Skip to our site navigation Skip to the content

Responsive Web Design

Episode 144: Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Responsive design is inclusive design. Sara Wachter-Boettcher explains how an empathetic approach to our “human-ness” makes for better product design.

If you are embarking on any responsive design project, or frankly any design project, I think that coming back around to the people who are going to be using this product or this experience is incredibly important.

If you’d like, you can download this episode’s audio file. Additionally, you can follow us on iTunes, on Google Play Music, or subscribe to our RSS feed.

Buy The Books

Everything you need to go responsive, in four short books. Save 15% on all four!

Work With Us

If you’re grappling with some of the responsive design challenges discussed on the show, Karen and Ethan offer a workshop on responsive design. Why not bring it to your company?

Contact Us!

Subscribe Now

Want the latest episodes? Fire up your favorite podcasting app, and subscribe to the podcast via RSS, Google Play Music, or on iTunes.

This Week’s Guest

Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Content strategy consultant and author

Sara Wachter-Boettcher runs a content strategy consultancy based in Philadelphia. She is the co-author, with Eric Meyer, of Design for Real Life, a book about creating products and interfaces that are more inclusive and compassionate. She is also the author of Content Everywhere, a book about creating flexible, mobile-ready content. Sara works with clients like Trek Bicycles, The Associated Press, The Home Depot, and Harvard, and speaks at web conferences worldwide. Find her on Twitter @sara_ann_marie or at

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 am thrilled to be joined by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. This podcast is a fantastic opportunity for me to talk to both Ethan and Sara, who it’s been literally minutes since I’ve talked to them. So Sara, thank you for talking to me on a recorded tape.


Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I hope we have a very different conversation than the endless conversations we have about responsive design, content, and strategy already not recorded.


Y-yeah, sure…


But before we dive in, I’d like to say a few brief words about our sponsor.

Now, Karen and I use FreshBooks extensively here at our little podcasting media empire, and we’re thrilled to have them as a sponsor. And we’re even more thrilled because they’ve launched an all-new version of their popular cloud accounting software! It’s really easy to use, and is a simple way to be more productive, organized, and—most importantly—get paid quickly.

This new Freshbooks has a ton of great, intuitive features. A few favorites: it lets you create and send professional-looking invoices in less than 30 seconds; you can use Freshbooks to set up online payments, which can get you paid faster; and many more.

Sound tempting to you? Well, FreshBooks is offering a 30-day, unrestricted free trial to listeners of the Responsive Web Design Podcast. To claim that trial, just go to and enter RESPONSIVE WEB DESIGN in the “How Did You Hear About Us?” section.

Once again, thanks so much to Freshbooks for sponsoring our little podcast.


So, for our listeners, we’re hoping to give non-responsive design, content strategy, or anything about that today. No—we’re here today because Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a fantastic human being and somebody I genuinely like working with and talking to, and so we thought it’d be fun to spend a little time doing a spotlight on her today. So Sara, maybe just to let our listeners know, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you’re working on, maybe some books you’ve written.


Sure, yeah. So, I am a content strategy consultant and I live in Philadelphia, and for the past, I don’t know, six or so years I’ve been running my own business, providing a lot of consulting to organizations, usually on the larger side, who have messy content problems, big websites, multiple different platforms, many apps, things like that, and they need some help figuring out how to make sense of those things and to make those things more successful for them. So, I’ve been doing that for a long time now, and along the way I’ve written a couple of books. So, the first was Content Everywhere, which came out maybe about five years ago now. Oh my god… Yeah, that’s actually true. And then Design for Real Life, which came out last year with Eric Meyer.

Content Everywhere was really the one that got me thinking a lot about structured content and how content could adapt and work across lots and lots of different devices and lots and lots of potential destinations. And then Design for Real Life was kind of like a big departure in some ways. It’s all about how do we design things that are more inclusive and more empathetic, and how do we make sense of a broader range of people in the products that we design. And so working on that with Eric was sort of a really big turning point in the work that I’m doing, where now I feel like all the content strategy stuff I started with has merged in with all of these other things that are more around the ethical and moral implications of our work. And so I’m really excited to kind of continue bringing those things together.


