July 25-27, 2018 / Vancouver, BC

Building a Product Content Strategy Practice - Alaine Mackenzie

September 7, 2016

Speaker - Alaine Mackenzie

Content is a crucial part of your product. Content strategists have become an important part of web-focused UX teams – so why are so many product companies still missing out?

We wanted to find out. So we started a content strategy team at Shopify. We’ll talk about what worked, what failed miserably, and what happened in between.

You’ll learn why your product team needs dedicated content strategists, and how to integrate content strategy into the UX practice you already have. Don’t have the budget or support (yet)? You’ll also learn how your product team can create better content right this minute, and start building the case for a dedicated team.

Transcription

Hello, hi, everyone, thanks for coming today, thanks for having me, Steve. I am here today to talk to you about building the content strategy process at Shopify. I am very excited to be standing in this particular spot on this particular stage that has some meaning for me. I was standing right here almost two years ago now, at the very first style and class conference, and I gave a short little talk. It was on one of my very first talks about Content Strategy for web designers, and the idea was, you know, how can designers use frameworks and tools from Content Strategy to make better design decisions on their own, if they weren’t working with a dedicated content person? So I made it through the whole talk without vomiting, which is also something I hope to accomplish today.

If all goes well and at the end, there was some time for questions, and so this very well meaning kind soul raises his hand, and he says, lovely, that sounds great, but I don’t work on the web, I work in software, I work for a product company, so how do you build a content strategy practice for a product company? How do you build better content for software? And my answer to him was, that sounds hard, I have no idea. Good luck with that.

So that was in December. At the end of January, about two months later, I started my new job as a product content strategist at Shopify. And that exact question that I had no idea how to answer very soon became my entire job. So I think about that moment often, so it’s kind of nice to be back here in this spot talking about it now. So today I’m going to tell you all of the things that have happened since then and how we built our content team at Shopify and I’ll talk about the things that we tried, I will talk a lot been a lot of mistakes that I made, and my hope is that you, too, can use these ideas to set up a content practice, but also help implement change on your teams and in your organizations.

So before we get to all that, — oh, I have a clicker in my hand. I don’t have to use the arrows. Oh, gosh. OK, so before I started my job that I didn’t know how to do at Shopify, I spent my entire Content Strategy career working as an enterprise web content strategist for a wonderful agency here in Vancouver and I got to spend every day working with my amazing clients some of whom are here today, to help them build their own content practices and their own content team, so we would work together for months, sometimes years, to help them build a culture of content in their organizations. It was amazing, fulfilling work, I really enjoyed it. But I hated the fact that at the end of all this, you would spend all of this time together, we would collaborate on problems, at the end inevitably, when our contract was done or our statement of work was over or what have you, I’d have to take everything we’d done together and kind of hand it over, and then walk away. And be like, oh, I hope it goes OK, I’ll see you later. I guess?

And I hated that. I always wanted to see what happened afterwards, so we launch a thing and then what happens? You know, we think this will work, and then what happens? So I really wanted to be able to stay and see a problem through to the end, and get to try something, and then iterate on it and try something again.

So what if I got to do that? What if I got to fail and try again? So with that idea of getting to see a problem through to the end really started to interest me, so I started talking to a company called Shopify out east in Ottawa. At the time, they had one person working on all of their content for their software products, and you know, knew about Content Strategy and felt like could maybe help them build better products, but didn’t really know how. Or what that would look like, what that would be day to day and that is my favorite kind of problem is like the really like amorphous, like maybe the 12% plan that Steve was talking about yesterday, that is my favorite kind of problem. So I was really excited about this opportunity to go in there and figure it out, see what happens and build this practice from scratch. So I packed up all of my stuff, I left the beautiful city of Vancouver and brought all of my earthly possessions to the just as beautiful city of Ottawa out east. So if you’ve never been to Ottawa, you should book a plain ticket right now and go out there. We have the apartment buildings, you can see on the left, we have the Riddell canal. In the summer it looks a lot like this. This is what it looks like now, but with color in it.

