The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, the Rosenfeld Review. In this episode, Lou speaks with Natalie Marie Dunbar, author of From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice, just published by Rosenfeld Media. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
[Lou] Welcome to the Rosenfeld Review. I’m your host, Lou Rosenfeld. I’m very happy to have today’s guest, Natalie Dunbar, author of the newest Rosenfeld Media book, From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. Now, Natalie, first of all, welcome.
[Natalie] Thank you, Lou. Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.
[Lou] So we’ve talked about this topic before. I know it sounds to people listening like it might be somewhat technical. And actually speaking of engineering, well, really maybe architecture, you’ve got a lot of construction metaphors throughout the book visually as well as textually. And yet when we talk about this subject, a lot of it kind of boils down to how someone is feeling about the prospect of building a content strategy practice and building one that’s sustainable over time.
Why is this more of an emotional topic than I had expected?
That’s a great question. I think in my experience, and experience of people that I’ve spoken with while writing the book, the process can be lonely. If you are a solo content strategist attempting to build a practice, you’re by yourself as the lone content person in the room and you’re trying to figure out who the people are that you can talk with that will help in understanding what it is that you’re trying to build and then come alongside you when you’re building it.
If you’re leading a team in a larger organization, you may be interacting with levels of leadership that you may not have had to interface with on a regular basis. And all of a sudden you’re like, “This is how we’re going to do it. This is the process. These are the things that I need. This is the resource that we need.” So I think having a companion and a guide surfaced as I kept hearing, I wish I had a narrator or a guide telling me, “Okay, take this step. Take this step.” And then to step back and take a breath before you move on and keep pushing. I think that’s where the emotion comes in.
Have you found any inspiration or lessons from the growth of design practices that’ve been useful for you as you’ve tried to work your way through building content strategy practices.
I don’t want to simplify the ways that design has come to this place of being at that product development table with the developers and everybody else. But I’ll say that I think as content strategists and designers, we’ve got the seat at the table and we’ve also started building our own tables. It depends on how your organization or agency is set up. You may be seated at the table with people, or you may have your own table and people are coming like I said to sample whatever you’ve got there. What I’ve learned over the years is how to speak the language of all the various cross-functional teammates. There’s a whole chapter in the book about how important it is to build alliances. And that’s a theme that runs throughout the book. This is not something that you do in a vacuum.
I made the rookie mistake early on of going into an agency like I’m here to save the day. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that I was the first content strategist at that agency. So everyone was asking me, what exactly is it that you do? I was talking about things that the team had already done and after a couple of weeks of back and forth and not really having any forward motion, I thought, okay, so let’s start again. Let’s sit down and figure out where does the product development cycle begin? How does it kick off and how much lead time do we need? So, from that, I remember sitting in a conference room that had whiteboards all the way around. Lots of markers, lots of post-it notes. And we created a process framework and figured out where are those crucial handoffs. And at every moment that we identified another cross-functional teammate, it was like… How can I speak to that teammate? How can I speak to a designer? I can use design thinking language. I can use service blueprint language. I can use different language that helps everyone understand what it is that I’m trying to do as a content strategy.
Are you having to be the one who learns that language everywhere you go?
Yes. There’s something that I call the “Persistent Principles” that I wrote about in a book and one of the very first ones is “Always Be Educating.” So even when your practice is established, someone new is going to come along, a new developer, a new IA, a new designer, and they’ve maybe never worked with a content strategist or content designer before.
Maybe they’re used to tossing designs over the proverbial fence and asking for the words to be plugged in instead of the other way around, which is particularly difficult in highly regulated spaces. Insurance and healthcare, in particular, you’ll have this lovely design and then the content breaks that design because it’s required. And then there’s this big kerfuffle and we’ve got to start over again.
How does “Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice” get started? How do you build? How do you scale?
