Intercom’s Jonathon Colman on why content material designers ought to do much less

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At many firms, content material designers and strategists are anticipated to be like Stretch Armstrong: with a hand on one product, whereas the opposite hand tries to achieve as many as attainable. At Intercom, nonetheless, we’ve discovered that content material professionals have essentially the most success once they do much less – however higher.

I’m excited to be joined as we speak by Intercom’s personal Jonathon Colman, a senior designer who got here to us by means of the Nature Conservancy, REI and 5 and a half years at Fb, the place he most not too long ago labored as a UX Content material Technique Lead for Market. Since coming aboard in December, he’s influenced us together with his fascinated with the chances throughout the nascent subject of content material design. Our dialog coated, surprisingly, all the things from flat-Earthers to J.R.R. Tolkien. We expect you’ll actually get pleasure from it.

Brief on time? Listed here are 5 fast takeaways:

  1. Content material design is a younger self-discipline, and the methods by which it’s practiced change so usually that individuals are inventing new guidelines, instruments and approaches on a regular basis. That helps everybody innovate, particularly once they share them out.
  2. Sturdy content material designers have to have nice flexibility, adaptiveness and be lively listeners – since you’re at all times on the lookout for cues about what folks actually care about and the issues they’re actually experiencing.
  3. Creator Jesse James Garrett pinpoints a stack of 5 layers that demand content material designers’ consideration: floor, skeleton, construction, scope, and technique. Sadly, by advantage of how their group has structured them, many content material designers solely get to work on the floor.
  4. At Intercom, we expect content material designers work greatest once they work deeply on a product. If you happen to’re engaged on 10 completely different product groups, you’ll by no means have the context you want and also you’ll by no means have the time to deal with the issue.
  5. Design doesn’t simply make issues fairly. In product design, we’re particularly involved with how design solves an issue. Equally, content material design is not only about fairly phrases, it’s about figuring out what issues imply.

If you happen to get pleasure from our dialog, take a look at extra episodes of our podcast. You possibly can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or seize the RSS feed in your participant of selection. What follows is a frivolously edited transcript of the episode. You too can study extra about Jon and Intercom’s product design crew, get free design sources and see open design roles in our model new design web site at

Improvisation and anticipation

Dee Reddy: Jon, we’re delighted to have you ever on Inside Intercom this week. Do you wish to kick issues off by telling us somewhat bit about your self?

Jonathon Colman: You realize, I’ve not too long ago arrived right here in Eire to hitch Intercom so I’ve been right here for about seven or eight months. Previous to that, I lived in Seattle for a few decade. I’ve labored for organizations like REI (which is an American retail cooperative for outside items), in addition to nonprofit organizations just like the Nature Conservancy. Simply previous to Intercom, I spent about 5 and a half years at Fb. I targeted totally on content material design or content material technique roles, however I’ve achieved issues as various as front-end code manufacturing, advertising, analytics, and search engine optimisation. I’m a little bit of a jack of all trades.

Dee: And to talk to that, you’ve gotten an much more various background than that. I imagine very early on in your grownup life you truly did some improv?

Jon: Sure, I did. I used to be so introverted in faculty that I noticed with out some type of technique or mechanism or device set – which is how I take into consideration improv – I might in all probability be off residing within the mountains with a pack of canines and Wi-Fi. Improv gave me these instruments I wanted to get alongside in each day life. I used to be by no means a fantastic improviser. I used to carry out all through the Midwest, however what I used to be actually after was the flexibility to get together with folks and have optimistic interactions with them day-after-day. Improv is what helped me escape of my shell to have the ability to try this.

“We’re excited for different people who find themselves enthusiastic about content material and design. It’s actually that straightforward”

Dee: And there’s somewhat bit in improv, I suppose, of having the ability to anticipate what your companions are going to do. Do you discover that you just take that talent and apply it to your work as a content material designer?

