Content design interdependence: A new approach for advocacy

Tali Samoylenko
Tali Samoylenko
February 27, 2024

A thoughtful product manager and friend once told me, “People support the things they help create.”

To date, our collective attempts at content design advocacy seem to isolate us, creating a snowball of frustration, tension, and burnout. While it’s tempting to feed into our anger, demanding that others pay attention to us only pushes them away. 

It’s time for a new approach. For things to improve, we need buy-in from our design leaders and peers. Instead of spinning our wheels fighting for validation in our role, what if we refocused our energy on building content design interdependence among all of our team members?

Advocating this way helps us share problem spaces with our teams, and it will enable us to contribute in ways that complement processes rather than challenge them.

1. Ask for what you need

A little while ago, I noticed my contributions weren’t visible in company-wide meetings despite working closely on the projects presented. Rather than explain my role to my team again (we’ve all been there), I decided to try something radically different. I talked to them about it. But this time, I was prepared to hear the things I didn’t want to.  

I wanted to understand why similar situations kept happening. We chatted about their perception of my role, their expectations, what their main priorities were, anything that was puzzling them, and more. It turns out they cared but didn’t understand what I wanted, why I wanted it, and why it would be valuable for them to give it to me.

I realized a few things: 

  1. Many people haven’t worked with a content designer before. 
  2. Those who have may not have experienced it the way you'd like to practice it.
  3. People are trying their best to get their own work done.

Understanding how confusing it can be for people to embrace a content designer can help us explain our needs more clearly. Here’s a quick framework to help ask for what you need:

Use a constructive, approachable tone: Show that you’re open-minded and focused on making things better. Invite people to be on your side, and let them know you’re on theirs. 

Share an objective observation: Objectively describe the facts of what’s bothering you and use a specific example to give people a clear reference point. 

Show the objective consequence: Describe why it’s a problem without blaming anyone. Think about the consequences of how it’ll impact an outcome or a process, rather than focusing on your feelings. 

Give an objective justification: Add context about why the problem needs addressing. After you’ve exposed the problem, explain why it should be taken seriously. 

Have a clear, rational, ask: Provide a solution. Generally, that means highlighting how the problem can be avoided next time with your help (because you’re the content designer). Make sure to give clear next steps in the context of everything discussed.

Example: Asking for inclusion.

In any organization, people have their own biases and ideas about how things work. When it comes to content design, it’s up to us to understand those mental models and work to correct them in ways that resonate with our teammates. 

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2. Stop speaking “content design-lish” 

We’re experts on breaking down complex subjects, but for whatever reason, content design is notoriously hard to explain. Could this be because we don’t always adjust our communication style for teammates in the same ways we do for our users? For people to understand where we’re coming from, we need to speak their language. 

Try visual communication 

Like many content designers, I was most comfortable talking about and writing down my recommendations. The problem is that it’s not always helpful. Verbal justifications are hard to remember, and no one wants to thumb through walls of text to understand a concept.

Visuals have the power to speak a thousand words in a few seconds.

Using visual mocks has given my teammates an insight into my brain in a way that helps them in their work. It’s resulted in them referencing my visuals to communicate things like product strategy, design approaches, and more. I’ve even noticed some of my decks and ideas circulating in separate areas of the business.

If you try this out, know that whatever you whip up just has to illustrate rather than dictate. And don’t worry about making it beautiful—low-fidelity mockups and sketches are perfectly fine!

Throw in an analogy 

I’ve churned through many analogies to get my peers on the same page as me about what I do. After some real duds, I finally found one that I love to use. It’s sparked some fruitful conversations with my colleagues about content design.

“Say you had to create a comic book. Would you start by drawing the illustrations first and then get a writer to come in to fill in the speech bubbles with text? OR would you get the writer to map out the story first so that the illustrator knew exactly what to draw?”

Product = Comic book

Product manager = Publisher

Content designer = Comic book writer

Product designer = Illustrator

Engineers = Printers

When they land, great analogies can bring out “aha moments” and get people on the same page.

3. Use your powers to complement existing processes

Most content designers have a trusty deck titled something like, “What is Content Design?” used to ask for inclusion. It’s time to retire them and show rather than tell.

