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Karen McGrane

Karen McGrane is a content strategist and user experience designer. She manages Bond Art + Science, a user experience consultancy she founded in 2006, where she has led content strategy and information architecture engagements for clients like The Atlantic, Fast Company, Franklin Templeton, and Fidelity. Karen is the author of Content Strategy for Mobile, published by A Book Apart, and teaches Design Management at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she lives. Her Boston terrier is named Sputnik.

Karen is the happy owner of both a blog and a Twitter account @karenmcgrane.

Published Thoughts

My friend and lawyer, Alison, has the unenviable task of talking me down when I get screwed over by a client or business partner. My strategy is to whine piteously “but it’s not fair!” and then she explains how to use each incident as a learning experience so I can avoid making similar mistakes in the future. She also explains that sometimes people are selfish jerks and life is not fair, but she does it in a way that gives me hope for a better future.

I recently walked away from participating in something I loved to do, under circumstances I found both galling and unkind. I went to Alison with my familiar refrain, “but it’s not fair!” Why should I be the one to step aside? Why am I the one taking a professional backstep? Why do I watch from the sidelines, while the wicked and untrustworthy prosper? Alison just looked at me, shrugged and said:

Integrity comes at a price.

Integrity doesn’t come from the easy stuff. It’s effortless for me to think of myself as a person of integrity, simply by not doing things I don’t really want to do.

That job torturing puppies sure would make a lot of money! But I won’t take it, because I have integrity.

I could so easily push this old woman down and steal her purse. I won’t. You know why? Integrity.

Child labor laws are for suckers. Surely any competent ten-year-old could do this content audit, and I could pay her in candy! Alas, I can’t do that, because of my integrity.

Integrity comes in the hard choices, from saying no to things you wish you could say yes to. It’s refusing to take a project you might enjoy and that would pay well, because you don’t respect the values of the organization. It’s walking away from a business partnership that offers you significant benefits in terms of exposure and collaboration, because you learn your business partner is not a man of integrity. It’s ending a friendship with a person you genuinely like, because you realize she doesn’t truly have your back.

Integrity means living with the right choice when every fiber of your being is shrieking but it’s not fair.

Integrity comes at a price. And it’s worth it.

Business relationships come to an end. There’s always another project, another client, another conference. Friendships come and go.

Your relationship with yourself is forever. There is power in knowing what you will say no to. The world may never be fair to you, but you can be fair to yourself.

Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won’t cheat, then you know he never will. Integrity is not a search for the rewards of integrity. Maybe all you ever get for it is the largest kick in the ass the world can provide. It is not supposed to be a productive asset.
— John D. MacDonald

I’ve spent the better part of the past couple of years traveling as much as I’ve been home. TripIt tells me I’m in first place among my friends for number of days on the road—a dubious honor.

I know a few things about how to live out of a suitcase. These tips aren’t aimed at the minimalist, around-the-world-with-one-small-backpack crowd. But if you have to go to a conference or on a business trip, here’s what I’ve learned the hard way.

  1. Roll your clothes

    If I teach you one thing it’s that you can pack more into a suitcase if you roll your clothes into cylinders, as compared to folding them. It’s also easier to find what you’re looking for with everything in neat rows. If you like this idea but think it’s not cult-like enough, then packing cubes are the product for you. I’ve never tried them but I assure you that everyone who has tried them told me all about them, repeatedly.

  2. Keep your toiletry kit ready to go

    I’d lose my mind if I had to remember to bring toothpaste every time I packed. Just keep duplicates of everything you need to bring stored in some kind of travel case.

  3. The “I have first-world problems” toothbrush holder

    One problem with keeping all my toiletries stored in a kit is my toothbrush would get kind of gross. This toothbrush holder costs $20 and requires batteries. It bathes the head of my toothbrush in a healing blue light, rapturing the germs and leaving it as pure as the day I bought it. It is, hands down, the most ridiculous product I own. I love it.

  4. Buy one good suitcase and use it

    I see these poor people at the airport, rolling these rickety contraptions with cheap handles and wobbly wheels. If you’re going to live out of a suitcase, you need a good one. Buy a rolling suitcase that will fit in the overhead compartment. And that’s the only one you need. One day trip? Use your suitcase. Three week trip through several different climates? Use the same suitcase. (And don’t ever check it. Checking is for suckers.)

  5. Limit your shoes

    You will never be able to make it for three weeks out of the same carryon suitcase if you bring all your shoes. Two pairs is ideal, three pairs if you must. May I suggest leaving your running shoes behind?

