Hall of shame: error message written in technical gobbledegook

Screenshot of error message that reads 'Sorry, there were some errors. Please correct the following errors: moveMoney.paymentValueAboveUpperLimit

The inaugural entry into the content hall of shame is this doozy of an error message from a UK bank. (I’m deliberately trying to avoid naming-and-shaming companies. This is more about documenting examples as something to learn from; not to say someone’s doing a bad job.)

On trying to transfer some money from one account to another, this error message popped up:

Sorry, there were some errors.
Please correct the following errors:
* moveMoney.paymentValueAboveUpperLimit

To be fair, it doesn’t take a huge amount of parsing to realise that I’m asking to transfer too much money. On the other hand, there’s nothing to tell me what that limit is – it really shouldn’t be a secret – or even a help page to give me more information about this. This stood out because there’s clearly been a lot of good work done on the copy on the rest of the site but somehow this error message hasn’t gone through the process.

Lesson learned

Error messaging is user-facing content: it should go through the same content quality process and rigour as any other UX content.

Comparing the Superdrug and House of Fraser loyalty card POS marketing

I picked up a couple of store loyalty cards recently – I could pretend it was solely out of professional interest but the truth is the salespeople did their job getting me to take one – and laying them out side-by-side when I got home, I couldn’t help noticing interesting differences.

The cards

A picture of a House of Fraser loyalty card A picture of the Superdrug loyalty card

The stickers on the cards here are the interesting thing.

When you get these cards at the shop, rather sensibly you’re not forced to go through a lengthy registration process at the till. (Superdrug asked me for my email address but that was it, and I was asked straight away if I wanted marketing sent to that address.) That’s sensible from an operational point of view for the shop when it’s busy and a much better experience for me as a customer at the business end of my shopping journey. So there has to be a reason for me to register these cards. In the case of Superdrug, there has to be even more of a reason for me to want to register and keep carrying the card, because I’ve already benefited from the discount the card provided, which at the time was much more valuable than the points and was the thing that persuaded me to get the card.

The House of Fraser sticker has the stark wording, in SHOUTY ALL CAPS: REGISTER YOUR CARD NOW … NO REGISTRATION = NO REWARDS, while the Superdrug sticker says, with a thrilling lack of any capital letters, not even at the start of the sentence: register your card today … to spend your points.

House of Fraser’s gone for the negative ‘no – no’ construction while Superdrug’s gone for the more incentive-led approach. Both have impressed a sense of ‘do it now’, with House of Fraser following, what’s now the standard ‘[action] now’ copy and Superdrug using ‘[action] today’. Superdrug’s wording feels somewhat less bossy and more in tune with the life of a customer. I’ve just got this card while out shopping, so to ask me to register today seems reasonable; to ask me to do it right away less so.

The bumpf

Picture of House of Fraser loyalty card bumpf

Picture of Superdrug loyalty card bumpf

The cards come attached to, err, cards with more information about the loyalty scheme.

House of Fraser’s tone on this was in stark contrast to the sticker on the card. There’s a bright pink panel telling me, again in SHOUTY ALL CAPS: REGISTER TODAY AND COLLECT 250 BONUS POINTS. HALFWAY TO A £5 REWARD. I instantly feel much more inclined to register now because there’s a very clear benefit, not just in points but in monetary value.

Superdrug’s bumpf isn’t so compelling to me. There’s lots of copy and I nearly missed the one thing that’s compelling to me, personally – the bit that says I can download the Superdrug app to get the card on my phone. If there’s one thing that stops me from signing up to loyalty schemes, it’s the hassle of having to carry a physical card around. And you know the irony of this? I already have a Superdrug loyalty card; I picked up another one because I needed it to claim a discount running on the day. Had I known about the app, I’d have used that and Superdrug would have saved however much it costs them to produce these cards. (Sidenote: I’ve started to show my John Lewis loyalty card as a matter of habit now, since they allowed me to add it to my iPhone Wallet so that I don’t even have to open a separate John Lewis app.)

