[Closed] AMA — Content Design: Writing the User Experience

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

It's-a-me!It's-a-me!👋 Hey Community! I’m Jonathon Colman (he/him, @jcolman) and I’m a Senior Design Manager at HubSpot where I lead our global content design discipline. Before joining HubSpot, I led content design teams at Facebook, Intercom, and REI.

 

But hey, waitaminit — what the heck is “content design” anyway?

 

Content designers solve product user experience (UX) problems using language. They write the words you see in product experiences to make sure everything is simple and clear, useful and usable. This includes things like calls to action, navigation, error messages, chat bots, even product names!

 

But content design isn’t just about writing, just like UX design isn’t just about making things look pretty. We often say that UX design is focused on determining how things should work for customers, so content design is focused on determining what things should mean to them. And to figure that out, we have to work deep beneath the surface of products.

 

I’m excited to discuss content design and answer any questions you might have because we’re hiring content designers at HubSpot right now. And since content design is a newer discipline in product teams, many folks don’t understand what content design is or what content designers do. So this is a great opportunity to learn about writing user experiences and bring content design practices to your own product teams.

 

From September 20–24, I’ll answer your questions about designing content for products! Not sure what to ask? Here are a few sample questions to get you started: 

  1. How do you write the user experience?
  2. Is content design the same thing as content marketing or technical writing? How are they different?
  3. How do you measure the quality or success of content in your product?
  4. How do I know if I need a content designer on my team?
  5. Where can I learn more about content design?

 

I'm looking forward to connecting with you!

AMA
30 Replies 30
TravisP
Contributor

I would imagine it's tempting for a development team to say, "This already says exactly what it does." How do you demonstrate the value of content design for something that seems, on the surface, self-explanatory?

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Great question, @TravisP! This is certianly something that content designers face regularly and that technical communicators faced long before them. The bottom line is that product teams often struggle to understand that they are not their own audience—and they never can be. Concepts that might seem simple and straightforward to the team may not resonate at all with users or customers.

 

Partnering with UX researchers and data scientists can help content designers make the case to their product team (and, likely, their leadership) that they're not building for themselves.

steffenpbauer
Participant

Hey Jon, thank you for this AMA! Here's my question: When being asked about the future of content design on the "Product Bakery Podcast", you talked about the discipline probably becoming more automated by technologies like artificial intelligence. The role of content designers might then focus more on systems design and concept design and guiding this technology. To what degree do you think the Beth Bot might be a step in that direction? Do you and Beth Dunn have any plans or visions for this product and how it might evolve in the future?  

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Howdy Steffen! First of all, for folks who may not know what BethBot is, it's an internal service that helps everyone at Hubspot write using our voice, tone, terminology, and style. You can learn more about BethBot in this interview that Beth Dunn (HubSpot's first content designer) did with our friends over at GatherContent.

 

I'm not aware of any immediate plans for updating BethBot, but even in its current state, it's already having a massive impact on freeing up the time of content designers—and others! I'm happy for services like BethBot to take on the simpler writing work that content designers (and engineers, and PMs, and marketers, and tech writers...) do in favor of giving them time back to focus on more strategic issuess and opportunities. That's part of how teams scale and solve harder problems for the people they serve.

natejoens
Contributor

Hey @jcolman great timing on this as we actually just had a colleague of yours who's a Content Designer publish a co-marketed blog with our company (see here) so very relevant!

 

I'm curious, what is your typical process for researching content design? How do you come up with a topic, content type and goal that makes it relevant to the business? I imagine pretty heavy on the SEO/keyword research and goal alignment, but what else goes into making sure your content is set up to perform from the get-go?

 

Thanks!

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Hey @natejoens! I saw Dayne's post about strategies for closing the sale on the Structurely blog and it's so good! And it's a great showcase for one of the core strengths of content designers: becoming so immersed in audience/market and product that they can communicate clearly about complex, nuanced topics of interest to professionals working in the field.

