Confessions of a content designer
What I’ve learned over the last few years
I’ve always known this, having been an incurable bookworm, pun aficionado, lover of lyrics, and wannabe writer for as long as I can remember. But until fairly recently, there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence that the business world cared all that much about, well, words.
Thankfully, things have changed.
But, before I go on, let me briefly relay how I came to be a Content Designer. After completing an English degree, I spent the first 10 years of my career in a variety of traditional writing roles (writing training resources; writing comms; writing product docs; working as an editor). During this period, I also spent time working as a UX Designer on a number of software products. Both domains (content and design) appealed to me, yet neither on its own entirely satisfied me.
Then, in the summer of 2016, I was given the opportunity of taking on a brand new role within IBM Design. At the time, it was one of those it’s-not-really-been-done-before-so-you’ll-have-to-work-it-out-as-you-go kinda opportunities (which, it turns out, I love). In the three years that have since passed, a huge amount has happened, so I thought I’d share some of my reflections on the craft and role of Content Design as I see it. (In prose, not poetry this time 😉)
Content is still a pretty new domain but it’s gaining momentum fast
Even three years ago, while there were clearly marketing copywriters and technical writers and other writing folk, very few people were using the term “content”, nor exploring the boundaries between one type of writing and another, nor considering the entire content experience as a whole. In fact, back then, if you mentioned the term content to most people, you’d typically be presented with blank stares and tumbleweed.
But today, major content-focused conferences such as Confab and Design & Content sell out quickly and a quick search on any job site for content roles will return masses of results, including from well-known companies, not-for-profits, and government agencies. It seems that right now, every woman and her dog is wanting to hire content professionals.
Happily, inside IBM too, there has also been a marked increase in interest and investment in content. Of course, we’ve always had people paid to write marketing material and product docs and support materials, but until recently we had very few people within the product design and development domain specializing in content. However, over time, I got to know of a few other lone Content Designers working within IBM Design, and a year and a half back, Maranda Bodas and I decided to start hosting informal content meetings so that we could all share our ideas, frustrations, resources, and best practices.
Today, this cross-IBM Content Design Guild has over 130 members, made up of Content Designers and others who have a keen interest in better content. Our Slack channel and regular guild meetings are lively places and we’ve produced some best practice guides and spun off workgroups focusing on topics including content strategy, comprehension testing, writing in-product tours, and developing the content career path.
Has the content world got absolutely everything sussed? No. But there’s an ever-growing body of knowledge and expertise being shared and we’re all seeing more examples of great content that guides, inspires, and delights.
No one content person does it all
There is a vast amount that can get included under the “content” banner. Everything from research and early design exploration, to planning and strategy, to content auditing and review, to SEO and data analytics, to checking terminology and writing web or product UI copy. Because of this vast breadth, chances are that no one content professional covers everything.
As I love the domain, part of me really wants to be super proficient in every possible area, but I’ve also come to see the wisdom in each of us being real about the specific skills, experiences, and interests that we have and partnering with others who bring different areas of expertise to the table.
People use different titles (sorry!)
Perhaps given what I’ve just said above, it’s not surprising that different job titles get used. However, there’s a certain irony that those of us who supposedly care most about terminology have created a fair bit of confusion for the world at large by using so many different job title variants 😔.
Some of the more common titles include Content Designer, Content Strategist, Content Developer, UX Writer, and Digital Content Specialist. Does each title refer to a distinctly different role? Or are these titles really interchangeable?
Well, in some cases, one particular title does seem the most suitable. For example, I’ve met individuals who specialize in short-term consultancy, who are hired by organizations to assess their current content assets and processes, help identify gaps and issues, and produce future content plans that support key business objectives. These people quite reasonably call themselves Content Strategists. I’ve also met others who are paid to write UI copy (and nothing else) and for these folk, UX Writer is the obvious title.
However, for many others, the distinction is far less clear-cut, and if we’re being honest, these terms are often used fairly indiscriminately. For example, you’ll find that Facebook and Shopify call their content folk Content Strategists (of which Facebook have over 300! 🤯); Google and Microsoft seem to opt for UX Writer; while Deliveroo, IBM, and others predominantly use Content Designer— even though, from all I’ve heard, the actual roles and responsibilities at each of these companies are pretty similar.
So, ultimately, I’ve learned not to worry too much about job titles.
However, for the record, I’ll mention that I believe that Content Designer is the most helpful title in the context where I work. I say this not because my colleagues and I don’t regularly do content strategy work or write UI copy (we do both), but because this particular title speaks to the fact that Content Designers don’t just write the copy after the thing has been designed, but are deeply involved in the design of the thing itself. This has been a significant change within IBM and it’s something that I am a passionate advocate for.
