New role, new craft: Bringing content design to your organization

Gerald Ortiz
content design is like preparing to climb a mountain

Content Designer, UX Writer, Product UX (copy)writer. Whichever colorful title you’ve been given for your latest professional venture, you’ve likely been chosen from the pack not just because you have a way with words, but because you also understand design, UX, and how digital communication works holistically. 

Maybe your design leads knew they needed you to solve problems they’re not specialists in. Or maybe your product teams just noticed your editors or copywriters have their plates too full, and aren’t trained for such sorcery. Either way, if the need has only just surfaced, it’s almost certain all eyes are on you to provide solutions to their UX/UI content puzzles. But where to start? 

The scope of your organization’s UX/UI content debt depends on many variables. If you’ve been blessed with either a balanced writer-designer ratio or (gasp) another content designer to work with, dividing and conquering should come naturally. But if you’re their first and only content designer, the scope will almost certainly overshadow your singular bandwidth.

Build many bridges, manage expectations

Starting any new project or role is, in many ways, not so different from getting to know someone. This “honeymoon” phase is important for anyone, but as a new content designer/UX writer, it’s your opportunity to start building the relationships you’ll need to influence outcomes that show the discipline’s value.

At its core, your purpose is to develop UX/UI content frameworks and language systems with a designer’s mindset – making your role a hybrid one on both operational and craft levels. As a strategist and executer, you’ll be the glue between product design and different stakeholders outside the product sphere, such as marketing or customer support.

Every situation is different, so it’s crucial to do your homework before embarking on any missions or promising any fixed outcomes. It might sound really hard to do when you’re new and don’t want to come across as a blocker. But as long as you’re clear in your rationales, how you illustrate your process, and show genuine enthusiasm for the challenges, decision makers will likely value your experience and honesty early on.

Do reach out to people whom you will depend on to help content design grow. You’re not just following your own interests here – show them how your job will also benefit their job and performance metrics! Product-focused roles aside, you’ll usually need support from a mix of:

  • User research
  • Marketing and comms
  • Customer success/support
  • Localization (if you’re working on a product in international markets)

At AMBOSS, our awesome Product Design team was formed as a hub for a connected and holistic design effort to polish and scale up our product offering. That’s why my role as a Content Designer exists on this team, and I also get to define it with my colleagues in the disciplines listed above.

Your setup may be totally different though. You may be working in a cross-disciplinary focused group, or a domain-focused team, which would shape your approach differently. But there are already some widely accepted best practices that you can tweak to your org.

When it comes to process and workload management, it’s important to use a mix of advocacy and tiered availability. Once it’s clear where your priorities lie, you’ll want to start shaping the collective understanding of your work through advocacy and integration into the wider design process. When you’ve understood the workflow dynamics within your org, I’ve found it helpful to manage the scope of responsibilities with a mix of:

  • Tracking project efforts and scope: Tools like Asana, Trello, and Jira can help shed light and understanding on the work you do.
  • Content design “office hours”: Start a recurring time slot where design/content problems can be addressed. This also provides transparency and availability to other designers and stakeholders.
  • Self-service documentation: I can’t stress enough the importance of documenting guidelines that can be accessed and understood by non-UX writers/content designers.
  • Workshops on collaboration: Gather input from your stakeholders to shape the best possible ways of working with you.

Show your inner scientist – take an analytical approach

Whenever any facet of UX content has gone unchecked for a while, there’s bound to be legacy bits you’ll need to uncover, and see where the complexities of the current UX/UI content system lie in order to prioritize your efforts.

One of the best initiatives you can use to reveal the state of your org’s content is an audit. UX audits help identify areas where debt has accumulated, and this is no different for UX content. You’ll likely be documenting and analyzing three main areas of your content:

  • Terminology
  • Style and conventions
  • Voice and tone

How you approach this depends on the scope and complexity of your role. I find it’s often easier to break up these layers into different “topics”, and to stay focused on the particular challenges each one presents. This also really helps non-language nerd colleagues you’ll be sharing these findings with to understand the problems and proposed improvements by seeing tangible data and goals. 

You’ll also want to seek out the help of a user researcher, or whoever collects valuable quantitative and qualitative data, such as written feedback or survey results, to better understand current comprehension and usability of your products.

Two other important avenues you’ll want to explore are competitor/market benchmarking, and aligning your investigations to concrete business needs, usually outlined in some form of a roadmap. Many times, one of your product designer friends will have already done a UX benchmark study that you can extract content trends from. If it’s over a year old, you might want to initiate the need for something newer.

