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Making Content Matter

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Interview With Candi Williams

Listen to our Podcast with Candy Williams of BUMBLE as we explore the many aspects of content creation and strategy.

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Bio

By day, Candi Williams is a content leader who loves nothing more than supporting her team, solving complex ContentOps challenges, and flying the important flag for inclusive design. By night, she’s a published author of four books—and counting.

When she’s not waging the war against unnecessary jargon and inaccessible, head-scratching content, you’ll probably find her tweeting when she should be sleeping, growing her crystal collection, desperately trying to meditate more, or seeking out more brightly coloured kicks.
 

Resources

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"It's important that we see content design strategy as a skill and a source of expertise in the exact same way we see coding, UI, or visual design."

Transcript

Cruce Saunders
Welcome to Towards a Smart World. This is your host, Cruce Saunders, and I'm pleased to be joined today by Candi Williams, the head of Content Design at Bumble and a content leader who loves nothing more than supporting her team, solving complex content and Ops challenges, and flying the important flag for inclusive design. By night, she's a published author of four books and counting. When she's not waging war against unnecessary jargon and inaccessible, head-scratching content, you'll probably find her tweeting when she should be sleeping, growing her crystal collection, desperately trying to meditate more, or seeking out more brightly colored kicks. Candi, it's a pleasure to have you on Towards a Smarter World. Thanks for joining us today.

Candi Williams
Thank you for having me. Yeah, it's great to be here.

Cruce Saunders
Well, I would love to just start out with why you love content so much. I'm a big fan of your tweet stream and everything that comes across as advocacy for content. Where did your love for content get started? What is your content superhero origin story?

Candi Williams
Yeah, really good question. So I guess it depends how far back we want to go. I always think that my original love for content started with my first, very very clunky, large, oversized computer screen where I used to wordprocess all kinds of strange, weird, and wonderful stories. English language narrative has always been something that I have been fascinated by and very interested in to the point that when I was at University, I specialized in a kind of multimodal English language and linguistics. So focusing on social linguistics and psycholinguistics, how language impacts how people feel, how they behave, how they perceive the world and society. I also did a lot on language and comprehension to help people understand and acquire languages, and also semantic and pragmatic. So,  meaning, perception, the connotation of languages and dialects.

I spent a lot of time analyzing political speeches, actually, and how political language and speeches are used to persuade or dissuade people. So those were quite pivotal points in my content journey, long before I ever found the world of content design and content strategy and all of that good stuff.

But I've been lucky because I think when I left University, the options on the table for English grads were journalism or teaching, which are both great jobs that weren't necessarily kind of where my head was at. So I spent a year or so kind of lost in random jobs trying to find my path before I found content and digital content as a career, which I'm very grateful for taking that step and that leap away from HR into the digital content world and never looking back, so to speak.

Cruce Saunders 
Content in the way you're describing it is incredibly powerful. It is the arbiter of human understanding and behavior. And it's interesting that you have spent such amount of brain space in your development process on the philosophical and semiotic and linguistic side of content, to really understanding how sign, and symbol, image, and impression shape the human perception and therefore our action. Can you reflect a little bit more on what inspires you about the power of this stuff we call content?

Candi Williams
Yeah, of course. I think that sometimes we don't actually see and realize it. And I think that's the breadth of the work I did on linguistics really helped with, like, right through from how children so beautifully acquire multiple languages early on and use language to kind of make sense of the world. And I think that really kind of stems in with what we do now. We don't necessarily always have over-awareness of the impact that language and content has on us. - @candiwrites If you look at it from a digital perspective, it's always very interesting to me that content is up for debate when arguably the entire Internet is content. So I think it's something that is so important that we almost don't recognize how it's the core foundation of everything that we rely on in many ways, both on and offline. Yes, I just think it's incredibly powerful. There's so many different things, you know,  kind of global language, inclusive language, so many different aspects to it, which I just find continually fascinating. For sure.

