The next great position in UX: Content Architect

I want to propose a relatively “new” position in the UX space.

As a UX Designer, I design applications, campaigns, design systems, and consumer-facing experiences. I take research, do my best to interpret it, gather every meaningful insight possible, and work.

Oftentimes in projects, content is treated like liquid in cups, and oftentimes I’m there to design those cups.

While that technically “works,” this traditional (arguably, antiquated) content model is a missed opportunity to provide greater experiential value for the audience.

There’s been repeated conversations around the treatment/strategy of content in dynamic digital experiences, and until even a few years ago, most of the conversations were fairly nebulous. One blue sky interpretation: the digital experience follows them (with permission, obviously) and works to serve their needs, fulfill their tasks, and solves their problems. It’s about nothing less than ensuring their satisfaction (with permission, obviously) and ensuring their continued engagement with the brand.

That kind of blue-sky outcome requires — outright demands — dynamic content creation to fitfully engage the customer. And that creation requires the content “creators” to understand all of the necessary conditions that the customer may run into. That requires exposure to UX, information architecture, development, so on. And many content analysts may or may not be trained (yet) for that kind of exposure.

Usually, content analysts are working within the confines of an existing content management system, an existing strategy, existing touchpoints. We need content analysts to have elevated authority, a role to play in not justcontent strategy, but business strategy. These analysts would have far greater jurisdiction over the digital experience of their customers. They wouldn’t just be writing copy. They would architect how a customer is communicated to.

The Solution: we need Content Architects.

A Content Architect would “architect” and implement content strategy, coordinating with the revolving disciplines of product development to ensure the best possible user experience.

 

The word “architect” is stressed, here, obviously. CA’s are hired to swim inside the head-spaces of everyone on the UX team; to connect the dots of each player involved; to cut through the seeming demands of every product manager, marketer and stakeholder; to navigate the sitemaps, UI, bootstraps, calls to action, et al; and to have a seat at the same table as anyone else strategizing and managing the experience. They have an essential role on how to thread the design to the content in ways that are smart, scalable, targeted and fits the user’s scenario at any given point.

A cursory search of “content architect” in Indeed gave me a few positions that have this title, but from what I had seen, it wasn’t in the specific context of User Experience. Most were fancy titles for copywriters, or had some sort of process management positions in an IT capacity.

The big difference, with what I’m proposing, is this: a Content Architect knows content is the lifeblood of the modern digital space, and pumps it through every artery of the experience.

 

Their deliverables would be similar to an Information Architect and a UX Research: flowcharts, user scenarios, personas and documentation that solve for tone and treatment.

Copy and content aren’t afterthoughts, but they’rebaseline to the product ecology.

CA’s would work directly with UXAs and developers on how to ensure there’s true content dynamism; and if there isn’t, they know how to fill in the gap. They’re smart, economical, and waste nothing. They understand how interactions, front end design patterns, and calls to action can influence the impressions of an end-user. And they leverage that.

In the same way a web design utilizes standards, templates, atomic design principles, so on, Content Architects incorporates intelligent content treatment. They get how content may (or may not) work in a given device based on context and treatment.

A Content Architect is inquisitively challenging how an organization writes, promotes and, simply, “does content.” Suppose someone in the company wants to do a blog. For what purpose? The CA would have direct access to the UX Manager, who in turn has access to the business roadmap. The CA would understand the opportunities to reach out their audience, and thenengage accordingly.

A Content Architect would have their ear to the rumblings of the customer base via access to the research, metrics, analytics and qualitative testing of the organization’s products/services.

Content Architects synthesize what the rest of the team learns, and finds a way to deliver the content in the best way possible.

 

A Content Architect doesn’t have to code. They’re not involved in marketingdirectly. But they understand how to treat content in dynamic digital experiences, and understand how to optimize content for marketing purposes.

A Content Architect would strategize, and implement, for every condition. Working with Information Architects (at large, their sister position), and with developers, a CA would assess how best to communicate directly with a user, and provide advisement when needed.

