Intercom’s Jonathon Colman on why content designers should do less

I’m excited to be joined today by Intercom’s own Jonathon Colman, a senior designer who came to us by way of the Nature Conservancy, REI and five and a half years at Facebook, where he most recently worked as a UX Content Strategy Lead for Marketplace. Since coming aboard in December, he’s influenced us with his thinking about the possibilities within the nascent field of content design. Our conversation covered, surprisingly, everything from flat-Earthers to J.R.R. Tolkien. We think you’ll really enjoy it.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Content design is a young discipline, and the ways in which it’s practiced change so often that people are inventing new rules, tools and approaches all the time. That helps everyone innovate, especially when they share them out.
  2. Strong content designers need to have great flexibility, adaptiveness and be active listeners – because you’re always looking for cues about what people really care about and the problems they’re really experiencing.
  3. Author Jesse James Garrett pinpoints a stack of five layers that demand content designers’ attention: surface, skeleton, structure, scope, and strategy. Unfortunately, by virtue of how their organization has structured them, many content designers only get to work at the surface.
  4. At Intercom, we think content designers work best when they work deeply on a product. If you’re working on 10 different product teams, you’ll never have the context you need and you’ll never have the time to focus on the problem.
  5. Design doesn’t just make things pretty. In product design, we’re especially concerned with how design solves a problem. Similarly, content design is not just about pretty words, it’s about determining what things mean.

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode. You can also learn more about Jon and Intercom’s product design team, get free design resources and see open design roles in our brand new design website at intercom.design.


Improvisation and anticipation

Dee Reddy: Jon, we’re delighted to have you on Inside Intercom this week. Do you want to kick things off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Jonathon Colman: You know, I’ve recently arrived here in Ireland to join Intercom so I’ve been here for about seven or eight months. Prior to that, I lived in Seattle for about a decade. I’ve worked for organizations like REI (which is an American retail cooperative for outdoor goods), as well as nonprofit organizations like the Nature Conservancy. Just prior to Intercom, I spent about five and a half years at Facebook. I focused mostly on content design or content strategy roles, but I’ve done things as diverse as front-end code production, marketing, analytics, and SEO. I’m a bit of a jack of all trades.

Dee: And to speak to that, you have an even more diverse background than that. I believe very early on in your adult life you actually did some improv?

Jon: Yes, I did. I was so introverted in college that I realized without some sort of strategy or mechanism or tool set – which is how I think about improv – I would probably be off living in the mountains with a pack of dogs and Wi-Fi. Improv gave me those tools I needed to get along in daily life. I was never a great improviser. I used to perform throughout the Midwest, but what I was really after was the ability to get along with people and have positive interactions with them every day. Improv is what helped me break out of my shell to be able to do that.

“We’re excited for other people who are excited about content and design. It’s really that simple”

Dee: And there’s a little bit in improv, I suppose, of being able to anticipate what your partners are going to do. Do you find that you take that skill and apply it to your work as a content designer?

Jon: Absolutely. There’s this notion in improv of gifts and presents. The thing with improv that most people know is this concept of “yes, and…” You have this built-in rule of not negating people. But the more important one, to me, is the idea of gifts. When we engage in things like user research – or even just in our everyday collaboration across functions with product management or engineers – you’re looking for those bits, those aha moments that are really gifts the other person is giving you. When you’re talking about the problem to solve, or when you’re conducting research, and people are telling you about the problems they experience as they go about their lives or their work or using your product, those are the things you want to keep an eye on. And when you discover them, the real key is to be curious and ask why and ask followups and really try to dig into the context.

A young discipline

Dee: How, then, did you find yourself working as a content designer?

Jon: Well, the thing about what’s sometimes called the content strategy industry is that we have a really big tent. It’s a relatively young discipline. I think it got a lot of attention when Kristina Halvorson published Content Strategy for the Web about a decade ago, and it’s been growing rapidly since then. But it’s still just this small community, when you get down to it. And what’s really nice about that is that we’re excited for other people who are excited about content and design. It’s really that simple.