This is what it looks like in the winter.

This is the best photo I could find, but it’s representative. This guy, he is my neighbor. His office is like four blocks away from mine. We like high five on the way into work every day. So that — that’s fine. That’s fine.

[5:00]

So here I am now, Justin Trudeau’s neighbor, feels pretty good. Was really enjoying my time in Ottawa, but I quickly discovered when I started my new job that not only had I left the mountains and the oceans that I knew in Vancouver, I also left the work that I knew how to do and very quickly found myself in a situation where I had no idea what I was doing, I spent my entire career building my expertise in web-based enterprise content strategies and I was very much a strategist for my own tire career before this, so I was the person that made the guidelines that other people then used to write the content. So I did a lot of governance planning, a lot of workflows, a lot of like CMS content upper environments, that kind of thing, but very little content creation day to day. But now all of a sudden in my new role, I was writing a ton of interface content all the time and people need it had right away and instead of having the luxury of an entire paragraph or God forbid a page to convey an idea. I had a verb and a noun.

At about 4 words, people start asking me if I can trim it. So the type of content that I was creating was all of a sudden very different and most terrifyingly for me, everyone there expected me to make all the changes myself in our codebase, ship them and deploy them to production myself, which is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. Like the potential of breaking 200,000 differences because I wanted to fix a comma splice is something that I had to get over. Did all of these things, so far have not broken Shopify, which I feel pretty good about. But my day to day work was suddenly very, very different and I found myself wondering, like am I doing Content Strategy anymore? Like, all of my work had suddenly become very tactical. I was a content creatorrer and so I started wondering, is Content Strategy going to be a thing here?

Even though my title was the same, and like I considered my goals to be the same and the purpose of my role, the things I was trying to accomplish for the organization were the same, my day to day work was very different. So I was left kind of and on top of that I was also seeing much more resistance than I ever had before. And they were all like, oh, good, another copy editor, and yes, I absolutely will, and that work is absolutely needed and necessary and important, but it wasn’t really the strategic impact that I wanted to be having on the product, and so what I found was there was kind of a misalignment of expectations of what my role was and the value that I could offer. In my first week in my new role I sat down for a coffee with one of the directors of design at the time. He said, you know, I don’t think we really need a content team. He’s like our designers can write all the content, they’re doing fine. It’s OK. It’s like, OK, I’ll just go back across the country, then? Like.

So it ended up being fine and this actual, this person is now one of my closest friends, so it all worked out in the end but at the time I was like, but I just got here and you’re telling me that I don’t need to exist here at all and this doesn’t feel great and this was also my first time working in kind of a startupy environment. Shopify is very much the move fast, break things, done is better than perfect, just ship it we’ve got the motivational posters everywhere. And that kind of culture, A, I wasn’t used to, but B, the spreadsheets I was used to using, the process and the deliverables that I use was used to using were weren’t going to get me anywhere. Like people referred to process as the P word. You shall not speak its name like Voldemort. So things like documents, I couldn’t use these any more in the same way that I was used to.

[10:00]

So unlike, the agency world where I came from, where you know, if things weren’t going super well or we had misaligned expectations or you know, the organization wasn’t mature enough, all I really had to do was finish my contractual obligation, finish the project and I walk away and move on, I was stuck with all of those challenges, because that’s what I said that I wanted for my career. And that was the explicit choice that I had made for myself. So I’d gotten this thing that I wanted but when I actually got it, I had no idea what to D that’s fine.

So I had some challenging days, I will say, but I’m also an extremely stuborn human which no one here can corroborate that I’m sure.

So after all that, here’s what I did about it. So these are the four most important things that I believe we’ve done as a content team to establish the Content Strategy practical at Shopify and these are the four things that I think you should do if you are trying to implement change in your organization. These aren’t limited to Content Strategy by any means. So get to know people and what they want. Focus on quick wins first, prove value. Do things, tell people all the time. All the time. And focus on educating and empowering, not taking over. We’ll talk about all four of these.