Well, maybe you could say a little bit more about that, because I’m really interested that so many of our spotlight interviewees have talked about accessibility and inclusive design as an aspect of responsive design and certainly as an aspect of designing for this multi-device ecosystem. How does that factor into your work, especially given that you have kind of a foundational background in structured or adaptive content?


I think one of the things that is really important to remember any time you’re working on the web or working with any digital tool, is that you don’t really know a lot about your user. Even if you think you know a lot of things about them, the majority of their life is actually a mystery to you. You don’t know what somebody’s going through on any given day, you don’t know anything about their background, you don’t necessarily know anything about their level of ability or disability, and so we make so many assumptions in all of the different products that we build. We kind of have to to get anything done, I think. There’s no way to design something without making some level of assumption, because we aren’t going to be able to know every user.

But as I started working on Design for Real Life, I started thinking a lot about the kinds of assumptions we’re making that were really problematic, around people’s identities and people’s needs. A lot of these assumptions assume that people are going to be in a calm environment with lots of time on their hands, using a device that’s relatively recent, and that we could be designing for essentially these ideal states. And so when we start thinking about designing for people in other circumstances, we start needing to think about well what happens when somebody’s under stress, what happens if somebody’s in a crisis? What happens if somebody is from a marginalized group? What happens if somebody does not have access to all of the latest and greatest? And, you know, so many of those concerns really boil down to do we have content that respects them, do we have content that they can understand, do we have content that can actually be served to them when and where they need it, or are there things getting in the way?

And so, so much of the stuff that I’ve done for years around structured content and around content strategy more broadly, like how do we actually communicate what we need to communicate, how do we get rid of all the fluff and extra cruft—all of those things just sort of double down in terms of their importance as we start thinking about more inclusiveness and empathy in the work that we do. So, it’s like structured content can seem very wonkish and technical, and talking about inclusion can feel very fluffy or feel very soft. But in reality, I think those things really go hand-in-hand.


Sara, I was wondering if you might be able to say a little more about that. Specifically, I’d love to hear are there specific strategies or techniques that you use when working with clients to help them break down some of these assumptions? I mean, other than reading your excellent book or hiring you, what are some things that you tend to coach them on when they’re engaged with you?


One of the techniques that I really recommend people try out is to start thinking about all the assumptions that they’re making in their work, and a great way to do that that Eric and I talk a lot about in Design for Real Life is to stop thinking about things in terms of edge cases—so, things that sit at the edges that we can kind of write off, things we don’t have to worry about, because whenever we say something is an edge case, we’re kind of saying it’s not important—and instead start thinking about stress cases. When we say stress case, we mean things that kind of put your design decisions to the test and say do these actually hold up to the variety of things that might happen in real life?

What that can do is that can really help you identify where the assumptions you’ve made about who a person is or what they’re doing at a particular moment, where those things kind of fall apart, where they break down when something different happens. So, you can go through and you can say, “Well, we expect that people are going to use this product when they’re sitting at their desk at work, and they’re going to be on a desktop machine, and that’s sort of the typical thing for a business application.” Okay, so a stress case might be saying well what happens if our assumption that they’re sitting at the office is wrong? What happens if they’re trying to access this on a crappy WiFi connection at an airport on their laptop, or late at night because they forgot something for a presentation is happening the next day? What happens if critical data isn’t where they thought it was and they’re freaking out about something that is due? Even in these scenarios that are, say, not on their face associated with stress and crisis, people go through all kinds of different circumstances. So if we can walk through the assumptions that we’re making and start framing those things as stress cases, as ways that our product might be put under stress, we can start making our product stronger for everybody, whether or not they’re at that end of the spectrum.


One of the many reasons that we wanted to have you on the show was to talk about some work that you’ve been doing with Fair Districts PA, which is an organization that is, as I understand, working to change gerrymandering. Can you say a little bit about your volunteer work with that organization, maybe how some of the work that you’ve done on the website might play into people’s feelings of, I don’t know, stress?


Absolutely. So, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. So like I said, I live in Philly, and Pennsylvania has some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation. When we say gerrymandering, what we’re really talking about is that we have politicians who control the process of deciding district lines, so the boundaries of legislative districts. And when they do that, they’ve historically done that for political gain. You have the people who have the most at stake, which is to say they want to keep their seat, deciding where the lines are drawn, which plays an outsized effect on how votes that are being cast actually get counted. So, the result is that we end up with political lines drawn that keep people in power and protect seats as opposed to reflecting real communities and natural boundaries. So, Fair Districts PA is really about changing that.