I started out my role as a technical writer. I used to write books for IBM. After that I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. In content design, we don’t care. We’re just excited that you care about about these things: about the user experience, about the quality of content and communications. You’ll find content design teams made up of people from technical writing backgrounds like me but also from design, from marketing, from journalism, from information architecture and from so many other disciplines. It’s really a big tent, and we welcome everyone into it, which is really how I found my way there.

I was doing marketing and search engine optimization, and I read Kristina Halvorson’s book, and it was one of those mind-blowing moments.I could see it so clearly: “This is a thing. Quality content is a thing.” And while everyone says they care about it, not that many people actually do something about it or are tasked with doing something about it, much less task themselves with doing something about it.

“What you really need to be a strong content designer is flexibility, adaptiveness and active listening, because you’re always looking for those cues about what people really care about”

Dee: There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about what the job actually entails. What are those common misconceptions, and can you clear a few of them up for us?

Jon: I think we’re at the point in content design strategy where there’s a foundational layer of best practices, which is great. But it’s still so new, and the ways in which it’s practiced change so often that people are inventing new rules, new tools, just new approaches all the time. That helps everyone innovate, especially when they share them out.

So it’s a little bit like the early days of something like baseball or basketball or golf where we know there’s something here, but we’re just trying to capture what’s the foundational bits of it. I try to remember this phrase that this information architect and good friend of mine, Abby Covert, uses. She’s a staff information architect at Etsy, and her whole thing is that we make the unclear clear. And that’s it.

Dee: That’s how the discipline started, wasn’t it? With the UK government and that idea of having to explain really, really complex ideas to literally everybody?

Jon: That’s right. Sarah Richards, who’s a content designer with the GDS and gov.uk, codified this term “content design”. And that is exactly the problem she wanted to solve: they wanted to make things so simple and so useful and so understandable by such a rich, diverse audience of people that content and design were the two things that really encapsulated that mission. She has a whole book about it called, appropriately enough, Content Design, and it’s just brilliant.

Dee: Do you think it requires of the person to be a little bit stronger on EQ than other roles?

Jon: It’s very possible. This idea of an emotional quotient really does come into it. What you really need to be a strong content designer is flexibility, adaptiveness and active listening, because you’re always looking for those cues about what people really care about or the problems they’re really experiencing. But perhaps more than anything else, what content designers really need to be good at is drawing together all the different strings of knowledge, information, activity and different repositories of work and code and history. What content designers often don’t do is sit around at their desks just plugging away at the content. They tend to spend much more of their time talking to people – either customers, users of products, other people in the organization – because what they want to build all those alliances. They want to draw those people in, get them concerned, get them passionate about the content and the quality of the user experience just as they are. But also they want access to all of that cultural information. In terms of making the unclear clear, one of the things they’re trying to do is to help the organization communicate in a very simple and very on-voice way.

“You, as the army of one, probably can’t be successful writing everything. That’s okay so long as you enable everyone else to do what they do – but clearer and better”

Dee: So you’re really, essentially, at the front line between the product and the consumer.

Jon: Absolutely. That’s a great way of putting it. You’re at this point where it’s not just you against your organization. You probably wouldn’t pitch it that way, but it’s something more along the lines that you, the content designer, probably shouldn’t do all of the product communication, because the product is so big and there’s just you most of the time. Many content designers operate as armies of one where it’s really just them in this gigantic company organization. You’re helping everyone who touches communication in a product do what they do, but more clearly and hopefully better and in a way that creates a better experience for people.

For example, it might be a scenario where someone on the marketing team creates this experience or writes this bit. Or it might be, say, an engineer who’s going through all the different error states and coming up with error messages. You, as the army of one, probably can’t be successful writing everything. That’s okay so long as you enable everyone else to do what they do – but clearer and better.

Reframing content design

Dee: One thing you have said before is that content design is essentially concept design. What do you mean by that?