Jon: Completely. There’s this notion in improv of items and presents. The factor with improv that most individuals know is this idea of “sure, and…” You’ve got this built-in rule of not negating folks. However the extra necessary one, to me, is the thought of items. Once we interact in issues like person analysis – and even simply in our on a regular basis collaboration throughout features with product administration or engineers – you’re on the lookout for these bits, these aha moments which can be actually items the opposite individual is supplying you with. While you’re speaking about the issue to resolve, or while you’re conducting analysis, and individuals are telling you concerning the issues they expertise as they go about their lives or their work or utilizing your product, these are the stuff you wish to keep watch over. And while you uncover them, the true secret’s to be curious and ask why and ask followups and actually attempt to dig into the context.

A younger self-discipline

Dee: How, then, did you end up working as a content material designer?

Jon: Properly, the factor about what’s typically known as the content material technique business is that we have now a very huge tent. It’s a comparatively younger self-discipline. I feel it received loads of consideration when Kristina Halvorson printed Content material Technique for the Internet about a decade in the past, and it’s been rising quickly since then. Nevertheless it’s nonetheless simply this small neighborhood, while you get right down to it. And what’s very nice about that’s that we’re excited for different people who find themselves enthusiastic about content material and design. It’s actually that straightforward.

I began out my position as a technical author. I used to jot down books for IBM. After that I used to be a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. In content material design, we don’t care. We’re simply excited that you just care about about these items: concerning the person expertise, concerning the high quality of content material and communications. You’ll discover content material design groups made up of individuals from technical writing backgrounds like me but additionally from design, from advertising, from journalism, from info structure and from so many different disciplines. It’s actually a giant tent, and we welcome everybody into it, which is basically how I discovered my means there.

I used to be doing advertising and SEO, and I learn Kristina Halvorson’s e book, and it was a type of mind-blowing moments.I may see it so clearly: “This can be a factor. High quality content material is a factor.” And whereas everybody says they care about it, not that many individuals truly do one thing about it or are tasked with doing one thing about it, a lot much less activity themselves with doing one thing about it.

“What you actually must be a powerful content material designer is flexibility, adaptiveness and lively listening, since you’re at all times on the lookout for these cues about what folks actually care about”

Dee: There appear to be loads of misconceptions about what the job truly entails. What are these widespread misconceptions, and might you clear a number of of them up for us?

Jon: I feel we’re on the level in content material design technique the place there’s a foundational layer of greatest practices, which is nice. Nevertheless it’s nonetheless so new, and the methods by which it’s practiced change so usually that individuals are inventing new guidelines, new instruments, simply new approaches on a regular basis. That helps everybody innovate, particularly once they share them out.

So it’s somewhat bit just like the early days of one thing like baseball or basketball or golf the place we all know there’s one thing right here, however we’re simply making an attempt to seize what’s the foundational bits of it. I attempt to keep in mind this phrase that this info architect and good pal of mine, Abby Covert, makes use of. She’s a employees info architect at Etsy, and her complete factor is that we make the unclear clear. And that’s it.

Dee: That’s how the self-discipline began, wasn’t it? With the UK authorities and that concept of getting to elucidate actually, actually complicated concepts to actually all people?

Jon: That’s proper. Sarah Richards, who’s a content material designer with the GDS and, codified this time period “content material design”. And that’s precisely the issue she needed to resolve: they needed to make issues so easy and so helpful and so comprehensible by such a wealthy, various viewers of those that content material and design had been the 2 issues that basically encapsulated that mission. She has a complete e book about it known as, appropriately sufficient, Content material Design, and it’s simply good.

Dee: Do you suppose it requires of the individual to be somewhat bit stronger on EQ than different roles?

Jon: It’s very attainable. This concept of an emotional quotient actually does come into it. What you actually must be a powerful content material designer is flexibility, adaptiveness and lively listening, since you’re at all times on the lookout for these cues about what folks actually care about or the issues they’re actually experiencing. However maybe greater than the rest, what content material designers actually must be good at is drawing collectively all of the completely different strings of data, info, exercise and completely different repositories of labor and code and historical past. What content material designers usually don’t do is sit round at their desks simply plugging away on the content material. They have a tendency to spend rather more of their time speaking to folks – both prospects, customers of merchandise, different folks within the group – as a result of what they wish to construct all these alliances. They wish to draw these folks in, get them involved, get them passionate concerning the content material and the standard of the person expertise simply as they’re. But in addition they need entry to all of that cultural info. When it comes to making the unclear clear, one of many issues they’re making an attempt to do is to assist the group talk in a quite simple and really on-voice means.