 

Your question gets at the difference between what I think of as content marketing (a marketing discipline focused on things like SEO, keyword research, content performance, and so on) and content design, a product discipline which is focused on user experience, interaction design, and UX writing. Content design as we practice it at HubSpot is a specialization of product design rather than a marketing discipline.

 

Different companies and orgs work differently, but at HubSpot, our content designers focus on building product and UX rather than content marketing. We always admire great content marketing, but it's not what our content design team is held accountable for. HubSpot has teams of content marketers that focus on nothing but marketing strategy and tactics, so our content designers instead focus on building product that solves problems for people and their businesses that are trying to grow and scale.

 

You can learn even more about what our content designers do in this blog post!

danmoyle
Guide | Diamond Partner

How does conversational writing and content design connect? I love writing conversationally and hopefully that skill gets folks to engage and converse (it does) — I wonder how content design would play into that work? Thanks! 

 


Did this post help solve your problem? If so, please mark it as a solution.


Dan Moyle

HubSpot Strategist

Learning Ops | Impulse Creative

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jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Hey @danmoyle, thanks for a great question!

 

For folks who aren't familiar with conversational design, there's a great book about it appropriately titled Conversational Design written by Erika Hall. I'd urge you to check it out! Beyond being a great introduction to the topic of conversational design, it's also one of the best-written tech or design books of the past decade.

 

I see conversational design as being a valuable tool in the belt of content designers who are working on platforms or systems that involve conversations, particularly those that are live/real-time or involve actors or agents taking turns replying to each other over time.

 

So here's one way content designers can practice conversational design. One of the concepts Erika talks about in her book is Grice's Maxims of conversation, which set the foundation of theory for how our conversations work—not just online or in systems, but in real life.

 

Content designers and others have used these maxims to build conversational platforms and products that feel more natural and human. Over time, we've found that systems relying on these maxims are easier to use and result in better outcomes for users, customers, and businesses. If you pick apart a conversational flow in just about any chatbot, you can quickly see them at work!

 

There's plenty more to explore and understand about conversation design, particularly once you get into designing for voice (or VUI: voice user interfaces!). A good resource for learning more about designing for voice is Voice Content and Usability by Preston So.

DavidDennison
Key Advisor

If you had one piece of advice to give that everyone needs to know for content design, what would it be?

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David Dennison

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jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Hey @DavidDennison, what a fun question! Here's something everyone should know: You can't fix a broken product with content. To see what I mean by that, take a look at the point of sale terminal from Wegmans:

 

Wegmans point of sale unitWegmans point of sale unit

Notice anything? The workers at the store have added a bunch of stickers practically begging the customer to hit "Skip" first before doing anything else. That indicates to me that something's broken with entering your phone number or scanning a card or app. So here the product is broken and a local store is trying to create a workaround for it. It may help their customers in the short term, but it won't fix the product in the long term.

 

Here's another example:

 

Instructions for a complicated light switchInstructions for a complicated light switch

 

 

This is a photo of instructions that were attached to a wall next to a complicated light switch in a conference room for a well-known global tech company. The light switch was very fancy and expensive, but it had an unfamiliar interface design for doing common tasks like turning the lights on/off or dimming their brightness. So an employee at the company took a photo of the switch and wrote up these notes to show people how it worked.

 

I'm sure this documentation helped people figure out the light switch, but here's the thing: you shouldn't need any documentation at all to turn the lights on and off! Technically, the product works, but the interface design veers so far away from the fundamentals that people can't figure out how to use it. So while the content helps people, the product experience is still broken.

 

The thing I want people to take away is that many of the problems that people face when using products are actually product and design problems—words alone can't fix them. And this is why content designers need to do more than just write the words. They need to be involved with product development from the beginning to actually solve product and design problems.

DavidDennison
Key Advisor

Wow! I absolutely love your examples and that is some great advice! Thank you for sharing!