Cruce Saunders
It is baffling then why, when content is truly at the base of everything an organization is and does and how it expresses itself in the world and what its product does and how it interacts with customers, and just all of it is mediated through and with content. And yet content gets shuttled into being a backwater as part of the larger conversation, very often both conversations within design and UX, but also it's a strategic level in terms of how funding happens around content. It is stunning to me that these two things are simultaneously true, the proliferation and importance of content, as well as the lack of it's, adequate treatment, sponsorship, and asset-based handling. So I'm curious what you see, in product organiation, as the right relationship between content and product, how do those teams best work together in your experience? And after that we'll talk a little bit about sponsorship.

Candi Williams
Good question. I personally, and I would say that I'm completely biased, I don't see how you can separate or distinguish content and product content is at the heart of your product. I find it interesting because I'm just yet to find an example of products that aren't heavily content led. I think what happens a lot, is that we kind of work in these environments where people see big tech, and there's almost like a complexity scale where we know that a lot of people kind of assume that because they can write, because they have a good grasp of grammar, etc, that they can do the content in a way that a lot of people may not feel comfortable delving into a codebase. So I think it's really important that we do really see content design strategy as a skill and a source of expertise in the exact same way we see coding, UI, visual design, etc. - @candiwrites I think that's pivotal and linguistics, and that's something that's close to me, is exactly that. It's the science of language. And one thing I've been pondering on a lot recently is that we almost sometimes think there's a dismissal of words as not being important, whereas actually for literal centuries, words have shaped perception, shaped movement, changed how people feel about things. They've been at the heart of how we communicate with each other and with the world. - @candiwrites So their fundamental importance has never been in question. I think we just sometimes get caught up with the shiny and the new and the tools and the technology and don't give enough focus to the crucial content that's underpinning all of that. - @candiwrites

Cruce Saunders
Yeah. It's interesting that content gets more and more support over the years, but as you pointed out in your tweets, there's this gap between many executives that do not really understand what content even is, let alone value it as part of the design and development process. Can you tell us a little bit about how that's affected your career and what you've done about it?

Candi Williams
Yeah, I feel like there's always a lot of advocacy. I've been working for agencies for a while where it's slightly different to a degree because people are kind of paying for an investment in content. But other than that, I think every role I've had over the last decade or so has had a significant degree of advocacy within it, which I think is kind of part of our path and part of our roles in many ways. We've hit the point now where content is so pivotal and content roles are growing and growing. I think it is fundamental that product leaders and product execs, if they don't know and aren't clear on the importance of content design and content strategy, they really should be. Because it's something that is just growing and growing, which is great to see. I also think how we approach the advocacy is really important because one thing that I've worked with a lot is fundamentally a lot of people don't know what they don't know. Right. So people may well have simply only worked with copywriters before.

They don't necessarily have any awareness of the different quadrants of content strategy, of the work that goes into governance. People aren't going to know on surface value the level of content that's lurking under the surface, the importance of readability, etc. The one thing that I think is really important is that we "show" as well as just telling. When you care about something so much at the beginning, it can be so easy to just go, "I think this is really important." So I don't understand why people don't think it's really important too. And I'm doing my content audits and I'm doing my governance plans and I need to do my stakeholder interviews. And that can be quite overwhelming to people. So I think one of the things that I've really tried to do is to bring people along the journey and kind of show them why you're doing what you're doing as well as what.

So rather than showing people the intricacies of my 100 column spreadsheet for a content order, it's looking at "what's the benefit of that?" What is that uncovering? Actually, we've got content that's five years old, that no one's read in ages and has a readability grade that's sky high. The word count is 4000. People are spending 30 seconds on it. I think really helping people to understand why it's important, not just the what, and what happens beneath the surface is something that I found really useful.

Cruce Saunders 
What are some more examples of those metrics and what's happening beneath the surface that are compelling to folks, just understanding why to invest time cycles, resources, budget in teams that are focused on content?