“You, as the military of 1, in all probability can’t achieve success writing all the things. That’s okay as long as you allow everybody else to do what they do – however clearer and higher”

Dee: So that you’re actually, primarily, on the entrance line between the product and the buyer.

Jon: Completely. That’s a good way of placing it. You’re at this level the place it’s not simply you towards your group. You in all probability wouldn’t pitch it that means, nevertheless it’s one thing extra alongside the strains that you just, the content material designer, in all probability shouldn’t do the entire product communication, as a result of the product is so huge and there’s simply you more often than not. Many content material designers function as armies of 1 the place it’s actually simply them on this gigantic firm group. You’re serving to everybody who touches communication in a product do what they do, however extra clearly and hopefully higher and in a means that creates a greater expertise for folks.

For instance, it is perhaps a state of affairs the place somebody on the advertising crew creates this expertise or writes this bit. Or it is perhaps, say, an engineer who’s going by means of all of the completely different error states and developing with error messages. You, as the military of 1, in all probability can’t achieve success writing all the things. That’s okay as long as you allow everybody else to do what they do – however clearer and higher.

Reframing content material design

Dee: One factor you’ve gotten mentioned earlier than is that content material design is actually idea design. What do you imply by that?

Jon: Even simply now, we had been specializing in what I consider as being phrases on the floor: right here’s this advertising message, or right here’s this error message. Basically, it’s phrases. And content material design undoubtedly spends time specializing in these phrases, on that service. We are likely to name that line of labor UX writing, or person expertise writing, the place you’re actually writing phrases within the interface. However that basically comes on the finish. I feel the rationale we deal with it a lot is as a result of it’s essentially the most seen artifact of the work – that means that while you take a look at a product, whether or not it’s a cellular app or one thing that’s interactive on the internet, you’re seeing these phrases first. In fact, it’s the factor you deal with, and for those who’re a content material middle, folks will provide you with suggestions on these phrases and the way they seem, how they sound, issues like that – which is nice. You want that.

“Content material design at Intercom is your complete stack”

Dee: However that’s solely the highest layer. It’s fairly superficial when it comes to what you do.

Jon: Precisely. The best way you do job on the prime layer is to not begin on the prime layer. It needs to be the factor you get to final. What it’s good to do is figure additional down the stack. The best way I take into consideration this truly goes again to a mannequin, in all probability some of the well-known fashions in person expertise work, that was created by Jesse James Garrett in his e book The Parts of Consumer Expertise. He reveals this stack of 5 layers the place he’s received floor, skeleton, construction, scope and technique. Quite a lot of content material designers, by advantage of how their group has structured them, solely get to work on the floor. That’s normally as a result of they’re those who care most about its high quality. They’re those who can clearly see like how necessary it’s and the way important it’s to get the phrases proper.

Dee: I suppose, in the event that they’re coping with the buyer, that’s what the buyer can see. So it’s in all probability what they get essentially the most suggestions on.

Jon: Exactly. In order that’s what their management will deal with. They’re those who’re tasked with that, and their group usually ties their arms and received’t allow them to get deeper in that stack, which is what makes our work at Intercom somewhat bit completely different. Content material design at Intercom is your complete stack. It goes all the way in which from floor right down to technique, the place content material designers affect product, product course, product technique, issues like interplay design, issues like info structure. It’s not simply the phrases on the floor.