Having a good style guide helps a lot…
When I started my current role, my first major task was to help provide our fantastic designers and engineers within IBM Cloud, Data, and AI with suitable guidance on all written aspects of our product user interfaces. Now, it’s not that the 100-year-old tech giant IBM didn’t have any writing guidance, but what it had was old and was not being used by our designers and engineers. It was very lengthy, technical, and formal in tone, and the information was not presented in an appealing or very consumable way.
So, before writing anything, I spent time interviewing different people and sending out some surveys to establish what writing-related questions and issues people actually had. I then formed a workgroup and, following the design thinking loop principle, as we started writing different sections of our guide, we tested the drafts with different design teams and used their feedback to further refine the guidance. As well as covering generic writing guidance (grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, etc.) we also wrote guidance that covered writing navigation labels and button labels and other things specific to designing product UIs.
Another key part of this work was establishing what kind of personality we wanted our products to have. Arin Bhowmick, our fearless VP of Design in IBM Cloud, Data, and AI, wanted our design org to really give this due thought, so we ran some fun activities to show people just what a difference the voice and tone used within a product UI can have on the user experience.
In a fun design jam event, we asked different design teams to take the real IBM product UIs that they were working on, make up a fun persona (e.g. a surfer dude, a valley gal, a sixteenth-century poet, a drag queen, an English butler, etc.) and re-write all of the written aspects of the UI in the voice and tone of their chosen persona. The results were hilarious — but they also really brought home to everyone what a huge impact the written content has on the user experience.
I was also keenly aware that merely having a writing guide was not the end goal. I knew that people are busy, and unless the guide was highly appealing and usable, it would likely not get used. So, we did all we could to make the guide as appealing as we could, including adding illustrations, quotes, and humor throughout. We also sought to embody the show don’t tell philosophy by providing positive and negative examples alongside the written guidance. Finally, we wanted to make the guide as consumable as possible, so we (and for “we” read my talented colleague Stephane Rodet) built a fully-responsive website and made sure users could easily search the contents and link to specific sub-sections within it. (I only wish I could share a link to it here, but as it’s an internal IBM resource, a screenshot will have to suffice.)
So after many hours of research, writing, user testing, and refining, we finally had a great voice and tone guide. Job done, right?
…but having a style guide is not a panacea
Having good, clear, usable writing guidance is undoubtedly a good thing. But we can’t simply publish them and then walk away thinking all will now be well. The guide I have provided for IBM Cloud, Data, and AI has been well-received, but I’m under no illusion that our 300+ designers read through it each day. People are busy, and producing good content is just one of many aims that our designers and engineers have.
That’s why Content Designers like myself need to be actively engaged with design teams as they are developing their designs. This involves establishing good relationships, taking the time to get to know the product domain, and working out how you can contribute the most value, based on that particular project, context, and phase.
All of us working in design are striving to deliver solutions that help our users succeed — and which offer delightful experiences along the way. And just as a Visual Designer contributes by sharing their experience and talent in all things visual, so a Content Designer can help develop the written aspects of the user experience. While style guides are important, there will always be so much more that a good Content Designer can bring to a design team, as she rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck into the specific thorny issues relevant to that team’s specific context.
So, to misquote Winston Churchill, what I’ve learned is that:
Writing guides are of little importance, but writing guidance is essential
Which leads me nicely to my final confession…
Done right, Content Design is more akin to improv than to traditional authorship
All of my experience to date has taught me that content professionals are most appreciated and add the most value when they work highly collaboratively with stakeholders and colleagues from across relevant disciplines. In the fast-paced world of agile product design, everyone involved needs to be comfortable with working in the open, sharing work early and often with others, and building as a team. That’s why at IBM Design we believe in failing fast, using feedback loops, and in the benefits of iterative design.
As research activities garner fresh insights, the whole team — including any Content Designers — need to be willing to refine or rework aspects of a design. Our mantra is that everything’s a prototype. After all, as Hemingway so poetically put it, “The first draft of anything is sh*t.” 😉
And, of course, within a UI, the UX flow, the visuals, and the content are all inextricably linked. That’s why no one discipline should work for any length of time in isolation. As my colleague Shay Hall has observed, we need to be like improv actors, sharing the same stage and building off of each others’ input. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that if you spend your days sat quietly working away on copy in isolation, you’re probably not doing the job that I’m describing here. For Content Design is fundamentally a collaborative discipline.
With heartfelt thanks to all of the content stars that I have the privilege of working with at IBM: Holly King, Maranda Bodas, Sasha Kerbel, Allison Biesboer, Amanda Booth, Melita Saville, Michael Lee Kenney, Caroline Turner, Jan Child, Shelby Aranyi, Will Fanguy, Connor Leech, Sarah Packowski, and many others. 🙌
Tom Waterton is a Content Designer at IBM based in Hursley, UK. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.