So my first few months in the new role I tried to spend the time information gathering as much as I could. So I spent down with so many coffee dates and sat down with everyone I could in the organization to try and get to know what they were working on and their role, but more importantly, what were they struggling with? What was the vision that they had for their team or the company as a whole that they were trying to achieve, but they couldn’t, or they were limited or there’s something they still wanted to accomplish, and how could content help them achieve those things?

The hardest part for me was to focus this time on listening, not talking, because I came from agency where I was used to coming in and giving a presentation about how great I was, and selling my work, selling the value of Content Strategy up front. But what I realized quickly is that I didn’t have that foundation of trust or understanding here, because no one had ever worked with a Content Strategy team before, so I need to focus that time on listening rather than talking, to understand the value that I can provide before I started doing the work.

I also used this time to get to know the product as much as I could. Audited everything possible to understand how everything worked and fit together. And as you might imagine, this uncovered a lot of challenges with our content. The biggest ones we were dealing with at the time were kind of an undefined brand identity, especially when it came to content, voice and tone. Like we had sort of an unspoken assumption and understanding of who we thought Shopify was, but no defined, like, voice characteristics, and certainly inconsistencies across the product and how we communicated. You could kind of tell like who had written what in the product, like some developers have like a really, really unique writing voice and that was coming across very clearly which is not the greatest for creating a cohesive user experience.

A pretty big debt at the time of a lot of low-quality content that had shipped, because every single person at Shopify can ship whatever they want all the time, we had a big backlog of lower-quality content inconsistent voice, things like that, that we were dealing with and we were also dealing with a lot of silos, so between project and feature teams, there wasn’t a lot of collaboration happening. Also content, very different strategies and tactics and approaches, so what that created was a really fragmented experience from start to end. So the product that someone bought is not necessarily the product that someone got in terms of how we were talking, how we were communicating.

So I could go on, but there hadn’t really been anyone before this time that was dedicated to solving these kinds of problems, and how we were communicating through content.

So now that I had a better understanding of the people and the teams that we were talking to, and the problems that I wanted to solve, my next step was to focus on quick wins, for other people and so by this time I had a giant shit list of things that I wanted to do, but I really wanted to focus on wanting to prove so around that time our team started to grow. We had two or three people on the team, we could start to accomplish a little bit more, and so our designers talked a lot about how they really wants to be publishing more, they wanted to write blog posts, speak at conferences, things like that, but they had no idea how and they felt like they couldn’t write. So we would run blog-writing workshops, that said, hey, here’s how to write a basic blog post. Here are some tips. Was that relate today my job direct think? No. Did it help build tuft trust in relationships, yes, good use of time.

[15:00]

We used content teams to help teams scope their feature set. So I guess somewhat related to the talk I did here two years ago using content and design to make better decisions. And building other people’s definition of value and content through content.

So these quick wins were actually pretty successful for us in that people that I started being aware that we had a content team and we existed. All of these things were great. But they were all kind of not great. And not good, because what we were doing at that time is focusing on very reactive, and again very tactical work, so instead of going to teams and saying hey, I think you need this, we were waiting for them to come to us and say hey, I need this, can you help me. So building trust, yes, but I questioned whether we were really doing the right things and laying the rate kind of foundation at the time. So I struggled with this, but looking back, I think that that was a good starting point for us. It gave us the awareness, it gave us the trust, and we could build on that foundation of tactical work into more strategic work later.

So now that we had all of these quick wins, we were starting to build relationships, my next set was to do things and tell people, this is one of our core values at Shopify and it became my entire existence, so this is when I started banging the content drum all over the organization. These were the stories that I told to everyone over and over and over all the time. I became the world’s biggest broken record about content, so I would show up at every — everywhere I could, essentially, so every group critique session, every team meeting, every bonding opportunity, every lunch date, every coffee date, everywhere I could, and talk about the importance of content, the problem considerations of every problem. So what we found was people were making important content decision, but making them implicitly instead of considering the content implications of their choices and also, talk all the time about the value of content and the role of content and building better proteides. It must have been unspeakably annoying for many people, but I don’t care, because it worked, so I’d do it again.

