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Responsive Web Design

Episode 127: Spotlight: Ron Bronson

This week we’re joined by strategist Ron Bronson. We were hanging on his every word as he explained how to talk about the web to people who don’t really care.

Often because we’re so mired in our own work, the pixel work, we’re not thinking that the ordinary folks don’t necessarily understand what we’re talking about. But that’s not a character flaw, it’s not their job.

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This Week’s Guest

Ron Bronson


Ron Bronson is a strategist launching award-winning web products primarily in late-adopter industries like retail, government and higher education. He wrote Web Management for Regular People, a book for people doing work in the trenches to make the web better. Ron speaks at design and UX conferences around the world. He recently launched a consulting practice focused on improving the design of everyday experiences. Ron is also the curator of Indiana Design Week; made a deck of cards to spur creativity at Service Design Games, and created a sport, Tennis Polo.

Episode Transcript


Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Karen McGrane.


And I’m your other host, Ethan Marcotte.


And this week, I’m shedding tears of joy. We are so delighted to be joined by strategist-at-large Ron Bronson. Ron, thank you for joining us.


Thanks for having me! This is awesome.


Oh no, really, we are the lucky ones here. So, for those in the audience that may be a little surprised by what’s going on here, we’re taking a break from interviewing companies about their responsive designs and instead talking with some individuals—so, independent designers, developers, content strategists—whose work we admire, who we think have smart things to say about the web. And that’s how you get to listen to a few minutes of Ron Bronson today. So Ron, maybe just introduce yourself a little bit for some of our listeners that might not be familiar with your work.


Cool. Yeah, so, hi strangers, I’m Ron Bronson. I’ve been doing stuff on the web for…pretty much all my life, but as far as this conversation’s concerned, I’ve primarily worked on websites for institutions or slow-moving organizations over the last decade or so. So, everything from really just kind of coming in and building a site from scratch or working primarily with teams to figure out all the aspects of website redesigns—responsive website redesigns in more recent years, but even going back to the days when institutions didn’t have websites that were—in some cases they didn’t even use CMSes at all, or just static websites. So, I’ve been doing that for over a decade, starting from being the web guy to leading teams, to being independent, to sort of being a hybrid.

As far as specialty or thing like that’s concerned, I guess my work is somewhere in the—I mean, I’m a web guy first and foremost, so I really learned front-end things first, self-taught. But these days, I’m doing a lot more stuff in the UX and strategic design space, so working with teams to think about big picture things. Which is why when people ask me, “What are you? What do you do?” and I’m like, “Well, I try to prefer just sort of strategist,” because I feel like strategists get sort of a bad rap, especially in certain situations, and I feel like it’s important to talk about how we’re all strategists, but somebody needs to be thinking about these questions or these open things. So, I guess that’s me in a nutshell.


Well, I think that’s a great lead-in. I’m contractually obligated by our licensing agreement to mention responsive web design at least once in this episode. My first question would be when you think about strategy, does that apply to an organization that might be planning a responsive redesign? Because a lot of times I think responsive design gets sort of pushed into the bucket of front-end development, or it gets treated like it’s purely a technical concern rather than a strategic concern. What do you think?


That’s a great question. One of the things I thought about in thinking about this conversation and some of this stuff, even the podcast, is so much of the conversations around responsive web design are really focused around the technical stuff, talking about media queries and typefaces and colors and making sure things work a certain way, and breakpoints. I feel like my job has often been in organizations or institutions or in places where the people who I’m dealing with don’t know what you’re talking about, and they don’t really care. What they want to know is they know the site doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work, or you tell them, “Hey, here’s why we’re not converting, or here’s why the CTAs aren’t working, or here’s why traffic is down on the mobile version of the site”… And so, when you talk about strategy, what I learned pretty quickly over time—especially, as I said, I moved up the ranks—was that you need to frame the conversations in a way that reach the people where they were. Sometimes it didn’t always mean using the language that we use in our everyday conversations. Or, you can cite somebody’s article, a great article that you wrote or I see Karen at a talk somewhere and I can say, “Oh yeah, I saw this great person talk about this thing,” and use that to back up what I’m talking about.

