Talking collaboration between content & design

I was recently invited to talk about collaboration at CoDes, an event which explores the relationship between content experts and designers in contemporary experience design.
Founded by Clearleft’s content strategist Rachel McConnell, Dominic Warren and Chris Harding, CoDes aims to explore how the intersection of design and content specialisms can improve the quality of experiences we create.

Collaboration is a subject close to my heart. I appreciated the opportunity to share my thoughts on the foundations of good collaborative practice, as well as the specific ways content and design can better work together. I had a blast speaking about the topic, and had some fascinating conversations with attendees post-event.

I’ve had a few requests for my slides, and a reading list to dive deeper into the topics I covered. My slides were intentionally light for the event, providing a simple backdrop to each section of my talk. To provide additional context for the slides, I’ve endeavoured to provide a bit more detail in this write-up. A resource list can be found at the end of this article.

If you’d like a copy of my slides, you can download or view them on SpeakerDeck.

Part 1: Talk introduction and experience

Although this talk explores the ways content and design can better collaborate, we are usually part of larger product teams. It’s important we have the core skills to work closely with co-workers from across the discipline spectrum.

This talk covers what I see as the foundations of great collaborative practice, ahead of the specific ways content and design can work well together. There are three core themes:

Value & impact: the value of the content + design partnership, and the benefit of being a good collaborator regardless of discipline.

Environment & mindset: the fundamentals of strong collaborative practice, regardless of industry or specialism.

Content & design: some specific areas content and design specialists can improve the way we work together, based on my experience as a designer working closely with content teams.

My experience of the content + design partnership

My thoughts on the value of content specialists in the design process have been shaped by two years working very closely with a variety of talented content strategists, content designers, and UX writers.

I’ve been beating the drum for designing with real content for a decade or more. This largely become the norm, with reliance on dummy text or lorem ipsum largely avoidable. However, the presence of this content to design with did not guarantee its quality, or that it was fit for purpose.

Luckily, there has been an important shift of in recent years. Growth in specialist, user-centred content practitioners joining our product teams now means that content is receiving the expert touch is has so long deserved.

These dedicated specialists are elevating the quality and relevance of this content, delivering work which is making the products we design easier to understand and use. Content experts often apply familiar user-centred practice to their own craft, meaning designers are uniquely placed to collaborate effectively with our content colleagues.

I first started working with dedicated content teams in 2017, shortly after making the leap into self-employed design contracting. The first of these experiences was at RSA Digital, where I would work with the talented content team for 18 months. I saw first hand the effort required to simplify insurance terminology under the legal and regulatory constraints of the industry.

This vital work reduced the burden of understanding from customers, demystifying insurance jargon and transforming perception of RSA’s products. This vital work allowed the product team to simplify both the purchase journey itself, and the related quote-and-buy interface. More importantly, it resulted in customers buying more appropriate insurance products for their specific needs, and better understanding the cover being purchased.

This was the first time I’d seen how content can fit into the wider UCD approach, and how contemporary tools streamline this process (more on tools later).

I’d follow my experience at RSA with stints at Virgin Holidays (working as part of Clearleft’s team), and most recently working on a client portal redesign for outdoor holiday specialist These are contrasting projects in which I experienced first hand:

  • The overlap between content and design strategy
  • The power of brand voice in delivering a compelling user experience
  • The benefit of researching alongside content teams
  • How the lean approach can be applied to content

These combined experiences helped shape my thoughts on the specific ways content and design specialists can optimise our valuable partnership.

Part 2: The benefit of great collaborative practice

The next section of the talk focuses on the fundamentals of collaborative practice, regardless of discipline or industry.

Being a great collaborator adds three important strengths to your skillset.

Great collaborators are:

  • More effective at delivering value (for employer and customer alike)
  • More employable (the necessary skills are in short supply)
  • More enjoyable to work with

These skills require attention and prioritisation to deliver these valuable strengths. Lauren Pope summarises the importance of developing communication and collaboration skills wonderfully in her article Art & Copy.

The foundations of great collaboration

Our most successful collaborations rely on fostering optimal personal and organisational conditions for collaborative teams to flourish. These foundations are:

  • Environment: the culture in which we are collaborating. Is it set up for success?
  • Mindset: do we bring the necessary mindset to our collaborative practice?

The crucial factor in getting the most from cross-discipline collaboration? Establishing what is known as psychological safety, a term coined by Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School.

My full slides contain additional detail on how Amy defines Psychological safety, and how to measure its presence in your organisation.

Modelling the behaviour you wish to see.

Want to take practical steps in establishing better conditions for collaboration? Lead by example, modelling the desirable behaviour your team will benefit from.

I feel particular emphasis should be placed on seeking out the approach of alternative disciplines. Design teams often berate the lack of ‘buy-in’ for our practice and it’s value to business stakeholders. Frustration sets in when we designers feel their potential is shackled by those who don’t understand what we have to offer.

“Demonstrate a willingness to explore the value in other business functions before selling your own.”

Looking for advocates beyond design and product? Show the kind of interest you seek in other’s work and its value. Demonstrate a willingness to explore the value in other business functions before selling your own. Bonds may be formed faster by exhibiting the kind of advocative behaviour we look for in others.

The dangers of dogma

Design is particularly rife with truisms, mantras, and sacred cows exclaiming how our practice should operate, and the power of our work. Although useful for establishing community of practice and demonstrating our unique specialisms, they should be shared with care when we begin collaborating with new disciplines.

