Jonathon Colman on UX content strategy, recruiting designers and building teams (includes tips and advice)Published 25th August 2021 • 10 minute read
“Helping others and giving back is a big part of how I work.”— Jonathon Colman
- Career history, at-a-glance
- Early career and Peace Corps service
- Working for non-profits
- Becoming a UX content strategist at Facebook
- Growth and professional development at Facebook
- Jonathon makes the shift into an ‘Org Leader’ role
- Senior Group Product Design Manager at Intercom
- The present day: a new role at HubSpot
- Advice, recommendations and tips from Jonathon
- Jonathon Colman: Further reading, listening, and watching
With a wealth of experience in content strategy, content design and UX, Jonathon Colman is now working as a Senior Design Manager for HubSpot, where his role is to lead their global content design discipline.
We chatted UX content strategy with Jonathon, and probed him (nicely) about his roles at Facebook, Intercom, and his new role (at the time of writing) at HubSpot.
As with all of our other profile articles, we’ve also managed to download a ton of helpful insight and tips from Jonathon; from standing out at interviews and developing yourself professionally to systems thinking, working with communities and managing people.
Career history, at-a-glance
- HubspotSenior Design ManagerJuly 2021 - Present
- IntercomSenior Group Product Design ManagerDecember 2018 - Jun 2021 (2 years, 7 months)
- Facebook (Marketplace)UX Content Strategy LeaderAugust 2017 - November 2018 (1 year, 4 months)
- FacebookUX Content Strategy Manager, Facebook PlatformFebruary 2017 - August 2017 (7 months)
- FacebookUX Content Strategist, Facebook AnalyticsAugust 2015 - February 2017 (1 year, 7 months)
- FacebookUX Content Strategist & Manager, Facebook Platform and SearchJuly 2013 - August 2015 (1 year, 8 months)
- REIPrincipal UX ArchitectJuly 2021 - Present
- REIProgram Manager, SEO/Content MarketingDecember 2008 - July 2012 (3 years, 8 months)
- The Nature ConservancyAssociate Director, Digital MarketingAugust 2004 - November 2008
- New Target Internet Design and Development Inc.User Interface ArchitectMarch 2004 - August 2004 (6 months)
- Conservation InternationalWeb Communications and Content ManagerMarch 2003 – March 2004 (1 year)
- Great Lakes CommissionWeb and Publications DesignerApril 2001 – May 2003 (2 years, 1 month)
- U.S. Peace CorpsPeace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West AfricaJune 1999 – November 2000 (1 year, 6 months)
- IBMLead Information Developer, AS/400 GroupwareJune 1997 – May 1999 (1 year, 11 months)
Early career and Peace Corps service
In 1994, when Jonathon was in danger of flunking out of his chemistry major at Michigan Technological University, he discovered technical writing—and it saved him.
“I’d always loved writing, but I didn’t know you could combine it with science and technology to help solve people’s problems. I’d always been curious about instruction manuals and the people who write them. Why were they always so bad? So when I found out that you could learn how to make them better, I knew I’d found my calling.”
— Jonathon Colman
Part of the program meant completing an internship, so Jonathon spent a summer working as a tech writer at IBM’s AS/400 plant in Minnesota. He remembers working with engineers to write about TCP/IP, Java frameworks, and Y2K readiness. He also learned how to structure information with SGML and XML.
“IBM went through a massive change while I was there. They moved away from shipping hard copy books to customers in favour of supplying digital content on CD-ROMs.
“It used to be that when you bought an AS/400 server, you’d get a box of printed manuals with it. But we started shipping just a single CD-ROM instead, which contained articles that were searchable, structured, and developed semantically in XML.
“This was in the late ‘90s, and it was a fun time for tech writers. Everyone was trying to figure out web publishing platforms: ‘What do we need to change for this new medium?’ and so on.
“I was really lucky because I was able to learn alongside a lot of really smart people.”
— Jonathon Colman
After working as a technical writer for a couple years, Jonathon joined the US Peace Corps, a government-based volunteer service. Peace Corps volunteers are American citizens who work in developing nations with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, and non-government organizations across a number of fields, such as public health, education, business, technology, and more.