But when you talk about strategy, yeah, I think it’s super, super important to coalesce your stakeholders, coalesce people from the start and sit them down and say, “Okay, what are we trying to do here? What are we trying to accomplish?” before you go down the road of… Everybody wants to get excited about design, nobody wants to get excited about content. But everybody wants to get excited about how’s it going to look, what are we going to do? And then later on, you find, halfway down the process, people haven’t spent as much time thinking about these critical things that we should have talked about six months ago, a year ago, and now they’re trying to solve them mid-stream, and they’re not always easy to change or always easy to fix. So, because you weren’t being strategic, you weren’t thinking about those fundamental issues from the early going.

I don’t know if that answers that question or not. [laughs]


No, I think that’s absolutely spot-on and squares pretty well with my understanding of the world, as does your comment about nobody getting excited about content. So, given that you work with large-scale, complex, slow-moving organizations, I’ve found that a lot of those organizations move so slowly because of the sheer mass of content that they’re sitting on. So as these organizations are now transitioning to a multi-device future, I have found, personally, that it’s the content that really holds them back. Can you speak to that from your experience, in perhaps helping large organizations figure out how they’re going to get their content to work across different devices?


So yeah, thinking about big organizations, most of my career has been spent primarily, until fairly recently, with universities and colleges all over the country. You talk about massive amounts of content…big companies are just as bad about this. But at least I’ve found with companies, even though this isn’t good, there’s at least some level of control because there’s at least somebody or some department that’s managing what can go public and what can’t. Universities, often there’s not any of that—you talk about governance, there’s just not any of that, or anybody able to check that for one reason or another. So, you find that you have all these thousands and thousands and thousands of pages that no one’s ever looked at and we don’t find out about until somewhere in the middle of the process.

So, what I’ve found has been interesting, you talk about multi-device futures, and what spurred the movement for a lot of organizations or institutions that I’ve worked with is the fact that people aren’t engaging as much with information or engaging with their content, and so it forces them to have these hard conversations about… A couple of years ago it would have been really tough for me to go to a dean or go to a VP or somebody and say, “Hey, we need to delete a bunch of content, or we need to rewrite a bunch of these pages, or we need to get rid of these things, or refine it.” And now I find people are a lot more receptive to those conversations, because even if they don’t totally understand when you talk about the analytics or show them these things, or maybe they don’t totally get why they can’t post lots of animated GIFs on a page, or why no one would care about these policy documents that they think are super, super interesting or important, they start to understand that, “Okay, I don’t get it, but I realize our yield is down, or our reach isn’t where we want it to be for this particular thing or for our overall site, and so if you’re telling me in order for that to work, I need to rewrite these things and then we need to change the site to work for half of our audience that’s coming from mobile devices that are not their computers, and here are the reasons why that’s the case,” talking about statistics about different groups and how they use the web. It has been a lot easier to have those conversations now than a couple years ago.


Ron, switching gears just a little bit, I’d love to hear about your book, which has one of the best titles I’ve ever heard: Web Management for Regular People. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the book and how it kind of came to be?


I appreciate you bringing that up. How did it come to be? The book came to be because for years I’ve been trying to write a book and I’ve failed at it. It’s not because I’m not writing—I’ve written voraciously over the last couple years. But it was just being able to feel like—part of this idea of the strategist-at-large, somebody who is wearing the web manager hat one day, but on another project is doing more content strategy, and in other situations is doing more direction. The leadership part of it has probably been the biggest problem. I wasn’t doing as much of the hands-on, day-to-day stuff, and so I felt disconnected from things a bit. And so anyway, Web Management for Regular People was really about taking all that writing, a lot of the essays that I’ve written over the last couple of years, and trying to coalesce that into some kind of consistent narrative.

I haven’t always worked in very big places. I’ve lived in Wyoming, I worked in Kentucky for years; I’ve been all over the country, in a lot of places that my friends like to say are places that “nobody else wants to live.” Which is not true, people live in these places, but my friends are just being funny. I’m from the east coast, so they think it’s funny that I go to these far-off, beaten places—and they yield some interesting stories. But what I’ve found is that I’ll go to these conferences, or I’ll speak at conferences all over the world, and do all these things, and then I’ll come back to wherever this place was that I was working or living and finding the conversations that I have are very, very different. The outcomes are similar, they’re doing really innovative, interesting work in a lot of cases, but the conversations were different. And so, the book was really aimed at people who were in those situations. All over the place, a lot of these stories that I was telling, that I was feeling, “Well, I’m the only one that feels this way, but I might as well write about it because it’s cathartic,” folks would tell me, if I give a talk or they read it, “Hey, that really resonated with me!” I’m like, “Really?” “Yeah, I felt the same way,” or, “I’ve been frustrated with my situation,” or, “I didn’t know how to deal with these different things.”