The receipts

Picture of House of Fraser receipt

Picture of Superdrug receipt

It’s a simple approach from House of Fraser on their receipt, thanking me for using my loyalty card. Feels like there might be a missed opportunity there – if they had recognised it was the first time I’d used the card, they might have been able to reinforce their message to get me to register the card. As it is, this feels like an afterthought, especially when you compare it to Superdrug’s receipt.

Superdrug’s receipt is long (and, curiously, the Superdrug logo doesn’t appear until a fair way down the receipt) but it’s pretty clear there’s a benefit to be had. It’s not a great benefit, to be honest – a typical spend-more-to-get-more-points offer but at least there’s a clear reason for me to remember to use my card. It’s a pain I need to keep the receipt, or at least this part of the receipt, but I can see what they’re doing to try to help nudge me along to a points-collecting habit.

The in-store experience

If I were scoring points at this point, I’d say this was pretty evenly matched – being able to keep my Superdrug loyalty card on their app would make me more likely to use it but the immediate reward for registering with House of Fraser – £2.50, in effect – really makes me want to register.

But this wasn’t just a case of me picking up a card while at the till – an assistant offered the card to me.

The House of Fraser experience was pretty straightforward: ‘Would you like a reward card to collect points? You can register online and save money when you have enough points.’

Superdrug’s assistant, however, did the job the bumpf failed to do. She was well drilled in explaining the benefits – without sounding robotic about it, I should add – and sold me the card and, more importantly, gave me reasons to return to Superdrug beyond simply collecting points to save money. To be honest, I didn’t need to read any marketing because the assistant did it all.

I don’t want to encourage shops to do the hard sell on their loyalty cards every time I shop but the Superdrug assistant judged the situation well and it felt like a normal conversation, not a sale; more like someone giving a word-of-mouth recommendation, and this is where Superdrug edges ahead of House of Fraser for me: the customer service.

Your content could be the best in the world but you should never forget that it’s part of a richer experience and journey.

How I deal with disengaged and disruptive people in workshops

By request, this is an expanded and edited version of an answer I gave to a question posed in the Content + UX Slack community. Discretion means I won’t post the whole question or name the questioner, but the gist of the question was

How do you deal with people who keep emailing and messaging during workshops and people who engage negatively?

I’ve experienced this a lot. More than I’d like but enough to know it’s not me, it’s them. This means I’m able to be less emotional in my reaction, which in itself can take the sting out of the situation. Whether consciously or not, the disengaged and disruptive are trying to provoke a reaction that allows them to take the upper hand. Of course, sometimes they’re just plain unprofessional, in which case you might need to take a different tack.

Here’s some tactics I’ve used when facilitating workshops, leading meetings or giving training. If any of these have worked for you or you’ve got any others to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


Prevention’s better than cure if you can manage it.

Appeal to a sense of respect

When you’re running a workshop, you’re asking for participants’ brains and their time. Knowledge is precious. Time is precious. You’re asking for the most precious things you can ask of anyone. As a facilitator, it’s on you to run the workshop to get the most out of the time and to remind participants that it’s on them to respect that other people’s time and knowledge is as important as theirs.

Emphasising respect for each other as part of your introductory spiel can be useful because it helps to make the behaviour of people who aren’t participating fully or disrupting the workshop less about challenging the facilitator and more about them not being good colleagues.

Appealing to the group to respect each other’s time is also useful when you have people who aren’t sticking to the allotted time for tasks or breaks.

Set ground rules

Setting ground rules is facilitation 101 stuff but when you’ve had a good run of working with engaged participants, it can be easy to forget to set rules around using devices.

Example ground rules around devices

  • It’s ok to use devices whenever.
  • It’s not ok to use your device at all.
  • It’s ok to check for messages during breaks.
  • It’s ok to leave the room if you have to deal with something urgently.
  • It’s ok not to attend the workshop because you’ve got urgent business that means you would be constantly checking your device.
  • It’s ok to ask someone to stop using their device.