“I focused on public health work, which was a pretty big switch from tech writing! I joined up because my parents taught me the value of giving back to the world. So I wanted to share the privileges I'd been given with others.
“Helping others and giving back is a big part of how I work.
“I was privileged to be able to leave IBM and join the Peace Corps as a volunteer in West Africa. I served in a tiny village in the country of Burkina Faso and worked on things like HIV/AIDS education, parent/child nutrition, Guinea Worm eradication, family planning, and—yes!—vaccinating children.
“Here’s something I learned ‘au village,’ as we say in french. In the village, there were three water pumps. And while this seems like a good thing, they actually caused problems. Two of those pumps didn’t work because they were built by foreign agents using materials that weren’t available locally. And the people who built the pumps left without leaving an instruction manual behind or training anyone on how to repair them.”
— Jonathon Colman
By the time Jonathon was working as a volunteer, Peace Corps had long been working in a more sustainable model focused on building up community infrastructure with local investments rather than just building artefacts and leaving them behind.
“I learned that a lot of things are driven by systems. I was the first volunteer in my village, and there wasn’t a manual to work from. So I had to learn how things were done in the village...who the decision-makers were, what they cared about, and how to influence them.
“I had to work out how to understand what the community wanted and help them make those things happen. The goal wasn’t to lead or even to execute, but mostly to facilitate—to make conversations happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It’s a lot like content design!”
— Jonathon Colman
Three different languages were spoken in the village, which was partially run by a chief, but also a number of different government functionaries like nurses, teachers, and the village’s mayor.
“I learned how information—and therefore power—flowed between these different entities and how to best partner with each of them. It helped me to think in systems. Apart from being useful to understand people, it turns out that systems thinking is helpful in every aspect of our lives.”
— Jonathon Colman
Working for non-profits
When Jonathon returned to the US, he started working for mission-driven not-for-profit organisations.
“I was—and still am—deeply interested in environmental conservation, habitat and species preservation, and sustainable development. So, I spent most of a decade working for non-profits like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and others.
“This was about the time when ‘Web 2.0’ was really taking off. Think back to the early days of Reddit, Slashdot, Flickr, Digg, Del.icio.us… I was at a non-profit where there wasn’t any budget to spend, but I was encouraged to experiment with these new platforms so long as it didn’t cost anything.”
— Jonathon Colman
Web 2.0 brought with it a flurry of new online communities, sites and services. Jonathon was really keen to dive right in and see what he could leverage for his employer.
“So I built up communities for The Nature Conservancy on multiple platforms. I kept people engaged with content like stories, photos, and videos. I’m proud to say that it crashed their website several times due to driving waves of inbound traffic from sites like Reddit and Digg.
“So we learned that we had a very passionate audience who were hungry for content and activism. They didn’t just want to hang out on the website, they wanted to meet us where they were at.
“So we ended up completely reworking the way that we did online marketing at The Nature Conservancy. For example, we partnered up with people building apps for Facebook’s original platform and they gave us a cut of their revenue. We generated well over $1 million dollars from this alone and it funded conservation work all over the planet.
“I read a lot of books about the web when I got back from volunteering. I remember reading what we now call ‘the polar bear book’, Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond by Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld when it first came out. This is what first got me interested in UX—it’s part of my origin story. So I was over the moon when Jorge Arango asked me to be a technical reviewer for the fourth edition a few years ago.”
To guide you through this broad ecosystem, this popular guide—now in its fourth edition—provides essential concepts, methods, and techniques for digital design that have withstood the test of time. UX designers, product managers, developers, and anyone involved in digital design will learn how to create semantic structures that will help people engage with your message.