And the reason that it was so important for us is because it was really important as a new team, and as a new discipline, that no one had worked with before, and no one understood, it was important for us to be consistently present and vocal in the cultural life of our team. So we really had to become kind of a mainstay in the UX culture so people expected us to be there, they understood why we were there, and so even those activities that might seem a bit lower leverage at the time, things like group critique sessions or going for beers after work, like, no, that’s not actually writing better content for a product, but it was helping teach people to expect us to be there, so we became kind of a fact of what it is to build UX at Shopify. Which is what we needed to then build and create the change we wanted.

So because of that, all of this time spent listening, understanding the product, focusing on the quick wins, talking about all the work we were doing, we started to build these content champions all over the organization, so these were largely practitioners, designers, and developers, that understood the value of content, that they wanted to work on their own content skills, and they started kind of doing our work for us, so they were starting to write their own really great content on their own, but even more so, they already had the trust and the relationships with the stakeholders that we were trying to build, and so they started repeating our talking points for us, which is great. So I finally started to hear people say, like, okay, you can talk to the content team about that, they can help you, or I had a really great workshop with Alaine last week, she can help you with that problem. So things were starting to look up at this point, our team was growing, we were about like five, six people by now.

[20:00]

We were slowly starting to get involved in bigger decisions which is exactly what I wanted to see. People knew who we were, they were starting to trust us, but because of that, people kind of started depending on my team, I think more than they should. So before we’d gotten there, everyone wrote their own content, everyone made their own content decisions because they had to, there was no other choice. But now they were so used to us telling them to talk to us, that they had stopped trying to make their own decision, they had stopped trying to build those content skills for themselves actually. And it was actually our cofounder who said, you know, we’re starting to see a lot of really shitty content coming to review lately and he when I ask people about it, they say, oh, yeah, the content team hasn’t had time to look at it, sorry. Which is not what we want.

So at this time, we were 5, 6 people, we had 60-plus designers, we had hundreds of engineers, we were never going to be able to write everything or edit everything or even look at everything and so by teaching people and being very loud and vocal about the fact that they should talk to us or depend on our team and largely succeeding at it, we’d made something better, but we also kind of made some things word because we had centralized all of that expertise and people on the team were starting to feel like they couldn’t do it. Like it was someone else’s job and it wasn’t part of their role any more. Which is not what we wanted. So this for me was the biggest, hardest lesson that I had to learn. I had always said these words, I think, you know, we’re here to educate, we’re here to empower you to make better choice, but I realized I hadn’t been spending my own time as if I believed it and I hadn’t been planning my team’s time as if that was our real goal, so when I was thinking about how to do better work, what I’d really been thinking about is how can we do more work on the content team, instead of how can we make other people better? So finally, I realized that our time was better spent on the highest impact work and the highest impact work for us was going to be teaching and educating and empowering, more so.

So these are the two ways that we’ve been focusing our time since then. The first is on training, largely in person, and the second is on self-serve resource, so we’ll spend the rest of our time together talking about what those two look like for us. So we spent a ton of time training. This one shocked me how much investment it was going to take and how much ongoing investment. I was kind of hoping it was going to be a set it and forget it thing, but it’s not. So looking back, like even though we have the luxury of being able to grow our team, I still think this is a worthwhile investment of your time, even if you’re a solo practitioner, even if you have a small team, because it means that you don’t have to do all of those lower leverage activities once you teach other people to do them themselves. So right now we run new training for every new employee in the R & D division. And then we also have ongoing education programs for different teams based on the background of the people and then the content that they’re dealing with. So developers generally get different training than designers do. People on the payments team will get different training than people on the shipping team, because they’re dealing with different content problems, so over time we’re expanding the system and concentrating on training time as much as we can.

