How to keep up with the changing content design field
by Patrick Stafford
Everything about the UX content field has exploded over the last few years. There’s a huge amount of interest in this fun, creative UX role. How do you keep up? And even more so, how do you excel? Our new Career Course from UXWC’s co-CEO, Patrick Stafford, will give you the boost you need to get ahead in your career.
Take a look at the first two lessons from the new Career Course. If you like what you see, get yourself signed up and get your career in line with your goals. There’s no time like now to get started!
A decade ago, you might have felt like an amazing content strategist, content designer, or UX writer if you…
- Considered how your work related to product goals and objectives
- Helped create content testing plans
- Connected the work you did to return on investment (ROI)
- Established company-wide styles and processes
- Communicated with executives about the work you did how it made an impact on the business
Now, these skills are often required by default.
For beginners and mid-level content designers, understanding how the job market has changed will put you in a much better position to secure the type of role you want.
For mid and senior-level content designers, it helps to understand just what the market expects of senior-level designers.
How has the market changed?
More resources for self-teaching
There has never been a better time to find free resources online for UX writing and content design.
- The Daily UX Writing Challenge
- Books like Writing is Designing
- Podcasts, including Writers of Silicon Valley, the Content Strategy Podcast, and Content Rookie
- Conferences such as Button
- Meetups in your own city
In fact, it’s even possible to get an entry-level job just by self-study and using exercises and tools you find online (if you use them wisely.)
This one is especially important for you to know. Beginners entering this industry have more entry-level tools than many experienced content designers did when they started, so they have a great foundation. Consider delving into some of these tools and exercises to keep your skills sharp. It never hurts to keep mastering the basics.
The field has shifted in other ways, too. Content designers at larger companies like Facebook, Netflix, Google, and other organizations with mature UX content programs, are expected to show how their work impacts financial metrics and business goals. They’re expected to show how their work ties into Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
Take a browse of job postings for UX writers and content strategists at companies like Squarespace, Pinterest, Oracle, VMWare, Airbnb, even digital agencies…you’ll see similar recommendations.
Keep in mind, understanding the general job expectations is very different from talking about specific job titles and roles.
Just know that no matter what your job title is, you should be expected to tie your overall work back to the larger strategy.
Consider what Brain Traffic and Button conference founder Kristina Halvorson recently said about content strategy’s role in UX writing:
“UX writing should not exist without a larger content strategy framework. If you are going to practice UX writing within an organization, that should not be happening without that larger content strategy framework.”
She also recently commented more specifically on what is not content strategy in UX writing:
“A voice and tone guide is not a content strategy. A content system that sits within a design system, that’s not necessarily a content strategy. A content strategy links together all those different parts of the design “machine” and in fact wider organizational functions.”
Organizations now want you to be able to create copy for user interface (UI) components like tooltips and modals, while still crafting and thinking broadly about product strategy, content reuse, and marketing goals.
There are more tools — and you’re expected to know them
It isn’t just helpful, but increasingly a necessity to know how to whip up a basic frame in Figma or Sketch, create a prototype in Invision, change strings directly in code, or understand how your company’s APIs work.
This is a shot of a content designer editing a text in Figma — are you able to do the same? (By the way, this shot comes from our introduction to Figma, which is a great place to start.)
Also consider that new tools like Strings, Ditto, and Frontitude are changing how organizations manage their in-design copy.
The good news is that you can easily start using some of these tools today. Check out tutorials on Figma’s YouTube channel.
Another note for mid and senior-level folks who haven’t used design software before: don’t become out-paced by refusing to learn a new tool.
There are more remote jobs
Remote work requires independence, personal organization, excellent communication, and trust. Businesses put a premium on UX writers and content strategists who are proactive, can make sure they track the work they are doing, and can show impact.
So many UX writers and content designers only show the output of what they make, like the specific copy, and not the impact that has on the business. That puts them at a disadvantage for remote work.
More freelancing and consulting
The number of short-term contracts for UX writers continues to increase. Short-term contracts may be anywhere from a few weeks to several months. (In the U.S., they can last up to 2 years, but in general contracts are much shorter.)
Because of the temporary nature, businesses are looking for freelancers who don’t need a long time to get their bearings. They want confident, self-assured writers who can take charge and lead. If you’re considering contract work, you need to know your stuff.