Research is where many of us UX Writers and Content Designers feel imposter syndrome creeps in. Although content design is growing, unlike UX design, coming into this discipline directly from a human-computer interaction background is still the exception. Many times, content research will have specific needs, so it’s natural for some of us to second guess our analytical skills. But however you got into designing content, if you’re passionate about UX and language, you’ve probably already proven you’ve got the mindset required, and examples to boot. 

It helps to look at the general product goals and get a sense of what direction the teams and entire organization want to go in when approaching research. For example, knowing your company has a goal of reducing churn by 15% this year will definitely have an impact on what gets prioritized, and you should align your work to these goals. Getting your work to match your org’s key objectives makes it measurable and visible to your peers and management – and shows how you’re able to integrate into the bigger picture.

What comes first? A ‘content system’ or a content management system?

Similar to how content guidelines keep a website’s structure and brand identity tidy, UX content needs strategy, tools, and processes to manage large amounts of copy strings that evolve over time.

Once you realize what’s required just to get the content design engine running, a seemingly chicken and egg situation appears. What to focus on first? Initiating a content system for production, or establishing guidelines/processes for string management in a content management system (CMS)?

They’re both equally important right? The answer might sound obvious to some, absurd to others: Start both simultaneously! There’s a logical reason for this. The key to success here is actually in weighing which need is larger, assessing how long it will take to achieve a minimum level of stability, and deciding which area to apply the higher effort while sustaining both to some capacity.

If a content system and content operations both represent an equal volume of work and need, you’re in a good position to place emphasis on starting a content system. The sooner you have decided on the minimum guidelines, the sooner you can write copy with confidence when designing for the daily business. This usually tends to move quicker as the complexity here stays within “creative” design decisions since you’ll be applying user data, best practices, design frameworks, and brand voice to a language system.

How you document and maintain your system and guidelines will depend on the feasibility of and what vision your fellow design system stakeholders hold for the foreseeable future. Seeing as content design is moving closer into design systems, you might want to think of either starting an integrated ‘one-stop-shop’ similar to Shopify’s Polaris, or at least finding a space in your internal documentation tool to build a content hub that can easily link to design and technical guidelines.

Hey, so who’s the Content Manager here?

When addressing content operations and localization, you’ll likely be the person that is approached to assess and set a foundation. As a content designer, your strengths in taxonomy, terminology, and scalability of language systems helps define key string naming conventions with the buy-in of engineers.

Creating a benchmark content-dev handover process will take time and effort, and is probably one of the trickiest parts to being an early content designer in your org. General questions you should ask yourself and your team are: 

  • How are the processes being handled now, and where are the pain points?
  • What are product design’s needs in the short, medium, and long-term?
  • What are engineer’s needs in the short, medium, and long-term?
  • What tools can we rely on, and/or procure, to make the process smoother?

The most important thing here is to test small before going big. It’s better to pick a single product domain in a receptive team, who would be committed to the test as a case for both better understanding and improvements. Which leads me to the second most important thing to keep in mind: Communicating why tackling this will reduce effort and annoyance in the medium to long-term!

Content implementation can be remarkably different from one organization to the next. Because of the variety of product offering types, developer tech stacks, engineering styles, and design tools, solutions to this puzzle are usually unique.

At AMBOSS, UX/UI content ended up living in different environments (some of it is still even hardcoded) as it grew with the company without a dedicated CMS. Add the complexity of serving multiple customer segments in different markets and different languages, and eventually it was time to find a tool to help organize all types of UX/UI content.

As a localization platform where source content can be housed, managed, and translated, Phrase was chosen as a localization content repository tool to start managing and scaling our UX/UI content. Because of its simplicity, flexibility with diverse engineering styles, and ability to scale up content in different languages, we’re now able to access and control frontend copy quicker and easier without having to spend time hunting down where things are, and take up (a little less of) our engineers’ time.

Conclusion: Content is our middle name

Whether it’s your first Senior-level challenge as a content designer (or UX writer) or your N’th time as Neo in The Matrix, setting up content design as a discipline at an organization is all about starting the journey. This is a step that UX writers and content designers will continue to come across, as most organizations have only begun to adopt this key shift in product design standards.

Being a platform for the study and application of medical knowledge, the future of AMBOSS is intrinsically tied to a standout information experience. While I’ve been busy laying out the foundation for content design in our Design team, we’re also revamping our medical content CMS not just for a more strategic end user experience, but also for our medical editors to be able to provide that experience at scale. 

We’re somewhere in between the start and early-middle of this journey, and the effect we’re starting to see on our product vision is inspiring (and gratifying!). Like many UX disciplines, content design requires time, effort, and advocacy to start seeing visible impact. If you’re at the bottom of your own content design Mount Everest, remember there are a whole lot of us there with you.