The emergence of content design has pushed companies to rethink their product through the lens of how the words themselves facilitate user experience. The impact of this new lever for building product has been vast — the practice of content design has led to everything from shifts in company culture to the emergence of communities of thousands dedicated to the discipline.
We sit down to discuss all of these topics with Kristina Halvorson, who has seen the content design space take shape over the past 15 years as the CEO of Brain Traffic. She’s worked with companies like Google and Wells Fargo to determine what content looks like at scale. Halvorson and Brain Traffic are also the organizers for Button, and we also discuss with her the role of events in facilitating new voices and developing the discipline.
The first time I really had a light bulb go off was when I sat in a usability test and saw people who were being asked to complete a task not being able do it because of the text. That's what UX writing is.
That's what differentiates the words that we choose and the way that we write from marketing and from internal communications. We’re making choices around words and and design and how we're reviewing information step by step in order to help effectively support someone in completing a task. That’s what user-centered content means in my brain.
One of the quickest things to point to is whether or not people are really creating content in silos, or if they are aware of what kind of initiatives standards policies are being used across an organization. For example, when people are writing across an organization, making sure that there's clear shared purpose behind decision making.
The idea of shared tools and ongoing decisions around tooling is important. Additionally, making sure that there is clear career-pathing in place for content designers and training to use tools to determine everything from brand, voice/tone, standards, terminology, and more. How all of those things are revisited, governed, and owned have an impact on content maturity within an organization.
Leadership has got to be really clear on values, purpose, standards, policies, priorities, strategies, in order for us to help people make decisions around complex content initiatives. I've never heard of a third party being able to go into an organization and change culture. I will also say culture and content are extremely closely tied. An organization’s product is a clear reflection of the culture within the organization.
At a very base level, when we can talk about a user-centered organization, you can see when an organization that prioritizes profits or executive egos have a million puppet modules, or a million blockers, or dark patterns. Or if I get into a product, and it’s prioritizing super cute and cheeky voice and tone — that's an organization where ego is first and they're prioritizing brand.
A lot of the user-centered organizations you don't even realize that they're user-centered because because they just get out of your way. Those are the organizations that listen to user feedback. Leadership's priorities trickle down every time and manifest in all of those choices and in the content.
The smartest advice I have ever heard came from Chelsea Larsson when she was at Zendesk, and she basically said, I didn't advocate for myself, I got other people to advocate for me. So when something went right and she had somebody's attention, she would say, I would love if you would go tell this person what we went through together and how it helped you. And so instead of creating the pitch deck and going on a road show to explain it over and over again, get the people whose work you are benefiting to speak up for you. That is huge.
Find those sponsors who have direct hands-on experience with you, and bring those success stories directly to them over and over and over again. You can't have a conversation with somebody about how much content matters, you have to show them.
My answer is very different from what it would have been back in 2019. Back then, we were looking almost solely at in-person gatherings. With in-person events, it’s about finding your people, catching up on best practices, determining what trends are happening, finding out whether people are sharing the same kinds of solving the kinds of problems that you have, and sharing war stories. We always called it like content therapy time, just networking with folks from other organizations and determining what standards can and should exist within your own organization based on what's happening in other companies.
All of those things are important and can still happen in a virtual gathering. But it can't happen in a silo. You can be on LinkedIn to talk to others about best practices, but it's simply not the same as gathering with a group of people. When you have that sort of real-time exchange of ideas and successes and pain points, it becomes a larger community of practice that you can return to over time.
A thing that’s coming up is that people want to wait to stay in touch more regularly than one big event a year. You're seeing super active Slack workspaces springing up around events, and you see events starting to offer monthly gatherings (whether it's a watch party or panel discussion that's happening virtually).
It might look like once a year having a big in-person gathering where people can come and meet the folks that they've been chatting with virtually. From a format standpoint, I think that's where most event organizations either are going or should go. Specific to the content field, our problems are so based on content maturity within organizations.
I love how virtual events have opened the doors for so many more people to participate. We have the Equity Scholarship Program for Button, and we’ve been able to radically increase the diversity of perspectives and voices of each of our events. I look forward to those in person gatherings, though, because nothing can replace that hallway conversation. It's also really important that our organizations continue to step up and sponsor folks who have barriers to conference participation as well.
There's a real need to support content design leaders who are quickly multiplying in the space. I'd like to find ways to really nurture new voices. There are so many different opportunities within content design. Content design has just exploded and the momentum there’s so enormous. I just hope that Button can help to drive things forward in terms of expanding the practice, connecting folks, and surfacing new voices and best practices.
I have great admiration for folks that are that are training and giving writers from different backgrounds the opportunity to enter into UX writing.
My advice is to be curious about the larger field of content design. Be curious about what your designers are doing. Be curious about what engineers are doing. It's really important that you’re able to have informed conversations with with a variety of different stakeholders. Maintaining a desire to constantly learn and expand perspective is critical to long term success in the field.
I think that we'll continue to see sort of that deepening of specialization across different areas, and I think we're going to see a lot more senior content design leadership emerge within organizations, which is really exciting.
The name for the convenience Button came is tongue in cheek around like, hey, we do the words, we write the words that appear on the button, since obviously it’s so much more than that. I hope that the more we hear people talk about content, the more people immediately translate that to the complex set of decisions that need to be made as opposed to “let's throw some words on the page and see what sticks.” That's going to be an exciting evolution to continue to witness.
Having been in the field for 15 years, I think it’s helpful to be able to ground how things are evolving in where they came from in the first place. But I really feel like my job in the event space in particular has been to get out of the way and help identify and lift up new voices, important voices, diverse voices, and shine the spotlight on those folks — because they're the ones that are going to shape the the evolution of content design. That's what I feel like my calling is at this stage in my career, and I feel really honored to be able to play that role.