July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Jonathon Colman

Written by Steve Fisher

May 25, 2020


In this interview Steve chats with Jonathon Colman about the struggles and opportunities in setting up an effective content design team and how he's looking to change things with his work at Intercom.

Essentially content designers or content strategists are put into this box saying, "You can only do the words. "You're wordsmiths, you do wordsmithing. "That's the best use of your time." And their hands are tied, because that's really limiting and I don't think it gives them enough opportunity for impact. What we've tried to do is a little bit different. We've purposefully blurred the lines between product design and content design.

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Video Transcript

Jonathon Colman: I wanna give you a warning. There are some strong opinions ahead.

Steve Fisher: Welcome to the 2020 Design and Content Conference podcast. I'm excited to welcome today Jonathon Colman. Jonathon leads product designers and the global content design team at Intercom. He's a Webby Award-winning designer and a keynote speaker who's appeared at over 90 events in nine countries on five continents. And we're delighted to have him here at ours. Welcome, Jonathon, from the Discovery I believe?

Jonathon Colman: Hey Steve, how it's going. It's great to see you. Thanks for making the long distance call up to space, I really appreciate that.

Steve Fisher: Yeah, well, it is a long distance call because you are actually in Ireland right now and you've been there for about a year and a half, I think?

Jonathon Colman: Yep, that's right. I moved here in December 2018 to join Intercom and been here in Dublin ever since.

Steve Fisher: So how's it been being in Ireland and working at Intercom?

Jonathon Colman: It's been great. Even despite recent events of which I'm sure you're aware, one thing that I really enjoy about being in Ireland is that there's a really strong culture of welcoming here.

Steve Fisher: Oh, that's amazing. That's really wonderful to hear. Well, like I said, we're thrilled to have you come to the event, well, attend the event, I suppose. Present at the event online, 'cause we've shifted online. And you're gonna come and talk to us about how to maximize the impact of your content team. Well, it'd be great to hear a little bit about that.

Jonathon Colman: If I could sort of throw some symbols up I'd show that one of like, the triangle with the exclamation point in it, like the warning sign. Because I wanna give you a warning, there are some strong opinions ahead. And the strong opinion is this. Is that largely in big tech companies, but also elsewhere, it's certainly not limited to big tech, a content design team often ends up being made up of people whose hands are tied. And they're largely limited to doing just UX writing. There's nothing wrong with UX writing, that's great work, I enjoy it myself. But essentially content designers or content strategists are put into this box saying, "You can only do the words. "You're wordsmiths, you do wordsmithing. "That's the best use of your time."

And I say tie, you know, their hands are tied because I think that's really limiting and I don't think it gives them enough opportunity for impact. And so, what we've tried to do is a little bit different. We've purposefully blurred the lines between product design and content design. It's very difficult in Intercom to tell the difference between a product designer and a content designer and that is purposeful. So we hold them to almost exactly the same expectations, which means that they do almost exactly the same kinds of work.

The sole delimiter is that product designers tend to do a little bit more interaction design and visual design, whereas content designers tend to do what we call a little bit more, concept design or system design, as well as information architecture and then UX writing. But both roles can do either of those things. It's just that content designers are a little bit more accountable for those things. Product designers are a little bit more accountable for their things. But because we do those things, content designers have so much more ability to work deeply on problems, to impact products, to set product direction, product road maps, product solutions as well.

And because we find content designers and product designers doing mostly the same things in mostly the same ways, we've decided to also pay them the same, by level and experience. Not many places, especially in big tech, do that. For us, we think it's fair because we're asking content designers to do a lot more. But because of that they have more opportunities.

Steve Fisher: When your team was adopting this approach, how did that work when you were communicating that to the rest of the company?

Jonathon Colman: Yeah, so, this way of working is, we've been doing this for the past year, don't see any end in sight, we intend to continue going forward with this 'cause it's been successful. We've seen content designers have much more impact, much more deeply, in product problem spaces because of this way of working. Because what it means is that content designers work the same as product designers.

So in most companies, product designers work on one product or one problem space, let's say, at a time. But content designers are spread really, really thin across five products or five problem spaces, maybe 10, maybe, why not more than 10? Maybe 20. I myself, in a prior role, used to work with something like 12 different product managers and eight designers all at once.

Steve Fisher: Wow.

Jonathon Colman: And I was sort of somehow expected to keep all the balls in the air. I recently talked with a content designer who works with 100 different designers at a company with a very big name that everyone knows. So it's not, you know, an isolated thing, it's how people tend to work.

So to answer your question, in terms of the communication piece, what we simply did was talk a lot about all the ways that we see product designers having impact, which is, they work with focus, they work really deeply, they work to understand the problems, not just try to solve them very quickly. And that's because they have time, they have context. They work as part of a team that they are usually co-leaders of. They attend all that team's rituals, all the meetings. And they probably play a big role in directing the activities of that team alongside partners like a product manager or an engineering manager, maybe.