You’ll have noticed that mostly I try to stick to a positive construction – it’s ok to… – rather than saying, for example, ‘Don’t use your device outside of breaks.’

Why would you ever say ‘it’s ok to use devices whenever’? Well, I never have, but it could be a valid rule in some work cultures or situations (such as customer service reps being on call). Without wishing to state the bleeding obvious, you’ll need to structure your workshop to be able to cope with this, if this is the case.

I find saying ‘it’s ok to leave the room if you need to’ helps to establish the adult-to-adult relationship, as opposed to the parent-teacher vibe. I’ll often say, “We’re all adults and it’s not school, so if you need to leave the room to deal with a call – whether from your boss or of nature – you don’t need to put up your hand to ask for permission.”

Most of the time, I set the baseline ground rules before asking the group if there’s anything they’d like to adjust or other rules they’d like to set. I always ask the group for suggestions or validation because I want them to have some sense of ownership, which makes it more likely they’ll stick to the rules. It also makes any further reference to them by me more about reminding the group about their own commitments to each other, rather than me being a policeman.

I set the baseline rules first because if I get the group to set the ground rules first and they’ve missed ones out that I think are crucial, adding my own after they’ve done theirs feels more like I’m a teacher who’s set a task and had to provide the right answer. You probably get away with that in a training situation; when you’re there as a facilitator, less so.

Keep the ground rules visible

Putting the ground rules up somewhere in the room helps to establish them and gives you something to point to if you need to remind participants about them.

Be careful not to get too Big Brother about it.

Cure: course correction

Setting the ground rules and making sure everyone’s signed up to them is necessary but it’s not always sufficient. Some people just need a bit more persuasion.

Remind people about the ground rules at appropriate times

Having set the ground rules and made them visible, you can point to them to reinforce them. You could literally point to a ground rule as soon as it’s been broken, or you could wait till an appropriate time, like after a break when the workshop group has reformed. The latter approach is less likely to be seen as a direct challenge to a specific person’s behaviour but possibly at the expense of coming too long after the behaviour you want to improve.

Perform a health check on the ground rules

At a suitable time, ask the group how they feel the ground rules they or we – never I – set at the start of the workshop are working. Set the tone so the group know it’s perfectly fine to say some rules need amending and some need reinforcing. If there are people disrespecting rules around devices, either the group will out them or they’ll out themselves by saying they think the rule isn’t valid. You’ll be tempted to out the device addicts yourself either directly (not recommended) or obliquely. I think it’s pretty obvious when I’m being passive-aggressive so my own style is to have a discreet word in private instead.

Enforce and reinforce the ground rules

If you have a ground rule around not using devices during the workshop and it’s being broken, you need to get on it sooner rather than later.

A discreet word with people who are on their devices can be helpful. By doing it discreetly, you’re showing sensitivity and avoiding the risk of a confrontation in front of the group.

The nuclear option is to confiscate devices. Once, I literally had a box on a table to hold confiscated phones. In that situation, I was very much leading the team in a workshop rather than facilitating it, so I could get away with it. You will want to be very careful about how and when you do it yourself. Generally, I find it’s unhealthy when adults are in a parent-child or teacher-child relationship but I’ve experienced work cultures that really are as hierarchical as that and it might be that your group’s more comfortable with it than a peer-to-peer approach.

Direct action

If the subtle approach isn’t working, here’s a couple of things to try.

Speak directly to the people glued to their devices

When you’re talking the group, maybe you’re briefing or debriefing a task, it can be useful to ask a question directly of someone who’s on their device. You’re directly engaging with them. If they’re disengaged and don’t engage back, they’ll show themselves as rude. If they’ve been disengaged, they’ll get the hint that you’re onto them. If you handle this with skill, you’ll make them feel like they have a contribution to make and remain engaged.

Move around the room and linger near people on their devices

Standing or sitting next to someone who’s on their device either makes them get off their device or draws the room’s attention towards that person on the device. Either way, I’ve found this to be an effective tactic, made even more effective when combined with speaking to device addicts directly.