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David Dennison

Social Media, Content,

and SEO Marketing

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AlvarRF
Contributor

I think that one key question is: How do you measure the quality or success of content in your product?  It is fundamental that any content designer knows how to integrate each piece of content on the buyer's journey process. In that way, they can establish a clear goal for the content that they had been produce and how this can help the client move across each stage. 

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Great question, @AlvarRF! When it comes to success, the core things we always ask ourselves are:

  • Did we solve the problem? and
  • How do we know that we solved it?

I think your question is more focused on the second point, and the answer will always depend on the problem to solve and what sort of content experience we're focused on. That said, generally speaking, Analytics can often tell us a lot about whether or not the content in a given experience was successful. For example: Did conversion go up or down for people who viewed this content? Do new cohorts who experience this content retain longer than old ones who didn't experience it?But there's a key limitation with this sort of data, which is that it can tell us what happened (for example: someone did or didn't convert), but it can't really tell us why.

 

So for that, we often turn to research with users and customers. Talking directly with people about content experiences helps us understand things like:

  • Do they understand the product concepts and terminology? You can figure this out by asking what they think a given word or phrase means and how they might explain it to someone else. This is often especially helpful when you're trying to understand something like whether a product name or navigation label is meaningul to someone.
  • Is their mental model for how the product works the same as ours, or do they understand it differently? You can determine this by asking people to sketch out or explain how they think the product works. This is also a great way to understand how they think about product concepts. The better that content designers understand this, the better the product content will be!
  • What are their expectations for the product, or for what will happen if they take complete a task in it? You can get a sense of this by asking customer to talk out loud about what they think will happen before they click/tap a button or otherwise take action. This helps content designers develop stronger product names, onboarding flows, empty states, and/or other user experiences.
AlvarRF
Contributor

This answer is so clarifying and awesome 🧡

milcapeguero
Top Contributor

Is content design the same thing as copywriting? Or How are they different?

Milca Peguero

Inbound Marketing Speaker and Consultant | Halfbound Ambassador

Founder | Level Up Academy

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jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Hey @milcapeguero, thank you so much for asking about this, as it's a common question that people have about content design.

 

First of all, we love and greatly admire good copywriting! It's an essential part of product and partner marketing, documentation, community engagement, growth, communications/PR, and so much more. Strong, persuasive copywriting is important for building brand awareness, communicating value propositions, and retaining customers and users over time.

 

But content design is different than copywriting because it's not just about the words and is practiced much more deeply in product. The most effective content designers are ones who also play a role in product strategy and vision, interaction design, systems thinking, metadata, and other areas of product and design. These content designers may not write anything in products at all—or might even remove words from product experiences!—and make them better and easier to use because of it. If anything, they have far more overlap with product designers than with any sort of copywriters.

 

To paraphrase a quote from Rachel Lovinger, an early content strategy industry leader who's now a group director at Publicis Sapient: Content design is to copywriting as information architecture is to design.

milcapeguero
Top Contributor

Amazing, now I'm clear. Thanks for the answer 🧡

Milca Peguero

Inbound Marketing Speaker and Consultant | Halfbound Ambassador

Founder | Level Up Academy

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MuseDebbie
Contributor | Partner

Great question @milcapeguero, copywriting is an aspect of content design. So if content design was a cake🎂 copywriting could be the baking powder or the icing on the cake depending on what kind of content you want to design👩‍🍳 Hope this helps.

milcapeguero
Top Contributor

Amazing, love this explanation. Pretty nice way to use words. @MuseDebbie 

Milca Peguero

Inbound Marketing Speaker and Consultant | Halfbound Ambassador

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TBartolet
Participant

Hi! Could you show us an excellent example of content design in practice? I love UX and understood that this was a part of it. In thinking about it, I can see where it needs to be its own strand. Eye opening for sure.

