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Content Strategy

Five lessons working in product content

Robert Mills • 4 minutes

This video is the twenty-first in our Content Strategy Advent Calendar series.

Here, Biz Sanford from Shopify tells us a festive fairytale about five lessons from working in product content strategy.

#ContentStrategyAdvent Day 21 – Five lessons working in product content, by @bizsanford.

Video transcript

Hey everyone. I’m Biz and I’m a content strategist at Shopify. If you’ve never heard of Shopify, think of it like the commerce platform Santa would use to run his business, if he wasn’t already running it with magic. And I’m coming to you from the beautiful snowy, North Pole.

It’s been said that the square root of a web content strategist, is a product content strategist. Ha ha, JK. I don’t know anything about math, but I am here to tell you the classic childhood fairytale, about what the heck a product content strategist does. Stop listening here if your mom’s told you that one a thousand times.

So here’s how I see it. Under the umbrella of content strategy, there’s web content strategy, product content strategy and there are so many parallels. But when I say product content, I mean interface content, microcopy and the strategy behind that. I don’t mean blog posts, marketing or website content.

I work on the content and design you see once you sign up for or log in to Shopify. There are no long paragraphs or entire web pages. So without further ado, here are the five quick lessons I’ve learned working in product content.

Chapter one. Design and content are one. Content doesn’t come first and neither does design. Both lead the experience. Content strategy is interaction design, it’s design thinking, it’s user experience. In the same way a designer should be able to explain every pixel, I need to be able to explain all content choices and suggestions. What I find different about product content compared to web content, is that I need to constantly consider many different states of content.

For example, if I’m working on a report we show to our customers about how many sales they made, I think, what’s this table going to look like for someone who has no sales and therefore, no data. How will that make them feel? What does it look like for someone with lots of data? What are the possible things that can go wrong during this interaction. Just like all content strategists, questions are my best friend.

Ok, so let’s move this along aye. Chapter two. Another difference is that it’s less predictable. There’s no CMS where all of our content lives. It’s actually all inside our code base on Github. For example, when I look at one page or screen inside Shopify, the content on that page is all being pulled from many different files and locations. There’s no one place I can go to see it all. If I’m trying to audit or update content on an existing feature, it can sometimes just feel like a wild goose chase.

Boom! Chapter three. It’s not content strategists against the world. Building relationships with engineers, designers, project managers and anyone else writing customer facing content, is the only way I am going to have an impact. Our product’s got hundreds of thousands of error messages (probably), there’s no way I could or would want to write all those. If I’m not chatting regularly with developers, who’s going to help me when I want to audit all the error messages for a certain feature? If I don’t teach developers what a good error message looks like, who is going to flag the crappy ones that they come across in our code base?

Alright, onto chapter four. I really had to polish up my technical writing skills. I think it was Pascale who said, if I had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter. I’m pretty sure that quote is life. It can take me the longest time to settle on three words for some placeholder text, or the right verb to use on a button. Keeping it simple, using plain language and of course, being concise, is really difficult.

Lastly, chapter five. So many of the core skills that web content strategists have been acquiring for years, are totally applicable to product content. Take systems thinking. We still need to maintain a large system of nomenclature, we make huge IA decisions, and we’ve got naming conventions. These tricky problems are just as fun when you’re working with a product or app instead of a website. We thrive in ambiguity, we roll with the punches.

What kind of fairytale would this all have been if it didn’t have a happy ending? Content strategy as a discipline is expanding and evolving every day. It’s the most welcoming community I’ve ever been a part of. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, we all live happily ever after solving our complex, wicked content challenges.

The end.

About Biz


Biz Sanford is a Content Strategist on the UX team at Shopify in Ottawa, Canada.

With a passion for usable technology, plain language, and content strategy, she sets editorial standards for Shopify product content, manages Shopify’s voice and tone, and teaches the entire organization how to write their own great content.

Biz spends her days doing content strategy work alongside designers, developers, product managers, and researchers. Together they create products and tools that help over 300,000 Shopify entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

Before joining Shopify, Biz worked for several Canadian government departments, where she helped build a user-centered culture across the government and developed the usability strategy for Canada.ca.

If she’s not working, she’s probably drinking wine, reading Harry Potter, or off adventuring. Most recently, she travelled around Australia after speaking at CS Forum 2016 in Melbourne.

#ContentStrategyAdvent Day 21 – Five lessons working in product content, by @bizsanford.

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