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In conversation with CFPB’s Natalie Kurz

CFPB's Natalie Kurz

Last month, content strategist and UX designer Natalie Kurz presented at 18F. Currently a Technology and Innovation Fellow at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Kurz has spent more than 15 years helping clients create, maintain, and promote beautiful, brand-adherent content.

Prior to her presentation, we had the chance to chat with Kurz via email about her experience working with different types of content, her predictions for the field, and the collaborative approaches she recommends. To get more of her insights into successful content-strategy practices, read on.

1. During the past decade, digital content creation and strategy have become more prominent as design disciplines. What content-related trends do you see on the horizon?

I think there will be a big trend toward more personalized, adaptive content as companies begin to realize that users want to have a full experience regardless of what device they may be using to view content. Users have come to expect more than a watered-down “mobile” experience. And as content delivery platforms continue to evolve, I think we’ll see a trend toward chunked, reusable content that is more easily displayed on any screen size. Which also means we’ll see an uptick in content modeling, metadata definitions, and CMS design to accommodate the content in a more reusable way.

2. On a more personal note: You have a background in journalism and spent years creating health, beauty, and lifestyle content. What spurred your shift in focus from (primarily) writing and editing to UX? What difficulties, if any, did you encounter as you made this shift, and how did you work through them?

I actually started in UX before getting my masters in journalism; I just didn’t know that was what I was doing! My first job out of undergrad was working in the collections department as a project manager of Sara Lee Bakery Group. While there, I saw a lot of inefficiencies within their software system, which was built off SAP. So I worked with a few developers to improve the system’s workflow, allowing collectors to better track their efforts over time. It was UX design, but that wasn’t even a phrase on my radar!

I left that job to pursue a passion in journalism. In subsequent jobs, I would be hired to write online content and in the process would make suggestions regarding user flows, design patterns and overall interactions that I noticed felt “off.” I was fortunate to work for teams that embraced my self-taught skills and let me expand my job description by learning about usability testing and creating wireframes. I started referring to myself as a UX designer and was then hired as a director of a growing web development agency to essentially develop an entire UX and content strategy practice. That was my crash course in the breadth of what UX means.

It ended up being a very natural transition for me. I think that’s because in every job I’ve ever had, I’ve gravitated toward solving problems, which is a core tenant of good UX work. Define the problem, then solve it. It’s also at the heart of being a journalist — tease out the problem and define what the story is really about. Both professions are also heavily reliant on empathy, listening, and organizing information. To be honest, the biggest conflict I encountered along the way was myself. I spent many years wavering between calling myself a user experience designer and a content strategist. Until I decided I really could be both.

3. You’ve mentioned that few folks in writing-related fields receive formal training as content strategists, yet many of us are expected to create content strategies. A few questions on this topic: Do you feel that certain writing-rich backgrounds lend themselves more to the transition to content strategy (for example, journalists make better content strategists)? If so, which backgrounds, and why?

I think there are a few key traits that are essential to being a good content strategist, but I don’t believe those traits are limited to any specific background or profession. You have to be a good writer. While content strategy doesn’t necessarily equate to content creation, in reality both tasks usually fall to a single lucky person. But creating content strategies does require a deep understanding of language — the structure, the connotations, the musicality of words. You need to be able to tap into literary techniques for creating voice and tone, identify when to use first or third person and determine if your brand should use personal pronouns or not.

You also have to have a burning, innate desire to analyze, organize, label and group things. Much of content strategy is the “behind the scenes” stuff of creating giant spreadsheets, identifying content types and metadata, building content models and determining the who, when and how of the content lifecycle and governance.

I think that’s why we see a lot of journalists, information architects and library scientists making the switch to content strategy. The skills that made them good at those jobs are the same ones required in content strategy. But it doesn’t matter what field you come from. And as there becomes more awareness around the importance of content strategy, we’re starting to see degree programs that are more focused on the discipline, which is fantastic.

4. What are your thoughts on how best to integrate a content strategist into a cross-functional product team? Any thoughts on how a content strategist’s work could fit into the agile cycle?

Ok, first the easy answer to the first question. Content strategy is an umbrella that sits on top of your project, much like project management. It is a crucial piece of every stage. Many folks operate under the assumption that the strategy gets created during the discovery phase, some content is written at the beginning of design and then that content resource rolls onto another project. I’ve seen this fail 100% of the time.

The key thing with incorporating content strategy into an agile cycle is to identify a content resource from day one that will remain a permanent member of the team until the project closes. It’s not enough to have a writer jump into the middle of sprint seven to “write some content that goes here.” That’s not content strategy. That’s copywriting as an afterthought. Much of the heavy lifting of content strategy is planning — you can’t help determine a train’s course if you’re expected to vault yourself onto it while it’s moving and is only a few hours away from its destination.

Within every sprint, there should be some content strategy work going on. Content audits, analysis, messaging, research, defining user goals (in tandem with UX work), creating content models and metadata libraries, writing editorial guidelines, creating a governance plan. There’s certainly enough to do!

And there are ways to make the content work more agile. Think small. Break out a key user task (like the checkout process) or business requirement (this section is what drives revenue) and focus on the content surrounding that thing first. Use a rolling audit process, so you aren’t diving into “all the things” at once. Just like the mentality of “minimal viable product” you can create a “minimal viable strategy.” There are so many tasks and deliverables associated with content strategy, but you will never have the time or budget to do them all. Pick the things that will have the biggest impact on the project — or biggest impact within the current sprint — and put your focus there. For instance, if you’re honing in on the event section, a content audit may not be as helpful as modeling the event content type.

Also, I can’t stress enough how important it is to test wires and prototypes with actual content. Get real feedback on the language, tone, clarity, structure, placement within the design. Include questions in your testing scripts that are focused specifically on the content. I’ve seen award-winning designs fail because the content was never vetted with users and it failed to communicate the intended message.

For more about how to incorporate content strategy into agile processes, check out Josh Tong’s blog post or Corey Vilhauer’s slides on “small content strategy” from Confab Central 2015.

5. What are some of the biggest barriers to being successful as a content strategist on a software team?

I think the biggest one is getting picked for the team in the first place. In my experience, there is a collective sigh of relief from the team once you’re there, because it means they don’t have to struggle through the process by themselves any longer. I think software teams understand the value of content strategy and are just hungry for people to do it.

6. Finally, what piece of advice would you offer to a new content designer or content strategist?

I’m a huge fan of learning by doing. Don’t be afraid to just dive in. Volunteer to handle content on your team if no one else is doing it — more than likely your initiative and help will be valued because you’re filling a vital need.

Get educated on the topic. Read the books from thought leaders. Attend some workshops or conferences for hands-on and practical experience.

Finally, help educate your stakeholders and teammates on what content strategy is and what it isn’t — it’s an ongoing process to plan for the creation and delivery of content, not just a set of deliverables or replacing “lorem ipsum” with actual words. It should never be an afterthought.

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