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Great question, @TBartolet. One good example is the way that Shopify encode their content design guidelines and practices into their product design system, Polaris. Here's a screen capture that shows how they guide their teams to use content and design to help their customers complete tasks quickly and with more confidence:

An excerpt from Shopify's Polaris design system.An excerpt from Shopify's Polaris design system.

 

There are plenty of other great examples of content in design systems, including Google, Adobe18F, and many more!

 

One of my favorite examples of content design in product comes from Andy Welfle, who's a co-author of the book Writing is Designing: Words and the User Experience. Here we see a push notification from the Lyft app that informs the user that their Lyft driver is either deaf or hard of hearing:

A push notification from LyftA push notification from Lyft

 

This is a great example of content design that's human-centered with inclusivity in mind. As Andy writes, "...the percentage of Lyft drivers with a hearing difference must be pretty low. This is a great example of Lyft practicing inclusion to make the experience for those drivers better. Rather than being flustered about answering a phone call they couldn’t hear, they could pull over, text back, and communicate in a way more comfortable for them."

TBartolet
Participant

So helpful - thank you! Love the tone spectrum from Adobe especially.

ESantiago7
Member

To change current process, we need to work with the team. communicate and follow due dates. 

Planning your content in a process will give you a birds-eye view of what will be the outcome.

 

CSibanda
Contributor
Hi Jonathon, im just starting on my content creation Journey, and i want to build a sustainable career out of it by helping many companies, organisations and individuals in Africa (since i am from Botswana) , taking the Hubspot free content marketing course is one way i thought would help me on my journey.
I would like to know how else i could turn my dream into a reality, what other steps could i take and what are some of the key areas i should focus on. What advice could you give to me and lastly what is the future of content marketing /content creation.
jcolman
HubSpot Employee

👋 Dumela, @CSibanda! Le kae?

 

I love that you're on this journey into content marketing! And yes, HubSpot Academy's content marketing certification course is a great way to learn the fundamentals.

 

Unfortunately, content marketing isn't my area of focus, so I don't have much insight into its future. But perhaps other members of our community can help out. Join our Content Marketing Study Group to meet other folks , get your questions answered, and share your ideas!

ctwtn
Contributor

For companies without an in-house designer, what would you recommend as a first hire?

 

Title, experience, etc.

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

Howdy, @ctwtn! I think the first content design hire you'd want to make onto a startup product team should be someone who can grow and scale as your startup grows and scales.

 

So while they'll be focused on product content in their day-to-day work, you should be looking for someone who:

  • Can create principles (see an example) and guidelines (example) for voice, tone, and style for others to follow
  • Has experience building and defining terminology (see a template)
  • Will later move into team leadership

People like this may call themselves content designers, UX writers, or content strategists. I'd look for someone who has previous experience working in product startups and has been embedded with product teams. Ideally, you'd also look for someone who's familiar with product and design concepts and practices even if it's not their main focus.

 

Rachel McConnell is a content leader with BT who's written a whole book on this subject called Why you need a content team and how to build one — check it out!

Raheel_Malik
Participant

Hi,

Im happy to join such a thriving community of positive contributors. Can you please tell us with an example if content design follows product development projects that are derived from overall goals of the organisation? If so, how does the workflow initiate in this case?

jcolman
HubSpot Employee

@Raheel_Malik Thanks, we're so happy to have you!

 

Yes, in mature and healthy product orgs, content design work originates from product strategy and vision, customer feedback and input, research insights, the competitive landscape, and other sources that are strongly tied to the overall goals of the organization.

 

In orgs like this where content designers are set up for success, they usually initiate the work directly themselves because they're directly embedded with a product manager in a team. Alternatively, the work might be initiated by a design manager/leader who then provides a content designer to take on the work. In either case, the content design work to be done would be based on some tenet of company or product strategy.

 

Unfortunately, because things like company/product strategy are almost always kept under wraps and we only see the finished, launched product, it's hard to provide an example for this. That said, I'd welcome examples from others in the community!