This is what first got me interested in UX—it’s part of my origin story.— Jonathon Colman
Jon has single-handedly propelled The Nature Conservancy to the forefront of non-profit Web 2.0 marketing--through genius strategy and guerilla exploitation of critical digital marketing tools, tactics and networks. His successes are legion--at generating traffic for the [Conservancy's website](https://www.nature.org) as well as enhancing the Conservancy's reputation among the digital generation. His enthusiasm, energy, effort and inventiveness on behalf of conservation are also unflagging and inspirational. Incredibly, he is also a superb colleague.
Jonathon moves to REI
After nearly four and a half years at The Nature Conservancy, Jonathon left to take up a new role at REI (an outdoor equipment retail cooperative), leading their SEO and content marketing.
“I was hired by the brilliant Samantha Starmer, an early information architect who had a novel approach to thinking about SEO. She wanted an SEO to work within a UX team, so that we could drive traffic and conversion, but never at the expense of building great experiences for customers.
“We wanted to earn business by being relevant and having great content that's findable, helpful, easy to use and effective. So that's how we were set up at REI. And it was a unique idea at the time—what if SEO were a UX discipline rather than a marketing one?—no one else was thinking this way back then.”
— Jonathon Colman
Through measuring UX with marketing metrics and also measuring marketing work against UX outcomes, Jonathon was able to learn a great deal about how UX people practice.
“It’s really hard to be new—but it’s also a great opportunity to learn. If I were to offer advice to someone new, I’d say ‘learn everything you can from anyone who’s willing to teach you!’ You may not know what you'll be interested in at first, but never turn down an opportunity to learn something new.”
— Jonathon Colman
As Jonathon progressed at REI, Samantha persuaded him to enter a graduate degree program in Information Management. Once he finished his first year in the program, Samantha approached him about a new role.
“I'd been doing SEO for REI for over three years at this point, and I’d just started a content marketing program, which had been really successful.
“Samantha realized that they didn't have anyone in sort of a content strategist role; instead, they had a lot of content done by a lot of different people in various silos - none of which were coordinated. We all knew this, but it was Samantha who created the principal UX architect role to be REI’s first content strategist.
"Every organization has its politics. The trick for content people (especially if you’re the first content person in a company), is to know what your organization values."— Jonathon ColmanTweet this
“What do they really care about the most? What are they trying to achieve in the world?
“And then my trick is to say, ‘oh, that thing that you want to do, that thing you care about so much? That's what content design is. I can help you achieve that thing you want with content design.’”
— Jonathon Colman
I've worked with a great number of talented, dedicated, delightful professionals in my career, and among that group Jonathon is an absolute superlative. I was acquainted with Jonathon before I came to work at REI and admired his social media savvy and reputation in SEO. After working with him at REI, I can speak to his resourcefulness in achieving meaningful results despite finite (or non-existent) resources, and the professional -- I can't think of another word for it -- joy that comes with working on a team with Jonathon. He's talented at advocating for and balancing the interests of each constituency in a particular business conundrum, and his work in SEO at REI was both quantitatively and qualitatively successful.
Becoming a UX content strategist at Facebook
Back in the early 2010s, Facebook was amongst the first big tech companies to employ an in-house content strategy team. And today Facebook currently employ over 500 content designers working across many different apps and product orgs.
“They hired me in 2013 as their 17th content strategist. At that time, a content team that large was highly unusual, even at a large agency.
“I joined as an IC (individual contributor) working on their platform products, but I transferred to a management role because my strengths are in building people and teams.”
— Jonathon Colman
When Jonathon began at Facebook, he hadn’t worked on mobile apps before. He knew he had a lot to learn and needed to do that quickly.
“I didn't have any sort of product thinking or product strategy background, so I did a lot of learning on the job. I also wasn't very prepared for how often large tech organizations tend to do things like reorganizations of their teams, and how they restructure people and products.
“At Facebook, they’re constantly re-organising their teams. Some people will have multiple managers over the course of a single year. It can be pretty chaotic, but the flip side is that it also creates a lot of opportunities.
“I was doing quite a bit of IC work while leading a team, and I didn’t think I was doing a stellar job in either role. What I wanted at that point more than anything else was just some focus.