At Fair Districts, what we’ve been working on is figuring out how can we change things before the next redistricting cycle happens. That always happens after the census, so it happens again in 2021. So in order to change that though, we have to change the state constitution, because that’s what controls how districting happens in the state, and that’s one of the reasons it’s been so difficult to change that here. Right now there are bills in both the PA House and Senate that would create an independent redistricting commission, and those are the bills that Fair Districts is supporting. Now, there are a lot of other things that are going on with gerrymandering—there are lawsuits to fight back against the borders that were drawn at the last census—and I would really recommend, if you’re interested in this topic, check out, because we’ve got a lot of information about how it works, and who’s sponsoring what, and some of the pros and cons of different potential solutions to the problem.

But what happened with this project is that back in January, my friend, Winston Hearn, who’s a front-end developer who’s currently working at Vox, he and I went to a presentation by Carol Kuniholm, who runs Fair Districts PA. It was at this church in Central City, Philadelphia, and something like 700 people showed up. Now, this was in January, and I don’t know if you remember January, but people were quite suddenly very politically engaged, and so her meetings went from something like thirty or forty people to hundreds of people pouring in to learn about gerrymandering. In that meeting, the issue became incredibly clear and urgent to me, and it became very obvious that this was something that we needed to change and that we actually had an opportunity to make real change happen.

The problem that I saw really quickly was that the website that Fair Districts had wasn’t really telling any of that story. It had been built on Wix, the site-building platform, by Carol, who had started the organization, kind of on the weekend. She didn’t have web development experience or design experience. She was somebody who was trying to build an organization from the ground up. So, it makes complete sense that the website had started there. But over time, it just was not working for them. It had a separate mobile site, so you had to edit in the mobile view separately, which meant the content was getting out of sync between mobile and desktop. It was slow to load, had a lot of problems with accessibility. It was just difficult to manage. There were a lot of reasons that it wasn’t really working for them as a platform. And then there was the whole branding question, where the organization had really become so much more vibrant and active over the past year leading up to that, and they really needed some work to figure out what that was going to look and feel like.

So, I went to Winston after that meeting and I said, “I think we can help these people.” We started sending emails and getting in touch with the right folks and getting them in the room, and saying, “Let’s actually build a web presence that’s going to serve this organization for the long term and be able to adapt and meet your goals as you reach out to more and more people across the state.” And so they said yes, and that’s where we started. So, that’s how the project kind of came to be.


Sara, I’d love to hear if in any of those early meetings, as you’re actually talking about moving from separate mobile and desktop experiences, were there any concerns about moving everything to one more unified, more responsive experience? Any big questions that kind of came up?


You know, no, and I thought that was actually something that was really great, is that I think a lot of the people who were involved with Fair Districts PA at the leadership level, they weren’t necessarily web experts. They would be the first people to tell you that they didn’t know that much about the web. But they did understand the power of mobile, and I think part of that is that they knew how much they were relying on their mobile devices, and so they all knew the site really needed to be just as good on mobile as it was on desktop. And they also knew that the current site was really a challenge as they were going out to have these meetings—like I said, 700 people showing up in a church for a meeting on gerrymandering. They were trying to get people at the meeting to do things like sign up for the newsletter to stay informed about the organization or volunteer, and it was just really difficult for those people to interact with the mobile experience as it was, and it was causing a lot of pain points.

So when we swooped in, it was very much already clear that mobile was a big issue for them, and so it was very easy to tell that story about how responsive design was going to help them solve it. They didn’t need to understand all of the history of responsive design and all the details about how it worked to understand the power of having one experience that could serve everybody and where there wasn’t sort of like a second class experience for some users. So that was great, because I think right away they were like, “Oh, yes, we see the power of this and we want this.”


Sara, can you talk about maybe some of your other consulting work, or how you approach some of these conversations about more inclusive design with organizations that maybe aren’t in the more political or governmental realm?


