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Content Design

The rise of the content designer

Content Designers weren’t around when I started in the computer industry, and whilst they’re not exactly ubiquitous in software teams yet, there are definitely more of us than ever. How did that happen?

Title card for The Rise of the Content Designer and an image of a person on the top of a ravine

How I became a content designer

I left university with a mediocre degree in computer science and accounting and sought out a job as a computer programmer. To put that in perspective, one of my first projects was working on the conversion of a successful MS-DOS programme onto that new-fangled Windows 95. It still hurts me a little that I’m now working with people younger than that operating system. Let’s not talk about that again.

Fast-forward twenty-two years and gloss over promotions into management, then sideways into Technical Writing, promotions into management again, before arriving at the land of the Content Designer.

I’ve had this job title for eighteen months and am still getting to grips with what it means to be a Content Designer.

Luckily everyone else on the team is still coming to grips with it as well.

But isn’t a content designer just a new name for a technical writer?

If only it were that simple.

I’ve been in the technical writing space for over a decade and worked on dozens of software projects. Toolsets have come and gone, organisation changes have sometimes decimated our workforce, whole departments vanish in the time of a conference call, but the tech authors remained. Our small team (always too small) endured, always floating just low enough under the radar to be left alone come reorganisation, but high enough that we had a certain mystique (ha, who am I kidding, outside R&D, people didn’t care).

At our most recent reorganisation, a new Experience Design department birthed itself with a pretty hefty thud. Rest assured, there was plenty of splashback and bodily fluids. An enigmatic leader proclaimed how we were to adapt to our new roles and put a focus on the customer (because we would never think to do that on our own), and many of us were faced with new titles.

The first Content Designers in our organisation came into being.

Six months later, someone smart thought to write a job description.

You still haven’t said what you do

Good point.

But the job description didn’t answer as many questions as we’d hoped.

“Content Designers provide locally-relevant micro-copy, learning content, and product self-help and documentation on a global scale. Content is right for the user and context, and right for the business.”

We already did all of this apart from writing micro-copy. What even was micro-copy? Was that another word for UX copy? Wasn’t that something the Business Analysts did?

Hmm. I didn’t feel like we’d made much progress but at least it was something to focus on.

We don’t work in isolation

Another change with the business reorganisation, was that we were part of an Experience Design team with other specialists including UX Designers, Researchers, and Solution Designers.

Our historical way of working was very much waterfall based. We were once assigned to individual project teams but as our team shrunk we ended up with multiple projects each. And we had no say in the design of anything. We might be invited to review meetings (equally, we might be forgotten) but our work wouldn’t kick in until the software was written and we had working code to play with. And then the focus was on writing help topics.

As content designers, that’s not what’s expected of us. We’re at the opposite end of the process, in the thick of it with the other designers. Did you hear me just say that? “With the other designers.”

How many content designers are there?

In our organisation of 15,000 people, anyone globally that worked within software development with a Technical Author title became a Content Designer. We do have some technical writers in isolated support teams that avoided the transition but their remit hasn’t expanded to include micro-copy.

We’re close to 30 content designers.

Not that many.

In a recent ISTC survey, with 154 respondents, 110 said they still had the job title of Technical Writer or similar. Content Designer wasn’t listed as an option, the closest being Content Strategist (4 people), and Other (45). The ISTC is perhaps rather self-selecting with many established professionals as members. What it does indicate is that there hasn’t been a mass rebranding of job titles across the industry.

Are we any better for having more content designers?

That’s too big a question to answer in one blog post.

What I can say is that from my experience, it’s a positive rejuvenation of my career. I’m still doing what I love, playing with words, but there is a much greater emphasis in our team on the words we’re putting in front of customers.

Collaboration with our UX designers is also becoming the norm (also a post for another day), and that has helped us get a better understanding of the customer journey far earlier in the process.

Time will tell whether this niche is here to stay, and as I feel like some kind of pioneer, there’s a certain responsibility to prove our worth to the organisation.

It’s going to take a lot of work for those transitioning into these roles to make a difference. There’s a mindset shift as well as some new skills to learn, change is uncomfortable for many, and this is the biggest change I’ve seen in my technical writing career.

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3 things this week

3 things this week

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  • I published my new website robscottnorton.uk. Oh hang on, you’re already here so you don’t need redirecting. I’ve had a website before for my role as a Technical Writer and later as a Content Manager, but now that I’m working full time as a Content Designer and still exploring what that really means, this site seemed a good place to share my ideas and learnings.
  • I’ve started reading Microcopy – The Complete Guide by Kinneret Yifrah. So far, I’m pretty impressed. There are lots of examples, which I love, and it seems to cover a lot of ground. It does surprise me that there really isn’t that much content out there on microcopy. A lot of Medium articles, but not much else. Hopefully, I’ll get round to writing a review.
  • My company encourages us to go out into the world and do charitable work. They give us 5 days a year to volunteer and I’ve used one of my days this week at Sale Water Park weeding. The work was simple, and not as backbreaking as other volunteering days I’ve been on, and I did get the chance to chat with work colleagues I normally only briefly say hello to whilst making a brew. Always nice to volunteer for stuff. Do it when you get the chance.