Without caution, these beliefs can become dogma, inhibiting our effectiveness at seeking out alternative viewpoints and novel approaches to problem solving. Tribal dedication to methodologies and ways of working can noticeably narrow the perception of our openness to alternative schools of thought. We may appear less curious, and less aware of our fallibility — two core principles in establishing psychological safety.

Dogmatic thinking can put the brakes on positive collaborations, throwing up barriers to constructive discourse and stifling our creativity. Be mindful of this, and harness critical thinking techniques to keep personal biases and dogma in check.

Part 3: Optimising the design + content partnership

This talk’s main chapter explores a number of collaboration ideas both content and design teams can try and adopt. These are typically achievable approaches regardless of your project remit, team size, or discipline maturity.

Understanding a new discipline

Are you a designer who’s never worked with a content specialist before (or even heard of one)? Is your content team confused by the proliferation of design job titles?

Offer to talk your new colleagues through the nuance of your disciplines many flavours of expertise. Want to see what a project might look like through your new team-mates eyes? Run a pre-mortem to understand how they could best be deployed to de-risk your work, before it starts.

Researching together

Researchers often sit as part of a design function. Research is a common skill demanded of UX designers, and there is an expectation we will plan and execute field research and testing sessions. The value of this work is typically well understood, and projects typically benefit from designers experiencing the context (and people) they’re designing for first hand.

Content teams benefit from this first hand experience too, but sometimes struggle to have this seen as part of their remit. I encourage designers and researchers to extend the invitation to your colleagues in content, as the benefits are numerous and typically offset any perceived cost in joining you or your team for these activities.

Provide a primer on research best practices (how best to observe, interview, and avoid leading questions for example) and you’ll begin to build a research partnership worth further investment.

In my experience, inviting content teams to proposition and prototype test sessions is particularly fruitful:

  • Content teams can particularly focus on linguistic cues, picking up on the subtleties of language and terminology used by participants.
  • Although designers will look for responses to language and labelling, they can bring particular focus to observing flow, interaction design issues, and participant’s reactions to brand and UI implementation.
  • Prototype content changes can typically be made more easily in response to test observations, speeding up the learning process during a session.

In general, content team attendance at any research activity also helps:

  • Reduce the need to formally present findings back to the content team.
  • Mitigate the risk of a less content-specialised practitioner missing important linguistic learnings from research, or failing to report these back accurately.

In my experience, content teams also typically take excellent research notes — observations are more often captured with an enviable level of brevity and clarity.

Direction, not dictation

Are you a content specialist working with a new designer for the first time? Allow them scope to demonstrate their specialism skill by deploying abstract content deliverables such as page tables and priority guides in your first collaborations, or early in a project.

These artefacts are a perfect way to clearly articulate your shared goal and desired content structure before design starts taking shape. Future iterations will likely involve you both contributing to the experience’s design and content together, having flexed your skill at starting your specialist part of the process.

Page tables and priority guides are excellent examples of these flavours of content deliverable.

Share your tools

We’re entering a golden age for digital design tools. Adobe XD, Sketch, InVision, and Figma are all designed from the ground up for digital experience design, and include tools which make collaboration with non-designers a pleasure rather than a chore.

My current tool of choice is Figma. It runs in the browser, meaning content teams can run it without the need for specialist software installation. It includes commenting and chat tools which make feedback a breeze.

Best of all? As demonstrated during this talk, with the right plugins, Figma can automatically pull content changes straight from a content team’s Google Sheet. Page designs can also reflow these changes without requiring manual design tweaks, reducing the need for major layout rework to accommodate changes to line lengths.

Also, nothing beats seeing your content in context, and tools like Figma make this an easier step for content and design teams. As John Saito says, ideally content teams have the power to write in docs, not mocks.

Content teams should starting seeing tools like Figma as their own. Keep abreast of the ways design tools can improve and optimise your workflow with designers, and ensure the plugins you need make their way into your designer’s platform of choice.

Present together

Designers are expected to present our work to key stakeholders at regular intervals. We explain early concepts, demo prototypes, and summarise research findings with recommend next steps. This platform gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the benefit of our expertise in delivering business value, directly to those are most invested in the outcome of our work.

Such sessions are an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the key dependency between content and design functions. Consider inviting a member of the content team to your next concept playback, prototype demo, or research findings presentation.

By sharing this platform to advocate for our colleagues in content, we may mutually benefit from unlocking the resources to grow both teams.

Space for deep work

Much of this talk’s advice for improving content and design collaboration focused on the moments when we work together directly. We can improve the value in planning as a team, pair researching, presenting together, and sharing tools.

However, it’s crucial that we leave space for deep work between these touch-points. We work in challenging cognitive fields which require space for thought. Our journey to great design and content requires working through motions which include drafts, bad ideas, and refinement.

Respect the need for deep work as part of our collaborations. Plan for hours or days of time working alone or within our discipline groups. This time and space is a crucial phase in most creative collaborators work.

Practice. Patience.

I mentioned at the start of this talk how important (and often under valued) communication and collaboration skills are.

Becoming a better collaborator requires as much practice as learning a new tool, workshop, or process.

It involves the same learning mindset, understanding that our skills will improve with enough repetition and interaction time.

Patience is required. Resilience is a virtue when we (inevitably) take the occasional communication misstep.

But trust the process, and with time you’ll develop an enviable and valuable skillset which allows you to collaborate effectively with anyone.

Resource list

I’ve put together a reading list of resources, articles, and concepts mentioned in my talk. I’ve also included additional recommended reading if you’d like to go deeper into any of the topics covered in this talk.

Talk slides
Talk references
Recommended reading and viewing