So the next thing that we are focusing on and probably like our biggest investment right now is creating a system of self-serve resource, so the goal is everyone at Shopify should be able to write their own really great content, even if the entire content team like crashed in an airplane tomorrow. That’s not the goal. But the doing the content part is the goal. So we want people to make better content decisions on their own, without us. So these are the things that we’re working on building right now. Voice an tone guide, we have an editorial style guide. Vocabulary list. We’re working on automated testing which I’m really excited about, and in the works right now are content templates and content playbooks. We’ll talk about each of those.

[25:00]

So the voice and tone guide was one of the first things that I made when I started in my new role and for me, so we did have a problem with inconsistent voice and an inappropriate tone in a lot of our content. So it’s important to lay that foundation, like, hey, we should have a consistent personality in how we communicate. But more importantly for me, our voice and tone guide became kind of the emotional starting point for talking about empathy and considering people’s emotions when writing content, but also crafting an experience. So what we found is like very few people outside our team cared about active voice or you know, title case versus sentence case in headlines, but everyone, no matter who, can understand and relate to and empathize with that idea of being stressed out, you know, when you have an invoice due and you don’t know how to pay it or being upset when you haven’t gotten any sales and your business depends on it. So this became a conversation starter to talk about emotions and empathy in our work. It also became a starting point for the brand identity work to come. So what we’re seeing now is our voice and tone guide is also helping us make visual decisions later on, which is great. So all of our content stuff lives with our front end development and design system style guide, so the same way that we are training designers and developers to go and look up the right code to use, we are also trying to teach them to go to the same place to look for content answers, too.

So after we finish the voice and tone guide, we also started working on an editorial style guide, like the grammar and mechanics section of our style guide, so technically in house we use the Yahoo web style guide, which I love, but as it turns out, no developer ever is going to keep a copy of the Yahoo style guide on their desk or ever open it ever. So we bought a bunch of them. I’ve opened my mine. Probably as good as we’re going to get.

So we replicated all of the most salient, I guess, or unique instances that we were running into our content. And replicated them into our own style guide. Again, keep them in a central place where everyone is already used to looking for them. So these are like some of the most common things we run into, addressing our merchants as you, referring to Shopify as we. We always use American spelling at Shopify. So it’s color, not colour, center, not centre, progress, no PROEgress.

Everybody has their internal jargon that tends to leak out into the public even if you mean it or not. We also have a whole bunch of different features and it’s important that we’re referring to them in the same way, but we also found that these are the same questions that we were getting all the time. So it’s taking up a ton of our time, and super low value questions, like, this is not — not the highest leverage opportunity for us. So we consolidated all of those in a vocabulary list that again, everyone can go to, and the behavioral change that we had to make as a team was instead of saying, oh, let me answer that for you, when someone came to us with a question, we are now starting to say, oh, you can find the answer to that in our vocabulary list, here you go. So gradually teaching people to find the answer themselves, rather than giving it to them. Hopefully making them less dependent on the content team humans, and learn to use the tools that we built instead.

Next one: I am super excited about this. Is we are starting to roll out automated testing of all of our style guide standards, so again, we were spending a ton of time doing essentially proofreading, like you spelled that wrong or this should be capitalized, things like that, but yes, they need to happen, that baseline of quality needs to be there, but it’s not the best use of our team’s time to be doing all of that proofreading work, so we are rolling out a testing suite that can essentially take any rule from our style guide and just automatically check and see if it’s been followed. So this is built by a couple of people in our fantastic technical writing team. This is based off a tool called retext. All of this is open source so when I send out the slide deck I’ll include links to it so you can check it out if you’re so inclined. But what that lets us do is in the content team we can set up our own rules, the things that we want to flag, the better placement and also the rationale, so we’re still teaching people why to do something. We can also be sassy if needed.

