Talking content and career with Andy Welfle, author and Adobe UX content strategist
"Facebook was basically a really good 'bootcamp.' You got a 'master's degree in UX content strategy' by the time you finished up there."
— Andy Welfle
On this page:
Andy Welfle is a content strategist, co-author of the book 'Writing is Designing: Words and the User Experience', a workshop facilitator and global event speaker, and the current UX Content Strategy Manager at Adobe (USA).
We chatted to Andy about his career path, and his experiences as a content strategist at two huge organisations in particular. This established player in the industry also shares some of his wisdom with us, as well as advice for would-be UX content strategists.
What is a content strategist?
A content strategist is an expert practitioner in content strategy and taxonomy design. In this role, you:
- develop governance, processes and workflows based on delivering strategy and policy intent
- manage relationships and interdependencies with other content roles
- shape and structure the architecture of content based on user-centred design principles
- work with lead content designers to organise and manage teams to deliver outcomes
Career history, at-a-glance
- AdobeUX Content Strategy ManagerJanuary 2017 - Present
- FacebookContent StrategistDecember 2014 - January 2017 (2 years, 2 months)
- Reusser DesignContent StrategistSeptember 2011 -- November 2014 (3 years, 3 months)
- Fort Wayne TrailsContent StrategistApril - September 2011 (6 months)
- Pencils.comOnline Community ManagerJanuary 2011 - August 2011 (8 months)
- Fort Wayne Dance CollectiveManaging DirectorJanuary 2007 -- December 2010 (4 years)
- The News-SentinelFreelance Reporter/Copy Editor2005 -- 2007 (2 years)
After spending several years in various journalistic positions (based in Indiana), and with just under a year of managing social media for a high-end ecommerce retailer, Andy moved to his first content strategist role at Reusser Design.
At this agency, he helped clients develop smart, strategic social media policies and oversaw content production for websites. He was also able to use his background in journalism and passion for blogging to combine ethical editorial practices with a compelling and direct web-focused style in this work.
Working as a UX writer at Facebook
Andy moved into a role at Facebook at the end of 2014, where he joined around 30 other content strategists. He remembers it feeling like a really good move for his career.
"By the time I left, there were around 100 content strategists, but I know there are now like 400 or something. It's just massive."
After a short stint concentrating on a notifications project, Andy started working with Facebook's Search Team, as the only full-time content strategist in that team. And that department at the time was working on making a transition from search based purely on profiles, pages and groups to that of wider content search functionality.
Moving from a small agency to a large, fast-paced corporate felt like a fast and hard lesson to Andy about just how product companies work.
"My time at Facebook is when I learned what UX writing was, and how that's different from broader content strategy.
"I'd never worked on a product basis - I've always worked on project bases. So I learned how to work with product managers and how to have hundreds and hundreds of stakeholders - rather than dealing with the client and then working with your six coworkers (like I had been doing at Reusser Design). That was brand new to me.
"And I learned a lot about how apps work. Sometimes you're doing work that's client side and sometimes you're doing work that's server side. And I also learned a lot about A/B testing. Facebook's a huge 'A/B', 'A/B/C/D/E/F' tester!
"I also learned a lot more about documentation; like design systems and style guides. I learned how to work with a large, mature one, which was different to what I'd been doing before - I'd created style guide documentation for clients before, but it just wasn't on the same scale."
Andy also learned the importance of developing a framework of tone, and recommends this article by Jasmine Probst (who he interviewed for the 'Tone' chapter of his and Michael's book) and Susan Grey Blue about how they developed a tone framework at Facebook.
Everything was just far bigger at Facebook. Dealing with a scope of around two billion monthly active users meant that whatever Andy wrote was shared with a massive audience:
"Oh, only like 80% of the US user-base, which was at that point, around 160 million, so it was just like - wow. It was just a good lesson in how to work at a big tech company; especially in terms of professionally growing from the mindset I had.
"I learned a lot about how a world-class content strategy team/product building team really works - and about designing 'at scale'. I really credit Facebook in terms of how much I professionally 'grew' during my time there.
