Nicole Fenton, Nicely Said and Vox
I’m a writer, researcher, strategist, and the coauthor of Nicely Said. Most recently, I was the head of content design at 18F, a digital design and technology consultancy within the U.S. government. Next week, I’m joining the product team at Vox.
How did you get into content design?
I knew I wanted to be a writer early on. We didn’t have much money growing up, so I started working at 14 and did all sorts of customer service jobs. I studied English in college, and didn’t really see myself going into advertising or journalism at the time. I came to writing from poetry, so I wasn’t sure what to do.
I decided to get into tech and work for Apple. I started as a call center and email support rep, and then moved into developing training, process flows, and web content. From there, I became the communications lead and worked on product launches and a global checkout redesign. I got so into the design side of things that I eventually decided to leave to be a full-time content strategist. That was in 2010.
Since then, I’ve worked on all sorts of projects for design and tech agencies, startups, Facebook, my own clients, and the federal government. But I still use those skills in customer service, writing, and process improvement everyday.
What does a normal day look like?
I have a two-year-old, so I begin and end my day as a parent. After the kiddo’s at preschool, I catch up on Slack, email, writing, and design tasks. Depending on what I’m working on, I may be responding to issues in GitHub, documenting research findings, or making design decisions, for example. I’ve found that having focus time in the morning helps me balance the necessary extroversion of being a designer.
From there, I’m usually in meetings and working sessions. I work remotely, so I spend a lot of time chatting with folks over video. I might be talking with peers, stakeholders, or users — it just depends on the day. Every now and then, I’ll go onsite to host a design workshop or meet with users in person.
Until last week, I was also managing a team of content designers, so I had 1:1 calls with them, participated in supervisory meetings, and worked on project scoping and staffing decisions. Lots of communication.
Where do you go and what do you do for inspiration?
On a personal level, I’m inspired by nature, cities, and the arts. I love to read, and music is a big part of my life. Cooking is a refuge for me when I have time.
Professionally, I find a lot of inspiration in the design process itself. I love working with designers and engineers, listening to users and stakeholders, and figuring out how to make things better. When I’m stuck on a particular design problem, I tend to do a lot of desk research to see what’s worked in other situations. I also like to reach out and ask peers for input. Working with deliberate, smart people is a huge privilege and it helps keeps me going.
What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
I recently directed the redesign of plainlanguage.gov. That project was really important to me on both a personal and political level. I believe that everyone deserves to have clear communications from government. I also pitched the project to secure the funding, and that was a new experience for me.
In 2016, I got to work on the FBI Crime Data Explorer. I am a crime victim myself, so bringing my content and life experiences to the writing process was really fulfilling. As part of the research we did, we talked to journalists, criminologists, data experts, law enforcement agencies, and people at the FBI. It was super fascinating. You can learn more about that project on the project wiki, in my talk about Open Data Content Strategy, and on the Responsive Web Design Podcast.
I’m also proud of the work I did with my clients before coming back to salary jobs. Being able to work as an independent consultant on and off in my career has been super fulfilling.
How do you approach getting stakeholders on board?
It comes down to trust and communication. You have to start by understanding their needs and motivations. If you have recommendations or insights about your users, frame them in a way that ties back to your mission or organizational goals. Show your colleagues that you understand the bigger picture.
I think there’s a fine line between manipulating people and presenting information in terms they can relate to. That’s part of the research process and learning to be a good consultant. Don’t surprise your stakeholders; don’t do a big reveal. Bring people along in the research process and share what you’re learning so they can see where you’re coming from and contribute. If you can, get them to participate in audits, interviews, and synthesis, too!
As content designers, we only have so much control over the direction a business or product team decides to take. Set aside time to build and maintain working relationships — and keep those connections alive with ongoing communication.
What’s your biggest content pet peeve?
When people say “content first” as if you’re ever going to be done with the content. I see writing and communications as an ongoing, iterative part of the product experience. Yes, content can inform design decisions, but what’s more important is understanding the needs of your users and continuing to test your assumptions.
Do you have any advice for aspiring content designers?
Read a lot! There’s so much out there. I keep a list of resources as a starting point. Study up on web writing, research, user experience design, accessibility, and ethics. And don’t stop there!
Dive in. You don’t have to be an expert to do content design work. Pay attention to what you notice as a reader. Hone your listening skills and ask lots of questions. Familiarize yourself with tools designers and engineers use regularly, and don’t be afraid to sit next to them regularly.
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Thanks again to Nicole Fenton for taking the time to answer these questions.