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The Process Behind Starting a Project Content First

I recently had a chance to sit down with Emileigh Barnes, a content designer who leads a design group at Capital One. We discuss content, why it’s so important to think content-first, why and how to wireframe as a writer, and some great advice from her mom.

Billy Carlson: Hello everyone, I am joined today with Emileigh Barnes, who is a Content strategist among other things, at Capital One and she's going to talk with us today about content and design. Welcome Emily.

Emileigh Barnes: Hi. I'm glad to be here.

BC: Tell us what you do at Capital One among other things.

EB: These days I'm a senior design manager, which means I lead design teams and the space that I work on is our Capital One Cafes. These are hybrid spaces where people from the community can come in and get financial help like planning their future. They can go to classes and workshops, also you can take care of banking needs. They can also just get a cup of coffee. They all have Peet's Coffee shops in them and their co-working spaces. So they're really interesting hybrid places where people can do all kinds of stuff.

BC: I know that you are a writer and poet. We talked about it just earlier. So please tell me about your other experiences and what you've been doing in your career?

EB: I started college thinking I'd grow up to be a journalist and then I graduated in 2008 when the financial crisis took out all of those wonderful newspapers and decided that it wasn't a career path for me. Then I decided to go into a field that is even more unstable than journalism and got my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in poetry. When I was finished with that, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be, so I took a job in the government because that felt like a stable place to work. I was doing technical writing, I was writing policy, I was writing trainings, and it was fine. I didn't feel particularly passionate about it, then an opportunity opened up when Barack Obama started founding some digital service teams after the healthcare.gov failure.

There were a bunch of teams working with government agencies to improve technology. To transform the digital government experience, and I joined one of those. I wasn't sure exactly what Id do, or what it would mean. I just knew that they had a lot of content that they needed to think about and make better for people and I was a writer... they were like, you know what, come on and join us, we'll figure it out together.

I do think content strategy was a field at that time and there were people who had it more figured out than I did. I just had to learn it on the fly.

BC: Did you have any interest or knowledge of the UX field or product design?

EB: I didn't. I did a lot of it naturally and I think a lot of UX and UI designers, content strategist and design strategist… everyone feels this way. I was naturally doing a lot of those design thinking skills without knowing what they were and what to call them.

Content Strategist vs. Content Designer

BC: I read somewhere, and maybe you can explain this, in one of your talks, Emily gives great talks so you should search her online and watch some of them. That's how I found you, I heard you speaking at a conference and thought it was fantastic. But, I think someone labeled you as a Content Designer and I thought that was a cool name. I feel like I understand it, but I’d love it if you can explain it a little bit.

EB: There is an interesting split in the content world of what people like to be called and why. Some people like to be called content strategist, some people like to be called content designers, some people like to be called something else entirely.

I called myself a content designer for a long time because I worked in a really design forward organization. Design led. Design was in charge of shaping the intent of projects. They were in charge of managing projects and I wanted to position myself as a designer because I felt like what I did was really designing, just with words. There's no jest about that at all, words are really important, but it was helping shape websites and digital tools from the standpoint of words. Which is a very design-y task. Now when I shifted to Capital One, I started calling myself a content strategist, for the same reason that I felt strategy was really the thing that was positioned better in our organization and the group that I wanted to be aligned to there. Because a lot of what designers do is very strategic and in that moment strategy felt like the right thing to call myself. I was a content strategist. I helped shape the strategy of projects and the direction they took. I've called myself different things at different times based on what felt most relevant to people I was working with and what would help them understand what I did and who I was.

BC: It is a smart way to think about how others perceive you. If you're in a design organization, compared to a large corporation, where strategy is more commonly understood at least.

EB: I had this really great boss, Aradhana, who told me once don't get too stuck on the title that you have. Think about who you are as a person and what value you bring to organizations and then do that and don't worry about what people call you. Call yourself whatever gives you what you need at the time.

Content-first design

BC: I would love to spend a little bit of time talking about your thoughts on content-first design. Maybe explain a little bit about what that is and how it is effective.

EB: You can explain it really simply, content-first design is you decide the content before you decide the design. I think the simplest way to make a case for it is you just have to know what you want to say first, before you decide how to say it. So you can say, “oh, I know my book should have an orange cover,” until you know what your book is about. And it's the same for a website where you can't say, “we're going to put a big picture. A big hero image because that's what's trendy right now”.

