GatherContent interview: Jonathon Colman

GatherContent interview: Jonathon Colman

3 minute read

GatherContent interview: Jonathon Colman

3 minute read

Jonathon Colman

Senior Design Manager at Intercom

GatherContent interview: Jonathon Colman

Robert Mills

Head of Content, GatherContent
Jonathon Colman is a content expert and advocate for the content strategy and design community. From Facebook to Intercom, Jonathon has forged a successful career in content and design, sharing his advice and experiences along the way. We asked Jonathon about his current role at Intercom, what his content challenges are, and how he thinks content, design and UX fit together. There are plenty of other gems in our interview too.

Tell us a bit about your background.

Our field is still so new that everyone’s path to it tends to be a little meandering—content design is my fourth or fifth career!

I’m currently a senior design manager at Intercom, leading our global content design team from Dublin, Ireland. Previously, I led the product content strategy team for Facebook Marketplace and other teams at Facebook. Prior to that, I worked at REI, the outdoor equipment co-op, as their first SEO and content marketer.

But I haven’t always worked in high tech. I spent almost a decade at environmental conservation non-profits. And I was also a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, working on public health issues.

You've been in your role at Intercom for 10 months now, what’s the big thing you're working on at the moment?

We recently launched our new Product Tours feature that helps people onboard their customers, announce new products and features, better support their customers, and so much more. This was a great opportunity for me to dive into Intercom’s vast system of products, which are purposefully built so as to be interconnected with each other.

Because this product is focused on onboarding, I did a lot of research on how best to onboard new customers. All in all, I looked at more than 200 product onboarding flows to deconstruct how they work and why. You can see the results in this blog post about taking a content-first approach to product onboarding.

Content operations, or ContentOps, seems to be becoming more common as a way for organisation's to describe how they plan, produce, deliver and scale content. What does ContentOps look like at Intercom?

Our small, but mighty content design team at Intercom is still forming and maturing, so our ContentOps efforts are just getting off the ground! There’s so much opportunity in front of us—it’s like being in an orchard where all the trees are filled with fruit, but none of them are taller than we can reach.

So right now we’re focused on laying down the foundations of a strong content design team: principles, expectations, our definition of quality, how we make good decisions, discovering our voice & tone, planning for terminology management, and so much more. At Intercom, we work in 6-week cycles, so each cycle our team takes on a few goals around ContentOps—this helps us hold ourselves accountable to getting the most important things done without sacrificing our core product UX work. We see ContentOps as being a long-term investment in the future of our team, company, and products.

What is the most common content-related challenge you're faced with?

It’s one that I imagine most UX teams face when building product. There are multiple ways to solve problems, many of which might fall into the zone of quality that you’d call “good.” So when this happens, how do you make the best decision when you have two or more competing options?

For us, this is where our principles come into play. Intercom is a principle-driven product company, so we use principles to help us make decisions like this every day.

Our content design principles are:

  • Start with why: Focus on the value we provide before asking people to do something. This means that we always prefer solutions that focus explicitly on value rather than mechanics. It’s intended to help us avoid introducing new products or features with long explanations of how all their bits and bobs work. Why do that when you can instead focus on the problem they solve or the value they give someone?
  • Strive for less: Be as short and simple as possible—but no simpler. This means that we always prefer solutions that are as short as possible, so long as they don’t leave out anything people need to know to make the best decision for themselves or their business.
  • Don’t make me think: Remove as much ambiguity and conflict as possible. This means that we always prefer solutions that put the most important thing first, are concrete instead of vague, and that use plain language. Our goal here is to be clear, not clever.

This is how we draw the lines of our quality zone. But you’ll notice that I’ve said “always” a lot. That’s because I think a good set of principles should have some productive tension with each other.

For example, our “Don’t make me think” principle might move you toward writing a lot more than you would otherwise. That’s okay, because our “Strive for less” principle is meant to pull you back from that. Likewise, if you “Start with why,” then customers will eventually have questions about the mechanics of how they use a feature. That’s okay, because our “Don’t make me think” principle offsets that.