So the steps of building the practice are going to be the same, whether you’re solo or building with a small team. I’ve provided a blueprint called the “Content Strategy Practice Blueprint.” There are five components to that blueprint and they include making the business case, building strong relationships with cross-functional teams and departmental partners, creating frameworks and curating tools to build with right-sizing the practice. So now we’re talking about starting to scale the number of people or practitioners. If you’re at an agency like I was when I built my first practice, that might mean bringing on contractors for a specific client relationship that you have.
And then the final component in the blueprint is establishing meaningful success measures. We’re talking about what are the practice OKRs? What are the goals of the practice? Not at the project level, but at the practice level. And once you have gone through those steps, that’s when you step back and you look at those success measures and you say, “Have I been able to meet these goals that I told leadership that I was going to?” And, “Do I need to go back through any of these steps and shore things up?”
Then you can decide if the structure is healthy enough for us to start scaling. That’s where the growth happens. That’s where, if you’re at an agency, maybe you’ve established yourself as a solo practitioner and you don’t need more bodies, but you have people coming in as contractors as you are bringing on clients who are establishing this demand for the content strategy work to happen.
Within an enterprise, that might look like all of a sudden, more and more teams are asking for content strategy expertise. And all of a sudden, your project list is growing, and you need to bring in more people and more practitioners. There’s never anything that’s really basic about a content strategy project, but there are some where we’re going to launch this new feature. We need content. We need copy. But we also need to figure out, where does it live on the site? What’s the nomenclature that we’re using? Is it consistent with other topics that might be similar on whatever digital experience that we’re building in?
I think this is a good point, as you’re looking at bringing in and scaling your practice, to look around your product table. Look around the practice that you’ve established and consider the importance of bringing in a diverse team. When you start to diversify your practice team, you’re going to start to hear different perspectives. And then that will broaden your reach as your audience starts to grow.
Let’s say you have a 15-person practice. Is there like any type of ideal ratio of UX writers to information architects to something else?
Ideally, we would have all the above embedded into product teams. That’s a tricky question because there are so many names that we go by. I’m a purist. I stayed with content strategy because that’s how I learned it and that’s what I know. But I also have worked in roles where I’ve been a content designer. I’ve done IA work. I’ve also been on teams where I was the strategist. I figured out the strategy and handed it off to a UX writer.
So now we’re talking about diversification of skills within a content strategy practice. Your practice may include only people who produce content, but you may find that in order to scale, you need to consider what Ann Rockley refers to as your “frontend and your backend content strategist.” So, your people who identify more as a frontend – I like being in the research. I like the closest I can get to the user, or the audience that we’re creating experience for. That’s my happy place. And then someone who is more than happy to sit down with developers and engineers who is perhaps more comfortable working on the backend. So, as you scale, you might find that in order to continue to sustain a healthy practice, you need to diversify in those specialties within content strategy.
I think it’s good that you’re also framing them, not as roles, but more specialties or skills. Would it be safe to say that if you’re building that practice, you have to hire people that are ultimately willing to wear different hats? They may have their comfort zones, their happy places, but ultimately, it’s a new enough area that sometimes in a given day, one of your people might have to be doing Ann Rockley’s frontend work, another day backend work?
Is that still the case even in a mature content strategy practice?
Yeah. I did a fireside chat recently about the fact that there’s so many specializations within the content world. And it really boils down to understanding what it is that I think that you are passionate about. And also being very honest about what areas I am passionate about. For example, content modeling is still a world of wonder for me. If I don’t have anyone else on the team, then I have to do it. And if I get a little stuck, maybe there’s an architect that I can confer with on a previous job that I was on.
I sat down with the project manager, who had passion for the backend piece of content strategy. He walked me through a couple of examples and all of a sudden, I’m doing content monologue documentation. So just be open and get out of your own way. Certainly, if you are more comfortable with certain aspects of content strategy, don’t try to shoehorn yourself into something that you’re ultimately going to get stuck. But instead of immediately fleeing from a different job, see it as an opportunity instead of a weakness.
There’s so much to developing a content strategy practice and I know we just really scratch the surface here, but I’m really glad that those who are overwhelmed by it, including myself now have a handy guide, From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice. It’s been delightful to spend time talking with you about it.
