Content strategy and UX are twins

Update, 26 November: I just found the Notes on content strategy and UX overlap I made earlier this year when I started thinking about this sort of thing.

In a few weeks I’ll be at the inaugural UX NZ conference, co-presenting on teaching a corporate web team to value user experience. So you might wonder something like, “well, that sounds like fun, but what does a content strategist know about UX?”

I could dodge that question by saying that I don’t have to know anything about UX, because I’ll be presenting alongside Adam Kendall [link updated, 23 Oct] and he knows more than enough for the both of us. Frankly, that’s not a bad answer.

Adam and I worked together for the best part of a year. With the amount I learned from him it feels like it was a lot longer. One of the reasons we worked together so well, though, was because the way we go about our jobs is so similar. Content strategy work and user experience work share a great deal. I see them as twins.

We came from all over the place

I’ve never met a content strategist who doesn’t sound a bit like they stumbled into content strategy half by accident. Whether starting as a writer, or in marketing, or as a designer, content strategists are the sort of people who begin solving problems that connect to whatever they’ve been working on, and soon find themselves looking at the largest-scale content problems that their workplace could offer.

When Richard Ingram asked where content strategists come from he found that the six most common paths taken were via curatorial, editorial, managerial, technical, design and marketing jobs. That’s a wide field. He broke things down a lot more than that, too.

UX work, I believe, attracts people in a similar way. They’re people who keep asking questions, people who follow problems to their source. You might even have started working on separate solutions before you see the connections: Oh, this isn’t one design issue and one information architecture problem – these are two symptoms of poor UX.

I haven’t been able to find as thorough a breakdown for UX people as Richard’s research above, but The Muse’s blog post How I Got Into UX: 5 Pros Share Their Path is at least anecdotal evidence of something similar – a wide field populated by people who have come from all sorts of places, but who share a mindset.

Update, Jan 13, 2014: The research is in! The Neilson Norman Group surveyed around 1,000 UX people and found that “No matter your educational background, you can get into user experience”. Also, “there’s no single job title to aim for”. More: User Experience Career Advice.

It’s not coincidence that UX and CS both attract people with different skills and backgrounds. Our fields need a range of perspectives. A more homogenised group of people would be less able to tackle the problems that we solve.

We rely on empathy

It’s axiomatic that user experience work requires empathy. It’s possibly a little less obvious that empathy is as necessary for content strategists. Corey Vilhauer is as eloquent as anyone can be on this (here he is, a year ago, on how content strategy is actually “people strategy”), but he’s far from the only one beating this drum. [Link fixed, 1 Nov. Sorry, Corey!]

Jonathon Colman’s article about Facebook’s Design Officers’ Training Corps quotes a trainer:

“Our job is to listen. It’s to listen to complaints and then turn them into something better. That’s our core strength…”

Is Jonathon a content strategist, UX professional, designer, or something else? When his job is to listen and turn complaints into something better, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the empathy that he’s going to need to be successful. (But for the record, he’s a content strategist.)

Once you know that it’s not about what you want to make, but what your audience wants to do, your head’s in the right space. The funny thing about that space is how you’ll find UXers and content strategists bumping into one another.

Before we move on, open Kate Keifer-Lee’s wonderful post On Helping to read next. It brings these first two points of UX/CS overlap together nicely. You’re working in a field where you’ll never know everything, which requires empathy with your users and with your workmates. The next step is to help each other.

We’re not the only empathetic ones. We’re not the only ones who work well with others. We don’t have special superpowers disguised as strategic skills. The best web designers I know have taught me lessons in empathy, and any good manager knows that working toward a shared vision starts with understanding individuals. Sometimes our most empathetic move is simply supporting them.

Which leads to the next overlap…

We’re collaborators. We have to be

UX and CS people have the same fallback when we have something difficult to work on. “Let’s all get around a table and…”

Then, while everyone’s around that table, we UX and CS people are going to gently guide conversation and problem-solving in a particular way. What does our audience want? Who are we building this for? Adam and I talk about “bringing the user into the room”, which isn’t the most novel way of putting it, but describes an approach that we both developed, separately, in our (supposedly different) jobs.

So, what does a content strategist know about UX?

I know what it’s like to work in a field that requires more experience and knowledge than I could ever have. I know that we must begin with an understanding of the people we’re building things for. I know that I need other people to help build those things. I’m sold on collaboration and empathy being two of the most important things I can bring to work.

I won’t be the only content strategist at UX NZ. There are at least two others on the programme (this talk about creating an information experience looks particularly tasty), which is a great sign that we’re welcome in each other’s worlds. The closer we work together the better off the web will be.

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This post is 978 words long, with an average reading grade of 9.0.

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5 thoughts on “Content strategy and UX are twins

  1. Great piece! As a qualitative researcher, I have often tried to explain that what I do is basically practicing empathy, though not necessarily the “warm and fuzzy” emotional kind (I find “empathy” often conflated with “sympathy”)? My own moderating style may seem warm, avuncular, etc.; but that is a “style” or technique. To me, empathy is a disciplined, creative mindset in which I have to understand not only the perspectives of the customers/respondents (and the real reasons underlying); but also a second level of “empathy” to my client’s business needs. For the latter, it is critical to put myself in her/his shoes (during pre-research design, as well as analysis, of course), and answer the “so what” question, and “what action does this information support?” Cheers!

    • Well put, Matt. To me empathy is about knowing what someone else is thinking and feeling, and why. Crucially though, it doesn’t necessarily extend as far as agreeing with them!

  2. How about siblings (we’re not all blokes)?

    And what about UX people who’ve morphed into content strategists with a focus on accessibility? Is there a nicer way of putting it than what immediately came to my mind: people with multiple personality disorder?

  3. Very interesting Max. I work in content too, and have only just realised how important UX is to corp comms – and I imagine it will be increasingly looked for by employers. Are there any courses in Europe (MOOC, conferences, anything really), that you would recommend or have heard about?

    Any tips welcome.

    SAM

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