These are all productive points of tension that give us flexibility in our approach to solving problems, but that still land us in a good place, what we call the “quality zone”. And that’s the point of having principles: they’re a sort of rubric that helps you repeat your successes and avoid failures by aligning your team and colleagues on what you value most.

What's a typical day for you as Senior Design Manager?

As you might guess, no two days are ever the same! But a typical day might contain things like 1:1s with my team and their partners, interviewing candidates from a variety of disciplines, working on design ops and content ops efforts, working directly on product problems, participating in customer research, and just lately I’ve been trying to pick up SQL so that I can pull my own data to better measure the impact of our work.

Intercom also encourages everyone to participate in both customer support and sales so that we earn more empathy for what our customers’ real experiences are like. I’ve found it helpful for learning more about people’s pain points, frustrations, feature suggestions, and moments of value that we bring them.

You spent over 5 years working at Facebook, now at Intercom. What advice would you give anyone looking to get started in a career in content strategy and content design?

There’s never been a better time to start than right now. The practice has grown so much over the past few years and there’s opportunity to do this work all over the world in a variety of industries. There’s such a strong community of practice to help you get started, rich with conferences, online groups, Slacks, meetups, podcasts, and more.

Speaking of which, if you’re working in content design/strategy for user experiences, you should consider joining the Content + UX Slack—it’s a great community of folks sharing knowledge and helping each other out!

Content, design and UX seem to be merging. Many organisations now operate less like a swim lane team structure and approach to responsibilities, and more around connecting silos and having multi-disciplinary teams. How do design, content and UX fit together at Intercom?

A lot of people think content designers just write the words. Content designers get slotted into these writing-only roles a lot. I think that happens because no one else cares about or wants to write the words… and yet they still feel that just about anyone could do it. I mean, how hard is it to write “Okay” on a button? See, this content stuff sure is easy!

But this leads to a lot of problematic approaches when a company sets up content teams. Product designers are often seen as being the “doctors” or “surgeons” while content designers are just the “nurses”—here to get work delegated to them and be told what to do. Well, as any patient can tell you, it’s actually the nurses who run most of any hospital and provide the bulk of care to patients!

I think this happens because most product designers are incentivized to own everything from end to end—so if a content designer tries to jump in, that’s seen as taking away from the designer’s scope of work and impact. At the same time, content designers in these orgs are often measured on whether or not they follow voice and tone standards and get good feedback from their design partners. So… to avoid arguments and political battles, all that’s really left is the words on the surface of the product.

But here’s the thing: we can do better than that. At Intercom, we hold content designers and product designers accountable for almost exactly the same things. Out of our 18 expectations for all design practitioners, 15 our shared word-for-word between product designers and content designers. Both roles work on problems deeply, engage in research, UX and interaction design, information architecture, visual design and more. They’re not set up as adversaries squabbling over a limited resource—we see them creating more impact when they work together effectively.

So content designers at Intercom do a lot more than just write the words. Like product designers, they define the problem, determine the scope, influence research and product, create conceptual models, explore UX and interaction design approaches, use design system components, engage in critique… they might even code their own content. And all that is in addition to writing the product interface.

Donald Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things, wrote that “design is concerned with how things work.” I love that so much, because most people would say that design is all about making things pretty. So if we agree with Norman, then I would add that content design is concerned with what things mean, not with making the words sound pretty. Content design is concept design.

And if that’s our focus, then what content designers everywhere should be doing is more than writing the words. It’s designing the system, determining the narrative, and communicating the concepts—all those things come before writing the words.

If all that sounds interesting to you, we’re always looking for people to join our team!

What organisation do you admire in terms of content, and why?

I’ve always been a big fan of the fine folks at Shopify UX. Their Polaris design system has such strong content representation—I’m excited to see that they just added these inspiring experience values. Shopify also have a strong corporate value around sharing knowledge, so they’re always posting a lot of great writing, talks, and tools.

In government, the amazing 18F and USDS in the States, and the Government Digital Service team in the UK are all doing amazing work in content design/strategy, UX, and service design. If you’re in the US or UK and have a good online experience with national government, they’ve played a big part in making that happen.

Tell us a bit about your background.

Our field is still so new that everyone’s path to it tends to be a little meandering—content design is my fourth or fifth career!