From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice is now available from Rosenfeld Media.
The Rosenfeld Review podcast is brought to you by Rosenfeld Media. Please subscribe and listen on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast platform. Tell a friend to have a listen and check out our website for over 100 podcasts with other fascinating people from the UX community. You’ll find them all at RosenfeldReview.com.
The Content Strategy Practice Blueprint
I’m fascinated by buildings: single family structures, high-rise dwellings, and especially office towers. As such, I’ve always had a healthy curiosity about the construction process. For example, Figure 1.1 shows a Habitat for Humanity building that I worked on. From the initial breaking of ground to the completion of a building’s façade, I find comfort in both the art and order of construction—how foundations support columns, columns support beams, and beams support floors. When the building plans are followed as written, every element comes together perfectly to create a strong structure that is capable of withstanding natural elements like wind and earthquakes.
In my career as a content strategist, I’ve heard colleagues speak about “standing up a team,” or “standing up a practice.” There was familiarity in the concept of building a figurative structure that had a specific function or purpose. And, of course, that familiarity stemmed from my fascination with buildings, so the construction metaphor made sense to me.
That metaphor also reminded me of one of my favorite books, Why Buildings Stand Up, by Mario Salvadori. Before writing and content strategy became my full-time job, I worked in various roles in residential and commercial real estate. All of those roles exposed me to various phases of building construction and tenant improvements, and reading Salvadori’s book helped me understand construction and architecture in an engaging way.
The familiarity I felt when hearing the phrase “stand up a practice” in the digital experience world often stopped short of the idea of the building metaphor. For example, practices were “stood up” with no attention to order. Foundations were poured before soil tests were completed, often resulting in skipping the addition of the footings that might be needed to support the foundation, or in the case of the practice, doing the work to ensure that the practice followed the necessary processes to create digital experiences that met the needs of users as well as the goal of the client or business. And inevitably, the structure—or the practice—began to crumble.
And sometimes those practices failed completely.
From the Ground Up
Having had the opportunity to build an agency-based content strategy practice from the ground up, and later expanding and maintaining an existing practice within a mid-to-large sized organization, I began to see that failures often happened because steps crucial to supporting the structure had been skipped. Or perhaps the structure had been compromised because the framework used to build it—if one was used at all—couldn’t withstand the constant stress of tension and compression.
When I started to think about what caused these seemingly strong practices to crumble—I returned to the building and construction metaphor to look for possible answers. That’s because it’s sometimes easier to, er, construct a mental model that’s more tangible than the nebulousness nature of digital information spaces.
If the building metaphor still feels a bit weird to you, then try this: think of the last time someone asked what you did for a living. If you’re a UX practitioner, or if you collaborate with members of a UX team, you’ve likely experienced the feeling of the listener’s eyes glazing over as you tried to explain the concept of user experience—or as I once saw it described, “making websites and apps stink less.” Then think of what might happen if you described the user experience using a more relatable metaphor, such as one of the following:
- The internet is a space.
- A website or mobile app is a destination within that space (and in the case of websites, a space complete with its own address).
- The work you do helps people avoid getting lost in that space.
In keeping with this theme, now imagine that the opportunity that’s immediately in front of you—that of building a UX-focused content strategy practice—is a pristine plot of land. Provided you have a solid plan and the right materials and tools, this untilled soil is ready for you to break ground and to stand up a healthy content strategy practice.
So this figurative plot of land you’ve been given needs someone—you—to till the soil and prepare the space for a structure to be built. And the creation of the plans for that structure, as well as sourcing the building materials and the tools you’ll need to build it, has also fallen to you.
Lucky for you, this book is your blueprint.
To continue reading, order your copy of From Solo to Scaled!
Natalie Marie Dunbar joins Lou to discuss the lonely pursuit that is content strategy. She also digs into what it means to build a content strategy practice—whether you’re just starting out as a solo practitioner, scaling up in a large organization, or trying to make a case for your CS practice’s value. Her new Rosenfeld Media book, From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice, serves as a “companion” to address this loneliness as much as it is a guide to the resources needed to create a sustainable content practice.