Jon: Even just now, we were focusing on what I think of as being words on the surface: here’s this marketing message, or here’s this error message. Essentially, it’s words. And content design definitely spends time focusing on those words, on that service. We tend to call that line of work UX writing, or user experience writing, where you’re literally writing words in the interface. But that really comes at the end. I think the reason we focus on it so much is because it’s the most visible artifact of the work – meaning that when you look at a product, whether it’s a mobile app or something that’s interactive on the web, you are seeing those words first. Of course, it’s the thing you focus on, and if you’re a content center, people will give you feedback on those words and how they appear, how they sound, things like that – which is great. You need that.

“Content design at Intercom is the entire stack”

Dee: But that’s only the top layer. It’s quite superficial in terms of what you do.

Jon: Exactly. The way you do a good job at the top layer is not to start at the top layer. It should be the thing you get to last. What you need to do is work further down the stack. The way I think about this actually goes back to a model, probably one of the most famous models in user experience work, that was created by Jesse James Garrett in his book The Elements of User Experience. He shows this stack of five layers where he’s got surface, skeleton, structure, scope and strategy. A lot of content designers, by virtue of how their organization has structured them, only get to work at the surface. That’s usually because they are the ones who care most about its quality. They’re the ones who can clearly see like how important it is and how essential it is to get the words right.

Dee: I suppose, if they’re dealing with the consumer, that’s what the consumer can see. So it’s probably what they get the most feedback on.

Jon: Precisely. So that’s what their leadership will focus on. They’re the ones who are tasked with that, and their organization often ties their hands and won’t let them get deeper in that stack, which is what makes our work at Intercom a little bit different. Content design at Intercom is the entire stack. It goes all the way from surface down to strategy, where content designers influence product, product direction, product strategy, things like interaction design, things like information architecture. It’s not just the words on the surface.

Going back to your question, where we talked about content design being concept design, I think that’s really the key part of our work. All those words on the surface are essentially how we represent what we think of as being concepts and ideas. We spend most of our time working in systems and not sentences, so that means we’re taking all those ideas and concepts and mapping them out. We’re trying to ask, “What are the entities that we’re really talking about here?” If we can figure out what those entities are, then the challenge is: “Okay, so we have all these entities. How are they related to each other? And then how do those relationships provide value?” Or perhaps, “How should those relationships provide value?”

If you do that work up front, then writing words on the surface becomes a much more trivial exercise, because you’ve already built a really strong opinion about how the thing works into its foundational layer into the system. And if you get all those concepts right, then it’s much easier to express them on the surface. That work often goes much quicker, just because you’ve taken the time to understand the problem and to consider how to build a system, how to build the product around solving that problem.

“If we can match a conceptual model – a series of concepts and how they’re related and provide value – then we can change people’s mental models”

Dee: If you had to pick a really simple, straightforward system that works like that or a concept that’s been so perfectly explained that people just get it, what would be your shining example?

Jon: This is where we go into conspiracy theories.

Dee: Oh, one of my favorite topics.

Jon: Right? Who doesn’t love these? Let’s talk about the flat-Earth theory. For a long time – and by a long time I mean most of human history – if people thought at all about the shape of the earth, they would think, “Oh, obviously it’s flat.” And that makes a lot of sense, because people had a mental model that was based on their senses. When they opened their eyes, even if they went up on the top of the hill or large mountain, what you would see was essentially this flat landscape that seems to extend forever. And if you were near an ocean or something like that, that ocean would also similarly seem to go on forever.

So it made sense that you would have this mental model of the Earth being just this flat place. It wasn’t until much later, with the advent of astronomy, that we could begin to see, “Oh, the shape of the Earth is not, in fact, flat.” It was during the Renaissance where we had the mathematics and the science to actually start figuring this out. And of course, we know it’s a globe. It’s one globe of many. It’s not even a globe at the center of the universe, it’s just another globe. But the mental model of the flat earth is so powerfully strong, because again, it’s what people see even in an airplane. Unless you’re very high up, you’re going to see a flat world every time you open up your eyes. That mental model is so strong that there’s still conspiracy theories about the earth being flat and that this is all faked by NASA or whatever.

Dee: Are you saying that flat-Earthers just haven’t met the right content designer?

Jon: Perhaps. But that’s where this idea of conceptual models comes into play. Because if we can match a conceptual model – a series of concepts and how they’re related and provide value – then we can change people’s mental models.

