24 August 2019

Am I a Junior Content Designer?

On writing becoming my highest leverage skill

When people ask me what I do I most often say I’m a designer. But nowadays ‘design’ is really a small subset of what I do. While it’s my ‘first study’ I find it hard to claim to currently be a designer right now. I like to think that lower-case d design (thinking through needs, problems, framing, valuing the experience) still plays a major part in what I do, but I rarely crack open design tools at the moment.

So what am I? Looking through my to-do list, it sheds some light on the matter. It seems that I’m mainly a writer. In fact when I map all the things I’ve recently been or am currently writing, it can feel pretty overwhelming.

  • New skills for brand designers, engineers and product managers (luckily with lots of help from friends) as well as improving existing skills for Progression. This now represents my biggest ever body of writing at 20,000+ words 🤯
  • Two talks for upcoming conferences (one personal, one about career progression)
  • Personal blog posts to continue mapping my journey as a founder
  • Two newsletters – my personal newsletter and the progression.fyi newsletter which we’re looking to grow
  • Content for the Progression marketing site, blog and other materials
  • User guides and updates for folks using the product
  • Email journeys for new users, transactional emails, UI copy
  • Our sales deck over and over and over again
  • Endless emails as part of ongoing sales efforts. (The hardest skill of all)

Clearly I need to make sure I’m taking writing seriously.

A change of attitude to the art of writing

I recently listened to Jonathon Colman’s Intercom podcast episode and have – over the last few years – been lucky enough to have worked with fantastic professional writers. One of the more memorable moments in my career was watching Sarah Richards at Break in Belfast 2014, speaking about the role of content at GDS and what a big impact it’s had on so many since.

A founder I really admire, Hiten Shah, recently tweeted about how important writing is to your career. Again, I read through that and nodded along, not joining the dots.

Basically, I’ve always known in theory how important words are.

But here’s the rub. Jonathon quite rightly talks about how important it is for writers to spread themselves less thinly to demonstrate value. By trying to write everything, they’ll end up not having impact anywhere.

To me the fact that writers have to ‘demonstrate value’ at all is a function of the fact that everyone can write something. To the layman it doesn’t feel special to be a writer. Your words aren’t prettier, longer or cleverer than theirs (in fact often the skill is in doing the opposite).

You can write it yourself, so why pay someone to do it? I have been and likely continue to be guilty of this.

As a writer if you have engineers, designers, product managers, sales people, marketeers, the CEO, carving out copy like some crazy fire hose it’s impossible to get ahead of it. So you have to pick high value projects, or areas where content is make or break.

Sidebar: The UX process can be tarred with this brush too. Design feels accessible in a way that our friends in engineering don’t feel the heat of. In fact my old CEO used to whip out Balsamiq to put together UIs before we worked on a project – I can tell you it’s much harder to freely explore if you’re competing with an existing mockup.

The scale of swoop and poopThe scale of swoop and poop

Anyway, this is the first time in my career when writing isn’t just important and high leverage, it’s singly the most important skill I possess. Our business will succeed or fail in large part based on how well I write.

But for me it’s not just how well, it’s how much I write too. That list of things won’t get done by someone else — that’s on me. Neil’s writing a lot of code instead.

In order to write more, I have to become more comfortable with writing. Being more comfortable will make me more efficient, which will mean I can cover more ground and improve quality at the same time.

So when people ask me what I do now, perhaps I’m closest to a junior content designer. Trying to write the world to rights, and becoming more comfortable with my own voice online.

By the way I can’t end this without a shout-out to My old friend Gordon’s UX Writer Jobs Newsletter. It genuinely makes me laugh every week, I read it end to end even though I’m never looking for a job as a writer.