Candi Williams
Yes, I think there's a number. First, the thing to shift away from is the notion that content is just your tone and your voice, which is one of the biggest things that I see as a kind of knowledge gap. - @candiwrites So tone and voice will always be important. Of course, if people think that's all content is, they then start to think that they just need a copy of the tone and voice PDF and they can do it themselves. There's a lot more to, as we all know, content strategy and content design than that. I think some of the important metrics that have always been helpful for me are readability and comprehension. What would be the point in us investing all of this time in creating content if fundamentally people aren't finding, using, reading, and critically understanding it. - @candiwrites

So that beds right into our structure, how we structure content for readability, for people, skimming and scanning, patterns for accessibility, etc. And I think another one is efficiency. I see time and time again with organizations, duplication of content, no governance process which just blokes your website or app, which makes it harder for people to find. People reinventing the wheel as the time gets on, as the team grows and not learning from each other, and kind of maintaining those efficiencies that you can get from the style guide, content design systems, etc.

So I think those are some really key ones for me, accessibility, readability, and comprehension, and efficiency, as well as many, many more. Those are some kind of critical ones. I always say if you've got all the time and all the money in the world, don't invest in content design or content strategy. If you haven't, you should, because fundamentally it will help to save you time and money, and it will help to make sure your products resonate that's the bottom line. 

Cruce Saunders
This dichotomy between value and how that value gets expressed within teams, in terms of allocation of resources, has come across in some of your tweets. You had a tweet about justifying value and why content matters is actually exhausting, folks. Content is crucial. There is no counter argument, not sorry. Design and UX leaders need to take note of both. Can you expand for the listeners maybe some of the battles you've had to fight over this and what progress you're seeing?

Candi Williams
Yeah, 100%. I think it's an ongoing thing for sure, but I think it's worth it. There's fundamental change that we need. But some of the things that I've seen are really effective and far more effective than any kind of PowerPoint or presentation on why content design are content designers or strategic being embedded in projects, making a real difference, working closely with designers, product managers, etc. And people seeing "hands on" the impact that can make, and the snowball effect that has winning allies and friends along the way. And then before you know it, everyone kind of wants a piece of content, etc, etc. Another thing that I think a lot of is day-to-day, like if you try and fight fire with fire, all that happens is everyone gets burned, right? So one of the things that I always do is I check myself when I think, oh, that person doesn't understand content. When I saw that previously in my career or this is really frustrating because I feel like I'm having to repeat myself and I ask myself how much do I understand about their role and their motivation?

And that's been really helpful. So I almost do a user profiling and understanding of users. I try and do that with the teams that I'm working with. So this person in product managers, what is their main motivation? What are their metrics? What are their drivers? What are they going after? And how does my work fit in with that? The same with legal and compliance. I often find, perhaps controversially, they're some of the biggest allies you can have because they want to know that content is risk-free, that people understand it, that it's compliant, etc. So I think readability are key things that I found that legal and compliance teams are really involved in. So it's meeting in the middle,  so I think really understanding people what their motivations are and how your working content aligns with those is one thing that I found super beneficial.

Cruce Saunders
Thank you. And you've addressed different roles in content and how those are creating and supporting those content workflows. Can you share a little bit about your vision around roles, and who are the different team members within efficient content team, and what gaps do you see that might be missing for organizations

Candi Williams
From a content perspective?

Cruce Saunders
Yes, exactly. Just for content and content Ops, everything surrounding the operational environment that creates high performing, high quality content.