Going again to your query, the place we talked about content material design being idea design, I feel that’s actually the important thing a part of our work. All these phrases on the floor are primarily how we signify what we consider as being ideas and concepts. We spend most of our time working in methods and never sentences, so meaning we’re taking all these concepts and ideas and mapping them out. We’re making an attempt to ask, “What are the entities that we’re actually speaking about right here?” If we will work out what these entities are, then the problem is: “Okay, so we have now all these entities. How are they associated to one another? After which how do these relationships present worth?” Or maybe, “How ought to these relationships present worth?”

If you happen to try this work up entrance, then writing phrases on the floor turns into a way more trivial train, since you’ve already constructed a very robust opinion about how the factor works into its foundational layer into the system. And for those who get all these ideas proper, then it’s a lot simpler to specific them on the floor. That work usually goes a lot faster, simply since you’ve taken the time to know the issue and to contemplate the right way to construct a system, the right way to construct the product round fixing that drawback.

“If we will match a conceptual mannequin – a sequence of ideas and the way they’re associated and supply worth – then we will change folks’s psychological fashions”

Dee: If you happen to needed to decide a very easy, easy system that works like that or an idea that’s been so completely defined that individuals simply get it, what can be your shining instance?

Jon: That is the place we go into conspiracy theories.

Dee: Oh, one in every of my favourite subjects.

Jon: Proper? Who doesn’t love these? Let’s speak concerning the flat-Earth idea. For a very long time – and by a very long time I imply most of human historical past – if folks thought in any respect concerning the form of the earth, they might suppose, “Oh, clearly it’s flat.” And that makes loads of sense, as a result of folks had a psychological mannequin that was based mostly on their senses. After they opened their eyes, even when they went up on the highest of the hill or giant mountain, what you’ll see was primarily this flat panorama that appears to increase without end. And for those who had been close to an ocean or one thing like that, that ocean would additionally equally appear to go on without end.

So it made sense that you’d have this psychological mannequin of the Earth being simply this flat place. It wasn’t till a lot later, with the arrival of astronomy, that we may start to see, “Oh, the form of the Earth will not be, actually, flat.” It was throughout the Renaissance the place we had the arithmetic and the science to really begin figuring this out. And naturally, we all know it’s a globe. It’s one globe of many. It’s not even a globe on the middle of the universe, it’s simply one other globe. However the psychological mannequin of the flat earth is so powerfully robust, as a result of once more, it’s what folks see even in an airplane. Except you’re very excessive up, you’re going to see a flat world each time you open up your eyes. That psychological mannequin is so robust that there’s nonetheless conspiracy theories concerning the earth being flat and that that is all faked by NASA or no matter.

Dee: Are you saying that flat-Earthers simply haven’t met the proper content material designer?

Jon: Maybe. However that’s the place this concept of conceptual fashions comes into play. As a result of if we will match a conceptual mannequin – a sequence of ideas and the way they’re associated and supply worth – then we will change folks’s psychological fashions.

Dee: I’m going to recommend one thing now, and also you’re in all probability going to find it irresistible as a result of it’s principally positing content material design as part of humankind’s evolutionary improvement, however have you ever learn Sapiens?

Jon: Oh, no, I haven’t. It’s on my checklist.

Dee: It’s actually good. It’s known as Sapiens: A Temporary Historical past of Humankind, and it goes by means of all of the completely different evolutionary layers of the human animal. However there’s one level in it that’s actually fascinating, the place he principally talks about the concept people are capable of settle for a bunch narrative just like the Earth being flat or a globe and even cash having worth. He truly pinpoints that as being a part of the evolutionary improvement that has allowed us to get to the place we’re, these group narratives. In a means, what you’re doing is definitely going again to a human intuition.

Jon: That is sensible to me. I like that. You realize, that’s humorous. Each time we discuss content material design, we regularly do that due to this Large 10 thought. We regularly discuss our favourite books, what did we study from them, how are we making use of that studying to their apply? And the sector continues to be evolving, so Dee, you might need a future in content material design.

The Intercom strategy to content material design

Dee: Who is aware of? Watch this area. On that observe, I’m positive our listeners would like to know the way we strategy content material design in-house. What units us aside?