“But at the same time, Ella Harris, an IC on my team, wanted to transition to management. However, there weren't any management roles open for Ella. So we ended up switching roles: she became my manager and I became an IC reporting to her. Ella Harris is now Director and Head of Product Design for Facebook Reality Labs.
“Ella is incredibly accomplished and one of the smartest people I know working in design. Our transition took some time, but it led to both of us growing our careers. And she gave me a transformational opportunity to work on just one product (Facebook Analytics) for a full year.”
— Jonathon Colman
Jonathon found the role swap had a positive impact on him because he no longer was stretched between ~10 product teams while also managing people. This focus helped him develop in product, design, and leadership as an IC.
“By the time I left the Facebook Analytics team, I was leading its product designers - not directly managing them, but guiding their execution and prioritization.”
— Jonathon Colman
Growth and professional development at Facebook
Jonathon tells us about a research study by Todd Zaki Warfel where results indicated that only 2% of tech organisations have career progression plans and ‘job ladders’ with scorecards in place for their employees. It means that paths to professional development at most tech companies are ambiguous because those companies haven’t set clear expectations for what they value, why, and how.
“Many managers and their teams are evaluated based purely on whether they’re ‘delivering’ and whether they’ve avoided any slip-ups. And that’s a terrible way to evaluate success, impact, and growth.
“Something that I care a lot about is setting clear expectations so that everyone knows what’s expected of them and they never have to read my mind. That’s because I’m terrible at reading peoples’ minds! But I also focus a lot on actively showing care and being emotionally available. A core part of my role is to create a psychologically safe space for people on my team and offer them support.
“A blunt example is crying. I’m an emotional guy, and I cried a lot when I worked at Facebook. But I also noticed many other people crying at work, too. And yet we all seemed to feel ashamed of it. We try to hide it whenever it happens because there’s usually a stigma attached to it… but only if you present as a woman.
“I wish we could remove that stigma because when you work with passionate people in a very fast-paced environment on really hard problems that you care a lot about while under great pressure... you're gonna cry sometimes! Men tend to be judged positively for crying, but it’s not the same for women and people who present as women, who are usually penalized.”
— Jonathon Colman
"In any ‘move fast’ tech product org, you need to make sure you always have a buddy - someone you can talk to - a safe space where you can be honest and learn."— Jonathon ColmanTweet this
Jonathon says that it’s important to show care for your team members, but also to give them clear, constructive feedback. Reflecting on this time in his career when he was managing people, he is refreshingly open about his shortfalls.
“I wasn’t born with any of the management skills I needed. I had to learn them. I’ve made so many mistakes along the way, and I try to be pretty open about my failures because I think that shows respect for the people who were impacted by them. I’m committed to doing better.
“There are times when I should have given people more feedback, more constructive feedback, or delivered feedback more quickly in a way that people could make better use of. So that's something I've tried to learn how to do.
“I’ve attended lots of trainings and read books like Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, and The Five Dysfunctions of the Team by Patrick Lencioni, but I’m always trying to learn more and continue growing.”
— Jonathon Colman
Radical Candor is about caring personally and challenging directly, about soliciting criticism to improve your leadership and also providing guidance that helps others grow. It focuses on praise but doesn't shy away from criticism―to help you love your work and the people you work with.
The first edition of Crucial Conversations exploded onto the scene and revolutionized the way millions of people communicate when stakes are high. This new edition gives you the tools to: prepare for high-stakes situations, transform anger and hurt feelings into powerful dialogue, make it safe to talk about almost anything, be persuasive, not abrasive
Jonathon makes the shift into an ‘Org Leader’ role
In the time leading up to what would be Jonathon’s final role at Facebook, he describes an environment where the concept of being an ‘org leader’ as a content strategist wasn’t entirely embedded or well-understood.
“I think Product Design at Facebook was struggling a bit with the same thing, but since they were a far larger discipline, they were further along in their development and more mature.
“When I transitioned into a management role where I oversaw content strategy for the Marketplace group of products, that made me one of roughly 8 co-leaders of a product org of around 450 people.
“My peers were the VP of Product Management, the Head of Design, the Director of Research, and so on. But I and others from my discipline were just content strategy managers.
