Why Content Strategy and Design Go Hand-In-Hand – An Interview with Michael Metts

Headshot by Mike Ross.

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

After studying photojournalism, Michael Metts had trouble landing a job at a newspaper. So he decided to “join the industry that killed the one I loved” and began building websites and apps.

Now he’s a Senior UX Designer at The Nerdery, a custom software development and design company, marrying content strategy, design and the user experience.

Ahead of his Confab Minneapolis workshop in May, he previews the class, and discusses the importance of a good strategy and why placeholders are a no-no at The Nerdery.

The following transcription has been edited for readability and clarity.

Nels: Tell me about your role at The Nerdery as a Senior UX Designer.

Michael: The Senior UX Designer role means I can be working on a lot of different projects. One thing that’s great about The Nerdery is that they always look to find the right people for the project. So clients have different needs and my background is in content strategy and information architecture and research, so those are the types of projects I get to work on.

N: So that means you’re not necessarily involved with one project from beginning to end?

M: Well, that depends. For some projects, I could be leading the whole UX effort depending on what it looks like from start to finish. For other projects, I might come in and consult. With content strategy as a focus, everything has a content component. Even a mobile application with all its various error messages and push notifications is going to have a heavy content component. But I might not be as actively involved in that. I may just come in and consult on the high-level plan on what we’re trying to get done with that content and go from there.

N: That goes right into my next question. What’s the relationship between content and UX/UI design?

M: It’s impossible to do one without the other. The two are completely reliant on each other to work. One of the big things we emphasize with our clients is that we never design without content. If we don’t have the real content that’s going to be there, we’ll work with content that’s as close to real as possible, whether it’s something we write on our own or work with the client to create.

The reason behind that is, if you use content that’s more or less a placeholder, the design isn’t worth much. The content should be the basis for all of our design work, whether that’s a website with a sprawling amount of pages or a mobile application with different states and transitions, or especially in the case of something with a voice interface like an Alexa skill or a chatbot. That’s almost entirely content.

So you can’t have one without the other and they inform each other very heavily.

N: So there’s no “lorem ipsum” going on over at The Nerdery?

M: No, no, no. We try to shy away from that. Again, even design work that’s purely illustrative is based on content. I’m working with a visual designer right now on my current project and we’re creating some really cool illustrations and icons and things like that. But even those are heavily reliant on the content. You don’t know what to illustrate until you know the story you’re trying to tell.

So again, we really can’t do any sort of meaningful design work without a deep understanding of the content.

N: As a photographer, how does your eye for visuals inform your eye (or ear) for content and UX, and does that go the other way?

M: My background in photography is actually photojournalism. That’s what I went to school for. When I first got into UX, it was really because I couldn’t find a job at a newspaper. I figured I should join the industry that killed the one I loved and I started to build websites and apps and things like that.

But at the same time, I think there’s an element of crossover there because what I was doing with photography was telling stories in an objective way. There’s also some objectivity that comes with design, especially because we come at it from the user-experience field. That means it’s our responsibility to understand the users behind whatever we’re designing and objectively communicate what we uncover to our clients.

So just like I used to use the camera to clearly tell a story about what’s happening in the world, what I need to do for a website is not too different. I need to let our clients know what’s happening in the world, what’s happening with their customers so that they can make informed design decisions.

N: Content creation and content marketing is all about using words and design as a differentiator. When you’re trying to understand what your client really wants to say, what are some of the most important questions you ask?

M: Even when it gets to the granular level of writing content or producing a video or creating visual components (whether that’s photography or something else), everything has to serve a higher-level goal. To me, that’s what I point people back to all the time.

There’s a lot of noise when it comes to content and so many different directions you can go. But unless we have focus, unless we have clarity around what we’re all trying to accomplish, then it can ultimately be a lot of wasted effort.

So that’s what I always point clients to. I point clients toward trying to have a higher-level strategy. And many times they do but just haven’t taken the time to see how it practically affects their content or their design. And that’s why I’m there, to facilitate that conversation.

But sometimes it could be a case where the client doesn’t have that strategy articulated as well. And it’s no problem to be able to help with that process. And it’s one of the coolest opportunities because everyone’s really invested and excited, but at the same time, you’re uncovering something that’s completely new.