This episode offers a preview of what Natalie calls the Content Strategy Practice Blueprint. There are five components to that blueprint, including making the business case, building strong relationships, creating frameworks and tools, and establishing meaningful measures of success.
For more, check out Natalie’s new book, From Solo to Scaled,—now available from Rosenfeld Media.
Natalie recommends: Jonathan McFadden, a content designer, copywriter + storyteller.I’ve had to build and scale a content strategy practice from scratch, and I can tell you that it would have been 100% easier if I’d had Dunbar’s book in my hands”— David Dylan Thomas, author of Design for Cognitive Bias.
With her new book, From Solo to Scaled: Building a Sustainable Content Strategy Practice, UX-focused content strategist Natalie Marie Dunbar delivers a comprehensive blueprint for building and scaling a content strategy practice.
Businesses that are struggling to scale their content strategy and design practices missing out on critical opportunities to communicate effectively with customers. The book’s goal is to help content strategists, UX managers, creative leads and others create and grow scalable, sustainable UX content strategy practices that organizations require for communicating effectively and impactfully.
Kristina Halvorson, author of Content Strategy for the Web, writes in the foreword, “There is no magical, fail-safe formula for scaling up a content strategy practice…However, this book presents a five-part ‘blueprint’ for change that doesn’t require months of banging your head against the wall trying to get people to get it.”
“I’ve had to build and scale a content strategy practice from scratch, and I can tell you that it would have been 100% easier if I’d had Dunbar’s book in my hands,” said David Dylan Thomas, author of Design for Cognitive Bias.
At present, From Solo to Scaled is available exclusively from Rosenfeld Media, and will be available through Amazon and other retailers globally beginning July 25.
About the Author: Natalie Marie Dunbar is a UX-focused content strategist with a unique blend of skills as a journalist, content writer, and user experience researcher. Natalie has worked in various roles as a content writer and strategist for brands that include Anthem, Farmers Insurance, Kaiser Permanente, Walmart, and YP.com. She’s also produced original content for federal agencies that include the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Centers for Tobacco Prevention (CTP), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Veterans Administration (VA). Natalie is also an active member of Women Talk Design and was a founding member of the Content Strategy Los Angeles meetup group.
The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, the Rosenfeld Review. In this episode, Lou speaks with conference curators of the upcoming Design at Scale conference, responsible for development of the program. Lada Gorlenko is Senior Director of Research and Kit Unger is VP of Product Design, both with MURAL. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’m Lou Rosenfeld, and I am thrilled to have two old friends with me today, Lada Gorlenko and Kit Unger, who are the two main folks curating this year’s Design at Scale a virtual conference, coming up on June 8th through 10th.
We began program development with an open call for presentation proposals (CFP). Lada and Kit then reviewed and selected from a wide range of proposals. We want to learn a bit about this conference and about the types of things Kit and Lada are preparing. I think you’re going to find this year’s themes quite interesting.
So, what do you two have in mind for Design at Scale? Which, by the way, some may remember in the past having a different name, Enterprise Experience, and before that, Enterprise UX.
What’s going to be different as you put together the program this year?
[Lada] Last year we renamed the conference Design at Scale. I think this year’s theme is very apt and very fitting the new name, “At Scale”. What we’d like to share and what we’d like to learn about from our audience is the experience around unprecedented change at scale over the last couple of years where so many things went so differently. The overarching theme of this year’s conference is change at scale. All about the things that will not to go back to normal but go forward to normal.
Would it be accurate to say that you’re looking at this point in time as a pivot point, to take stock of this last two years, where there’s been some interesting things happening?
[Kit] Yes, we’ll be talking about acceleration of work. In 2020, the pandemic accelerated the future of work and collaboration, and it certainly accelerated my company’s growth. When I joined MURAL just a little over a year ago, the design team was around 10 people. We’re now over 70 people. That’s hyper growth to the extreme.