So, it’s a series of essays talking about some of the challenges about strategy and implementing that in situations. Some vision stuff; so, me thinking about the way we write roles for positions in organizations and how we can do a better job with that. Talking about strategy and execution—because going back to Karen’s question earlier about strategy and about organizations and their ability or aptitude for being able to sort of ingest that as you deliver it, I feel like sometimes we’re really good at talking about strategy but not so great at the execution part of that, not so great at the spaces in between, and so addressing that as well. The book is really a low-carb sort of, there’s no code snippets or anything like that. It’s meant to be really just some open thinking about some of these topics that we talk about all the time, things that come up all the time in our individual conversations, but I feel like maybe don’t resonate as much on the twittersphere because they’re not bite-sized kinds of topics. They’re the kinds of things you want to marinate on. There are not a lot of answers in this book, there’s just thoughts, things for you to think about or reflect on your own situation.

So, thanks for bringing that up. I’m really happy to have gotten it out. It’s an e-book, you can get it online, you don’t even have to buy it. It was more of sharing, like, “Hey, I’ve been doing this for awhile,” and folks have given me really good responses for it. So, again, I appreciate you bringing it up.


Oh yeah, of course. I’ve read some of the early sections, and since you mentioned roles, let me follow up on that really quickly, because I think one of the early chapters is about teams and culture fit. A recurring theme that we’ve heard on the podcast, speaking with the BBC or with Virgin America, is the more multi-device responsive work that they do, that actually changes some of their team structures internally. For example, bringing designers and developers a lot closer together. Could you talk a little bit if you’ve seen that in your practice? Have you seen some of these large organizations have to rethink the relationship between different parts of their digital practice as they do more multi-device work?


Absolutely. I mean, I’ve found that earlier in my career, organizations, especially as consultant, organizations were still pretty siloed on the digital side of things. There were lots of hand-offs and briefs. These things still exist, but I’m finding more and more that organizations are starting to—slowly in some cases, more rapidly in other cases—embrace these, for lack of a better term, responsive organizational tenets, where you’ve got folks of different disciplines in a room together talking about these topics from the start, working more agile—and not even necessarily using agile, but that’s sort of the best way I can think to frame this conversation—in a more collaborative, iterative way. Again, these are organizations that are sometimes slow-moving, but they recognize there’s a problem. Often what will happen is one person will go to a conference, hear about these things and go, “You know, we should be doing that,” and then go home and implement it, which is great, because it doesn’t always happen that way. With slow-moving organizations, it takes that person empowered to make the change sometimes, or people empowered to make those changes, to move things forward.

So, I’ve definitely seen those changes throughout, again, a lot of slow-moving organizations that I’ve worked with, and I’m not naming anybody specifically because in most cases I’m not allowed to. But varying scope, from not so much universities—things are still a little bit less nimble there—but more on the slow-moving corporate side of things, again, in places you would not expect them to be embracing things like design thinking, whether you quibble with that or not. It’s been affirming to me because I feel like it makes projects that used to be a lot more difficult to execute somewhat easier. There’s still other challenges involved, but I feel like as a result it’s made these things a lot easier to execute, and that’s been great.


Speaking of easy to execute, one of the things that I like about some of your writing or some of your speaking is you’ll also talk about the role of the CMS, or perhaps the lack of a role for the CMS, in the future of different organizations’ web products or web makeup. Can you talk a little bit about that? It’s a subject that’s of particular interest to me in light of the fact that organizations now have to publish to lots of different platforms, including the web but also beyond the web.


It’s funny you mention that, because I wrote an article called “Death to the CMS” a couple years ago, and it was really, I feel like, loosely-put, a rant. But I did not include that in the book because I feel like it was too rant-y, but now you’re making me think I wish I had. But thinking about this whole move to these headless CMSes or things like that, my quibble has been that so many organizations really think about the web from a platform-specific kind of way, and it often gets driven by people. So it’s, “Bob knows how to use WordPress, so we’re going to use WordPress.” But then Bob leaves, and instead of hiring a new WordPress person, Steve comes, and then he shows up, and Steve’s a Drupal guy because he doesn’t want users to do anything on the web, “and so now we’re going to use Drupal,” and so on and so forth. Obviously it’s different if you’re just building a responsive website that doesn’t use a CMS.