Intercom’s Jonathon Colman on why content designers should do less 1

Dee: I’m going to suggest something now, and you’re probably going to love it because it’s basically positing content design as a part of humankind’s evolutionary development, but have you read Sapiens?

Jon: Oh, no, I haven’t. It’s on my list.

Dee: It’s really good. It’s called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it goes through all the different evolutionary layers of the human animal. But there’s one point in it that’s really interesting, where he basically talks about the idea that humans are able to accept a group narrative like the Earth being flat or a globe or even money having value. He actually pinpoints that as being part of the evolutionary development that has allowed us to get to where we are, these group narratives. In a way, what you’re doing is actually going back to a human instinct.

Jon: That makes sense to me. I love that. You know, that’s funny. Whenever we talk about content design, we often do this because of this Big 10 idea. We often talk about our favorite books, what did we learn from them, how are we applying that learning to their practice? And the field is still evolving, so Dee, you might have a future in content design.

The Intercom approach to content design

Dee: Who knows? Watch this space. On that note, I’m sure our listeners would love to know how we approach content design in-house. What sets us apart?

Jon: We think that content designers work best when they work really deeply on a product. In a lot of different teams in different companies, contents designers, content strategists are stretched so far across five products, 10 products, more than 10 products. And it’s really hard to do that depth of work across all of those five layers that Jesse James Garrett talked about if you’re working on 20 different product teams. You’ll never have the context you need, and you’ll never have the time to focus on the problem. All you’re doing is dusting the words on the surface.

My friend Amy Thibodeau at Shopify codified this phrase “dusting the content”, and that’s not satisfying for a content designer, because they bring all this holistic thought and energy. They really want to focus on the problem, and if all they’re doing is dusting the words on the surface, then it’s going to be a problem. That’s not satisfying for a content designer, partially because they bring all this holistic thought and energy to solving the problem but also because they are not going to do their best work that way. Because of that, the company will be releasing an inferior product. It’s not going to be as good as it could be otherwise. At Intercom, that’s why we really focus our content designers on working with just one or two teams at a time.

“Just working on the words on the surface isn’t going to be effective enough… You really have to design the concepts before you design the content”

Dee: Is there a recent project that we’ve done that stands out as an example of that?

Jon: Kelly O’Brien is a content designer on my team working in our London office. There was a period where she worked across all of the projects that we were doing in London, which means everything from bots to reporting to all the other great things we build there. Those teams really appreciated having her time, and they really needed her help. But we thought there was such a big opportunity to keep building up and expanding and focusing on our work (with bots in particular) that really match Kelly’s skills and had a tremendously outsized opportunity for content design.

So we had her focus just on that. Because she’s doing only bots now, she attends all of those team’s rituals from stand-ups to retrospectives to the off-sites – everything. She is a full member of the team. When you do that with your content designers, that team gets to know your content designer. They see every day them showing up with commitment and dedication, so they know they have skin in the game, if you will. What they see most of all, is the impact that content design has. It’s one of those things that’s really hard to understand unless you actually see it happening. If you’re only spending 15 minutes with a team every other week, they can’t see it happening, but when you’re there working in person with a product designer, with a product manager, with a group of engineers, analysts and marketers, then you get to see it.

That impact becomes much more deeply felt, and the team will start to draw the content designer into their strategy sessions, their road-mapping process. Over time, you start to build better products. That’s because you’ve worked in content design and the systems thinking from the ground up.

Dee: So it really is as simple as just having a team of people as opposed to just having the one person.

Jon: Absolutely. It’s also an illustration of why just working on the words on the surface isn’t going to be effective enough. You really have to get down to that system level. You really have to design the concepts before you design the content.

How to set up an effective content design team

Dee: That makes so much sense. If I’m listening today, and I’ve realized that I really should have invested in a content design team for my organization, what would one do to go by setting one up?

Jon: I would argue, based on what we’ve talked about, that content designers can do more when they do less but do it better. Most content design teams in the world are multitaskers. They’re focusing on all of the organization’s products at one time. We do this because content design is still an emerging field, and we decide that, “Hey, if we try to do everything, then someone will finally notice us, and someone will finally see what we’re capable of.”