Prior to the pandemic, I was one of those people that felt like everyone on the team had to be co-located for the most part. Once the pandemic happened, we were all forced to work remotely. I saw many benefits. The pandemic sucks. No doubt about it. But there’ve been positive outcomes in how we work because of being forced to work remotely. So that’s one of the things we’re covering – the positive outcomes, what we’ve learned, and ways that people can work better.
So, we’ll hear people’s lessons, stories, even case studies on how remote work has changed, how we work. Does that pertain as well to things like how we design teams, how we hire for hybrid teams, what the care and feeding is of our people, and things along those lines?
[Lada] Absolutely. I think the pandemic has affected things like hiring and onboarding. The research team I’ve hired in the last year, they’re all new people and I’ve never met them in-person. So how do we do that? And how else are teams impacted. Different team dynamics and different team structures, that ultimately lead to different processes. In the last couple of years many people are feeling depressed and anxious. What can we do to change the way we work to address that? Not just work from home, but also what can we do to change the team dynamic, team composition, and how people work? This goes for research too. How do we talk to our customers? How do we observe our customers, when we are no longer able to meet them in the field?
Why now for all these questions?
[Lada] Because I think the two-year mark is a really good time for reflection, where we’re no longer in the middle of this new thing, this new pandemic, this new way of working. We can reflect on what’s happened. Yet, we’re still on the tail end of it. So, we’re not too far removed from things happening. That’s why this year is a perfect time to talk about it.
We won’t be presenting success stories only. We’ll hear from people who have tried things that didn’t work. We want to present honest, authentic conversations about things that didn’t work as much as things that work. Failed attempts are some of the most successful talks we had last year.
[Lou] Failures that lead to lessons. I think it would be hard for anyone to claim they haven’t been learning from failure these last 2 years.
Our conversation so far is from the perspective of people who run a substantial organization. One that’s growing quickly. What about independent contributors, people who are doing design and research in the trenches, are they also coming up with some of these hard-fought lessons? Are those lessons part of this program?
[Kit] Definitely. We’ll be looking at both sides of the problem. There are so many issues, like working remotely, and time zone issues. And we’re all finding ways to try to make that work better. For example, we adjust our schedules, we use Loom, we’re getting better at asynchronous ways of working when we can. Hearing other success stories like that will be awesome!
Lada mentioned the loneliness issue, and it’s a real problem for many people. We can’t bond over lunch the way we used to before the pandemic. This is sad, but I’m just thinking about this. My sister passed away right before the pandemic started. The hugs from people at work really helped. So when I see people suffering on my team, it’s rough. Part of the story is how do we create that ever-so-important human connection?
As someone who’s specifically working with researchers and is a researcher, Lada, are you finding that the act of doing research has been radically affected? Are there a lot of lessons that are coming out of there that will continue once we do go back to working and meeting in-person?
[Lada] Not the act of doing research, because I’ve been working, testing remote and using remote participants for a long, long time. But I do feel we’re moving away from the traditional research practice where researchers do research, to having a research coaching practice. And the research coaches and advisors who are professional researchers, but don’t necessarily do research, are supporting designers and PMs and engineers by teaching, training, coaching, and supporting them to do research. By flipping the research practice to a research coaching practice, we are bringing people together in one place and supporting them.
Research has changed. We’re helping, we’re preparing everything for our UX designers and PMs. That changes the dynamic and that changes how they perceive ownership, and how we perceive the team dynamic. How it all changes and how support in isolation become team work, because we are breaking boundaries of our own discipline.
[Kit] This is going remarkably well, too. That’s a huge success story of something we wouldn’t want to see go back to the way it used to be. There are things that have to be done when scaling a UX design team, regardless of whether you’re working remotely or not. Empowering teams, and operationalizing quality and usability, and scaling research is an example of how we’re optimizing how we work.
[Lou] It’s great to hear that. It makes me very hopeful that this new normal or whatever we want to call it is really going to be better in some new ways. We’re going to have, someday, hopefully not too far off, we’ll have a mix of both in-person and remote practices that really are more powerful together than anything we’ve had in the past.