"I also became highly collaborative. That role really, really allowed me to improve my communication skills and learn how to align stakeholders - because there are a lot of stakeholders, and you have to deal with building frameworks across teams.
"Facebook was basically a really good 'bootcamp.' You got a 'master's degree in UX content strategy' by the time you finished up there."
Another difference Andy discovered during this time at Facebook was the amount of time and consideration that could be afforded to the smallest detail:
"I think the most surprising thing was the level of focus, depth and intensity that you could give your projects. So for example, I would spend a week on a sentence or something - depending on the messaging experience that I'm writing, or the framework. You could spend time at multiple meetings just on this one little piece. I had just never worked that narrowly and deeply before.
"There were also things like learning how that one sentence would be translated into maybe 100 languages, and therefore how much room there is for interpretation within that sentence. So you'd really need to think about the syntax - the words you chose - and then provide some sort of rationale for these choices, so that translators can make it work too."
Andy found that at Facebook, there was a really strong culture of usability testing, and that this really did help break down any false assumptions made internally.
"We certainly learned about people's assumptions of search systems and their mental models of what a search system is, but also how sometimes words alone or design alone can't break that down."
A growing desire to share knowledge with others
Towards the end of his time at Facebook, Andy realised that he'd built up a strong set of frameworks and skills. He'd also begun building a strong friendship with Michael J. Metts whilst developing a workshop series for a Confab conference.
In parallel, there seemed to be fewer foundational pieces of work for Andy to tackle at Facebook. The company had grown massively by this point, with huge teams and strong leaders, and he felt as though he wanted to start exploring the enjoyment he'd had working on those foundational projects. He was, in fact, starting to think about small teams and maybe start-ups; and making his mark elsewhere.
"You hear a lot about people who go to work at Facebook and then you just never hear from them much - because they're so busy and there's so much going on inside the company. There are such a rigorous set of comms policies and this affects your ability to talk to the public.
"So I guess that was one of the parts that did not really sit well with me, because I was still very interested in community content strategy; the community at large - and the idea of making a video for the GatherContent blog... or speaking at Confab conference.
"There were so many hoops to jump through, and I really wanted to take control over that again."
An exciting move to Adobe
Andy moved into his current UX Content Strategy Manager role at the beginning of 2017, where he manages an experience content strategy team (effectively the content design team at Adobe); working within a centralised design team of around 300 designers.
"I'd been talking to my now-manager, the Director of Centralised Design, for a few months whilst I was still at Facebook. A friend of mine was already working as a designer at Adobe, and she was telling me about a new opportunity that had come up - to be the first content designer in the team. And I was intrigued.
"I'd used Adobe products for decades, and I really liked the challenge of building a practice from scratch amongst a large design team that were dealing with a diverse variety of Adobe products."
Andy was a little hesitant to leave Facebook however, mainly because it had become a company where much more opportunity and resource seemed within easy reach.
He spoke to a friend about his dilemma - this happened to be Senior Product Design Manager Jonathon Colman (who had also spent time working at Facebook, but as a UX Content Strategy Lead), who advised him that even if there were many opportunities at Facebook, because much of the foundational work Andy was interested in had been largely covered there, the Adobe opportunity might actually be the right next step for him.
"My current boss tells me that in my interview for the Adobe role, the thing that made him realise that I was the right candidate came from when we were talking about voice and tone. I was explaining to him what I believed to be the difference between voice and tone, and I actually went up to the whiteboard in the conference room and just mapped out a little framework about intensity of voice and user context - and where they match up.
"And he said that that was something which had felt very abstract and subjective to him before, but he realised I could like explain it in a way that he could understand."
Here's a short video interview where Andy talks about his role at Adobe.
Management and building out a team
Andy has now built his team up from one to seven members during the past four years. This level of resource means that work such as developing centralised standards, processes and communications - as well as workshops - can be given a true focus.
Over several years, what a typical week might look like in the UX Content Strategy Manager role at Adobe has changed and evolved a great deal. What started as being embedded in a product team and experimenting with UX writing, review cycle building and content strategy process soon moved to also taking an active role as internal champion for UX content strategy at Adobe.