I mean maybe that works, but maybe it doesn't work, too. You have to know what it is that you want to convey to people first and then everything else falls around it. And that's the basic idea of content-first design.

BC: I love that. I'm curious with your current group, is there a different process for creating a new product versus enhancing an existing one?

EB: Yes! And there are different processes depending on which team you're on too. What are you doing? Which team are you working on? Who are you collaborating with? And then the process could be any manner of things?

BC: That's something that I feel if you're new to design you might not understand, meaning your process for designing something probably changes per project, too.

EB: A hundred percent. That can feel really scary because if you are a trained designer you learn a process and you're taught “this is the process to do things and this is the most rigorous and the correct way to do it”. The real world just isn't like that. I've mostly only worked in really big matrixed organizations, like the US government, or like a giant bank. The reality is, on any team, you're working with real people and you'll beat your head against a wall forever if all you can say is this isn't the most rigorous way to do stuff. We have to do things in this order. What you have to find out is what people care about and make things as good as possible in the constraints that you're working in. Which is actually the definition of design. Making something in constraints. The constraints are just always changing.

BC: I love that. That's a great quote. That's awesome. Okay. I'm curious, if you can talk about your process for a specific project, possibly from the past, where you worked from the ideation phase into design.

Capital One cafe redesign

EB: I worked on a redesign for our Capital One cafes website and there was an existing website that was out there and it was structured… It just grew organically over time is the thing to say. It started because we had a cafe and we're like, “oh we have a cafe. This is great. Let's make a website for that cafe, so people can find out information.”* Then we had 5 cafes. Suddenly we had 5 pages, and then we had 25 cafes and we have 25 pages, but then we were like, oh, let's make some regional pages to sit on top of those 25 pages. So if you're in Boston, you can go to the Boston page, but then down to one of the individual Boston cafe pages. Then we had a national page to go on top of the market pages when we were a nationwide company.

The structure just existed because that's the way the cafes existed. It didn't exist that way because that's the way people thought of cafes, right? One day we sat down and we had a second to breathe. We just hadn't even had a minute to elevate out of what we were doing and look at what we had made, and we said, wow, what we've made is actually really a mess and I don't understand it at all.

They can't navigate through the site. They get stuck in these weird dead ends. They can't figure out where else they might go. So we just basically started from scratch and we did use content-first design. The way that we did that is we started by interviewing a bunch of customers and non-customers and talking to them about our cafes and figuring out what was interesting to them and how they thought about what existed there. A common thing that you'll see with organizations is that they will organize their website by their lines of business. So like at Capital One, if we have checking accounts, we might have a checking section. If we have savings accounts, we might have a savings section of our website, and that's because we have a checking team. We have a savings team. We have a credit card team.

That's often not the way people think about information. That's why starting with content-first can be really valuable. So what we figured out was rather than the way our Cafe teams were structured, how people thought about our cafes, and what was important to them, and we discovered that people think of all the events that are happening in the cafe. No matter what team they're coming from, those are all events, and if we're interested in events, we'd like to find out about events. So we organized all of our content then the way that people thought about it and we built the website around that.

BC: So interesting, it's a very common problem. I’m sure a lot of people who do what we do fall into, where you start somewhere, then you have to add one thing and you have to add another. A few months later you realize you just added tons of stuff and now you're confused.

EB: It's also really hard to tell teams like, oh we're going to stop moving forward and instead revisit what we've done so far, because it feels like a step back to people. It's really hard to organize things the way that users think about it rather than the way that companies think about it because usually that means that teams that don't communicate, that live in silos, have to work together and that can be really scary and hard.

Redesign of FEC.gov

Back when I worked for the government, I worked on the digital transformation for the Federal Election Commission, which is the group that tracks how all money is raised and spent in federal elections. So if you wanted to look up who donated to Hillary Clinton, or how much money she raised, that is the organization that knows the answer to that. They've been doing open data since they were founded in the 70s. Which means that their website was a really early government website, which also means that it is pretty outdated when we got to it. The way their content was organized was based on form. So, if you wanted to know how much money Hillary raised, you needed to know which form that got reported on to the FEC. And they all had numbers and nobody understood how to find that information.

The homepage of the old Campaign Finance Portal
The homepage of the old Campaign Finance Portal
The homepage of the new Campaign Finance Portal
The current design. Which do you think is easier to use?