Candi Williams
Yeah, 100%. I think, as content people, we go around in circles about what kind of perfect structures and perfect roles look like. I think a lot of it's trial and learning what works. But I think some of the things I do think are really important is having a clear kind of career ladder to contact people to go in different ways. I hear a lot about this kind of constant battle between IC and manager, which I think is a really interesting one to explore. At Bumble, we have part of both, which I think is really important. I personally think it's really important to have folks that have whole responsibility for different areas of your content. Obviously, it's great to have someone dedicated working on content Ops and content strategy, but I think how they align with the rest of the team is so important. Right? One of the roles that I think is just critical, that we're seeing more and more of, is that you need that content leadership in place. And I know not everyone has that. But one thing I've reflected on a lot is it's very hard for people who are doing practical, on the ground content design or content strategy work, to then have to be the ones that are constantly advocating for that work. - @candiwrites

I tweeted a while ago and it's very funny , that it's like inviting like, do you know the Pampo? He's an Italian chef. It's like inviting him to your kitchen to cook you this meal and then standing over him and trying to sell apart, asking him why he's chopping the onion, asking him why garlic is going in that and why he's in your kitchen. Anyway, I feel like you need to give people space to do their best work, and I think that's why content leadership is critical. I see a big part of my role is just creating a space for my team to be able to do their best work and not have to answer a million times over the endless questions around content design and what it is. - @candiwrites  I think there's a number of roles and structures out there, but I do think that that level of kind of content leadership is really important. And I noticed a lot actually people, they're reporting whine. So a lot of people will say that they haven't necessarily had a leader or a manager who's been a content specialist before. And I think that's really importants, as we see roles and teams continue to evolve, how we build out that kind of leadership layer in content.

Cruce Saunders
Content Ops are getting more attention and funding. We've seen in certain enterprises where Ops teams, Content Services Organizations are being put together to help really maintain the infrastructure, operations, supply chains, and roles related to the engineering of content across organizations. You're right. I mean, a lot of that gets done accidentally. Somebody that's a content designer who's the chef working, the artist working to get content to perform in a strategic way is also being encumbered by having to run the kitchen and advocate for the fact that there even is a kitchen and that we need to create food. They're having to do all of the infrastructure around content, but really the Ops of content and managing the workflows and the alignment of the content structure, and all of its semantics, and its tags, and all of the things that really make an orchestrated environment for content ... That takes attention, that takes focus. It takes somebody doing it. Who is that? Does that exist at Bumble and should it?


Candi Williams
Yeah, good question. I've worked on both sides, but I've done the kind of dedicated content strategy and content Ops in my role at the moment because our team is smaller. A lot of the kind of content Ops falls with me and we kind of divide some of it up against the team. I think as we grow, it's something that we'll definitely face into. But in answer to your question, the point is completely right. That stuff is important and it is absolutely critical and it needs to happen 100%. I think what I would say is, in the early stages of maturity, what I hate to see people do is really beat themselves up if they don't have all of the workflows and the structures in place, because that stuff doesn't happen overnight. It should happen early, it should be in place. It's critical. But what I see a lot of at the moment is people that are trying to run around and do a content design role being really embedded in sprints and ways of working, but also then trying to kind of side hustle, if you will, the whole content operations strategy and like that is just not possible in many ways.

It's very hard and it should never be something that burns people out. So one thing that I found is really helpful is being really clear and intentional on your content maturity. So looking at where you are now, where you're going, and like the steps you need to get to get through there. Because I think we can sometimes feel like if we haven't got it all together, like we're failing as content people, and that is just not the case. Some of this stuff takes time, it takes investment, it takes buy-in. So yes, sometimes small and steady is the best we can do, but that's super important too, for sure.


Cruce Saunders 
That's great. Yeah. I was just speaking with somebody in England on the last episode of the podcast, Simon McAvoy, who is the Global Head of Content Services for Anaplan, a software company. And they've been working on this infrastructure around content. And it's the same thing you're saying, it's progressive steps over time. And he's had C-level sponsorship for the organization. But still, even with a couple of years and visibility for that kind of content, operational function is still fighting some of the very same battles for awareness, resource attention, and integration into workflow that were there at the beginning. So it is a progressive process and perfection doesn't happen overnight. But it is good to be moving the ball forward and evolving the thinking in an organization. And as you pointed out, bringing the data that aligns with stakeholders needs and the way that they express them, wheather that's a, for example, like we'd imagine in product, it's things like user-churn or conversion rates or velocity of the customer journey from discovery through engagement. These kinds of things are all metrics that content can influence and that can be measured. So it's neat to see that business-level conversation emerging in the organization.

