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Advocating for the value of content design with Sophie Tahran

Ditto and Sophie Tahran
December 1, 2022

As companies realize the enormous potential of words, content design has played an increasingly essential role in the product development process. However, a lot of questions still remain: What does cross-functional content collaboration look like in practice? How might the systemization of content look in the context of design?

We recently sat down to chat about this with Sophie Tahran, Director of Content Design at Condé Nast. We first got to know Sophie over three years ago in 2019, when we were researching the space and starting Ditto. In this interview, Sophie shares her perspectives on everything from advocating for the value of content design to how she sees the field evolving over the next few years.

Sophie got her start in content design at Lyft, which she joined when the company had just 50 employees, working on their knowledge base and product launches. She later established InVision’s UX writing practice before becoming the first UX writer at Condé Nast, focused on The New Yorker. Currently, she leads a team of content designers across all of Condé, which spans publications from The New Yorker to Vogue, Allure, GQ, Bon Appetit, and many more.


What are some of the big ways you’ve seen the field of content design evolve and change over the last few years?

We’ve had some big years!

First, there’s the evolution of the name of the field itself. When we updated our titles from “UX Writer” to “Content Designer” at Condé, I wasn’t sure how different it would feel because we were already actively involved throughout the design process. That said, it did make a noticeable impact on mindset—we heard things like, We’re all designers now! The change helped reinforce why we’re in the room from day one, and it expanded the scope of what people understand us to be capable of doing.

That type of framing also helps with things like securing pay parity between content and product designers and scaling teams responsibly. Content designers become less of a special add-on. The question becomes, What type of designer does this job require, a product designer or a content designer?

We’ve also gotten better at articulating the depth of work that we can achieve and how that works in terms of prioritization. We’re evolving from a place where companies are hiring one content designer to span everything the design team does, to really taking a closer look at the potential opportunity of each specific project. Allowing a content designer to go deep on one initiative is so much more impactful than having them function as a copy editor spanning 20 different tasks. We’re showing the full extent of what we can do.

For a lot of teams that we work with, they’re in a position where they’re working at a company that does recognize the importance of content design to an extent, but those content designers still don’t have a full seat at the table.

What advice do you have for those writers, whether they’re the first UX writer at an organization or just one of a handful, who are trying to help establish and advocate for the discipline?

I think the problem often stems from companies bringing on their first content designer without setting them up for success from the start. They aren’t given the resources or authority to build out a team and they’re expected to span every product, so they slip into that place where they can only skim the surface of any given ask. It’s really tough to climb out of that hole.

Ideally, when you’re brought on, you’d have some time and space to hire, lay a strong foundation of processes and resources, and prioritize your work so that the company and your collaborators can see the full breadth of what content design can be. It’s been really exciting to see Chris Baty do that at Figma, and Roxy Aliaga at Cruise, with stellar teams and practices being established under their leadership. But a lot of folks don’t have that opportunity.

As a result, we have to overtly place ourselves in the room whenever we spot the door. Collaborators often say, I know you’re only a team of one, so I didn’t want to disturb you or I didn’t want to be too greedy with your time. It comes from a good place, but it makes our job harder. Instead, it can be helpful to advise collaborators to give the content designer the right of refusal: Send those meeting invites and briefs our way, and leave it to the content designer to say no. That leaves the decision-making and prioritization to us—and yes, it initially leads to an avalanche of information, but it allows us to set where the equilibrium should be. Ultimately, we are the experts when it comes to our ways of working.

Something else that has helped immensely over the course of my career is having strong advocates at a senior level, especially if it’s your head of design or product. If you can align yourself with someone who is in the room when big decisions are being made, and they’re capable of advocating for the discipline, that’s a game-changer.

How have you been able to find those advocates? And when you do, how do you advocate for that business impact of content?

The person who initially made a case to hire you, especially if you’re the first content designer at your company, is a good start. In my case, that was Lydia White (who had worked with fantastic content folks at Tumblr and wanted to introduce something similar at Condé Nast), and my current boss, Nicola Ryan, who has always been a fierce, consistent advocate for our craft. 