Even though the website content was organized in a way that completely made sense to the organization, it was, all of the form C information is on the form C-section. There is no way to find out the information in a way that humans understood it, which was, what is Hillary Clinton doing. So when we approached that website, we poured all the data into an API. That was the most important thing, so we could access it in different ways at different times. But we organized the content around the way people understood the content. So you could find things based on the candidate you were looking for, or the person who donated that you wanted to find out what information they were doing. And by starting with the content rather than the organization, or rather our assumptions about what the content should be, it made the website something that people could actually use.

The old design used to track campaign finances
The old design used to track campaign finances.
The new design used to track campaign finances
The current design allows for much easier searching of candidates and a clearer representation of the contributions received.

BC: That is so interesting. When you design towards user expectations, it’s called designing towards their mental model, which is a buzzword in UX. It’s good for non-designer to know that word, mental model. It just means designing towards how people would naturally expect something to work. And obviously it's really impactful.

EB: You bring up a great point because sometimes people resist content-first design because they think, I'm not a content person, but I'm a great UX designer, I know how to do UX.

There's so much overlap between us. Only the combination of all of our teams and expertise could accomplish the website the way we needed to accomplish it.

Communicating between silos

BC: I wish I had some prepared questions about it, but it is interesting when you work in a very large organization. And it’s actually something that the talk you give touches on, is communicating amongst these silos, in these more old school type organizations that aren't used to having to work together with people. Can you to touch on some tips on how to do or manage that.

EB: Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot that you can do that's really important. The first thing, and I think it goes back to who you are, rather than knowing your job title. The first thing for being known in an organization is knowing who you are. What do you stand for? What do you care about? And then you make sure that you true back to that all the time. And then the second thing is that you just have to connect with people, and that can be hard to do and it can feel hard to do if you don't feel like you have a reason to reach out to someone who doesn't work in your organization. The way that I usually try to approach that is I do it first just as a person rather than as a business person and ask someone for coffee and get to know what they care about and what their background is. Then second, I start to think about how we can collaborate and what we might have a shared interest in and want to work on together.

BC: I love that. Yeah, if you think about it, it's a very human approach. It's a designer approach where you’re just trying to get to know people and you’re all trying to align on the same goals.

EB: Exactly. It's applying the tools we use as designers to the relationships we have. You empathize with people first, then everything is built off of that.

The design phase

BC: Very interesting. I would love to talk to you a bit about the design phase, because I'm sure you've gone through it many times where you've worked on writing, content planning, possibly IA type stuff, which you talked about, and then as a writer, do you feel comfortable in the visual design phase anywhere from like wireframing onward?

EB: Yeah, I don't do it myself, but I have gotten a lot more comfortable critiquing it and learning about it and understanding it and I think this is true for any leader. You're going to have one area of expertise where you feel really confident and then you'll have people underneath you who do everything else. You have to figure out, how do I make myself valuable to the team when they're in phases that aren't like my deepest area of expertise.

Working with others

I found that this is sometimes the reason why leaders resist other disciplines that aren't their own. Sometimes they resist having a design strategist pair to their team because that's not what they do or content strategist because that's not what they do. But really when you surround yourself with people whose skills are wider than your own you can see the amazing breadth and depth that you can accomplish with design work. But to answer your original question, what do I do when we're in a visual phase and I'm not a visual designer? One thing is I try is to know as much about visual design as I can so that I can understand some basic stuff.

But I also just ask for help and get us the critique throughout our organization. So we have a lot of critique processes set up with experts in different fields in our teams. And I think that's something that anyone could stand up in their own organization. You could set up or have a content hour where our best content folks will critique whatever your team is working on for you. I get people to help me when I feel like I can't do it myself.

BC: I think that's great. Opening up your work to other people or opening up your services to other people's work is a great way to get to know people and build trust and friendships and make better work.

EB: There's this interesting thing in friendships. It's studied that if you want to be friends with someone or you want to become friends with someone, you ask for help. It works better than if you offer help. It's counterintuitive, but if you said, 'hey, I'm moving in. Can you help me move into my apartment?' People are more likely to become friends with you after doing that then if you offer to help them with something. Yeah, and I think it applies to organizations too, so asking for help is great. People feel useful. They feel valuable. They provided something to your team that you need.

BC: Yeah, I wonder if there's a vulnerability from asking someone, and the other person can sense that. Then maybe that person sees you differently.