Jon: We expect that content material designers work greatest once they work actually deeply on a product. In loads of completely different groups in numerous firms, contents designers, content material strategists are stretched to this point throughout 5 merchandise, 10 merchandise, greater than 10 merchandise. And it’s actually onerous to try this depth of labor throughout all of these 5 layers that Jesse James Garrett talked about for those who’re engaged on 20 completely different product groups. You’ll by no means have the context you want, and also you’ll by no means have the time to deal with the issue. All you’re doing is dusting the phrases on the floor.

My pal Amy Thibodeau at Shopify codified this phrase “dusting the content material”, and that’s not satisfying for a content material designer, as a result of they convey all this holistic thought and vitality. They actually wish to deal with the issue, and if all they’re doing is dusting the phrases on the floor, then it’s going to be an issue. That’s not satisfying for a content material designer, partially as a result of they convey all this holistic thought and vitality to fixing the issue but additionally as a result of they aren’t going to do their greatest work that means. Due to that, the corporate shall be releasing an inferior product. It’s not going to be nearly as good because it might be in any other case. At Intercom, that’s why we actually focus our content material designers on working with only one or two groups at a time.

“Simply engaged on the phrases on the floor isn’t going to be efficient sufficient… You actually must design the ideas earlier than you design the content material”

Dee: Is there a latest undertaking that we’ve achieved that stands out for instance of that?

Jon: Kelly O’Brien is a content material designer on my crew working in our London workplace. There was a interval the place she labored throughout the entire tasks that we had been doing in London, which implies all the things from bots to reporting to all the opposite nice issues we construct there. These groups actually appreciated having her time, they usually actually wanted her assist. However we thought there was such a giant alternative to maintain build up and increasing and specializing in our work (with bots particularly) that basically match Kelly’s abilities and had a tremendously outsized alternative for content material design.

So we had her focus simply on that. As a result of she’s doing solely bots now, she attends all of these crew’s rituals from stand-ups to retrospectives to the off-sites – all the things. She is a full member of the crew. While you try this together with your content material designers, that crew will get to know your content material designer. They see day-after-day them exhibiting up with dedication and dedication, in order that they know they’ve pores and skin within the recreation, if you’ll. What they see most of all, is the influence that content material design has. It’s a type of issues that’s actually onerous to know until you truly see it taking place. If you happen to’re solely spending 15 minutes with a crew each different week, they’ll’t see it taking place, however while you’re there working in individual with a product designer, with a product supervisor, with a bunch of engineers, analysts and entrepreneurs, you then get to see it.

That influence turns into rather more deeply felt, and the crew will begin to attract the content material designer into their technique classes, their road-mapping course of. Over time, you begin to construct higher merchandise. That’s since you’ve labored in content material design and the methods considering from the bottom up.

Dee: So it actually is so simple as simply having a crew of individuals versus simply having the one individual.

Jon: Completely. It’s additionally an illustration of why simply engaged on the phrases on the floor isn’t going to be efficient sufficient. You actually must get right down to that system degree. You actually must design the ideas earlier than you design the content material.

How one can arrange an efficient content material design crew

Dee: That makes a lot sense. If I’m listening as we speak, and I’ve realized that I actually ought to have invested in a content material design crew for my group, what would one do to go by setting one up?

Jon: I might argue, based mostly on what we’ve talked about, that content material designers can do extra once they do much less however do it higher. Most content material design groups on the earth are multitaskers. They’re specializing in the entire group’s merchandise at one time. We do that as a result of content material design continues to be an rising subject, and we resolve that, “Hey, if we attempt to do all the things, then somebody will lastly discover us, and somebody will lastly see what we’re able to.”

I simply don’t imagine that. Primarily based on my expertise, I imagine that content material design influence is most deeply felt when content material designers work on a one-to-one foundation with product designers, product managers, the product crew. I feel that is the one strategy to have their influence be deeply felt and understood. For people who find themselves beginning up content material design groups and wish to make them extremely efficient, I’d say do much less, however do it higher. Concentrate on only one product per individual at a time.