  6. The “I wish Obama really were a socialist” water boiler

    Visiting my friends in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, I’m envious of government policies that offer health care, public transportation, affordable childcare, and marriage equality. I also envy the tea kettles in hotel rooms. American hotel rooms provide a cheap drip coffee maker, the instructions on which advise that it can also be used to boil water for tea. This is an option useful only to the most hung-over of conference-goers who are willing to drink vaguely coffee-flavored tea (NB: I have done this.) This nifty gadget immerses in a cup of water and makes it boil. Bring your own tea bags and lounge in bed while everyone else stumbles down to Starbucks in the morning.

  7. Unpack

    Don’t live out of a suitcase. If you’re going to be in a hotel room longer than a night, hang things up or put them away in drawers. I find that pretending I don’t live out of a suitcase doesn’t take any longer when it comes time to repack. And it helps keep me sane.

I’m done with living out of a suitcase for a while. Next year I look forward to writing another post, called How to live comfortably in your own home.

A few years back I came up with a strategy for dealing with the temptation of eating around the holidays. In the time-honored tradition of Tim Ferris’ Four-Hour Body I call this the Minimum Viable Diet:

  1. You don’t have to watch what you eat.
  2. You don’t have to cut back on drinking.
  3. You don’t have to do any exercise.
  4. Just stop eating before you feel like you are going to physically explode.

Along the same lines, I also have a productivity secret I’d like to share. I call it the Twelve Hour Rule.

  1. Don’t work for more than twelve hours straight.
  2. After you stop working, take at least a twelve hour break before you start working again.

The former rule is more obvious—who can be productive after more than twelve hours of work? The latter rule is actually the easier one to break, and more insidious. Who hasn’t worked until midnight and then gotten up for an 8am meeting? Don’t do that to yourself.

Combined with the Minimum Viable Diet, I think these are rules for living we can all adopt. Call it the Minimum Viable Lifestyle:

  1. Don’t work for more than twelve hours at a time.
  2. Take a twelve hour break between periods of work.
  3. Don’t eat so much that you feel like you’re going to explode.
The Minimum Viable Lifestyle won’t make you happier, more successful, thinner, or richer. It has a marginal chance of preventing your early and untimely death, which is really the minimum standard I think we should all strive for. (Airport book publishers! Call me!)

Millions of Americans rely on their mobile devices for internet access. 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies only advertise their job postings online. Without equal access to the internet, low-income Americans find the tools for escaping poverty increasingly out of reach.

If your other options were:

  • Spending an hour on the bus to use the computer at the library (with a 30 minute time limit)
  • Fighting your way through an online application form that was designed for the desktop on your mobile phone
  • Not filling out that job application at all
The LinkedIn mobile app would seem like a damn fine way to apply for a job.

“Why would anyone want to use the internet differently from the way I use the internet?” is a point of view that holds us back. People who are privileged to have access to a broadband internet connection at home and work, who never need to use the internet at the library, who never rely on their mobile devices for complex tasks, argue that there is simply no need to improve access for those who lack those advantages.

“Why would someone ever want to do that?” is the wrong question. It doesn’t matter why they want to do it. The fact is that people do. The right question, the one that we all should be asking, is “how can we make a better experience for them?” What if every organization followed Luke Wroblewski’s advice for improving input and forms on mobile? What if every organization made all of their content readable, browsable, and findable on mobile?

In the US, organizations like Connect2Compete provide low-cost internet access, while sister organization EveryoneOn helps educate and build digital literacy. These organizations help people get access to education, jobs, and services.

But assuming digital literacy means only desktop use ignores the fact that millions of Americans rely on their mobile phones for access. College applications, job opportunities, or government services shouldn’t be limited only to people who have a screen the same size as yours and a “real” keyboard. Instead of mocking people who need to apply for jobs using the LinkedIn mobile app, we should be asking what else they want to do on mobile.

I give about forty talks a year, at events of varying sizes. Organizing a conference is hard work, and I have enormous respect for the people who ask me to speak at their events. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Over the years, I’ve learned to ask a few questions directly so there aren’t any hidden assumptions or last-minute surprises. Knowing the answers to these questions before I accept the responsibility ensures that I can do my best work for the organizers and the attendees.

  1. Will you expect me to provide a copy of my slides in any format other than PDF?

    Why I’m asking:
    I’m happy to provide my slides to be shared with conference participants. PDF is the easiest way to provide them, and most conference organizers are satisfied with this approach. Occasionally, however, they’ll ask for the native file. I use Keynote and some custom fonts, so if they want the native file I need to make sure they understand what they’re getting. I cannot provide my slides in PowerPoint, as I don’t use that application. Converting between Keynote and Powerpoint is messy and the layouts break, and for me to rebuild the slides in PowerPoint would take hours.

