit anal about formatting and naming conventions.

3. I can't try to be perfect at everything

Sounds like a no-brainer but deep inside I guess I still believe that I can do it all. Time to focus on the really important things. Working on a campaign or an important business relationship? Time to let the perfectionist take over. – Working on an internal report? Keep it short, concise and informative. This all sounds so logical, I wonder why I'm not already doing all this.
Let's see how my battle plan works out. If you are in the same situation: How do you guys cope? I'm thankful for any ideas on how I can better balance this new life situation. 

9. Juli 2017

How to Easily Start Out With Your Minimalist Wardrobe

Wann habt ihr das letzte Mal euren Kleiderschrank ausgemistet? Ich mache das ein Mal im Jahr und sortiere dabei alles aus, was ich seit zwei Jahren nicht anhatte. Was raus muss, wird gespendet oder verschenkt. Das letzte Mal fiel mir bei der Aktion auf, dass ich anscheinend immer wieder dieselben Lieblingssachen trage bis sie buchstäblich auseinander fallen. "Vielleicht sollte ich einfach nur noch Lieblingsteile im Schrank haben", dachte ich und habe mich ein wenig in das Minimalist Wardrobe Konzept eingelesen. In Posts zum Thema sieht man viel schwarz-weiß und so war ich zunächst skeptisch, ob ein so farbenliebender Mensch wie ich das anwenden kann. Ich habe mir einen Guide von encircled dazu heruntergeladen und durchgearbeitet. Und ja, es geht - auch wenn man des öfteren gerne so aussieht, als sei man samt Klamotten in den Farbtopf gefallen.

When was the last time you cleaned out your wardrobe? I do it once a year and throw out everything that I haven't worn in two years. By throw out I often mean donate or gift to someone. Last time I did this I realized I seem to wear the same favorite pieces over and over again until they literally fall apart. I asked myself why not to go for favorite pieces only in my wardrobe and started looking into the minimalist wardrobe trend a bit deeper. As most posts on that concept feature a lot of black and white I wasn't sure at first whether it is something a color lover like me could pull of. So I downloaded a guide by encircled and worked through it. Bingo! A minimalist wardrobe is achievable even by someone who loves their daily overdose of colors.

1. Define Your Ideal Style

Der erste Schritt im Booklet ist, sich Gedanken darüber zu machen, womit man seine Tage verbringt. Wenn man zum Beispiel seine Freizeit hauptsächlich im Fitnessstudio verbringt, braucht man keine 30 Partykleider, dann reicht vielleicht ein kleines Schwarzes. Dieser Teil war besonders augenöffnend für mich. 

The first step in the booklet is to think about where you spend most of your time. Let's say you spend most of your free time at the gym - why would you need 30 party dresses then? One LBD might already do. This part was the most eye opening for me. 

Auch super: Der eigene Stil bestimmt, was deine neutralen Grundfarben sind. Ha! Pink und rosa sind also Grundfarben, wenn ich das so will.

AND (this made me smile real silly): Your style determines your neutrals. So pink is a neutral for me!

2. Perform a Closet Audit

Diesen Schritt hätte ich beinahe übersprungen. Ich weiß schließlich, was in meinem Schrank ist (dachte ich). Aber es ist doch überraschend zu sehen, wie viele Blusen, Jeans, Sandalen usw. man tatsächlich besitzt. Vergleicht man das Inventar dann mit der Aufteilung seiner Zeit, sieht man schnell, wovon man zu viel hat und wo vielleicht das ein oder andere Teil noch fehlt.

This was weird for me as I thought I knew exactly what I would find. But it's still surprising when you actually count how many blouses, jeans, sandals etc. you have. When you hold this against how you use your time you quickly see what you have way too many of and what pieces are still missing.

3. Architect Your Minimalist Wardrobe

Im letzten Schritt geht es darum, Outfits zusammenzustellen und herauszufinden, was man noch braucht. Nach den beiden Schritten davor ist das sehr einfach. Nun habe ich eine genaue Einkaufsliste und fühle mich weniger gefährdet, einfach irgendetwas zu kaufen, das mir im Augenblick gefällt oder stark reduziert ist. Denn wenn ich ehrlich bin, gebe ich solche Impulskäufe nicht selten kaum getragen weiter.

The last step is about putting together outfits and making a list of what you still need for your minimalist wardrobe. After the first two steps this is really easy. With the resulting shopping list I will hopefully not be tempted to buy something that just catches my eye or because it's on sale. The stuff we buy on impulse we hardly ever wear more than a couple of times.

Ihr bekommt das Workbook kostenlos, wenn ihr euch für den Newsletter von encircled anmeldet. Das ist keine Werbung, ich mag das Workbook nur sehr gerne und auch ihre Kollektion voller wandelbarer Kleidung.

You get the workbook for free if you sign up for encircled's newsletter. This is not an ad, I just really love the workbook and also their collection of versatile fashion.