Does that mean you can’t freelance or consult as a junior or newer-to-UX person? Not at all. People new to the industry can still get those contracts. There are plenty of opportunities out there for those with capability but without a load of experience. The key is being able to show your knowledge of craft and adaptability.
Your best bet here is to keep an eye out for these roles, or even speak with a recruitment company that can put new roles in front of you. Keep in mind that contract work can often turn into full-time work. Contracting is also a great opportunity to check out whether a company is even worth working for full-time.
The market for content designers is growing fast
On the positive side, there are so many new jobs for UX writers and content designers created every day. As of August 2021, there were more than 8,000 open roles for content designers in the United States alone!
The market is changing, but so can you
Although expectations are rising, that also means there are plenty of opportunities in the market. More hiring managers are recognizing the value of UX writing and that not everyone has experience at major tech businesses. This means there are more ways to show your skills and land yourself a shiny new role.
For those who have some experience, it’s important that you continue to work on your skills. Learning new skills, tools, and processes is important, and this is an exciting time. So let’s figure out how to make the most of it.
Understanding areas of responsibility is a good place to start. Another good thing to consider is what type of seniority you want (or may be qualified for) when approaching a role.
Not only will this help you understand aspects like salary or areas of responsibility, but it’ll also help you understand where a job sits in a career path.
For instance, a mid-senior role with room to grow may be more attractive than a lead role that doesn’t have a clearly defined career ladder for growth.
This is important to understand right now, because it will also help you eliminate jobs that you either aren’t interested in, or aren’t qualified for. For instance, someone with a year’s experience won’t bother applying for the VP of Content role at Apple, nor would someone with 5 years’ experience at Microsoft want to apply for a UX writing internship at Squarespace.
So, what are companies looking for at different levels? In general, companies look for the following attributes to place a candidate or employee on a job ladder. Think of these skills as falling on a spectrum from beginner to advanced competency.
- Has a very strong command of spelling, grammar, and styles
- Knows UX writing best practices for common UI elements (headings, error messages, tooltips)
- Follows design and style guidance and processes
- Manages time well and meets deadlines
- Collaborates with the designer and product manager well
- Learns and works with guidance
- Receives feedback with maturity and curiosity
- Learns from others and attempts new skills
- Focuses on delivery: gets the job done when asked to get it done
Mid to Senior
All of the previous, plus:
- Holds a more sophisticated usability perspective
- Critiques content and design work from others, asks insightful questions
- Develops workable systems and processes
- Use learned experience to guide processes and think systemically — for example,
- How does this affect other teams? Who can we speak to?
- Proactively seek out data and other touchpoints in order to define the work scope
- Lead workshops, retros, critiques
- Guide work and delegate to ensure the pipeline of work remains strong and on time
- Bring a more strategic point of view, questioning whether design tactics and features are accomplishing the right goals
- Think about how the business case for features, products, and roadmaps (part of strategy)
All of the previous, plus:
- Guide a team: manage and empower individuals well, delegate work, and help build standards and processes
- Elevate the team’s professionalism and work quality: help coach individuals and the team
- Eliminate barriers for your team to get good things done (work with people, processes, and technical constraints to keep things moving)
- Refine current processes and establish new systems and processes, making sure they remain effective
- Work with other teams and collaborate on high-impact projects: think 3 dimensionally across teams and departments
- Search proactively for high-impact ways to deliver on company objectives and goals (New feature, feature redesign, process improvement, team organization improvement, etc.)
Freelance and Consulting
- Learn new systems and processes quickly and confidently
- Press ahead through constraints (you may not have access to all of the people and resources that a full-time person would have)
- Focus only on the job you were brought in to do
- Find the information needed with an investigative spirit (it may not always be given to you packaged neatly)
- Work proactively to identify the right people in the right positions; creates connections
- Make good recommendations, even when that situation might require convincing executive-level managers
A great resource here is Intercom’s own designer documentation matrix, where they break down all the different levels and tasks that a content designer should be able to accomplish. This is a great one to print out and keep handy and share (but make sure to credit Intercom, too).
This is just the beginning, though. Getting ahead in your career means you need to put time in for some serious self-reflection about your skills: what are you good at, and where do you need to improve? How will you get from A to B?
If you haven’t started thinking about it, now’s the time. The content design field is only growing.