N: What if they don’t have a document, a written strategy? How do you express the importance of that piece?

M: To me, that’s key to getting anything done, whether that’s making editorial decisions about the content we create or just design decisions throughout the process about the experience people are going to have. If you don’t have that [documented strategy], you don’t really have a guidepost or a way to make those decisions.

So it’s not hard to get people bought into the idea of working on that and documenting it somewhere.

And then as far as the process of actually coming together and doing it, it’s awesome because that process is different for each client and each company and the journey that they’re on.

One of the projects I got to do fairly recently was a project where we did some collaborative content modeling and actually got to do some international travel because it was a big global company. And they didn’t have agreement about what their data model should look like, what their content should look like as it was being personalized and curated for different audiences.

So that was a really exciting process and it was something they’d never worked through before. And the workshop process where we actually got people to describe what they wanted their content to do and then prioritized those needs from what we absolutely must have to what would be more of a luxury was a really neat thing for all to be involved in.

N: So it was just as much a way to help people say no or yes to stuff as it was about helping them figure out what kind of content to create?

M: Yeah, saying no is almost more important than saying yes. Lots of people have no trouble saying yes to a lot of different ideas and they all seem really good. But if you say yes to everything, it’s a recipe for confusion and for ambiguity and for not really accomplishing those goals to carry out in the first place.

So yeah, absolutely. Saying no is hugely important and having the hard conversation where we can only choose one of these things to really focus on. What is it going to be? That’s a good soul-searching process for companies.

N: In your experience, what are some of the biggest misconceptions people have when it comes to content creation and design?

M: I think the biggest one that I run into over and over again is the perception that it’s going to somehow be easy or not take a lot of time or effort. That’s always a surprise.

But if you’re going to get into a large-scale content creation effort, it’s much like becoming a publisher. And if your company is not a publisher, then you’re going to struggle and you’re really going to feel a lot of pain as you attempt to do a lot of the same things that publishers have really gotten down. If you don’t have a large portion of your staff dedicated to creating content and editing content, then it’s going to be difficult.

It SOUNDS pretty easy, you know? Let’s just write some articles and take some photos. But then when you actually get into the process, then you figure out who’s going to create it, who’s going to edit it, who’s going to be the subject matter expert, then you have a whole governance mess that you may not have even been aware of because your organization is trying to do something new it may never have done before or have pretty limited experience in or maybe it’s just one department.

N: You mentioned “governance,” and the first time I heard that term [in relation to strategy] was in Kristina Halvorson’s book, Content Strategy for the Web. It seems to be a big differentiator between a content strategy and a content marketing strategy. What role does governance play in the strategy conversation?

M: Let me go back and touch on the difference between content strategy and content marketing strategy. And maybe we disagree on this but the difference between content strategy and content marketing or a content marketing strategy is that content marketing feels like one particular tactic to carry out your content strategy.

To me, there is so much content that people wouldn’t just think of as marketing and a digital experience but it’s core to your strategy. For example, you may have a lot of marketing content published that’s driving toward a sale or building a relationship but then you might have a lot of support content or you might have error messages or error states, you might have a whole bunch of emails that could be transactional OR marketing in nature.

There are so many different pieces of this puzzle and, to me, content marketing isn’t really meant to cover all of them. It’s more of a tactic for achieving your goals.

So content strategy should be something that really applies more holistically to an organization in every facet of its content.

As far as governance, that’s just about the follow-through. Because, without governance, without figuring out who’s responsible for what, who’s going to be carrying out which tasks, then your plan is kind of dead on arrival.

It’s a cool plan, everyone’s happy about it, everyone’s excited about it. But then it doesn’t get implemented. That’s the governance piece, making sure that people know what they’re responsible for and have the tools they need to carry it out.

Content marketing isn’t meant to address the needs of, for example, a user on an airline website who just got their flight canceled. That’s still a content problem. We need to communicate what’s happening in that situation in a way that accommodates the user and is sensitive to the frustration they might be feeling.

