Communicating the value of content design

As a content designer, I often struggle to explain my role. The job is notoriously difficult to define, it looks different at every organization, and it has a ton of overlap with other roles.

Content design is practiced by people with a dizzying array of job titles: product designers, UX designers, content strategists, interaction designers, information architects, technical writers, engineers, product managers, etc. If you’re one of these people, you’ve probably experienced first-hand the challenge of communicating the value of good content design to the rest of your product team.

I recently tried to demystify this mysterious discipline in a talk at Write the Docs Prague for a room full of documentation specialists. You can watch my full presentation above – or if you’re short on time, check out my key takeaways below.

First, what is content design?

The phrase “content design” was coined by Sarah Richards, who wrote a book called Content Design that has helped to shape how we think about the discipline. Even though there is no one, agreed-upon definition, there are a couple that I like.

“Content design is a product discipline focused on how to structure and present information”

Information architect Abby Covert talks about our job being to make the unclear clear. My colleague Meredith Castile puts it another way: content design is a product discipline focused on how to structure and present information.

It looks different from one organization to the next. Sometimes, content design teams are centralized, acting as a consultancy within an organization. Other times, we’re treated as a specialization within a broader team, like we do here at Intercom. Simply put: we’re the people to whom you bring all your challenging, noodle-y product content problems.

Dangerous waters ahead

All of this sounds great, right? Spending time designing the concepts and language of your product sounds like a dream! But if there’s a little knot in your stomach that’s telling you there is probably a catch to this, you are not wrong. The problem with content design is the same problem the Titanic had: there’s a UX design iceberg ahead. Content design – like all product design – is a deceptively deep practice. That’s because the visible output of content design only accounts for a fraction of the work that’s necessary to do it well.

The UX design iceberg, from The Lean Design Playbook by Dan Olsen

Meanwhile, underneath the surface there is all of this heavy-duty, time-consuming and incredibly valuable work that is super difficult for people – even people who know how this works – to grasp. It’s difficult for them to see, understand and value. And it can therefore be difficult to engage in conversations about content design at that deeper level. Because of this, teams will often find themselves all ready to launch a new feature, thinking that they just need a little copy and they’re done.

In that situation, content design is often brought in at the last minute and asked to put some words on the screen. But then questions arise, conflicts and ambiguity are uncovered, and you realize that not a lot of thought has gone into the underlying concepts the feature is built on. What you get in this situation is nothing but frustration.

How do we fix it?

There is a great metaphor to communicate our work with product partners, and it was created by my former Intercom colleague Sam Weingarten, who was the only other content designer here when I started out. What if, she suggested, we thought about building a product the same way we think about building a house?

“What if we thought about building a product the same way we think about building a house?”

The foundation is the product system. The walls, doors, and windows are your interactions. And the roof is that surface-level content. You can’t bring in the roofer at the last minute, with no say in the heights and angles of the walls, and expect their work to be watertight.

So let’s break down the opportunities for content design at each level:

  1. The foundation: Every step must be mapped from the beginning with clear relationships between the objects in the system. If you don’t consider content design at that foundation level of work, you might end up with a house that doesn’t sit nicely alongside the other things in the neighborhood or in the product system. The solution to this is to make sure that anytime you’re adding to a product, you clearly diagram out all of the objects in the system and what any changes will mean for the system. Getting this clarity early in the process is going to be critical to making sure that the levels that come after it are are built up from a shared understanding.
  2. Walls, windows and doors: This is how your users get in and out and out of your product. It’s how they interact with it throughout their journey. You must make sure your content design is well positioned to help with interaction design. Maybe your product house ends up with doors and windows that are really hard to use. You have the opportunity to advocate for the system-level choices you have already made and make sure that whatever interaction design moves your team is making reflect those system-level choices.
  3. The roof: Here’s where you polish your words. If you do great system work but punt on the copy without putting a ton of thought into it, you’ll end up with content on top of your product that is not doing its job. If, however, you’ve been involved in all of the processes up to this point, you are much more likely to end up with walls that are all the same height and a floor plan that’s actually going to bear the load of the roof. Your work will be much more structurally sound, and the deeper work you’ve done will basically write your copy for you.

What to do next

The first thing, I want you to do is acknowledge that you are already doing this work. The next step you can take is to start fighting for it and to start advocating for it. If you are doing content design, you’re a super valuable resource to your product teams, even if they don’t realize it.

“Sell your team on how much better the roof-level work is going to be”

Try to get invited into the process as early as possible: buy coffee for your designers, for your product marketing team, for your product managers, whoever is making these decisions. Pick one meeting and try and get into that meeting for every new project. This way, you can steer them clear of anything that’s really going to make your job difficult further down the road.

Finally, sell your team on how much better the roof-level work is going to be if you are involved in the process from the foundation up. Convince them that everybody is going to end up happier. It’s going to save you time. It’s going to make the quality of your product better. It’s win, win, win.

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