I just don’t believe that. Based on my experience, I believe that content design impact is most deeply felt when content designers work on a one-to-one basis with product designers, product managers, the product team. I think this is the only way to have their impact be deeply felt and understood. For people who are starting up content design teams and want to make them highly effective, I’d say do less, but do it better. Focus on just one product per person at a time.

Dee: When we spoke before, you quoted Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things. He had that lovely line that design is concerned with how things work. I wonder, do you have a favorite designer of any discipline?

Jon: Absolutely. Just quickly on that Donald Norman quote: that was life changing for me when I read it, because up until reading that book in school, I had thought design was about making things pretty (or if you’re into modern art, making them abstract). Don Norman really changed my thinking there.

Dee: I was in the Museum of Design in Helsinki a couple of years ago, and they had a whole display on a watering can that had been beautifully and perfectly designed so that it could be made out of one piece of plastic and it could be easily reproduced. It was perfect for its requirements, and it was cheap to make. It really struck me that something so practical could be also a thing of great design.

Jon: Absolutely. Alvar Aalto. Great Finnish designer. That’s the thing: that is design for a purpose, right? It’s about simplicity of use, simplicity of production. Probably savings and cost as well. Design doesn’t just make things pretty. Donald Norman said it’s concerned with how things work. In product design, we’re especially concerned with how design solves a problem. Similarly, content design is not just about running the words. It’s not just about making the words sound pretty, although it can. Pretty words are great, but what’s even greater is determining what things mean. That is what content design is concerned with. But to answer your question, favorite designer? It’s super nerdy. Are you ready for this?

Dee: Absolutely.

Intercom’s Jonathon Colman on why content designers should do less 2

Jon: We’re going to turn the nerd factor up a bit, and I’m going to say J.R.R. Tolkien. Because he designed an entire world, but few people know that he also did all of the original artwork himself. He was a great drawer of trees, Mr. Tolkien was.

Dee: That really is the holistic approach, then.

Jon: He didn’t just write the words. He didn’t just create the story. What he was really interested in was creating languages, and he spoke with several publisher friends who informed him that no one was really interested in a book of fake languages. He needed a story to go along with it, and that is the thing people were interested in.

He only created the story and therefore the world of Middle Earth and all the worlds before Middle Earth as a way of creating languages. You were talking about cultural narratives and group narratives. He understood the value of narrative and transmitting ideas that he cared about like language, but he also did the artwork. If you want a more modern version of something like that, comic books are very similar in terms of how they’re produced and how they’re conceived and the sorts of stories and experience they have. Even comic books as products are very similar to how we design products as well. There’s usually an artist and a writer working together, along with a letterer, a colorist, an editor. We build products in a remarkably similar way.

Dee: It’s funny, because you’ve identified two types of fiction there, but both of them operate within a universe more so than a lot of other types of fiction. For comic books, and certainly with The Lord of the Rings books and their wider ilk, they operate in their own universes, so it’s interesting that you’ve chosen those.

Jon: Absolutely, but they’re also products. The publishers of The Lord of the Rings don’t just want you to enjoy the story. They want you to buy the book and recommend it to friends. They want you to go see the movies and get the new books. The Amazon series is coming out. Similarly, Marvel or other comic books publishers (my favorite being Fantagraphics) want you to buy their books. The creators also want you to buy them, so they are products. These are things for sale; they’re a package. They even have a job to do, which is to entertain or perhaps to inform or to change the way you think or get you invested in some drama.

Dee: Lastly, before we let you go, it’s been a really enjoyable chat. Where people can keep up with your work?

Jon: Thanks for having me on. Folks can follow me on Twitter @jcolman. I’ll also be speaking at a Web Directions Summit in Sydney, Australia near the end of October.

Dee: You’re a busy bee. Well, Jon, thanks a million for joining us today.

Jon: Thanks again for having me.

See more about Jon and Intercom’s product design team, get free design resources and see open design roles in our brand new design website at intercom.design.

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