    I won’t speak at events that require me to provide my slides in PowerPoint format.

  2. Will you expect me to use your template for my slides? If you require that I include your branding on my slides, is it acceptable to include it only on the closing slide or opening slide?

    Why I’m asking:
    My slide template has been developed over many years, and contains about 25 master slides with a color palette, typography, and custom builds I’ve lovingly honed. The “template” I get from most conferences includes a title slide and a body slide with two levels of bullet points. In Arial. I want to give the best talk I can, which means I can’t redesign my entire presentation using someone else’s template. If all they require is that I include their logo, the closing “thank you” slide is the easiest place to do so. Next best is an opening slide that I can put before my title slide.

    I won’t speak at events that expect me to use their template for anything other than the opening and/or closing slide.

  3. Will I be presenting from my own computer?

    Why I’m asking:
    Sometimes a conference organizer wants to run all the presentations off the same laptop, to speed the transition time between presenters. Often when they ask for the slides in a specific native format, that’s what they’re planning. I find this… nervewracking. I know my layouts, builds, and fonts will render properly on my machine. I know how my presentation remote works and I don’t fear clicking the wrong button. Using another laptop and another clicker adds an element of risk to a situation where I’d like to be totally in control.

    I won’t speak at events that won’t let me use my own laptop.

  4. Will I be able to see the presenter display from the stage?

    Why I’m asking:
    I don’t rely on presenter notes when I’m speaking, but I do need to see the next slide. I know many other presenters who must have their notes visible—it’s the most experienced speakers who insist on having them. The setup for some events places the laptop at the back of the room. A monitor visible from the stage shows the slide the audience sees, but not the presenter display. Usually this is motivated by a desire to have a completely bare stage. While I love the freedom to move around on stage, unencumbered by furniture, I need my presenter display. Often I don’t find out about this setup until the day of the event, giving me agita before I get up to perform.

    I won’t speak at events that can’t work out an AV setup to show the presenter display from the stage.

  5. Will I be expected to take Q&A directly from the audience?

    Why I’m asking:
    I have hearing loss and I wear hearing aids. Taking questions from the audience in a large room—whether a roving microphone is provided or not—is challenging for me. I struggle to hear the question and often must ask the attendee to repeat him or herself, and I still might not fully understand. I exit the stage on a flat and somewhat embarrassing note—the opposite of how I’d like to end my talk. The best option for me is simply to not take questions, but I also know that attendees value this interaction with the speaker. The next best alternative is for an emcee to repeat the question so that I (and everyone else in the audience) can hear it.

    I won’t speak at conferences that expect me to take questions directly from the floor, without a moderator to ensure I hear the question accurately.

It’s my job to make sure I can give the best talk possible at an event. It’s also my job to ensure I ask the right questions and set myself up for success. If I decline to speak at an event because the setup does’t work for me, it’s not because I’m a prima donna who requires white roses and no brown M&Ms in my dressing room. It’s because I’m taking responsibility for what I need to give a great talk.

All that advice out there on the internet, the how-to checklists that tell you to prepare more thoughtfully and rehearse more and be more attuned to other people’s point of view and maintain more accurate documentation and obsess about the details? Maybe that advice isn’t for you. Maybe the only advice you need is to listen to yourself more.

Around this time of year back in 2011 I was working with Jeff Eaton, preparing to speak at Duo Consulting’s WebContent conference, the theme of which was “Going Mobile.” I recall Eaton saying to me “This would be a lot easier if either of us knew anything about mobile.”

Truth was, mobile intimidated me. I liked the desktop web. I understood the desktop web. I’d made a career out of being an expert on how the desktop web should work, and I didn’t want to learn a whole new way of doing business. “Leave that for the next generation,” I thought to myself. “Mobile’s not for me.”

Eaton was valiantly trying to explain to me how a CMS could support multi-channel publishing via an API, and I just wasn’t getting it. He used metaphors (“imagine the API is a straw sucking out the content”) and probably even resorted to hand puppets acting out a short play. I felt dumb, frustrated, out of my league.

And I had a flash of insight, one that transformed how I approach my work:

If I feel so clueless talking about content on mobile, think how everyone else must feel.

See, I get this stuff. I have never done anything else! I’ve been a practicing information architect and content strategist for going on 20 years. I have a graduate degree in technical communication and HCI. I’ve worked with every major CMS out there, led projects for dozens of publishers. I grok how content works online at an almost cellular level.