But what my frustration was, again, it goes back to strategy, organizations weren’t necessarily considering the underlying needs of the organization. They weren’t thinking about, “Well, we need a site that does this, this, this, and this. Our users do this, this, this, and this, so we want to do these things.” So, some of the conversations that I’ve started to have, and that in my last in-house role we had a lot, was talking about if all we need to do is pull data from these various different sources and places, is there a solution that would exist that would allow us to do those things without having to be locked into a system that we’ll be locked into for the next decade? Because that’s what happens in slow-moving legacy organizations, is you make these big purchases to these systems years in advance. And you all know this already, but a lot of folks may not realize that there’s a market opportunity for big organizations to be freed from millions of dollars of old architecture infrastructure all because somebody made a decision five, ten years ago…

You talk about content and the ability to change? Let’s talk about CMS architecture and how sometimes it’s really tough to make those decisions to change… We’ve overcome this in some of the situations that I’ve been in, but it’s a gargantuan task. And so, a lot of my conversations about CMSes and thinking about the way forward has really been about, it goes back to what I said earlier, taking stock of what we’ve been doing, figuring out who our audience is, and making informed decisions about that so that we’re not driven by whoever the web person is this week or whoever runs the department, we’re driven by someone’s preference for Microsoft over something else, or whatever it is. It’s driven by the actual needs, and having those needs articulated and written down, so that when we go back a year from now to go look and see, “Well, why did we make this decision?” we’ve got it codified somewhere, “Oh, we decided this for this reason.” These all seem like relatively simple things, but for a lot of organizations it’s not, because we get so caught up in doing things the way we’ve always done them.


Ron, one of the things that we like to ask our guests is if they have any advice for other people, other organizations that might be in a similar situation. So, given that you work with a lot of large-scale organizations that are wrangling massive long-term problems around web content and governance, what advice would you give them about how to think about a multi-device future, or how to think about a responsive redesign?


Consider where you are now; get the right people around your situation. All too often I feel like we don’t do a great job of…you talk about team building, of assessing, taking stock—and this isn’t about replacing people that you have, it’s more about adding capacity, and thinking about who you have on the team. So, thinking about team composition, coalescing those people early in the process, don’t leave people out of the conversation. Even if you need to have small meetings with people to get those folks together, do that early on so that there isn’t this learning curve later of, “Oh, we didn’t loop in this department, this individual who might be impacted by this situation.”

So, all that to say do your homework early. It’s worth it to take six months to do the strategy behind figuring out where you want to go forward and documenting that, so that in month six when you’re ready to go ahead and make that responsive redesign, when you’re ready to go ahead and, say, contract with somebody or work with a partner, external partner, or something else, that they’ve got something to work with from the start. We’re coming in and we’ve got, “Oh, here’s the data that we did, here’s the research that we did, here’s our audience, here’s our strategy behind what we’re trying to accomplish.” Now, in some cases maybe they want to be a part of that conversation earlier, but at any rate, at least we’ve got something to work with. Because too often what I find is we walk in and we either don’t have that informed information or we don’t have a real idea why anything is happening. It’s either driven by personality or whatever else. So, asking those questions as early as possible is really going to be the best way to help these kinds of organizations, or really any organization, to move forward.

The other thing, this is the biggest thing I talk about everywhere, is meet folks where they’re at. There’s always a push sometimes, especially with folks—and this is just a generalization—but I feel like often because we’re so mired in our own work, the web work, the pixel work I like to call it, that we’re not thinking about that ordinary folks who are doing things every day don’t necessarily understand what we’re talking about. But that’s not a character flaw, it’s not their job. Your doctor knows more than you do about lots of health-related things, but they don’t often make you feel like an idiot for not understanding how the body works. I talk about bedside manner a lot for web folks. We need to improve our bedside manner, and in all manner of ways. Whatever your discipline or practice is, think about and consider how you interact with people who don’t necessarily understand these tenets, who are often signing the checks. I think that by doing that, you not only make your project maybe go a little bit more smoothly or make things a little bit easier, but you make it easier for other folks who follow you who do this work, because ultimately we represent our industry.


Well Ron, that sounds like some pretty wise words to end on. So, this has been a fantastic chat. Karen and I are big fans of your work and we deeply appreciate you spending a few minutes chatting with us. So, thank you very much, Ron.


I appreciate you all. Thank you so much, and I respect and admire your work, so thanks for having me. This has been fantastic.


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