It can be tough to grasp the business side of the work, especially when we’re so focused on the humanity of the experience. But ultimately, if you’re asking for an investment (whether it’s to hire someone or to be able to use a tool like Ditto), you’re going to need to be able to talk to the folks with the wallet.

Communicating the impact of content design needs to be a constant drumbeat. That way, when the question of investment comes up, your leadership team already knows the narrative that’s been built up over the course of the entire year—they aren’t trying to grasp the value of content design for the first time from your budget proposal.

Finding ways to qualify and quantify your impact is essential. Some of this comes from building close relationships with product managers, asking about analytics capabilities early on, and following up on your work. If your collaborators don’t report back with performance metrics already, it’s worth setting reminders to ask for them later on. 

To be honest, we’ve also taken on a few smaller projects simply because we knew they’d be easy to measure. When I hear something like, Hey, folks aren’t signing in on this screen because the language is confusing. I know this isn’t on your roadmap, but is there any way you could help? My first thought is, that’s an easy A/B test. We’ll be able to demonstrate that our work directly led to a drastic improvement in successful sign-ins, and that’s a clear win that we can include in our advocacy efforts.

Also, make sure that content designers are the ones presenting their work. That way, senior stakeholders begin to build a better understanding of the exact contribution of the content designer. A lot of the time, I hear that product designers are presenting the entire project, including the work of research and content design, and that makes it difficult for collaborators to articulate what our role is. Putting content designers at the forefront of their work is huge.

Lastly, roadshows are important. When I say roadshow, I mean that you’re regularly educating folks about your discipline. I try to do this when we have someone new join the leadership team, even if they’ve worked with content designers in the past, because the discipline can take slightly different forms at different companies. It’s all about that steady drumbeat: They’re hearing from your team consistently, seeing their faces, and gaining clear, tangible examples of successful work.

The other part of advocating for content is how cross-disciplinary it is. Who do you think of are the key stakeholders and partners for content designers, and how do you tailor the way you message and present it to them?

Yes! Content design is such an incredibly cross-functional discipline. One of the strengths of our role is that we are often the common thread. Our work is not only to create a clear voice and means of communication with the user, but also to ensure that voice is consistent throughout the user experience.

In terms of immediate partners, the content designer’s closest collaborator is the product designer. Having that tight bond allows you to build up your trust battery with one another, which in turn makes you more comfortable in each other’s files, taking big swings, giving productive feedback, and so on and so forth.

Having a close partnership with your product manager helps ensure that you’re invited to kickoffs and included from day one, are communicating about the scope of potential solutions, and that you get that full circle of performance results at the end. 

When it comes to engineering, there’s often a missed opportunity in annotation and QA. Our work does not end when the words are finalized in a Figma file. It’s when it’s live, accurate, and adding value to the user.

Definitely — content is such a unique challenge because so many people interact with the text in the process of building the product, which is a large part of what we want to tackle with Ditto. Are there stakeholders you work closely with outside of the product org?

Outside of the tech org, the key stakeholders that I always like to call out are support and legal. Depending on your company, support can be such a superpower. If you aren’t able to do a ton of research, for example, looking at support tickets is a great way to see, verbatim, what your users are saying so that you can use the same language in your product and proactively try to clear some of that friction.

Building a relationship with your legal team makes legal review much less painful for everyone involved. It’s helpful to gain an understanding of what they’re protecting against so that you can ideally incorporate that throughout your user journey instead of relying on paragraphs of legal disclaimers to do so.

Finally, one of the most powerful relationships you can build is with the marketing team. Marketing takes the product that you’ve built and introduces it in a way that’s compelling to your users, and working with them early on helps build a consistent narrative from the start. It can be difficult to map out swim lanes for who is responsible for what, especially when it comes to something like naming a feature. That said, if it’s something you tackle early on, it can lead to a place where you’re sharing resources, style guides, and enabling that firm handshake across disciplines.

At Ditto, we think about the componentization and systemization of content a lot. With the work that’s been done around design systems over the last few years, what do you see as the relationship between content and design systems right now, and what do you think it will be in the future?

Yes, definitely a hot topic! Recently, we’ve seen the proliferation of content being incorporated into design systems: Adobe Spectrum, Shopify Polaris, and Zendesk Garden come to mind. 