A Content Architect also educates other writers in the company on how to become more intelligent practictioners of their field in the digital space, in the same way a Visual Designer educates a print designer on how to design a webpage. Many of these writers would be coming from other spaces, much like a Visual/UX Designer comes from, say, print/brand. (Myself included.) Magazine writers would come to mind. These writers may have decades of experience writing. That’s perfect. They would only really need a few weeks to understand how to thread their work into the near-limitless liquidity of the online experience.

Any organization of any scale, size, or UX maturity would be served exceptionally well with this position.

Their training would be in a mix of human factors, marketing, with some basic understandings of logic and interactive design sprinkled in. It would be (should be) well compensated.

Best of all, they would provide what, in my experience, has been an immense organizational gap. Filling that gap would provide essential advocacy for the immense potential of a fully actualized, UX-centric organization; and, as a result, provide growth and job security.

It would also help make my job as a UX designer easier, by amplifying the experience to which I design. I would have a field day with a Content Architect — every day I work.

Connect the “silos” in your UX organization. Then destroy them.

If you’re in an organization that’s considered large by any kind of standard, you’re very likely in a team that’s working within a certain discipline, in parallel (hopefully) with other like-minded, like-disciplined teams. If you’re in UX, it could be marketing, development, IT, other UX teams, etc.

The problem with this approach, especially in UX, is that the user is only concerned with their own journey, with zero presumed awareness of the orthodoxy of the organization, or the limitations that take root when there’s little to no overarching authority and governance. You might work in one team that designs for the beginning of their journey, and for whatever reason/s, it’s a different experience from another point in their journey.

This means you’re in a silo to some degree. If it’s to any degree, there exists that proportional degree of risk that the user’s experience will be disjointed, feel like it’s coming from a different company, so on.

Ultimately, these silos need to be at least connected in some way. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any at all.

Here’s how to do that:

 

First, connect the silos.

Let a person rotate from group to group for a little while.

The best way for a UX Designer to design is to get to know who you’re designing for, across their experience journey. Get the necessary permissions to work on a project (or, silo) on another team. It’s the perfect opportunity to understand their internal struggles, the challenges they’re facing, their workflow, and any meaningful differences that need to be understood. Consider it espionage, but with permission!

Bonus points if you get this designer (or you) to do this with every silo. Then, when they’re done, get another designer do the same thing. Then have the other silos do the same thing. Make sure they have enough bandwidth to handle the burden. If they’re in another city, have them drive/fly to that location at first, let them spend a day or three there, then let them work remotely the rest of the time.

Note: I’m not talking about a UX Designer working on a development team doing coding. I’m talking about a UX Designer working on another UX Design team. If you don’t have multiple silos of the same discipline, this article isn’t as applicable.

 

Critique globally as much as possible.

This is going to force everyone to abandon (ideally) their sense of ego/bias. It’s going to be painful and you’re likely to face some resistance from, well, somebody, be it a leader or any number of individuals. But everyone needs to at least have the opportunity to see the work. Everyone needs an opportunity to speak on it. And the designer/s involved need an opportunity to fix the issues.

(Sidebar: this goes back to defensiveness and personal ownership. Go back to the aim of the user. The user doesn’t care about your ego, feelings or sense of ownership to the work. Your professional ownership owes it to the user to get the problem solved. Get a thick skin and don’t take the critique personally. If you believe the design will work, and you have the data to back that up, defend it, but defend user-centrically.)

Don’t expect everyone to participate all the time. Maybe don’t force it to be a meeting everytime. There are plenty of collaboration/critique tools out there that allows people to observe and critique at their own pace. (InvisionApp.com, Hunie, etc.)

In a larger organization, meetings are probably required at a certain point to get everyone aligned, to assign direction, to update in real time. Fair enough. But don’t force the critique workflow into some kind of orthodoxy. Work within the confines of what people are comfortable with, within reason.

Meet with everyone, get everyone to talk.

 

Get everyone to take ownership of something.

