What’s wrong with content design advocacy & how can we remedy it
I had the honor to be one of the speakers at Lead with Tempo, the first conference focused on content design leadership. Watch the video or read the transcript here.
Hi! One of the dominant narratives in our industry is that people don’t understand what we bring to the table. Many of us have turned to content design advocacy to teach, argue for, or defend on behalf of our discipline.
My talk today delves into the risks of doing content design advocacy while working with a team. If you’re struggling to get heard or trying to integrate your content designers into the product team at your organization, my talk will help you put those challenges in perspective and up your game — without doing the advocacy work.
For those of you I’m meeting for the first time. I’m Felicia Wu, currently a content design manager at Meta. Prior to Meta, I worked at 7.ai and Clover where I built content design teams from the ground up. And before that, I was the lead UX writer at Cisco WebEx.
I spent my whole career educating people about content design. I did a lot of talking.
My favorites were presenting a new vision of our content in front of the executives and stakeholders, showing the classic “iceberg” picture, a UI without any text, what we do and what we don’t do, frameworks on how teams should work with us, before and after examples, voice and tone strategy and its application in the product. All of that helped me establish the legitimacy of the practice and grow my influence with the product and design leadership.
The reality is that having a seat at the table organizationally doesn’t automatically mean acceptance. Things continue to be challenging for content designers on the ground.
They’re likely to hear these types of comments (see the slides in the video).
They’re probably working with designers who churned out wireframes at such an intensive pace that they could never catch up. When the designers finally paused, they shared their designs and said, “let me know if you have any wording suggestions.” “You can say whatever you want!”
Content designers feel that the designers are stepping on their toes. Not only that, the PMs seem to be running over them dictating what needs to be done.
Have you run into any of this?
Misconceptions about what we do are nails on a chalkboard. They’re demoralizing.
As a manager, I often get questions like this: “My ideas got shot down again by my designer [you can replace that with engineer or PM]. How can I build influence if they don’t understand what I do?”
“The team needs to be educated,” content designers would often say.
That framing assumes that all of the collaboration challenges we face will go away if we simply educate our partners about Content Design.
There are dangers when that framing is put into action.
#1. Many content designers, including the IC version of myself, would spend time creating and giving presentations about “what is content design and why it’s important,” on top of our product work. To our dismay, people don’t learn. They don’t retain what you tell them. It reinforces the idea that they just don’t get it. Over time, we get trapped in the thinking that we’re right, they’re wrong.
#2. We pre-define what success looks like based on this false dichotomy: We should be leading, not supporting. We should be sitting side by side with the designer and co-designing in Figma. Our ideas are being adopted. We should be invited to all the meetings.
When those things are not happening, we consider that a failure. We don’t feel fulfilled. We’re frustrated. We lose joy in the work we feel passionate about.
#3. Trying to educate people while working with them is taxing. It leads to burnout and makes us feel lonely. It’s that feeling of being a perpetual outsider.
Lastly, when we have too much conviction in our belief, we run the risk of alienating ourselves from those people we’re trying to connect with. We forget that the humans we work with have needs and goals they want to meet.
Content Design has been around for over 10 years. Collectively, we’ve done enough explaining. Great overviews of Content Design are available across the web.
Now’s the time to start forging a path for yourself. By making just a few changes in my mindset and the way I show up, I’ve experienced better control over how I build influence. I’ve had greater fulfillment at work. Other people have ended up advocating for content design without me asking.
I couldn’t have given this talk 2 years ago. It’s now impossible for me to go back to my old ways.
Here’s what I’ll recommend to start making the shift today.
The first thing is to know your worth. Content Design has proven its value. That’s why we’re here. Here’s a little story. I always felt it was a little unfair that things revolve around engineering or product design from headcount to roadmaps. When I mentioned it to one of the cross-functional managers I regularly met with, he nodded but quickly said, “You (Content Designers) are valuable. That’s why your resources are finite.”
Because we’re scarce and valuable, we get to work on things that matter the most. We’re in a unique position to shape the most critical work and the approach to get that work done.
Know your worth and play to your strengths.
If you haven’t, I highly recommend that you take a strength-finding exercise by yourself or with your team. Content designers can benefit from being self-aware and managers can help each person use their unique strengths in their roles and connect them to opportunities. Personally, I like the techniques in Strengths-Based Leadership from Gallup.
Now, here’s a question for you. In a common scenario where the content designers at your company report to a content design leader and, at the same time, are embedded in the product teams, which team do you work for? If we’re often more concerned about whether Content Design is getting the credit or not, the answer to that question may be hard to admit.
If you want to build subject matter expertise, feel connected, and make the most impact, you need to prioritize the success of your product team. The 3 steps toward that goal are—build trust, speak objectively about what will benefit the team, and show up for the team. Let’s look at them one by one.
I rarely hear people from other functions wanting to explain what they do. By the same token, you shouldn’t have to spend your precious time educating people about content design.
Instead, invest in relationships. I believe that relationship building is a rigorously-maintained skill that everyone can leverage to make an impact and build a culture where people support one another.
A content designer at Meta once shared with me her principles of relationship building: Stop being obsessed about your role. Start building trust. And be flexible. She’s right on. I’ll also add that it’s important to stay curious about other people’s perspectives.
Make sure you know who should be your closest allies. Regularly evaluate your connections, the health of your relationships, and which ones you want to strengthen.
In 1:1s, get into a habit of asking what they’re trying to do and how you can help them. It gets reciprocal!
For a content designer, managing expectations is about knowing and sharing what you want, and setting boundaries. If you’re not happy that your product designers seem to be always leading, you’ll want to ask yourself what’s important to you.
