When should content strategy enter the design process? ASAP

4 min read
Rebecca Huval
  •  Aug 23, 2018
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What happens when your customers don’t speak your language?

That’s a problem content strategist David Dylan Thomas faced a few years while working with a client in the car repair industry. His user research confirmed every content strategist’s fear: his clients didn’t understand standard, hard-to-replace industry terms. Thomas could already imagine their reactions to the interactive tool he was building: Tire rotation? What’s that for?

To get past the language barrier, he decided to ask the team’s designer to include an illustration of a car along with the prompt “Show me where it hurts.” He figured that this way, even if a customer only knew that their tire was making an ungodly screeching noise, they’d be able to point to the problem.

Something got lost in translation though, because when Thomas got a mockup he saw that the designer included an illustration of a car along with the jargon he was trying to avoid—including “tire rotation.”

True life: I’m a woke designer

Thomas says this sort of miscommunication between designers and content strategists rarely happens anymore, because the popularization of UX writing and content strategy in the design world has helped reinforce the value of good, coherent copy.

“I find myself working with woke designers,” jokes Thomas, now a principal at Think Company in Philadelphia.

When it comes to writer-designer collaboration, we still have work to do; UX writing is a pretty new field, and the best practices guidebook is still being written. At this year’s Confab, a stellar content strategy conference, everyone was excited to share one gospel: Content strategists and designers need to be sitting at the same table, and they need to get there together.

Steph Hay, head of conversation design at Capital One, said it best: “Words are our lowest-cost, lowest-risk way to design.”Twitter Logo

Biz Sanford, content strategist at Shopify, gave a talk about why we need to be including words sooner in the design process. The main takeaway was this: Don’t fall back on lorem ipsum in low-fidelity design stages; instead, include low-fi writing. The content and design will grow together, and eventually end up a polished product.

Push content to the front of the design line

Sanford says she can point to a direct link between incorporating content into design’s early stages and big UX improvements.

“Back then, a lot of people didn’t understand what content strategy was and why they should involve a content strategist,” she says. “Nowadays our team has grown substantially and we don’t have to fight for that as much, content strategists are valued members of Shopify’s UX organization.”

”Content strategists and designers need to be sitting at the same table.”

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Editorial and content strategist Juli Herren shared her thoughts on designers who write copy—she gives them a hard pass. Sanford, on the contrary, has made it a point at Shopify to have content strategists not only collaborate side-by-side with designers on projects, but also offer plenty of training for designers. They’ve also woven in content guidelines throughout their design system, Polaris.

“I’m a huge believer that designers should learn how to write product content,” she says. “We’ll do pair writing and have office hours where they can ask us questions. If we can pass on our skills, we’ll have a broader reach and impact.”

Shopify’s content strategy team doesn’t own every word of the company’s copy, but so far, Sanford’s happy with what they’ve accomplished. “You see the quality of content in designers’ low-fidelity mockups and wireframes increasing over time,” she says. “If I think back to how things were three years ago, and the content quality levels in the things content designers were showing compared to now—it’s definitely improved.”

Thomas has also noticed a shift in the designosphere: designers used to ask him to insert words into wireframes, but now he’s working with designers on mockups from the research stage.

“That gives guidance to the designer to give the proper visual hierarchy,” he says.

Proving what content strategy’s worth

Recently, Thomas’ designer colleague Shawn Hickman had an a-ha moment about content strategy.

“He couldn’t stop talking about how valuable it was to have content strategy on the team because he was going to have to guess wrong and again and again until he got it right, as opposed to if you check in with content strategy first you can get where you need to go faster. He’s saying, like, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this the whole time?’”

“Content strategy has always been a part of your design process.”

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Hickman says he wants designers to realize that content strategy has always been a part of their design process. “You might not be doing it well, but you are doing it,” Hickman says. It’s easy for designers to run away with the proposals of complex mockups with video and on-demand content, but he said understanding content strategy opened his eyes to a major pain point: content maintenance. Learning about the content strategy idea of governance—how content is maintained over time—helped him to start asking better questions.

Most importantly, how do we maintain what we’ve created?

“If we design this thing that’s stale in six months and we can’t maintain it—as a designer, I don’t want to put that out there.”

Hickman says that designers should advocate for hiring dedicated content strategists and pulling them into the process earlier by proving cost-effectiveness to stakeholders. They won’t have to redesign a site after misfiring on the content hierarchy.

Plus, designers have at least one selfish motive for bringing content to the table early.

“If you want your design work to shine and be the best,” Hickman says, “you need content strategy in your process.”

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