EB: Any time you can just be a human, people will be a human back to you. Some are jerks and they’ll always be jerks.

My mom has this wonderful pearl of wisdom, and she's full of these. But anytime I was having trouble with a relationship growing up. She would be like, you need to spend time with them. I'd say, I don't want to spend time with them. We're fighting and she'd say, the only way to have a relationship with someone is by sharing experiences with them... and I think about that all the time at work. If a relationship feels rocky, I think, when did we last spend time together? When was the last time we did something together. A lot of the time I've found we hadn't had a shared experience in a while and that is the foundation of all relationships professional and personal.

BC: That's great. That's really good. Good one.

EB: Thanks Mom!

Balsamiq and content-first design

BC: Thank you. I feel like I've definitely learned even more than I was expecting. So I want to focus a little bit on something that you're probably not as familiar with which is wireframes and it's because Balsamiq makes software that makes wireframes.

EB: Yes! I’ve used Balsamiq before.

BC: I love that. Okay, maybe tell me a little bit about that. As a non-designer, as a writer, you're using Balsamiq. Tell me more.

EB: I think that content designers are actually great in the wireframing phase because we're thinking about what information should be on the page and what that hierarchical importance is.

We're not trained in design, but we do a good job of thinking of how to structure information. Because that is what content does all day long and wireframes really are just structuring information.

I have used Balsamiq a lot in projects where, you know, we're trying to go wide. We're trying to come up with a lot of options for what it looks like. It's been really useful in that sense, for those types of things, because we can play around. 'We could lead with this piece of information that feels really important, or what if we led with this information instead? What if we restructure things so we had only 3 things on the homepage that we all we're really critical to our users, versus what if we had 8'.

I think that wireframing works just as well if you're thinking about it as a way of organizing content as it does when thinking about where a picture should go.

BC: Yeah. That's very perfectly well said again, it's something that I want to get out there more. One of the things I wanted to say is what I love about working with writers, as a visual designer, is that a writer will understand how people will perceive the words, better than someone who's more visual. They will work on the impact of the words... where they go on the page and how much should be on there, and I think Balsamiq, I'm biased I guess, but Balsamiq and wireframing in general is a great way to explore that.

EB: Yeah, absolutely. And you know one reason to have content involved even from the earliest stages, you know, whether or not we're the ones making wireframes or were collaborating with the UX designer to make wireframes is there are just assumptions that people make about content that a content person can help you dispense with. I can remember working on a website and someone said, what should we put on the caption for this photo? And I was like, well, why do we need a caption?. They were used to photos having captions, and said, well, they don't have to. If you don't have a content person there you're just assuming that there should be content in places where maybe there shouldn't.

BC: Yeah, that's amazing, love it. What I love about talking with you is that I feel like there's tons of parallels with working with the designer as a writer and working with the writer as a designer.

EB: Yeah, totally. I mean vice versa. I've had the same thing said to me where I was like, well let’s put an image here and they’re like, why? We don't need to have an image. I've learned these things often.

BC: Yeah, totally… Collaboration. Well, that's it for my questions… I guess I have one more, because this is something that I've found you don't learn until you do. But once your design, your project is released into the world, what happens next for you? You continue to maintain it and what does that look like?

EB: Well, hopefully you release it. My good friend Jeremy Canfield, who I worked with at 18F, in the government, always said, if you're not a little embarrassed when you release, you waited too long to release.

You should still be working on it when you release it. Hopefully you release something small and continue to make it better. You know the website is great and ready to be maintained when no one tells you anything about the website anymore. When everyone forgets about it. When the design and the content just disappear and people are using it.

There's never a phase when people are like, wow, this website is awesome. Thanks for creating it. There's only a period where people say, this doesn't work like I expected. This is the worst thing that's ever happened. And then there's a period where there's nothing. And the period where there's nothing is when you think, great we can start maintaining this or consider adding new features, or move on to something else. Since I like to live in the strategy world, I am often at the beginnings of projects and not so often at the ends of projects, which I miss very much because there's something deeply gratifying about being at the end of a project, or the governance phase, and that phase is really really important.

BC: That's great. I love it. Well, that's all the questions I have. I don’t know if you have anything you'd like to add or.

EB: No, I don't think so. Thank you for taking the time. It was great to talk with you.

BC: Well, thank you.


By Billy Carlson
Got questions or feedback? Email billy@balsamiq.com.