And so we said, "Hey, what if content designers "could do the same thing?" And one of the reasons I came to Intercom is because they're open to new ways of thinking about this discipline, and new ways of working like this. And so we did a test. We said, "Okay, instead of working on six different products "at a time, let's have a content designer work on just one." And we'll do it over a durable amount of time, like say, at least a quarter. And we're going to look for things like, did this person have more product impact in terms of what the product team ended up wanting? Did this person work more deeply on problems and solve them with greater confidence, greater quality, and potentially even at faster speeds? And then, did this person and their team, you know, collaborate completely as equals? Meaning that the content designer attended all of the team's rituals, was there for planning, retrospectives, standups so they had all the context to work together. And in so doing, by all of those things, was the team itself actually speeded up, were they able to work faster and do better because of this renewed relationship with a dedicated content designer?

The results of that test were very positive. We found that content designers do have more impact this way and their teams are speeded up and they do accomplish more, greater degrees of quality. And so, we just made the choice to change.

Steve Fisher: It sounds like the approach that you're taking helps bring focus to those roles. Would you say that that's one of the bigger benefits of that?

Jonathon Colman: Yeah and there's also downstream benefits of that focus. So something that I've been worried about for a few years is what is the growth path of content designers or content strategists or UX writers?

In the big tech companies I've looked at, it seems like mostly they just grow in scope so they continue to work across more and more and more teams and just to be open, my personal preference only, that doesn't seem like a great career path. Doing more work even faster with less context and personal connections with those teams, or familiarity with their problems. That's probably a great simplification but it doesn't seem incredibly fulfilling to me. So the downstream benefit of focus is that you actually become an expert in a problem space and beyond that, because of your expertise and your experience, you become a leader of a product team and that's how we set up content designers.

So content designers, along with product designer, a product manager and an engineering manager, are co-leaders of a product team. They set its direction, its road map, determine its problems to be solved, how they even understand those problems. We look to content designers to do those things and I think that offers a new growth path. And I can imagine someone developing to the point where maybe they decide to move into something like a product manager role or a product designer role because of their ability to work across the product lifecycle in a very deep way.

Steve Fisher: Great job to you and the team for implementing a change like this and really going for it.

Now when you're thinking about your talk, how to maximize the impact of your content team, are there any kind of nuggets that you'd like to share with people ahead of time?

Jonathon Colman: I think the three big things that I know I will definitely talk about, are this idea of working on one product at a time, having the focus that brings. Also the investment because the rest of your team can see that you have skin in the game because you're dedicated to this problem just as much as they are. Being held to the same expectations as product designers. And so, doing much more than UX writing.

In fact, I'd say if you are doing this job well, the bits of UX writing that you do will probably be the smallest part of your role. They'll probably be the things that come last with greatest confidence and you'll spend the least amount of time on them because the more important pieces are much deeper in the product system. Discovering the problem, aligning on what it is, going through the double diamond design process, things like that.

And then the final piece I think that I know I'll definitely talk about is this idea of pay. Because most content designers are not paid equally to product designers, and I think if we're asking them to do extra work, as I am, that they deserve equal pay. This is especially important because I think a recent survey from the, oh what is the name of the group, Steve, UX Writing Collective? An industry survey that they did found that something like 75% of people working in content strategy, content design, UX writing, are women. And equal pay is a really important issue here. If we have a whole industry of people who are, by far, a clear majority are women and they're not being paid in equal measure to their male counterparts, that's a problem. And I think we have to take ownership of that and we have to do better. I'm not saying I have the solution to that, at all, but I do have a strong opinion and I think this is one way I can get into a durable solution for the industry.

Steve Fisher: Wow. I really appreciate you using your privilege and your position to help push that conversation forward. You know, that I think is part of the solution. And I'm really interested to see how things continue to unfold for you and your team.

We were really hopeful to have you out in Vancouver this summer, to fly you to North America on the West Coast and of course that's not going to happen. You know, if only we did have the Star Trek technology right now.

Jonathon Colman: You got the transporter back here, look at that thing. Yeah, that would be really nice. We're not there yet but definitely there in spirit.

Steve Fisher: Yeah. Well if there was one thing, or, doesn't have to just be one thing, but if there was something that you were looking forward to for DCC online this year, what would that be?

Jonathon Colman: Well, I tell you there, I was going through the talks on the website and there's some I'm especially excited about.

David Dylan Thomas's talk on fighting bias with content strategy, like, I feel like this is a big area of weakness for me. Like I don't know nearly as much about this as I should. I know you have Jessica MacQueen from the government of Alberta. I'm especially interested, in this period of COVID-19 global pandemic, about the role of content design in government. So I'm really looking forward to her talk. Sara Wachter-Boettcher is one of my personal idols. I've read all of her books and follow her closely online, I love her podcast. So I'm very curious to see how she frames the question of like, how do we design, how do we change through designing content? So I think that'll be really interesting as well.

Steve Fisher: Yeah, those are great talks. I'm looking forward to them all, too.

Well thanks, Jonathon. I'm so glad you could join us today on the podcast. And we're looking forward to hearing your talk this summer.

Jonathon Colman: Thank you so much, Steve. Stay safe, stay healthy out there, uh, in there.

Steve Fisher: You too.

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