I’m currently a senior design manager at Intercom, leading our global content design team from Dublin, Ireland. Previously, I led the product content strategy team for Facebook Marketplace and other teams at Facebook. Prior to that, I worked at REI, the outdoor equipment co-op, as their first SEO and content marketer.

But I haven’t always worked in high tech. I spent almost a decade at environmental conservation non-profits. And I was also a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, working on public health issues.

You've been in your role at Intercom for 10 months now, what’s the big thing you're working on at the moment?

We recently launched our new Product Tours feature that helps people onboard their customers, announce new products and features, better support their customers, and so much more. This was a great opportunity for me to dive into Intercom’s vast system of products, which are purposefully built so as to be interconnected with each other.

Because this product is focused on onboarding, I did a lot of research on how best to onboard new customers. All in all, I looked at more than 200 product onboarding flows to deconstruct how they work and why. You can see the results in this blog post about taking a content-first approach to product onboarding.

Content operations, or ContentOps, seems to be becoming more common as a way for organisation's to describe how they plan, produce, deliver and scale content. What does ContentOps look like at Intercom?

Our small, but mighty content design team at Intercom is still forming and maturing, so our ContentOps efforts are just getting off the ground! There’s so much opportunity in front of us—it’s like being in an orchard where all the trees are filled with fruit, but none of them are taller than we can reach.

So right now we’re focused on laying down the foundations of a strong content design team: principles, expectations, our definition of quality, how we make good decisions, discovering our voice & tone, planning for terminology management, and so much more. At Intercom, we work in 6-week cycles, so each cycle our team takes on a few goals around ContentOps—this helps us hold ourselves accountable to getting the most important things done without sacrificing our core product UX work. We see ContentOps as being a long-term investment in the future of our team, company, and products.

What is the most common content-related challenge you're faced with?

It’s one that I imagine most UX teams face when building product. There are multiple ways to solve problems, many of which might fall into the zone of quality that you’d call “good.” So when this happens, how do you make the best decision when you have two or more competing options?

For us, this is where our principles come into play. Intercom is a principle-driven product company, so we use principles to help us make decisions like this every day.

Our content design principles are:

  • Start with why: Focus on the value we provide before asking people to do something. This means that we always prefer solutions that focus explicitly on value rather than mechanics. It’s intended to help us avoid introducing new products or features with long explanations of how all their bits and bobs work. Why do that when you can instead focus on the problem they solve or the value they give someone?
  • Strive for less: Be as short and simple as possible—but no simpler. This means that we always prefer solutions that are as short as possible, so long as they don’t leave out anything people need to know to make the best decision for themselves or their business.
  • Don’t make me think: Remove as much ambiguity and conflict as possible. This means that we always prefer solutions that put the most important thing first, are concrete instead of vague, and that use plain language. Our goal here is to be clear, not clever.

This is how we draw the lines of our quality zone. But you’ll notice that I’ve said “always” a lot. That’s because I think a good set of principles should have some productive tension with each other.

For example, our “Don’t make me think” principle might move you toward writing a lot more than you would otherwise. That’s okay, because our “Strive for less” principle is meant to pull you back from that. Likewise, if you “Start with why,” then customers will eventually have questions about the mechanics of how they use a feature. That’s okay, because our “Don’t make me think” principle offsets that.

These are all productive points of tension that give us flexibility in our approach to solving problems, but that still land us in a good place, what we call the “quality zone”. And that’s the point of having principles: they’re a sort of rubric that helps you repeat your successes and avoid failures by aligning your team and colleagues on what you value most.

What's a typical day for you as Senior Design Manager?

As you might guess, no two days are ever the same! But a typical day might contain things like 1:1s with my team and their partners, interviewing candidates from a variety of disciplines, working on design ops and content ops efforts, working directly on product problems, participating in customer research, and just lately I’ve been trying to pick up SQL so that I can pull my own data to better measure the impact of our work.

Intercom also encourages everyone to participate in both customer support and sales so that we earn more empathy for what our customers’ real experiences are like. I’ve found it helpful for learning more about people’s pain points, frustrations, feature suggestions, and moments of value that we bring them.