As a manager, I help my content designers talk through what it is that they want. It turns out that some of them want to be seen as a leader. Some see getting involved in the early design process as an important way for them to influence the team. Others love owning projects. I encourage them to share their expectations in a clear and direct way with their cross-functional partners.
If you’re now thinking about a partner who just doesn’t get it, consider having hard conversations. Here’s a story a product designer shared with me. She had been working closely with her content designer on a project. She thought the partnership was going well until one day. I asked, “How did you find that the content designer was unhappy?” She replied,” Well, she was courageous enough to share with me how she felt about the collaboration. She was clear and direct when she said she wanted to work on the information architecture because that was her strength and she thought it was critical for the project. I had no idea and thanked her for letting me know!”
The other side of managing expectations is to set boundaries. To help each individual talk about their role and involvement in projects, my teams and I have used the Drive, Build, Maintain, and Triage model and Big, Medium, and Small for the size of effort. I’ve seen other teams use High touch, Medium touch, and Low touch as a collaboration framework. What’s yours?
As I work with people from other functions, it turns out that the temptation to advocate for one’s own function because they don’t feel heard is quite universal.
Previously I would say things like “we need to elevate the voice of content design,” “our content designers are not getting included in those meetings,” or “we’re not copywriters. We do strategy.” I learned the hard way that’s exactly the kind of thing that alienates our function from the team. I had gotten feedback that questioned “why does the content designer need to be there” and “they said they need to be strategic. Well, I do too. It’s not reasonable to ask other people to help you do your job.”
As a reminder, this is not a time to bust out your presentation that explains what is content design.
To come across as trustworthy and credible is to reframe what you’re saying from something like “As a content designer, I’m expected to do XYZ so the team needs an XYZ project.” to something like “The team needs ABC, and I can help with my XYZ strengths.”
What does the team need? Content designers are well suited to help the team find out.
We do so much more than writing. To show up for the team means we describe our work as what the team needs to be successful, and we do it with people from other functions. Let’s see what that may look like.
Content designers drive alignment. If the team is in thrashy disagreement or going in different directions, or if a reorg just happened, it’s an opportunity for you to help the team step back and find a shared purpose.
If you love facilitating and synthesizing discussions, use the skill to rally your team around something much bigger than the JIRA tickets. Whether it’s a mission, vision, strategy, or a set of principles, guide the team to think about why the team exists, what success looks like, and what steps they need to get to where they want to be.
When you are intentional about bringing the team into alignment and creating a highly collaborative environment, you are being a leader not only for content design but for the entire team. This is what I always strive for.
Content designers frame problems and find a focus. The problems we’re solving on our jobs are complex. Our product teams and stakeholders have a lot of opinions about how to solve them. Design thinking can help everyone see the forest for the trees through discovery and research, synthesizing and defining, and ideation.
I’ve loved running “jobs to be done” and “How might we” workshops. They’ve been a great way for me to show up for my teams.
If you feel limited in scope because everything has to start with a designer, or you find it hard to be strategic in your position, find ways to shape the team roadmaps that will help the team scale, mitigate risk, and ship experiences that keep people coming back. Lean into systems design and foundational work and frame the opportunities as what the team needs to nail business results.
When I was leading the redesign of a help center, one of the problems we were trying to solve was that people would leave as soon as they landed on the current site. Reducing the bounce rate became one of the goals for the team. I pushed the voice and tone work onto the roadmap by framing it as critical work to be applied across our writing and visual design in order to keep the site visitors engaged. The result was the bounce rate reduced from 76% to 11%.
Want to start a terminology audit but are worried about getting pushed back? You can frame it as a long-term project that aligns with the team’s top-line goal of, for example, helping the users move fast in the ecosystem.
We all know that not everything will go as we wish when we’re working with our product team. When our ideas get shot down, maybe it’s because people don’t understand our discipline. Maybe it’s because we haven’t effectively articulated our point of view. Maybe it’s both. We’ll find out when we proactively ask for feedback.
Amazing things happen when you take those steps. You’ll find your allies advocating for content design on your behalf. When other people do that, it’s 10 times more effective than those educational presentations.
I’ve learned to prioritize my time so I don’t have to attend every meeting. There was a kickoff meeting I didn’t attend. My product design partner had my back. She told the folks in the meeting that she’d get Content Design’s perspective since I wasn’t there.
At my last company, my mission as a leader was to integrate content into our design process. Our VP of Design was the biggest sponsor of our title change from UX writer to content designer. He started a book club with the Design team. Guess what, the first book we were reading was Writing is Designing by Andy Welfle and Michael Metts.
I teach it to my team. One of my direct reports helped her product team find the right problems to solve for v1 through user feedback sessions. Her engineer requested to his manager and the PM that she lead the UX vision for V2.
I’m sure you’ve all had triumphant moments like those. Those moments keep us going and remind us that when we show up and demonstrate our values, people do recognize it.
Let’s do a recap. When you’re self-aware, have shifted from a functional mindset to a team mindset, love getting feedback, and recognize how awesome you are, you’re a happy, fulfilled content designer.
As an industry and individuals, we need to move forward, but in a way that doesn’t depend on how well-educated other disciplines are about Content Design. Let’s usher our teams into this new era — where there’s no more us vs. them and people simply want to work with us because we’re here. That’s how I’m showing up and leading my team. I hope you’re just as excited about doing it.
Thanks for joining my talk. I’d love to stay connected on LinkedIn. If you want to discuss more, you can find me on Slack for Lead with Tempo and UXW Leadership Guild. Thanks!