I once worked with a facilitator who liked to walk over to people whose attention needed perking up and accidentally-on-purpose bump into them or kick their chairs.

Acknowledging the issue

Sometimes you’ll get people who disrupt workshops by asking awkward questions, contradicting you and generally challenging everything you do.

Understand where they’re coming from

The first thing to do with disruptive participants is to try to understand why they’re being like this. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and starting from a place of assuming they don’t actually realise their behaviour’s disruptive or disrespectful is a good starting point.

A lot of the time, this behaviour’s a result of feeling threatened – the project you’re engaged on might change someone’s job in a way they don’t like, they want to work on something else, they were passed over for the lead role, they think they could do a better job, they’ve got a pressing deadline on another project, they’re having a rubbish time at home. Understanding the reason for the behaviour doesn’t excuse it but it can explain it and help you work out how best to deal with it.

You can choose to ask people directly what’s up with them – worded in a diplomatic way, natch – or get to the answer more subtly. Often the act of showing that you’re interested in them beyond trying to extract help with a deliverable can open people up and make them feel more inclined to participate properly. If the situation’s right, it might be worth giving some feedback about their behaviour. That’s a long write-up in itself but I try to stick to the template of “I don’t know if you realise this, but when you do X (e.g. come back 10 minutes late from every break), it makes me feel Y (e.g. that you don’t think the work we’re doing is valuable)”.

The parking lot

This is a classic technique that’s worth having as part of your standard workshop setup. Have a section of whiteboard or wall where you can post off-topic questions or comments. The physical action of writing things down and putting them somewhere shows you’re respecting the point without letting it derail you. Inviting participants to write questions down on the parking lot (or on Post-Its to stick on the parking lot) whenever they want can also be a good way of deflecting questions to a time when it’s more appropriate to deal with them.

It’s up to you whether you promise to come back to the parking lot. Your best bet is to say you’ll come back to it if you’ve got time (and then it’s up to you whether you manage the time to allow this) and if not, you’ll deal with the points after the workshop.

Dealing with it head on

If the points being made by naysayers are on topic, it’s actually worth dealing with them at face value. Just because they’re being delivered in an inappropriate way doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not valid. For one thing, the views inherent might be more representative of the group than you think.

A favourite technique of mine is to throw the question or challenge out to the group. That way the answer is owned by the team, not by the facilitator.

Sometimes you’ll get some people insisting, ‘But I want to know what you think.’ My answer is, ‘As the facilitator, it’s important I help you get to your answer as a team but I’m happy to share my thoughts after you’ve come to your own conclusions first’.

The nuclear option

I’ve never had to do this but there’s always the option of asking someone to leave if they’re not going to take part fully.

Photo credit: William Iven

What I talk about when I talk about content strategy

Content strategy definition
Getting the right content to the right user at the right time through strategic planning of content creation, delivery, and governance.

Content Strategy Alliance Charter

Define it. That’s the first thing you have to do when talking about content strategy.

It’s the law, because everyone has their own definition. I could trot out the usual suspects when it comes to what content strategy is but you can read the Wikipedia entry on content strategy definitions yourself. I picked my current favourite for the top of this post.

Pithy one liners are a good starting point – and if a field biased towards copywriters can’t come up with one, we’re doomed – but there’s a lot hidden behind each word. For starters, what is ‘content’? I might have referred to copywriters two sentences ago, but one thing’s for sure: content ain’t just copy.

What I talk about when I talk about content strategy‘ will be my attempt to set out in detail, beyond a one liner, what I think content strategy is and the work it entails.

Apart from that, the blog as a whole will feature a mix of news, tips, critique, opinion and, let’s face it, snark. I’ll also point to useful resources and articles created by cleverer people than me.

And finally, this site in general will be single reference point for the (shareable, sanitised, redacted and non-confidential versions of) presentations, templates and references I use and have used in the course of providing content strategy consulting services through my company Interlocute.