That’s where user experience can come in and really hold hands with content strategy. Whereas on the blog, content marketing is holding hands with the content strategy. So to me, there are just a lot of different facets. Content strategy is becoming less and less of a distinct role (although plenty of companies have that role), it’s becoming a more cohesive idea that affects a lot of different disciplines. It’s going to affect designers, it’s going to affect writers, it’s going to affect managers and product owners and a lot of different roles.

N: Your first Confab experience was a five-minute speed talk and now you’re going to be a featured speaker for the event coming up here in Minneapolis. What do you love most about Confab and what will you be talking about?

M: There’s no other venue quite like it to meet people who are practicing content strategy. So that’s really cool. And it’s not just people who are content strategists by title. Designer is my title and I’ll be there. There are plenty of people who are writers, plenty of people focused on marketing.

To me, it’s THE content strategy conference. And it’s exciting because you get to see a lot of different facets of what’s going on in the industry. And it’s a wide range. You go from marketing to UX and you start to see how those things might relate to each other.

The workshop I’m doing, I’m actually teaching with a UX content strategist from Adobe. Our workshop is about prototyping different interfaces that are text-based. So we look at developing a voice for your interface if you haven’t done that before (or clarifying it if you have). Then we talk about how tone should change in different situations to respond to a user.

So we talk about that case for an airline when a flight is canceled. Obviously, you want to take a different tone there than if you were just congratulating someone for signing up for an account. We talk about how that tone should change.

And then we talk about actually prototyping an interface and testing it with users to understand how it could be changed or iterated over time. So it’s pretty cool and we’re excited about it. It’s a half-day workshop and I like workshops more than talks because it allows us to actually do the work and get our hands dirty a little bit.

N: So the people in this workshop are able to actually build something and try these things out as you’re uncovering them?

M: Yeah, they’re going to come away with a prototype. And when I say “prototype” I’m being a little generous. It’s drawn and written on paper. But it’s something you can set up with users. That’s the important thing about a prototype; you can sort of mimic the actual experience and get data about it before you go to market. So to me, that’s what’s exciting about it. You get to come away actually creating something.

N: In your experience, what’s the key to going from that strong foundation of a content strategy and turning it into content?

M: To me, it’s a matter of follow-through. It’s not that hard to come together as a company and decide what your content strategy is going to be (I say “not that hard” even though sometimes, it could take months). But that’s the easy part.

The hard part is follow-through over time. And that’s the governance piece I was talking about. But ultimately, having people committed to it, actually having people who are watching out to make sure we’re actually following through on what we set out to do is key.

N: What’s your 2018 marketing resolution?

M: I never made a marketing resolution. But if there’s something I’m encouraging clients to do a lot more, this year especially, it’s to slow down and be intentional. These decisions have big implications, whether that’s in terms of the money you’re going to spend or the time you’re going to spend, the direction you’re going to take your efforts. Those are all very impactful.

So make sure that there’s clarity with everyone before you choose which way you’re going to run.

You may have heard that, at Facebook, their motto was “move fast and break stuff.” That’s something they had in the earlier years as they got going. One of the things the content strategy team at Facebook did (and I hope I’m not butchering this story) was start making signs that said “Slow down and fix your sh*t.”

To me, that’s the value that content strategy brings and what I bring to clients as well. Just to really help them understand that the answer isn’t always just to blast forward headlong. Sometimes it can be just to take a step back and see if it’s really where we want to be going.

N: So what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

M: I think the best advice I ever got for my career came from a guy named Scott Kubie, who now works at Brain Traffic as a senior content strategist.

What he told me was to reframe the problem. And he told me this for a specific project and a specific problem, but it’s proven to be invaluable for pretty much every project and every problem. The example he gave me was:

When someone calls a meeting because they want to build a thing, they have to put something in the subject line. And sometimes they decide what we’re going to build because they named the meeting. Like an executive said, “We need a campaign to increase sales of this product.” So then the person scheduling the meeting puts, “Email Campaign for Product X.”

Well, no one said it was email. But we had to put something in the subject line and now, all of a sudden, we’re talking about email. So one thing I’ve done constantly in my career is try to step back and reframe the problem so that we understand what we’re actually trying to accomplish together and do it well.


This blog is part of the ongoing content marketing interview series where we talk with marketing professionals about their career, unique perspectives on the industry and some key advice they’ve learned along the way.

March 21, 2018

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