You spent over 5 years working at Facebook, now at Intercom. What advice would you give anyone looking to get started in a career in content strategy and content design?

There’s never been a better time to start than right now. The practice has grown so much over the past few years and there’s opportunity to do this work all over the world in a variety of industries. There’s such a strong community of practice to help you get started, rich with conferences, online groups, Slacks, meetups, podcasts, and more.

Speaking of which, if you’re working in content design/strategy for user experiences, you should consider joining the Content + UX Slack—it’s a great community of folks sharing knowledge and helping each other out!

Content, design and UX seem to be merging. Many organisations now operate less like a swim lane team structure and approach to responsibilities, and more around connecting silos and having multi-disciplinary teams. How do design, content and UX fit together at Intercom?

A lot of people think content designers just write the words. Content designers get slotted into these writing-only roles a lot. I think that happens because no one else cares about or wants to write the words… and yet they still feel that just about anyone could do it. I mean, how hard is it to write “Okay” on a button? See, this content stuff sure is easy!

But this leads to a lot of problematic approaches when a company sets up content teams. Product designers are often seen as being the “doctors” or “surgeons” while content designers are just the “nurses”—here to get work delegated to them and be told what to do. Well, as any patient can tell you, it’s actually the nurses who run most of any hospital and provide the bulk of care to patients!

I think this happens because most product designers are incentivized to own everything from end to end—so if a content designer tries to jump in, that’s seen as taking away from the designer’s scope of work and impact. At the same time, content designers in these orgs are often measured on whether or not they follow voice and tone standards and get good feedback from their design partners. So… to avoid arguments and political battles, all that’s really left is the words on the surface of the product.

But here’s the thing: we can do better than that. At Intercom, we hold content designers and product designers accountable for almost exactly the same things. Out of our 18 expectations for all design practitioners, 15 our shared word-for-word between product designers and content designers. Both roles work on problems deeply, engage in research, UX and interaction design, information architecture, visual design and more. They’re not set up as adversaries squabbling over a limited resource—we see them creating more impact when they work together effectively.

So content designers at Intercom do a lot more than just write the words. Like product designers, they define the problem, determine the scope, influence research and product, create conceptual models, explore UX and interaction design approaches, use design system components, engage in critique… they might even code their own content. And all that is in addition to writing the product interface.

Donald Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things, wrote that “design is concerned with how things work.” I love that so much, because most people would say that design is all about making things pretty. So if we agree with Norman, then I would add that content design is concerned with what things mean, not with making the words sound pretty. Content design is concept design.

And if that’s our focus, then what content designers everywhere should be doing is more than writing the words. It’s designing the system, determining the narrative, and communicating the concepts—all those things come before writing the words.

If all that sounds interesting to you, we’re always looking for people to join our team!

What organisation do you admire in terms of content, and why?

I’ve always been a big fan of the fine folks at Shopify UX. Their Polaris design system has such strong content representation—I’m excited to see that they just added these inspiring experience values. Shopify also have a strong corporate value around sharing knowledge, so they’re always posting a lot of great writing, talks, and tools.

In government, the amazing 18F and USDS in the States, and the Government Digital Service team in the UK are all doing amazing work in content design/strategy, UX, and service design. If you’re in the US or UK and have a good online experience with national government, they’ve played a big part in making that happen.

Jonathon Colman

Senior Design Manager at Intercom

Jonathon Colman (@jcolman) leads product designers and the global content design team at Intercom. He's a Webby Award-winning designer and a keynote speaker who’s appeared at over 90 events in 8 countries on 5 continents.

Previously, Jonathon led UX content strategy for Facebook’s Platform and Marketplace teams, was REI’s principal user experience architect, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

He’s worked on the web since 1994 and is grumpy it’s not done yet.

Masterclass

Content Governance Masterclass

Join this masterclass to learn what content governance is, why good content governance ensures your organisation's content works for your users, and how to put effective governance in place.

November 21, 2019

4:00 pm

Register now

Masterclass

Content Governance Masterclass

Join this masterclass to learn what content governance is, why good content governance ensures your organisation's content works for your users, and how to put effective governance in place.

November 21, 2019

4:00 pm

Watch now
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About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

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