Any thoughts on engendering that business conversation that we haven't touched on already?


Candi Williams
Yes, I totally agree. I do tend to find that there are, for want of the better phrase, tend to be synergies with the great work of content Ops and content strategy. And what are the things that most organizations tend to be focused on? Efficiency is always going to be one of them, isn't it? And I think having the foundations in place is so important. Like you just won't go faster or be more efficient by just only being focused on the delivery of content and all of the things that go around it. So that's a critical one. But I think it's just finding those alignments. I think we're in a good place, though, in ways because everyone wants an Ops team. Don't know at the moment if it's product Ops, research, apps, design ops, etc. There seems to have been some recognition of that, which is a positive sign for us to bang the drum of content up for sure.


Cruce Saunders
Very good! and then there's just content strategy back in its original early days before content design was a thing. I'm curious about how you distinguish between content design and content strategy, if you do. And what are some of the questions that when we're thinking strategically about content? We should ask ourselves to verify that content is being used to serve customers' needs, not to be flashy. What is the essence of those strategic questions? I think there are two questions in there, one about content strategy and design, and then one about how to get to that essential core of what content needs to do to perform with our questions.


Candi Williams
Yeah, content strategy and design are different. There's overlap, but they're different. We also should always distinguish between them as titles and between them as things. Because there's a lot of elements and you can do delivery of content strategy as a content designer. But as roles they are different. I think one is that content strategy is a lot more for free, 60 point of view. You are like more embedded and more involved in things like the workflows, things like the governance, which is really critical, those critical foundations. I think some of the questions that fundamentally we should be asking ourselves is a big shift from the what to the so what. It would be wrong of me to say that creating content is the easy part, but it's just one part of many things. How is that content retired? How is it being used? How is it meeting both business goals and user needs? What happens if it doesn't meet those needs? How are we measuring it? How are users going to consume it? How are they going to find it? It's a lot of questions that we face into.

I think a lot of things for me and for the work I do as well is around who is "we" and who are "our users?" I think that in tech I'm very mindful of the fact that a lot of time we are homogenous folks who are largely very comfortable using fancy iPhones and MacBooks in one way, and we are typically not very representative of our user bases and the many different socioeconomic statuses, ethnicity, disabilities, neurodivergence that come with that. So I think that is a big, big question for me because we can have the fanciest kind of phones in the world, we can do the best stakeholder interviews. But yeah, fundamentally, if it's all kind of on the decisions of folks that are very comfortable with tech and very homogeneous in ways, we're always going to have some oversight there.


Cruce Saunders
Thank you. And for folks getting started in this powerful space, we have this broad array of potential places to plug in, and it seems like the content trades are hiring very, very rapidly now. It seems like there's more and more and more roles available within organizations really specifically focused on content today. And that wasn't the case a decade ago and certainly wasn't even to the level to which it is today. Just even in the last few years, it's accelerating.

What advice do you have for people getting started now in content design and content strategy? What sort of opportunities would you steer folks toward or things to look out for, and how should they find their niche, a place to advocate for themselves and the role of content as they're choosing a path forward in the content space?


Candi Williams
Yeah, good question. Firstly, I would go back to what I said earlier and just remind people that content design, strategy, whether you are just you're not content design or strategy by title, but you're doing content design and strategy. I would encourage people to see it as a skill and a set of expertise in the same way that user research, is that coding is, and like that as a skill. It's one that we constantly need to grow, learn, develop, flex. Like, I am constantly learning. I've never stopped learning, and I don't think I ever will stop. But I would encourage people to just check in with themselves and remind themselves of what they've got is a valuable skill and a valuable set of expertise. They are not there, although sometimes it may feel like that their content is absolutely a main character. It's not something that's there to fill in boxes or replace "Laura Michelson." What you do is critical, and I think having that reminder is something that would have been useful for me earlier in my career when you do start to question yourself and doubt yourself. Of course.
Another thing that I always reflect on is people not getting content is no personal reflection of content designers and content strategy. It's related to a lot of things, but largely down to the maturity of where an organization is at with its content journey - @candiwrites,which doesn't mean that the content designers and strategists on the ground aren't doing an amazing job. So I would encourage people just to continue to see it as a skill that they need to keep learning.