You mentioned earlier, how you are all using tools like Loom. In fact, you’ve radically improved the way the Rosenfeld Media conference program curation is going in terms of preparation of speakers. Most people don’t realize that when people speak at one of our conferences, they do two or three months of preparation. They participate in speaker cohorts, with people like Lada and Kit, as well as spend time with a speaker coach who helps them. One of the difficult things is doing that across time zones, sometimes with five, six, or seven speakers at once.
Lada and Kit have been using Loom as a way for us to manage this in a more asynchronous way. For rehearsals and for commenting on rehearsals. Loom is a video tool that among other things helps people annotate directly to video. The tools are also changing very quickly. You work at a company that’s a tooling company, obviously, so you’re certainly in tune with this.
I’m wondering if there will be any focus on tooling at Design at Scale. Is it also about using tools in inventive new ways?
[Kit] Certainly. Being forced to work remotely, we’ve had to think about all those things and how to optimize efficiency. Take MURAL, for example. It’s a visual collaboration tool, which visual collaboration is essential for remote teams, but knowing how to use any tool isn’t enough. In our case, we need everyone in the product design order to be expert at facilitating the right methods at the right time for the right outcomes. So, we want to hear concrete examples on how people are using the tools and what new tools they’re using.
[Lou] Excellent. Lots to think about in terms of what we’ve learned in the last two years. Lots to think about in terms of not only the painful lessons, but the good things as well. They’re all lessons that we’re going to use in the years forward, and how they’re going to be squared with some of the practices that we had pre-COVID when we could meet in-person. I’m looking forward to Design at Scale to learn with you and the people who present that you’ve selected. To see what is design going to look like, basically, in the coming years and how it’s going to change. I think Design at Scale is going to be a great place, a great pivot point among many, I would imagine, where people are going to be coming together and figuring that out.
Design at Scale is taking place June 8-10. This is a virtual conference. Check out the full roster of speakers and the three-day program here.
The Rosenfeld Review podcast is brought to you by Rosenfeld Media. Please subscribe and listen to it on iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast platform. Tell a friend to have a listen and check out our website for over 100 podcasts with other interesting people. You’ll find them all at RosenfeldReview.com.
Covid has fragmented our teams, workplaces, work rituals, and in some circumstances, our self-confidence. It has also forced us to learn, adapt, and improve our work at a stunningly rapid pace.
It’s a great time to take stock of what we learned these past two years, and get ready to apply those lessons in the years to come. In this episode of the Rosenfeld Review, Lou speaks with long-time Design at Scale conference curators Kit Unger and Lada Gorlenko to discuss how the conference presents the perfect opportunity to make that pivot—and make the case for you to be a part of the conference program.
Topics discussed include:
• How closely-aligned teams can forge ahead despite the challenges Covid has presented
• The importance of reconsidering how teams currently support objectives
• Learning to work together in new ways that help shift the existing work dynamic into a positive and more powerful frame
• Uncovering drivers that allow teams to surpass pre-established boundaries around collaboration
• Shifting how we perceive ownership—across all levels—in organizations
Creating and maintaining an inclusive environment that makes anyone feel welcome requires conscious and consistent effort. Whether it’s presentation, operation, or curation—incorporating your team’s voices in a healthy and organic manner as a business practice requires thinking outside the box.
In this episode of the Rosenfeld Review, you’ll hear from Danielle Barnes, CEO of Women Talk Design, as she and Lou discuss the fundamentals of designing meetings and conference presentations that are more inclusive.
Key points Danielle and Lou address include:
• Remolding non-inclusive systems to which women and non-binary folks are forced to adapt;
• Assigning rotating facilitator roles, and how those roles can promote inclusivity;
• How truly “listening” to those who are speaking can give facilitators the insights they need to curate a fantastic meeting;
• Raising awareness for the consequences of being talked over, and how to drive safety and accessibility in meetings for team members; and
• Tips to improve your natural stage presence when giving a talk.
You’ll also hear insights in how to create more inclusive environments by empowering those whose voices are not heard—and how safe spaces, when done right, help make this happen.