"I really wanted to start advocating and putting a case forward for growth and building a team around what I was doing, and so I basically went around departments and teams, like a bit of a 'roadshow' showcasing where someone like me was able to contribute.
"Like, 'here's where we bumped the needle up. Here's how we made an impact. And you and your team could also have one of these."
Over the past year, Andy spent time trying to understand what the company's goals and Adobe's design team goals meant for his team, so that he could attempt to communicate that down.
His team would also try to adjust accordingly when they heard of opportunities relating to Adobe products that lacked any kind of content strategy staff resource (but where a big difference could be made if it had one).
"It's probably only in the last six months that my role really shifted towards almost completely 'management'. When it was time for something like strategic planning and headcount planning, I realised that I'm delegating so much more ICs now. A lot of that just comes from trust."
What does 'IC' mean?
'IC' is shorthand for 'individual contributor'. In the tech industry, it's increasingly common for companies to define two separate career tracks: 'Individual Contributor' and 'Manager'. An IC is a professional who doesn't have line management responsibilities but contributes significantly to the goals and mission of an organisation.
Advice, recommendations and tips from Andy
What would you say are the key skills and capabilities necessary to be good at what you do?
"A lot of it is about having strong foundational skills; like being able to write is important, and having an understanding of an audience and knowing how to write for them - whether that means simplifying something or changing the words you use - it's about understanding how to do that.
"And editing is a huge one. Understanding how to refine and refine and refine your work - or somebody else's work. But the one which I think is the most important skill to have is 'systems thinking', because often when people start working in UX writing and the content design world, they don't already have a personal connection to design, and can think that design is something done by graphics people - that's what they do, over there.
"So even the idea of design thinking isn't really something which naturally connects with writers. It's a skill you can learn, but it's also about having a natural affinity with design. So if you can look at an article and ask questions like 'why is this structured in this way?', ''how will it be laid out?' or 'how are we improving readability here?' - all of these questions mean that you're anticipating the journey of the user or the reader.
"If you can provide the rationale for the meta structure of what you're writing, I think that sets you up very well to do this kind of job; perhaps even before you understand what microcopy is, how to write call to action buttons and how to use a style guide.
"If you're in an interview for a role, the more visual you can be - the more you can show your process in a visual way, the better. It shows you understand the framework and you're not just sort of 'mentioning' it. I think that goes a long way."
What advice would you give other content people who want to achieve similar accomplishments to yourself?
"I think having been an English major, it helped me develop an understanding of my goals and principles, but then also understanding how they tie into what I want to do. I've always really loved journalism and writing very clearly and very easily for people. I've always loved not just the writing of newspaper articles, but also working on laying them out on a newspaper page. I can very clearly see how that translates into what I'm doing now. It's like that early work on building newspapers was UX design.
"It took me a while to understand that, but I'd say if you can understand how 'this thing' fits with your principles or how the skill you might have built up over there is actually very similar to the skill your current employer/client wants you do over here, that's great. For example, I wrote a style guide for my college's student newspaper, and now I look at some of the foundational work I did on Adobe's product design system, and it's so similar!"
If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of personal advice early in your career, what would that be?
"Keep your eyes open. I never thought that this would be the direction I would have taken. In college, I thought I was destined to be a features writer for newspapers. And, you know, that dream was pretty quickly dashed when I graduated and newspapers were like laying people off all over the place. I struggled for a few years to really try and find my place, and alongside, this niche developed - but for me, it was like the right niche.
"And also, constantly ask yourself 'hey, is this the right move for me?' I didn't start doing this kind of work until I was 30, and I wish that this was something that existed way earlier, but saying that, I don't see it as time wasted. It took all of that background time for me to understand where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do."
Which industry professionals should people be following right now on Twitter?
Are there any courses or workshops you'd recommend people look into?
"The UX Writers Collective has some really good foundational courses. Scott Kubie, is a great leader, and I know he's currently working on a foundational workshop for mostly designers - on UX writing."
Is there a particular site or product that you think does content particularly well?
"There's a lot to be said about Lyft's practices (a company similar to Uber). But I do think they're very good at UX writing."
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