This fosters care and desire in the minds of your designers. Whatever it may be, enable each person and give them enough space to, without ego, have a sense of place and purpose. This is going to be great when your UX culture matures and you add headcount: it gives them high position to advance. Give them a superpower of some kind. Get them to learn one if they don’t have one already. More than likely, this is already happening. If it isn’t, it needs to. If you’re a manager or design lead, this is a given.


Get some real collaboration going.

As a natural progression with meeting/talking, they’re going to want to eventually work together. Good. This is how the silos start really connecting. Find ways to collaborate and work in the ether of the larger organization. Could be a set of internal standards, of a product, of anything. Just get people to start working together now that you have them talking.

 

Workshop. With Purpose.

I’ll write up a separate article on workshopping a bit later on, but in short, get UX/Visual/Dev in a room (and fly them out if you have to),  get them to meet and chat, and get them to solve a problem. here are the broad strokes:

  1. Create an assignment before the workshop. Get everyone aware of the problem.
  2. Get a sponsor to propose an initial concept so you’re not starting from scratch. (The workshop technically begins when the concept is presented by the sponsor.)
  3. Get a critique of the concept, and objectively/collectively assess the gap between the concept and the final aim/requirements.
  4.  Start the workshop. Split up, or don’t. Whatever makes the most sense.
  5. Present solution/s that aim to close that gap.
  6. Step away. Get dinner, have a beer, talk out, vent about your organization, etc. (This may also give the members time to back to their homes/hotel rooms and maybe work out some revisions.
  7. Go back the day/morning after and represent the solutions to stakeholders. Get their (hopeful) nod of approval.
  8. Hopefully, action is taken.

Depending on the talent/capacities in the room, it may be as simple as pencil sketches, or as complex as an actual app. As long as something actionable comes out of the workshop, and as long as what were otherwise siloed teams were unsiloed in the process of the workshop, you’re uniting those silos and solving problems you otherwise wouldn’t have before.

 

Get some wins with other silos.

Find ways to collaborate and work in the ether of the larger organization. Could be a set of internal standards, of a product, of anything. Just get it out there and sell it (using internal PR), and get people as high up in the organization aware of the win, of its results, of the fact that more than one team went in on this problem and solved it. Use the word “synergy” a lot. They’ll eat that up.

 

Don’t have proper governance? Assume some, then assign it.

In the absence of an executive/high level UX director, this is not going to be a pretty situation. But you have to get a working version of some kind. Spread the awareness of this collaborative work, and find someone that’s best at governance, and give them the title. Even if it’s not a perfect system, or if they don’t have enough time to really perform that standardization work perfectly, at least get some mutual agreement that they’re the authority to informally govern standards. And get other silos to sign off on it.

Or, if each silo has their own governance, at least get those “governors” to talk to each other in the same way the designers do. Every single organization has a different problem with this, but every single organization needs to find a way to make it work if the UX culture isn’t there to hire someone to manage in full.

 

Then, destroy the silos.

Get a sponsor from as high up in the organization as possible.

Win enough times, save the company enough money, collaborate enough, and it’s going to eventually result in organizational resonance. Ideally, this would result in increased head count, an executive mandate and some cultural progression. More than likely, the process for this growth is going to be a lot more cumbersome. At the least, get someone as high up in the organization to champion the work. Hopefully they have close ties with budget and HR. Why?

 

Hire a Global UX Director.

The only way to see the total view is to see it from the summit. You need representation for the entire discipline, independent of any silos. Your end-game is strong governance, high-level business function, organizational clout and close connection to the company’s roadmap. The user only cares about the end experience, not how it was done.

This “Global UX Director” would oversee the teams, liaison with the executive board, report, govern, enforce, and most importantly, advocate for the cause and the culture.

 

Collaboration is the job.

Don’t hold any illusion that 100% of your job on your team is to work with the other teams. You have your respective skills within your organization for a reason, and you need to properly utilize them in the right way. But you also need the high-level view of the customer’s overall journey within the overall business model. The work you do should have a respect for that view. Ideally, the “silo” you once had is, instead, open aired and viewable for the rest of the organization (and “former” silos) to see the good work you’re doing—and, ideally, get rewarded for it.