Yeah, so a lot of times when I’m working with clients, I’ll take their team through workshops that are really about how do we get more compassionate in our content and in our UX and in our product design writ large. A lot of times those workshops include things like techniques to recognize biases—which we all have bias, everyone of us has bias, I have plenty of bias. But it’s about stopping and being able to understand where that bias is coming from, how it plays out in our work, and to start seeing our design visions not necessarily as perfect and something that’s untouchable, but more as something that’s necessarily flawed, and how do we make them stronger? And then walking through processes of identifying things like trouble spots and interactions, like onboarding, forms, carts, places where we tend to interact with our users more directly and interact with the information they’re providing us more directly to look at things like are we asking people for information that we don’t really need? Are we asking people for information that is limiting to them? Are we forcing people to pick a gender when we don’t need to? Are we forcing people to give us their title when we don’t need to? All of those kinds of little moments where we can end up with experiences that are not very welcoming and not very inclusive.

And then we’ll also do a lot of practice looking at content and identifying places where that content might break down when it’s being used in real life, and rewriting content to be stronger and better able to deal with a wider range of people. So, I do a lot of that work with clients. Sometimes it’s like the entire engagement with a client is all about making our experiences more inclusive, but a lot of times it’s more wrapped up in smaller ways in any kind of content or UX project. So, that’s something that I’m a big believer in, that it doesn’t have to just be a project that’s around inclusivity, it has to just be a way that we think about the work that we do. So, whether I’m in a meeting with a big finance company and we’re having a question about personalization and we start asking, “Well, wait a second, is this actually an ethical thing to be doing?” Just kind of having those conversations and normalizing those conversations I think is really important.


Well, that’s a good lead into something I’m personally very excited about, which is that you have written yet another book. How did you do it?


That is a great question. I’m not really clear. I wrote this book, it’s called Technically Wrong, and it’ll be out in October from W.W. Norton. And I wrote it actually primarily just after the presidential election, and it was a difficult time to write, but I did. It’s all about the ways that digital products—apps, platforms, everything—can be designed to exacerbate bias, to reinstate sexism, and to cause problems for lots of people. The big difference with this book that is exciting and super terrifying for me is that it is written for a mainstream audience. So, it’s not just for other people like us who work in tech, it’s actually for anybody who engages with tech and is interested in the way that all of those products that they use on a day-to-day basis might not be actually designed for them.


Well, I, for one, can’t wait to read this book, and I know I’m not alone. But Sara, this has been a really wonderful chat. Before we let you go though, I would love to hear if you happen to have any advice for our listeners. If somebody is out there who is listening to this podcast or reading this transcript and they’re about to start on their own responsive design project, are there any things that you would recommend they keep in mind?


I think that if you are embarking on any responsive design project, or frankly any design project, I think that coming back around to the people who are going to be using this product or this experience is incredibly important. And when I say coming back around to the people who are using it, I don’t just mean to some kind of shallow personas. I mean to really thinking about the fact that human beings who are experiencing the full range of human-ness are going to be using this thing, and making sure that you are thinking about them at every single step along the way and that you have techniques in place to kind of remind yourself. Everybody gets blinders on a project. We all get blinders on where we want to launch, or we have our own desires, our own priorities. All of that is normal, and so having these moments built in at every single step of the way that bring us back to the people who are going to have to use it I think is incredibly important to end up with a product that is going to be usable, accessible, and empathetic.


Well, I think that is a fantastic note on which to end. Sara, thank you so much for taking some time out of your busy day to chat with me and Ethan today. I will look forward to talking with you again probably in like five minutes.


Yeah, thank you so much, Karen. Thank you, Ethan. Talk to you soon.


Thanks to everyone for listening to this episode of a Responsive Web Design Podcast. Thanks also to our sponsor, Freshbooks. Go to and enter RESPONSIVE WEB DESIGN in the “How Did You Hear About Us?” section for a 30-day free trial.

If your company wants to go responsive but you need help getting started, Karen and I offer a two-day onsite workshop to help you make it happen. Visit to find out more, and let us know if your company is interested.

If you want even more from us, you can sign up for our newsletter, subscribe to this podcast, and read full transcripts of every podcast episode at

Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you back here next week.

Skip to our site navigation; skip to main content