We’re amazing systems thinkers, contextualizers, clarifiers, communicators, and complexity balancers. These skills are valuable in all areas, and we can use them to help our teammates while simultaneously showing them what we’re capable of.

  • Work in Figma. Create your own page in your designer’s Figma file to explore flows and concepts. Share this with your designer and jam together directly in the file. Remember to be respectful of your designer’s work and have discussions about how best to make UI changes. If you’re not sure, copy the frames you want to tinker with into your own section and make your changes there.
  • Work closely with product managers and get involved in strategy planning. Working alongside product managers is super beneficial, but it might take some persistence and effort. To be included in any strategy planning, you must be vocal about why. You can emphasize that it’ll help you shape a balanced angle for every experience, it’ll help you prioritize projects, and you can also help to add clarity and conciseness to decks.
  • Befriend engineers. Jam with engineers to balance technical constraints with user comprehension. This exposes engineers to the fact that we can also think technically, and they can work with us to improve the UI they’re building.
  • Run alignment workshops. Connect with your stakeholders to understand their perspectives and get everyone on the same page. This is crucial to your work and shows your ability to understand the bigger picture about your products and drive collaboration between the right people to get movement.
  • Document, document, document. Record your thinking, link to relevant research or data points, and show the alternatives considered. Sharing your thinking process can help teams understand how much thought goes into your work. It’s also a great reference for other content designers who can turn to it if they ever have similar experiences.
  • Bring your work to design crits. You’re a designer, which means you can provide thoughtful feedback on product design work. In turn, product designers are well-equipped to give excellent feedback on your work, too.
  • Be present in design channels and rituals. As we’ve discussed, exposure is key. Start discussions, share work that you think will help others, get involved in chats about the UX of projects, present at high-visibility meetings, whatever you like! As a fellow UXer, you should be part of these conversations.
  • Share your process.  People have no idea how much time you’ve spent laboring over a deliberate sequence of words when they swoop in with another suggestion. Take them on that journey and show them. You might find they’re mind-boggled by your powers.

4. Trust to be trusted

You’re a content designer, but that doesn’t mean you’re a lone wolf.

I’ve seen plenty of content designers hold back from integrating with their teams due to resentment (which is fair enough when you feel excluded and dismissed) and other times because they feel safer working separately. I’ve also seen many content designers step on toes without understanding that people have operated without them before and are accustomed to doing certain tasks themselves.

An “us versus them” mentality widens the divide in any environment. We can’t continue painting our peers as our enemies if we want to be included.

Luckily, it only takes one person to shift a dynamic. To be trusted and considered an integral part of the design process, we need to show our peers that they can trust us to take on certain work and that we’re here to help them shine.

Some ways to build trust and shift dynamics:

  • Be understanding when mistakes happen, even if they really, really frustrate you. Change takes time, and most people aren’t trying to upset you on purpose.

  • Develop an interest in your colleagues' success. Help them achieve their wins; maybe they’ll do the same for you one day.

  • Celebrate your team members by directly providing positive feedback. If relevant, this can be an opportunity to educate and positively reinforce behaviors that help content design.

  • Thank people when they acknowledge content design. Recognition means a lot. Not just for you individually but also for our craft.

  • Share your problems with your teammates. Let’s recruit advocates outside of content design! Our peers are talented and clever. Get them invested in our craft's problems and ask for their advice.

  • Allow your teammates to share their problems with you. Expand your understanding about what happens outside of content design. You also might be able to help by adding your unique perspective.

I’ve formed some amazing friendships with people from different backgrounds at work—brilliant product designers, product managers, engineers, development leads, researchers, and more. They’re important to include in the conversation about content design’s future because we work with them daily and they can be some of our most influential allies.

The problem with content design is not a lack of expertise or value. It’s an ironic shortage of strategic communication and visible contribution. What we do so well for our users and our teams, we fail to do for ourselves.

The good news is that navigating highly complex, nuanced perceptions is our jam. If anyone can reshape the face of a craft, it’s us.

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Tali Samoylenko

Tali Samoylenko is based in Australia and works as a Lead Content Designer at Canva. When she's not nerding out with workmates, you can find her doing the same in some other form—on the tennis court, scribbling poems, or in an obsessive rabbit hole about her latest muse (like how to make the perfect burger). She loves her cat. A lot.

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