“Even so, I was expected to lead the organization just as much as those other leaders. I had accountability for the success of the entire organization, not just for my team or their work. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how good your content work is if the entire product fails or is otherwise bad.
“As you move upward in any company, you need to work outside of your discipline. You need to be familiar with every other discipline and team as well as the process for building and shipping product as a whole. You need to influence and contribute to their vision and product strategy—not just to content strategy.
“I think a lot of people want to get ‘a seat at the table’, but once you have that seat at the table, you're expected to show up and have impact - not just represent your discipline. You’re accountable for making everyone successful, not just your team.”
— Jonathon Colman
Senior Group Product Design Manager at Intercom
After nearly five and a half years at Facebook, Jonathon decided it was time for a change. He was interested in moving to an organisation that was very serious about both product and design.
“As I talked with Intercom, they showed me that they were interested in building a world-class design team. They wanted to use content design to drive more impact for their business, but also wanted to make their team more effective and fulfilled.
“When it came to design and product, Intercom were already very strong in those areas, and they were willing to invest in me and the content design team if I could come up with a compelling vision for how it would drive their strategy and business forward.
“They offered me a role as a Senior Design Manager, and my wife and I (and our dog!) moved to Ireland.”
— Jonathon Colman
Jonathon’s previous experience at Facebook meant that the context was right for him to go into Intercom and lead significant changes for their design team.
“One of the things I love is helping people develop, build new skills, and get promoted to senior levels - it’s really fulfilling for me and even more for them! So a piece of work I enjoyed was redeveloping our job levels for designers; not once, but twice.
“The first time, a big part of our focus was to make it clear that content designers and product designers had, with a few exceptions, the same expectations and accountability. The second time was because we no longer had a content design team (more on this shortly), so it was to clarify what was expected of product designers - and to make those expectations clearer and more realistic.”
— Jonathon Colman
Intercom recently published a blog about this (by Jonathon), which explains the process and approach he took.
Beyond clarifying expectations for designers working at Intercom, Jonathon was also passionate about making their hiring process as open and transparent as possible for candidates outside of the company. So he wrote about what Intercom looks for in all kinds of designers for their blog to help people make better decisions about whether they want to apply for roles and how to prepare for the various interviews.
“All companies should just be open with their candidates about what they’re looking for. There’s no need to make people guess or try to read your mind. Being open about what you value—and why you value it—from the start saves the company and the candidates time and energy.”
— Jonathon Colman
Jonathon and his team also completely reframed their practice of content design in order to have more product and business impact. In essence, they changed the practice to look and feel more like product design. Instead of being spread across 5+ teams, content designers worked on just one team on one product for long periods of time.
“This helped the content designer earn the trust of their team. They were able to attend all of the team’s rituals and contribute to the team’s strategy, vision, and roadmaps. The team could see how they worked, what they did, and why that work mattered and had impact. And they worked deeply within the product area, not just on words at its surface.
“Content designers became co-leaders of their product teams, joining the traditional ‘trifecta’ structure of product manager, engineering manager, and product designer to become a fourth pillar of the team’s leadership. So they also grew as product professionals, not just as designers.”
— Jonathon Colman
Jonathon says that the work he and his team did at Intercom was impactful for customers and really fulfilling as practitioners. But then the pandemic struck, and Intercom decided to remove the entire content design discipline as part of the cutbacks.
“We were all shocked and devastated. Anyone who’s ever been laid off or who’s had to lay people off knows how painful and traumatic this is.”
— Jonathon Colman
The content designers quickly found new roles in different companies. Jonathon had already started managing product designers and stayed on to lead those teams. But when it was made clear that Intercom didn’t intend to rebuild the content design discipline, he became curious about other opportunities.
