Jonathon Colman, Intercom
Howdy! I’m Jonathon Colman and I lead the global content design team at Intercom. I’m a Webby Award-winning content designer and a keynote speaker who’s appeared at over 80 events in 8 countries on 5 continents.
Before joining Intercom, I led UX content strategy for Facebook’s Platform and Marketplace teams for over 5 years. I was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa.
I’ve been working on the web since 1994, so I’m grumpy it’s not done yet.
How did you get into UX writing?
I’d never written a lick of interface copy prior to joining Facebook in 2013. I was really open about it in my interviews with them so that they knew what they were getting into. I brought other skills to the role (UX design, information architecture, etc.) but the first bit of UI copy I ever wrote was for their “Save for later” feature.
Like many folks, I came to content design from a long, meandering path. I’ve been practicing for over 20 years in a variety of fields: tech writing, international development, front-end code production, marketing, SEO… I was even a “webmaster” back in the day. Remember those?
This is my fourth or fifth career, so one of the things I love most about our community is that we take a “big tent” approach to letting people into it. We’re just excited that you’re excited about making great content experiences! That means that we get a pretty broad set of people doing the work.
Some of the best UX writers and content designers I’ve ever worked with come from a background in journalism and museum design!
What does your UX writing process look like?
At Intercom, UX writing doesn’t start with words. It may end with words (sometimes), but the best words in your interface are the ones you’ve either removed or didn’t have to write in the first place.
We start by taking a lot of time to understand the problem and clearly articulate it so everyone can understand what we’re trying to solve for. So I and my team spend the bulk of our time trying to understand the experiences that people and businesses are having so that we can get really crisp on the problem to be solved. That means we do things like research, data review and analysis, competitor audits, and more. Understanding the problem is the hardest, most important work we do.
From there, we form hypotheses and start designing solutions. At Intercom, we hold content designers and product designers accountable for almost exactly the same things, so product design and content design tend to look very similar at this stage.
We design all of our products to work together and be interoperable as part of a connected, modular system. So we start our solution design from this systemic point of view, mapping out all of our entities, their relationships, and how those relationships provide value.
For us, content design is concept design. A good system map defines the concepts within the system, linking them not just to the problem to be solved, but to the mental model of the people who will use the product. That’s why we often say that “We work in systems, not sentences.”
It’s only after we understand the problem, define the system, and create the concepts that we even start writing the words. If we’ve done the upfront work well, then the actual writing should take far less time than anything else.
If all that sounds interesting to you, we’re always looking for good people to join our team!
What does a normal day look like?
My team is located in 3 offices — London, Dublin, and San Francisco — so part of our day is spent sending each other really important, hand-curated, ultra-nerdy GIFs. We went through a “Firefly” phase a couple months ago and it was just lovely. #browncoatsforever
Oh, you mean actual work? Okay, then. Among other things, I’m trying to build out a high-level system map that shows how all of Intercom works together in a way that anyone can understand, so I spend part of the day on that. Then there’s 1:1s with my team and their partners, research with our customers, design critique, building out our content standards, and participating in product rituals like stand ups, retrospectives, roadmap planning, and reviews with leadership.
What are the top 3 apps you use?
Figma: I only started using Figma when I joined Intercom, but I’ve been really impressed with it. It makes collaboration so fast and easy. And I’m especially excited about their new platform for plugins.
iA writer: Still my go-to for drafting anything. It’s simple, focused, fast, and gets the job done.
Basecamp: We use Basecamp to communicate our design work, show our thinking to each other, and give/receive feedback on each other’s work asynchronously. My daily notification shows me what everyone’s up to and it just blows my mind because, at a glance, I get to see all the awesome work folks are doing.
Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?
I read a lot of comic books. If you want to become a UX writer or improve your craft, comic books are a good way to see how bits of text and simple art work together to create a narrative flow. The real magic happens when you start to think of comics like products: What problems do they solve? How do they create a modular, interconnected series of experiences? What does a release cycle look like? How about research, learning, and iteration?
Some recent favorites include Saga, Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, The Best We Could Do, Vision, Black Hammer, and The Pervert. And if you haven’t seen Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse yet, WHAT ARE YOU EVEN WAITING FOR?
Are there any books or blogs you’d recommend?
My faves all focus on IA. Abby Covert’s How to Make Sense of Any Mess, Lisa Maria Martin’s Everyday Information Architecture, and Jorge Arango’s Living in Information are all practical, useful, and eye-opening.
But one of the best podcasts about content design and information architecture never, ever even mentions user experience: the Code Switch podcast from NPR. They do such an amazing job of showing how language, taxonomy, concepts, and systems are used to define, separate, and oppress people. The more aware we are of this, the better we can make things for those who are oppressed.
What’s the best thing about your job?
One of the core things we value at Intercom is kindness. So in everything we do, there’s the sense of great ambition and wanting to do big things, but it’s all infused with humility — we’re all in it together and we take care of each other.
I’ve never experienced anything like that and I feel grateful for it every day I’m at work. Especially the days when I’m feeling sad. It’s okay to feel that way, even in a great, supportive environment.
What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
In April, we launched Product Tours, which is the simplest, fastest, and most fun way to onboard people to your product. You can also use them to announce new features, supercharge your customer support, or even integrate them into chatbots. Tours was a blast to work on and it’s been great to see our customers using them to help people understand and get more use out of their own products.
Product Tours is really focused on onboarding, so to build the product, I reviewed over 200 product onboarding flows to deconstruct how they work and why. I synthesized a heap of learnings, which you can see in this blog post about taking a content-first approach to product onboarding.
What principles do you try to stick to when writing?
We recently discovered and documented some of our UX writing principles at Intercom. I think there may be one or two more that we have yet to define, but we’ve already started using this initial group of three principles:
- Start with why. This principle focuses on explicitly showing people value rather than just describing mechanics. That’s really helpful for something like product onboarding, where you might be tempted to show people screen after screen after screen of features… but why do that when you can get people to value and solutions right away?
- Strive for less. This principle shows how we always prefer solutions that are as short as possible, so long as they don’t leave out anything people need to know to make the best decision for themselves or their business.
- Don’t make me think. This principle highlights how we put the most important thing first, are concrete instead of vague, and use plain language. Our goal is always to be clear, not clever.
Do you have any advice for aspiring UX writers?
Break out of the “you only work on the words” box that people put you into. If you only work on the words, you’ll never reach your potential as a product practitioner.
Donald Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things, once wrote that “design is concerned with how things work.” Isn’t that amazing? I think it’s important because most people would say that design is only concerned with making things pretty.
But that’s not design, that’s art. And it’s only a small part of art, at that. So likewise, content design isn’t concerned with just writing the words or making the words sound pretty. Content design is concerned with what things mean. That’s why I often say that “Content design is concept design.”
Our work involves words, but those are just the artifacts up at the surface of a product, much like mockups, prototypes, and visual design are the artifacts that a product designer creates at the surface of a product.
Instead of only running toward the words, run toward systems, structures, relationships, narratives, and concepts. Make those your focus, the things you run to — and then bring everyone else along with you.
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Thanks again to Jonathon Colman for taking the time to answer these questions.