Dee: Once we spoke earlier than, you quoted Donald Norman, writer of The Design of On a regular basis Issues. He had that beautiful line that design is worried with how issues work. I ponder, do you’ve gotten a favourite designer of any self-discipline?

Jon: Completely. Simply shortly on that Donald Norman quote: that was life altering for me after I learn it, as a result of up till studying that e book at school, I had thought design was about making issues fairly (or for those who’re into trendy artwork, making them summary). Don Norman actually modified my considering there.

Dee: I used to be within the Museum of Design in Helsinki a few years in the past, they usually had a complete show on a watering can that had been superbly and completely designed in order that it might be made out of 1 piece of plastic and it might be simply reproduced. It was good for its necessities, and it was low-cost to make. It actually struck me that one thing so sensible might be additionally a factor of nice design.

Jon: Completely. Alvar Aalto. Nice Finnish designer. That’s the factor: that’s design for a goal, proper? It’s about simplicity of use, simplicity of manufacturing. Most likely financial savings and price as nicely. Design doesn’t simply make issues fairly. Donald Norman mentioned it’s involved with how issues work. In product design, we’re particularly involved with how design solves an issue. Equally, content material design is not only about operating the phrases. It’s not nearly making the phrases sound fairly, though it might. Fairly phrases are nice, however what’s even better is figuring out what issues imply. That’s what content material design is worried with. However to reply your query, favourite designer? It’s tremendous nerdy. Are you prepared for this?

Dee: Completely.

Jon: We’re going to show the nerd issue up a bit, and I’m going to say J.R.R. Tolkien. As a result of he designed a whole world, however few folks know that he additionally did the entire unique paintings himself. He was a fantastic drawer of bushes, Mr. Tolkien was.

Dee: That basically is the holistic strategy, then.

Jon: He didn’t simply write the phrases. He didn’t simply create the story. What he was actually involved in was creating languages, and he spoke with a number of writer pals who knowledgeable him that nobody was actually involved in a e book of faux languages. He wanted a narrative to go together with it, and that’s the factor folks had been involved in.

He solely created the story and due to this fact the world of Center Earth and all of the worlds earlier than Center Earth as a means of making languages. You had been speaking about cultural narratives and group narratives. He understood the worth of narrative and transmitting concepts that he cared about like language, however he additionally did the paintings. If you’d like a extra trendy model of one thing like that, comedian books are very comparable when it comes to how they’re produced and the way they’re conceived and the kinds of tales and expertise they’ve. Even comedian books as merchandise are similar to how we design merchandise as nicely. There’s normally an artist and a author working collectively, together with a letterer, a colorist, an editor. We construct merchandise in a remarkably comparable means.

Dee: It’s humorous, since you’ve recognized two forms of fiction there, however each of them function inside a universe extra so than loads of different forms of fiction. For comedian books, and positively with The Lord of the Rings books and their wider ilk, they function in their very own universes, so it’s fascinating that you just’ve chosen these.

Jon: Completely, however they’re additionally merchandise. The publishers of The Lord of the Rings don’t simply need you to benefit from the story. They need you to purchase the e book and suggest it to pals. They need you to go see the films and get the brand new books. The Amazon sequence is popping out. Equally, Marvel or different comedian books publishers (my favourite being Fantagraphics) need you to purchase their books. The creators additionally need you to purchase them, so they’re merchandise. These are issues on the market; they’re a package deal. They actually have a job to do, which is to entertain or maybe to tell or to alter the way in which you suppose or get you invested in some drama.

Dee: Lastly, earlier than we allow you to go, it’s been a very satisfying chat. The place folks can sustain together with your work?

Jon: Thanks for having me on. Of us can comply with me on Twitter @jcolman. I’ll even be talking at a Internet Instructions Summit in Sydney, Australia close to the top of October.

Dee: You’re a busy bee. Properly, Jon, thanks 1,000,000 for becoming a member of us as we speak.

Jon: Thanks once more for having me.

See extra about Jon and Intercom’s product design crew, get free design sources and see open design roles in our model new design web site at

Careers at Intercom – 2019 updated images

Dee Reddy


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