I don’t say that to talk myself up—just the opposite. I was struggling to understand something that intimidated me, something I knew was important to my work, and I was scared.

And I felt compassion. Compassion for everyone out there, struggling with the same challenges on mobile. That flash of insight connected me with genuine empathy for all the people, all the businesses that have to understand and adapt and make decisions about how to move onto this new platform.

They’re scared. They’re afraid of making a wrong decision. They’re worried that they’ll waste money and time, developing a solution that customers don’t want. They’re overwhelmed by too much information, too many competing perspectives. How is mobile different from the desktop? Are apps the answer? Is responsive design just a fad? Back the wrong horse, and risk an embarrassing, public failure.

Our clients, our co-workers, our bosses and stakeholders: they are sick of the internet. The pace of change doesn’t stop. They don’t know who to trust to help them make the right decision. There are so many ways to get it wrong, and so few obvious right answers.

Have a little compassion. Be nice to them. They have a hard job.

As a result of this flash of compassion, I am doing the best work of my life. My motivation to write and speak and consult on content strategy for mobile comes from a deeper place, inspired by a genuine desire to make a hard problem easier for other people to understand. I know what it feels like to be scared and to be afraid of getting it wrong, and that empathy informs how I engage with my clients and the community.

If I can understand it, they can too.

“How can you live with yourself?”

Everyone has been hurt by a loved one or close colleague, sometimes badly wounded. Callousness, lies, back-stabbings, betrayals—these knives pierce deep. The most damaging cuts come from the people we thought we could trust.

Truth is, none of us are saints. We’ve all hurt other people. How do you live with yourself, knowing you’ve damaged—even devastated—someone you care about?

Asking implies a simpler and yet more damning question: Do you have a conscience or not?

Most of us have a conscience. Conscience sits someplace closer than morals, more intimate to your self than external religious or legal dictums. It’s the still, small voice that speaks loudest in the middle of the night. It’s empathy and compassion, an inability to behave cruelly towards the people closest to you because you can imagine how you’d feel in their shoes. You strive to act honorably towards other people because you couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t. Go against your conscience, and your feelings of regret, remorse, guilt, and shame remind you to act differently next time. The pain you feel when you violate your conscience ensures that you consider and respect other people.

Not everyone has a conscience. Like a small but vital subroutine absent from their operating system, some people simply don’t feel empathy, aren’t troubled by guilt. Remorse doesn’t wake them up at 3am. They know right from wrong—they just don’t care. Research shows that 3–4% of the population operates without a conscience:

About one in twenty-five individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. —Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door

“Sociopath” makes you imagine a cold-blooded murderer, a serial killer who wears his victim’s skin as a hat. The reality of not having a conscience can be more mundane and more insidious. It’s the investor who buys a business by promising to help it grow and then shuts it down, destroying a life’s work. It’s the girlfriend who gives you a hug and tells you how much she cares about you while she stabs you in the back. It’s the husband who carries out multiple affairs, lying to his wife’s face and making her feel like she’s crazy for being suspicious. It’s the boss who takes credit for her employees’ accomplishments when they’re useful and fires them without a second thought when they’re not. It’s the freeloading boyfriend who gets his comfortable lifestyle provided by a string of girlfriends.

It’s someone who repeatedly and callously uses people as pawns, manipulating and deceiving and betraying them, who then walks away without so much as a backwards glance when she gets what she wants—what she believes she’s entitled to.

People without a conscience are usually quite charming, glowing with charisma. People who behave horribly don’t wear a sign around their necks to warn you. Just the opposite. Their social skills are like prosthetic devices, learned behaviors to help ingratiate themselves with the rest of us. They teach themselves how to build a false sense of intimacy; they learn how to play off your pity.

With one in twenty-five odds, chances are you’ve met a few sociopaths in your life. Even if you think this phenomenon must be more rare—say, one in a hundred? One in a thousand? They’re still out there. If you’ve met someone whose behavior left you gasping “how can you live with yourself?” the answer might very well be that they just don’t have the inner sensibility that keeps them in check. They run roughshod over the rest of us, because they simply don’t feel pangs of remorse.

This difference between normal emotional functioning and sociopathy is almost too fantastic for those of us with conscience to grasp, and so for the most part, we refuse to believe such a hollowness of emotion can exist. And unfortunately, our difficulty in crediting the magnitude of this difference places us in peril. —The Sociopath Next Door

There is no reasoning with a sociopath. He’s not going to grow a conscience because you explain his behavior was wrong; she’s not going to feel compassion when you tell her how much she hurt you. The only answer is to walk—no, run—away. Cut your losses, and don’t look back.