Wow, where to begin - Jonathon is by far one of the most thoughtful and compassionate hiring managers that I've had a chance to work with in my recruiting career. We worked together to hire the first Senior Content Designer for our SF office, and every step of the way, Jonathon went out of his way to communicate clearly and promptly, to look out for an optimal candidate experience for everyone that entered the interviewing process, and to create objective and unbiased rubrics and interview kits for each member of the panel. He's revered and respected by all of his cross-functional partners, adds a much-appreciated level of enthusiasm and thought leadership to our R&D org, is an incredible enabler of growth, and an outspoken champion for diversity and equality in and out of the workplace.
The present day: a new role at HubSpot
At the time of writing, Jonathon has started a new position as Senior Design Manager at HubSpot, where he’ll be focusing on growing its content design discipline.
He was already familiar with HubSpot due to being an early adopter of inbound marketing in his past SEO and content roles. He’s a fan of their products, and can’t wait to get stuck in.
“I’m really inspired by Hubspot’s mission to help businesses ‘grow better’. Their CRM tools give businesses ‘super powers’ that help them earn the loyalty and trust of their customers.
“Beth Dunn started the content design practice at Hubspot. She created the team and encoded the discipline into how they build products. It’s amazing to see all of the success she’s driven over the years! Her book, Cultivating Content Design, should be required reading for everyone.
“It’s a great privilege to be able to help this team continue its growth and evolution.”
— Jonathon Colman
Advice, recommendations and tips from Jonathon
Which industry professionals should people be following right now on Twitter?
“I should start with my new colleague Beth Dunn at Hubspot! But since I live in Europe, I’ve connected with many content designers based in Europe and the UK. These folks have taught me so much!”
Rachel McConnell @Minette_78Content ops @bt_uk, co-founder of @Leadwithtempo. Previously @DeliverooDesign and @Clearleft. Author of Why you Need a Content Team.Candi Williams @candiwritesContent Design Lead @Bumble Honeybee by day. Author by night. Fan of clear words, inclusive design, social justice, food, crystals and wine.Elaine Short @elainetallWord designer @Dreams_app.Jane Ruffino @janeruffinoPhD candidate in contemporary archaeologies of digital data. Content designer and UX writer. “More fun than a Vegas casino” —unnamed rapper, 2011. she/herGladys Diandoki @GladysditEnthusiastic French UX | Content Designer --- Forever storyteller — She/her #POCintech #feminism #uxwriting #Inclusion #antiracismMario Ferrer @ahitevaTacos, cumbia, and stand-up comedy make me happy • Lead Content Designer @King_Games • Teacher @Domestika @weareSHIFTA • Started @ContentDesignES • he/himContent Design London @ContentDesignLNConsultancy and courses by Sarah Winters, creator of theMike Atherton @MikeAthertonDesign and content leader. Author of Designing Connected Content. Formerly @facebook, @GA_London, @huddle, @BBC. Opinions mine.Relly Annett-Baker @RellyABMy Imperial Kitten. Content Strategist at ClearScore. MSt student at Lucy Cav. Blaseball splorts enthusiast. Bi. She/her
Are there any particular books you’d recommend to someone for early in their career?
“Here’s my list! I’m focusing on books that are a bit outside of traditional content/conversation design to help broaden your knowledge and approach to solving problems.”
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Everything is getting more complex. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information we encounter each day. Whether at work, at school, or in our personal endeavors, there’s a deepening (and inescapable) need for people to work with and understand information. Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable as a whole. When we make things for others to use, the architecture of information that we choose greatly affects our ability to deliver our intended message to our users. We all face messes made of information and people.
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What can content designers do to better stand out during the interview process?
“I think this will always depend a lot on the organization you’re interviewing with and what they value. That said, one of the things I always look for is evidence of systems thinking. It’s a great skill to have for understanding any problem, but it’s an especially useful design skill for getting under the surface and dispelling ambiguity.
“It’s great to have clear examples of UX writing, but I’ll want to understand how you use systems to understand the problems that you solve with writing. That’s because systems thinking helps you understand how an action here affects something over there. It gives you an understanding of what all the elements are, how they’re connected, and why or how those connections are valuable.
“A couple of books you can read to help you get started are Thinking in Systems: A Primer and Systems Thinking Made Simple. Another good resource is these two posts on ‘Object-Oriented UX’ by Sophia Prater.