This past year, Condé kicked off a major initiative to make our system easier to use and more informative, which also presented an opportunity to incorporate more content design. Our design system is particularly complex because it spans so many different publications, each of which has its own identity—not only colors and typefaces, but also voice and tone. So, when it comes to content, we’re faced with the existential question of which content guidelines can be agnostic and live in the system, and which live with the brand. After conducting some discovery work, we were pleasantly surprised to see how much guidance could belong in the system on a company-wide level. 

Our goal is to incorporate content on the same page, and in the same breath, as our design guidelines. This means including component-specific guidance for things like buttons and form fields on the component page, in addition to the inclusion of our overall style guides in the broader collection of resources. Having it all live in your design system helps reinforce the fact that content design is design.

A hundred percent — visual design has design systems, helping designers save time and establish more consistency because they’re defining those patterns and reusing them. Ideally, we can translate that to content and allow content to be componentized and reused, so anyone touching the text can see the same benefits around time savings and consistency.

Totally. It’s so important and it ties back to a lot of what we’ve been talking about — even thinking about the value of content design. The more you can integrate that into your design system, the higher velocity or speed to launch you see when working on a product.

We’ve been working on an audit of our error messages, and it’s like, Why do we have 25 different ways of saying you aren’t connected to the internet? By standardizing that type of ask, we allow our systems to handle the low-hanging fruit, which lets us focus on the big, interesting problems that deserve our attention.

What has been surprising since you’ve transitioned from content designer to Director of Content Design?

The challenge of becoming more senior is that you’re moving from seeing the trees to seeing the forest. As an IC (individual contributor), you are the expert in your specific tree. You’re heads-down on the project, in the weeds, mapping the ins and outs of every detail.

When you start overseeing a broader scope of work, you aren’t able to have that same attention to detail — you’re looking at the overarching strategy of where it’s all supposed to go. A big part of that transition is knowing what types of questions to ask and what level of fidelity my understanding needs to be at in order to provide helpful guidance. I try to find a balance between those moments when we’re digging down into the meat of a project together, and when we’re taking a step back to make sure we’re all working toward the same North Star. 

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to work with the folks on my team: Sammie Spector, Danielle Vargas, Vanessa Schuller, and Elizabeth Bartram. They’re incredibly talented, motivated people who are endlessly dedicated to our craft, which means that a lot of my job is just to get out of the way and take any blockers with me. 

What are some skills you value in individual content designers now that you’re in more of a managerial position?

The trait that I get most excited about is curiosity. Everything else is table stakes: Yes, you need to have a high level of aptitude in written communication. Of course you’ll need to have an understanding of the product development process and visual design best practices. Thanks to the growth of our field, we now have a burgeoning community of content designers who have learned those skills through the UX Content Collective, or by attending the Button conference, or by reading the various new books about our field, or through content design internships—and if there are gaps in someone’s knowledge of a specific grammar rule or Figma hygiene, we can work through that together. 

But it’s difficult to coach someone to be more curious. I love meeting folks whose eyes light up when they spot a potential opportunity. That’s a content designer who is going to ask good questions, seek out answers, and take initiative in finding the best solution for the user. It’s often the difference between someone who fills an existing text box and someone who asks whether we need that box in the first place. 

I’d love to look into the future a bit. Where do you think content design is heading in the next two, five, ten years?

I hope we can maintain this trajectory!

One conversation that we’ve been having is about long-term content design career paths. We’d like to make sure that, as the field continues to evolve and we have content designers with 10, 20, 30 years of experience, there’s still an opportunity to grow.

There are a few important disclaimers here, though: not everyone wants to manage people, and some folks want to grow into leadership roles beyond content design. So, how might we carve out paths accordingly? For folks who aren’t interested in managing, there’s so much value in having principal-level content designers who are responsible for the excellence of the craft itself. And for those who’d like to take on design management, I think we’re moving away from the misconception that content designers lack the ability to transcend their discipline. At Condé Nast, for example, our design leadership positions are now discipline agnostic, which means that content designers can be promoted into design leads and beyond.

I also continue to be really excited about new tools like Ditto, of course. After seeing how much of a difference it makes to work side-by-side with product designers in Figma, I can’t help but imagine what will become possible with more content-design-specific tools. 

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