One thing I've been thinking a lot about recently is content design and strategy. Sure, different job titles, a lot of overlap. Content designers will always do well to understand and be aware of content strategy, content Ops, and all of the great stuff that goes on beyond Figma files. Do you know the many surrounding things with stakeholder alignment? The problem definition is critical, the concept, modeling, the templating, the workflows, etc. And constantly strive, I suppose, to know more and to understand more and to make the most of the great skill that you have that is proven so much of what we're seeing. On the hard days, I like to remind myself that I struggled when I was looking for dedicated content design jobs. There weren't any outside of London at all and kind of in-house that weren't agency based. And now to see so many content design UX writing content strategy roles, it's just heartwarming and speaks for itself in many ways.


Cruce Saunders
I love it. I absolutely love how our industry has been unfolding in such a positive way. There are so many of us building on-ramps into the industry as well. And your writing and your books and your advocacy really help people in that vein. Last year we started a YouTube series called "The Invisible World of Content", which kind of deals with all the structure and semantics and all of these things that I'm incredibly passionate about within the world of content. And that's just our kind of way of helping onboard people to these concepts. And you're doing it every day. Our mutual friend Kristina Halvorson does it every day. And there's so many content leaders that are out there every day advocating for the role of content and helping others to find their leadership position within the industry. So thank you for all that you've been adding to the conversation and that you'll add in the years to head. Is there any final advice that you'd like to share, Candi with listeners, any projects or resources you'd like to let people know about?


Candi Williams
Oh, two things I think that are useful. So I will share them on Twitter and LinkedIn. But I am blasting up Equity in Design Book Fund, which aims to match folks from underrepresented communities, who aren't able to maybe afford resources and the many great content design content strategy that's out there, with some of those books. So the way it works is donations of actual hard copy books, also working with some publishers on ebooks so we can make that global. So I can share some details of that, because if anyone is interested in books and not able to afford them, like, I don't want that to be a barrier. So hopefully that will help.

The other thing that I'm doing so very much to compliment the shout out to Button the wonderful, wonderful content conferences that we've been blessed with. And we're so fortunate to have James Deer from "Working in Content" and I are hosting a content festival that's focused on working in content and content careers right through from breaking into content and making that first step to navigating leadership. And it's focused on all things around careers. Also looking at things like burnout, sabbatical, all of the stuff that people talk about. One thing I would say is the first track, so the breaking into career track is completely free. So anyone listening to this that is early career in content ops, working in content website and checkout our prospective festival.


Cruce Saunders
Wonderful. That's a way to make an awesome difference for a lot of folks. And if you'd like to check out the Twitter feed of Candi, please visit at Candiwrites at C-A-N-D-I WRITES on Twitter and you'll find some information about that book fund on her feed. And we'll put that into the resources of this episode as well. Candi, this has been an absolutely significant moment because it's connecting some very big worlds in content. The worlds of content design, strategy, engineering, early-stage career, and the active content leadership that you represent. Having been raised in an industry that has been driven by your passion for words and power and put that into practice in the enterprise, affecting millions of people across the Bumble application, through products, and that leadership meeting the new generation, and all of these disciplines coming together, that is a pivotal moment in history of content. So thank you for sharing with us, and we look forward to continuing the conversation in the years ahead.


Candi Williams
Yes, thank you for having me. And yes, thank you for your wonderful podcast.

Cruce Saunders
Absolutely. Cheers, Candi. Thanks, everybody.

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