“I also try to understand how you think about the outcomes of your work. Let’s say you shipped a product or feature—that’s great! But what changed because of your work? Did you solve the problem? How do you know?
“So I love when candidates show the outcomes of their work, not just the outputs or other artefacts they’ve created.”
People can sometimes struggle to raise their professional profile online in the many content communities there are out there. How can people make themselves more ‘visible’?
“For me, writing and speaking have always been useful avenues for learning, sharing ideas, and even landing new jobs. One positive aspect of the pandemic has been the explosion in online events, which means many more opportunities for new people to speak than there have ever been before.
“It used to be that if you wanted to speak at an event, you had to take time off work and travel for a few days, which likely excluded a lot of people. For example, arranging for a week of child or pet care has likely excluded many people from speaking in the past. Not to mention the cost of taking time off work, especially if your employer isn’t willing to help with travel costs or makes you use vacation days.
“But now you can speak from anywhere! There’s never been a better time to speak, especially if you’re new to it or have been excluded in the past. I really enjoy seeing new people speak and helping them put together their pitches for events.
“When I first started speaking, I wasn’t well-known and didn’t have much of a following. I wasn’t paid to speak and had to self-finance all of my travel. I was privileged to be able to do that, but I think it’s really important for speakers—especially new speakers—to get paid to speak, particularly if they come from marginalized communities. Events that charge $1,000 or $2,000 a seat shouldn’t be paying you in ‘exposure’!
“Besides speaking, you should also consider writing and setting up a simple website with your work.
"Many people are afraid to share their work or ideas because ‘it’s all been said before’. But here’s the thing: no one has said it from your perspective, which is unique. So get out there and say it!"— Jonathon ColmanTweet this
“If you’re excited about what you’re saying, chances are someone else in the community will be excited about it too. Don’t deny them the chance to learn from you.
“There’s also the Content and UX slack community and many other online groups and meetups. It’s never been easier to find your people than it is now. So, see what people are talking about and learn all that you can from them. Find your buddies in industry and see what you can do to build other people up as well.
“When I first started working in content, I tried to highlight and share out work from other people. That helped me learn, but it also resulted in good friendships! So don’t hesitate to share great work you see no matter where you find it.”
What would you say to someone who feels they are experiencing and struggling with a failing project at work?
“Try to remember that failing doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't make you a bad content strategist, content designer, or UX writer. Hard things are hard, and you can’t win all of the time. So cut yourself some slack.
“If you're spread across many teams, if you’re new to the role, or if you’re struggling with partners — or maybe all of these at once!—just remember that it’s normal to not know things or to feel overwhelmed or to be angry or sad when things don’t work out.
“Give yourself a moment to just find yourself and breathe, and then ask some questions. ‘What went wrong here?’ Why did I or my team make these choices? What were we optimizing for?’ ‘What can we learn from this?’
“There are a lot of practices like these in tech—such as retrospectives and blameless post-mortems—that content designers often aren’t invited to because they're not seen as being part of those teams. But these can be key to understanding what went wrong, what we’ve learned from it, and what we’ll change in the future.
“Content designers should have a voice in that. You have an equal stake in the choices the team makes—and more to the point—a really strong content designer can help the team understand and make better use of all of their knowledge.”
What advice would you give to those content people who are wondering how they should go about building their confidence in preparation for a future leadership position?
“Try to understand what a future leadership role might look like in your organization. Do some digging into similar job descriptions. Spend time with leaders in similar roles, and learn about what they do. What's expected of them in their role? What do impact and accountability look like for them?
“Find someone who can be your mentor—or better yet, your sponsor or champion—to help you actively build your skills up and advocate for your candidacy in such a role.
“Another thing you can do is engage in what I think of as ‘manager behaviors’. Even as an IC, you’re usually expected to show some sort of leadership. And the best organizations will allow you to practice leadership no matter what role you're in.