The best career advice I’ve ever gotten came from JP Maheu, who at the time was the CEO of Razorfish. We sat down to do my performance review and he gave me this gem:

“Figure out what it is that makes you really enjoy your work, and then make sure you get to do it.”

Many people, as they advance in their careers, move away from doing the thing that got them into the field. Designers stop designing, and start managing people. Developers stop coding, and start managing resources and budgets. One day, you look up from your computer monitor and ask yourself “Is this really what I want to be doing?”

For me, that moment happened when I realized that my whole job was resource management spreadsheets, staffing calls, hiring, and putting out fires. I got into this business because I wanted to design products, not manage operations.

I know I’m not alone in struggling to balance “making” with “managing.” I’ve talked with dozens of people who question how they can find the right split, particularly as their seniority grows and they’re asked to take on more responsibility. Some people alternate between the two, focusing for months or years on project and people management, and then make a deliberate choice to spend time designing or building. Others control their daily calendar to ensure a mix of the two.

What’s clear from everyone I’ve talked to is that striking your right balance won’t happen on its own. The demands of work will always pull you away from doing the activities that give you the most joy. You’re the only one who will make sure you get to do the things you really love. So be intentional about building those into your work life—each day, each month, each quarter, each year.

Your job is going to suck.

Not all the time, of course. But some of the time. You’re going to do things you don’t like, sometimes. You’re going to do things you don’t love, most of the time.

Imagine your dream job. Let’s say you want to be a rock star. A rock star! You love music, you love performing, you love fans, you love groupies. How much of your time do you spend actually doing what you love? Ten percent? Let’s be generous and say you spend twenty-five percent of your time actually being a rock star. A quarter of the time you spend working is spent actually performing music for your adoring fans, and reaping the other associated benefits.

What happens the rest of the time? Long lonely bus rides or plane rides to dreary towns, where you stay in faceless hotels. Frustrating arguments with bandmates. Interminable hours spent trying to write new music, questioning whether your next album will be as good as the last one. Soul-deadening meetings with corporate A&R types, the vampires of your industry. Self-doubt, magnified by the sharp words of music critics. Your job, it sucks.

And that’s if you’re a rock star. But the same is true (in varying proportions) whether you’re a waiter or a designer or a teacher or a developer.

Many of us are deeply committed to the work that we do, passionate about having found employment that so naturally maps to our skills, focused on making the world a better place by making better products for people to use. I’ve conducted hundreds of job interviews in my life, and I’ve developed an eye for the true believers. I joke that I can spot the naturals by the chip implanted in their brain that convinces them they were programmed from birth to think UX design is the perfect job for them.

And it’s not. It sucks. Some of the time.

If you’re doing work you like to do more than twenty-five percent of the time, you’re doing great. But I’m convinced the secret to real job satisfaction isn’t trying to maximize your time spent doing what you love. It’s learning to tolerate and accept the downsides. It’s being able to look the parts of the job you don’t like squarely in the eye and say “I can deal with you.”

Note that I didn’t say “love” the downsides. Or “embrace.” Or “transform into something you truly enjoy.” The parts of your job that suck are just that: sucky. You can’t wish them into something better. You are never going to like them.

Whatever it is about your job that you hate—whether it’s content inventories or detailed functional specifications or recruiting for usability tests or monthly invoicing or schmoozing potential clients at conferences—it doesn’t take away from the parts of your job that you truly love. Being frustrated that you sometimes have to do work that you hate shouldn’t make you question whether this is really the right job for you. If you’ve found work you enjoy (at least some of the time) then savor those times.

And quit bitching about the parts you hate. Everyone has them.

(This also holds true for your personal relationships, for the record.)

“My job shouldn’t be trying to convince you that I should get to do my job!” It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard from when interviewing a design professional, someone toiling in obscurity in an organization that didn’t appreciate her work. Sure, they told her all the right things when they hired her. We know user experience is important. We need someone to help develop this practice. We value your perspective.

Except hiring someone to “do UX” never solves the bigger problem, which is always rooted in organizational culture and politics. Processes that are “the way we’ve always done it.” Values and business practices that aren’t aligned around the customer experience. And always, always, no support from the executives with the power to make change happen.

I told the students in my Design Management class this year that I hoped one day they’d be offered this job. Not in five years—they wouldn’t be ready. Maybe in fifteen years. See, some of the interesting problems in the world that need solving happen in organizations that don’t yet know how to value what we do. The smart ones will figure it out—with the help of the right change agents. I told my students that I hoped when they were offered that job, they’d know themselves well enough to assess whether they were the person to do it.