[30:00]

So this has allowed us to make better use of our time and again focus on the higher impact, more strategic work.” Just don’t.” We are also working on building a system of design templates. We so my dream is that our product should, to as much of Ann extent as possible, become like mad libs, you plug in the verb, you plug in the right noun, and you have a decent content string that at least gets you to 80%, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer. So this is an example in our email system about how to craft a really great email subject line and how to craft the consequences of a transactional email that you need to pay attention to. So one day, one day everything will be like that and I’ll let you know if that ever happens. So this one — I don’t have a screenshot for because we’re still working on it, so next on my list is a content playbook. So one thing that we hear a lot from our teams is like, yeah, I’d really love to work with us guys, what do you do again?

And because our team is so small, especially compared to the engineering team, or the design team, we really have to adjust the amount of work that we’re able to do based on the priority and the complexity of the project. So we were running into people having really inconsistent expectations and understanding of what we can do, so this playbook will be the thing that says like, hey, if you have this type of problem, these are the ways that we can solve it, so it will list out our deliverables, we won’t use that word and props, we won’t use that word, either, about the things we can do and the value it can add to projects, but also to help people understand what they can expect from our team. Will we sit in the pod in your meeting, will we need a desk? Will we come to your stand-up meetings or will we be there to proofread and do an edit check. So that also will totally happen.

So our message has really shifted as a team from like beings hey, always talk to us, we will do this for you, to instead, hey, you can totally do this, this is an important part of your role, as well, let us help instead. So we are trying to stop answering questions, and instead, help build the skills for people to answer their own content questions, and we’re really starting to see the benefits of this, I think, throughout the organization. It’s still slow of course but we’re really starting to see more consistent voice in all of our content, the more consistent personality, it’s not so much multiple personality product anymore. I really do think we’re starting to build empathy for our merchants moreso and consider the emotional impact of the choices and content of the choices we’re making. So designers are coming to me and they’re like, hey, can you look at this and I’ll read it and say, yeah, I wouldn’t have done it any differently, just go, ship it, yeah. And happens the dream of like people are making their own great content, yes, but also, people want to. And understand that that is an important part of the design decisions they are making or the technical decisions they’re making, as well. So we are able to come in for more complex problems that need the specialized expertise of someone who has chosen to spend their lives looking at spreadsheets. So that frees us up to specialize more so, which has been great. So like the reality is, we will never be done. It will never be perfect. We’ll always be working on it and that is just what my life is and I have to accept that. That’s fine.

We still have a long way to go. But I think that the foundation that we’re laying and the resources that we’re building are really helping us build that culture of content that we wanted.

Yeah. So the question that I struggled with, for a long time, was like am I actually doing Content Strategy work? Does that matter? I don’t know. Like am I even a content strategist anymore? I do believe the answer is yes, because like, as much as names don’t matter, really, like the goals and the purpose and what we’re trying to accomplish here is always the same. Regardless whether I’m working on a website or an internet or a software products or a web application and like, whatever the difference is. So we are still always trying to create the systems and the structures that help people accomplish their tasks. That’s what we’re here for and so as a team we had to spend that time laying a foundation and doing the tactical work and building those relationships and Tufts to be able to then focus on strategy. So now we’re finally starting to see that happen, which is great. Other only problem really now is scale to be honest of like trying to keep up with the growth of the organization, which is not a bad problem to have, frankly.

So that’s the sorry of how we had built a content team so far at Shopify. Today we have 10 people in our team across three offices, which is amazing, they’re all wonderful. But what you might have noticed and the story is — none of this is unique to content at all or products or software or anything. Because really what we are talking about here is like changing a culture, right? You’re trying — I am trying to change the way that a very smart group of people work and think about their work and the skills that they understand to be necessary for their work. So the challenges that we face building this team are the same challenges that any content strategist or designer or anyone faces when you are trying to change an organization. So I think even if you don’t work in content or if you don’t work for software, you can use these same ideas to instigate any kind of change in your organization. Like build those relationships, prove your value, talk about it, focus on educating and empowering, and yay! So I hope this story will be helpful for you, as well. If you want to know more about the work that we’re doing, we try to share as many of our speakers as we can, mostly we share them on medium and if you have any questions, always happy to talk about how things work, and thanks for your time.