“So even if you aren’t managing anyone directly, think about how you influence strategy and team direction—you’ll be doing a lot of that as a leader. Or maybe there are people you can coach and build up based on your experiences and expertise. Or maybe there are broken team processes that you can improve and make more efficient. Or maybe you can facilitate critiques, trainings, onboarding sessions, or other events that help people grow. These can all be manager behaviors!
“Most managers would do a happy dance if someone on their team asked ‘how can I show more leadership?’ because the opportunities are endless.”
You’re also a pay equity advisor, so do you have any advice for people who are designing compensation plans for designers, to ensure they pay fairly and indiscriminately?
“I do advising and negotiation coaching for 81cents, which is such an awesome service. I want everyone to know about them! They focus on helping marginalized communities in tech navigate career conversations, understand if they’re being paid fairly, and getting the best compensation when they take new roles.
“To be blunt: overly-confident white, abled, cis-het dudes shouldn’t be the only ones who are paid well for their work. I want everyone to have the same opportunities, privileges, and compensation that I’ve had.
“In America and many other places, it’s not against the law to talk about compensation with your colleagues. So I also encourage folks to talk with their colleagues and use resources like salary.design, levels.fyi, Glassdoor, Comparably, and the many industry-specific salary surveys that are out there. Anyone can add their data to these and it’s all anonymous. At many companies, workers have also opted-in to creating anonymous spreadsheets with compensation info in them—I saw this a lot when I was at Facebook.
“Keep in mind that the self-reported, anonymous data you see from services like these might not be 100% correct, but it's still really useful for getting a ‘lay of the land’. It can be a helpful way to start the conversation with your employer about your pay and making the case for a raise.”
Do you think there’s a particular site or product that does content particularly well?
“I just love the Bear text editor—it’s so clean and minimal. And Bear does a great job of drawing my attention to just the right places with its opinionated, but simple approach to hierarchy.
“It’s just as strong as a mobile app as it is on desktop, syncing content seamlessly between platforms. I love products that do just a few things really well with a lot of focus and Bear’s such a great example of that.
“I’ve also been really impressed with the new Content at Intuit site. I love how it showcases their team, work, and thinking while also presenting the content aspects of their design system.
“There are a lot of design systems out there that include content design components and guidance, which is great to see! But there are very few sites focused just on content design teams. The launch of Intuit’s content design team site represents a new trend that I hope to see continue.”
Jonathon Colman: Further reading, listening, and watching
Jonathon’s LinkedIn profile Connect to Jonathon on LinkedIn.
Jonathon’s Twitter profile Follow what Jonathon’s sharing and discussing on Twitter.
Jonathon’s speaking portfolio Videos and slides for all of Jonathon’s presentations.
Articles and essays:
36% is the magic number: Finding the right amount of text in mobile apps. A case study of 25 popular iOS mobile apps to determine how much text they use in their designs.
A content-first approach to product onboarding. A simple approach, and a few tools that make it easier to create a great onboarding experience.
We need to talk about crying at work. Why we shouldn’t make invisible, arbitrary, or sexist rules about which emotions are acceptable… and which ones aren’t.
How I went from writing about products to building them. My journey to UX and content design in 86 bullet points (with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut).
Why content designers should do less In this Intercom podcast, Jonathon explains why content professionals have the most success when they do less, with more focus and depth.
Maximising the impact of content design (with Jonathon Colman) In this Rosenfield Review podcast, Jonathon joins Lou Rosenfeld to discuss the challenges of developing content operations.
Design Details #319: Content Strategy and Designing with Language Jonathon talks about the role of content in user experience design and how content strategy and product design should work together.
How to pitch your talk. A complete guide to pitching a talk for a conference or other event. Learn how to come up with a title, abstract description, and even a bio! This includes loads of examples from real UX talks from many disciplines and events.
How to maximize the impact of content design. Jonathon describes how he and his team redesigned content design at Intercom to increase people’s focus and depth of work, multiply their impact, and even accelerate career growth and compensation.
Wicked Ambiguity and User Experience Using real-world examples, Jonathon talks about wicked problems and the challenges of long-term design over 10,000 years or more.