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A day in the life of a remote content designer (agency edition)

I strongly believe that I’m uniquely well-positioned to significantly confuse people who ask me what I do.

  • I’m Albanian, live in Austria, and work remotely for an American company.
  • Content design, the field that I work in, was established in the early 2010s.
  • When most people hear “design,” they immediately think of visual design. That’s not what I do.
  • Most people in tech work on one specific digital product like Google Maps, for example. I work for an agency which means I work on the agency’s client projects.
  • On average (sometimes more, rarely less), I work on 5 projects per week/at a time.
  • Some client projects have a clear finish line like the new website is live. Other projects (also called retainers) are ongoing and include yearly roadmaps and agile sprints and retros.
  • My title includes the word “lead” but I don’t have people management duties. I’m also not interested in a people manager role.

It is pretty funny. I do enjoy flexing my content design muscles by changing my explanation based on my audience and their level of tech savviness. I’m 99% sure my grandmother still thinks I’m a psychologist. Plot twist: I was never a psychologist.

In the past few months, you might’ve noticed I’ve written a bunch of articles on content design/my day-to-day work. Sure, I did this for my professional growth, but also because I want my friends and family to actually know what I do (if they want to).

So, today, I’d like to share a day in my life as an agency content designer.

Day in the life

I wake up around 8.30am. I leave work at 8pm at the latest. Since we all work remotely and are in different time zones, leaving work means I’ve outlined my working hours in Google Calendar and Slack. Obviously, I prefer not to have late meetings, but I try to remain flexible and will join calls past 8pm if that’s the only time that works for the client or the rest of the team. I ran a 10.30pm-12.30am workshop late last year with a group of physicians that had understandably tricky schedules, but at least I only had to run the first portion of the workshop and at the risk of stating the obvious, I didn’t have to join.

Originally, I’m an early bird, but working for an American company from Austria (6-8h time difference), I realized way, way later than I should have that:

  • honoring my body’s cycles by waking up early, starting work at 8am and
  • working until 8pm so that I could have a large overlap with the US team

wouldn’t work in the long term. For the past year or so, I’ve started work around 11am and closed my laptop at 8pm… just to open it a few minutes later to watch The Office, New Girl, Sopranos, or The Bear (currently watching, 10/10 so far, no spoilers please). These new work hours have worked way better for my mental health, energy levels, and relationships.

This also means I can work out in the morning, run errands, talk to friends who also work remotely, and find the cutest libraries (see: featured image) or coffee shops to work from.

Projects I worked on

FYI: Some days I have no meetings, some days I have 7. Some weeks I work on 4 projects, some weeks I work on 6. I picked a random February Tuesday. I believe it’s an accurate depiction of most of my “a day in my life.”

  1. defined new editorial workflows for a college’s internal content request/submission process. Here’s the rough agenda I put together for the client call:
    • Discuss previously identified editorial pain points
    • Review workflow recommendations solving for those pain points identified in a previous workshop (like staff members having to manually review and update copy despite it coming from vetted sources or not having a way to periodically review and audit time-sensitive info like deadlines or people retiring)
    • Confirm new roles and permissions of people who will be involved in content creation or curation moving forward
  2. finalized sitemap and content model updates for a university’s website and for their lab services website
    • A colleague and I had presented both to the client. For revisions, we were relying on async communication. I had received the client’s second round of feedback, made updates (or asked questions/probed further if necessary) to both sitemaps and content models, and sent the revised versions to them.
  3. rehearsed with the internal team the IA presentation for a company offering versatile and reliable fasteners. This is also known in the vast world of American acronyms as dry run. Here’s the rough agenda I put together for the client call:
    • 10min / Defining terms -Let’s build a shared understanding of the artifacts we’ll be reviewing today.
    • 10min / Current state and future experience strategy
    • 30min / Sitemap – We’ll discuss how we envision the new navigation being organized to help users fulfill their key tasks.
    • 10min / Next steps
  4. content audit for a leading provider of inpatient rehabilitation for stroke, brain injuries, and other conditions. I analyzed a few metrics in the content audit to measure content effectiveness including:
    • word count
    • title & title length
    • usage of alternative text
    • readability score
    • link text – The term “link text” refers to the text used to link to a specific webpage or document. I suggested rewriting link text so that it describes the content of the link target. Avoid using ambiguous link text, such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’ or single words like nuts or choice. Yes, I’m pulling from the audit verbatim.
  5. met with the internal team to finalize next steps for gated content strategy for a major consumer (and B2B) electronics corporation. I’d be presenting findings, recommendations, and estimates to the client team in the next client call.

I had 2 other meetings this day besides the ones mentioned in #3 and #5:

  • a status call with the internal team working on the college website rebuild project mentioned on #1
  • a virtual hangout with my best friend who lives in the Netherlands before starting work (prioritize your relationships!!!)

Looking at photos from this day, I’m reminded that I worked from the library. When I arrived at the station, I saw that the train to get to the library was a few minutes away so I stood outside enjoying the sun. On the way there, I read Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. For lunch, I had stuffed peppers. I was going through a bolgur phase.

I also completed a peer review. Not on this day, but generally, I also work on internal stuff to advance the content design discipline within the company. This may look like running a content crit during weekly content design team syncs, rethinking and rewriting how we talk about our deliverables on the internal documentation site, auditing tools/processes, being part of a product & design integration committee (did I mention we’re going through a merger?).

As an agency content designer, there’s plenty of variety in my days: different industries, different teams, different deliverables / types of projects.

However, a lot is missing from the lists above, namely questioning myself, frantically searching online, feeling stuck and overwhelmed and anxious and like I’m failing (not to mention all the days that I can’t get anything done because I feel so burnt out). These are difficult feelings to deal with in the moment, but on most days once I’m done with work, I can appreciate all of this for what it is: part of the process. Basically, I oscillate between these two moods.

If my meetings end earlier in the day, I’ll go on a walk with my partner around the large body of water near our house which might end up in a little coffee little cake reading session at a lovely cafe that stays open “late” (most coffeeshops in Vienna close at 6.30).

If my meetings end later than 8pm, I’ll treat myself with pizza and 2 negronis.

What I wish I had known when I started

Firstly, I have to mention that my current role has provided incredible opportunities for me so far. Juicy (I refuse to say meaty) problems, a lot of resources at my disposal (hello $3000 yearly professional development budget), deep learning about many industries, a seat at every table as a content designer (no “sprinkling copy magic” here) focused on high impact and high visibility work, some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve worked with, and opportunities to start over and do things differently on every new project. This isn’t the point of this article, but I’d be remiss not to mention the gratitude (dare I say, love?) I feel for 10up specifically and agency life generally.

A healthy baseline optimism is the general level of optimism you’ve built and that you maintain even at times when things are kinda shitty for you. I’ve written about some of my healthy baseline optimism activities. They include meditation, working out, writing.

It’s important to build a healthy level of baseline optimism regardless of where you work, but it’s especially important when you work at an agency and you’re constantly in a busy period.

Many people have written about the pros and cons of in-house vs agency work. Whether agency is right for you depends on where you’re at with your career, personal life, how you deal with context switching, and generally how much you care or let work affect you. It’s okay to not care about work, but you need to know what you’re signing up for.

  • My first full-time job: Content Strategist at an online food ordering and delivery platform launched in 2015 in Albania.
  • Second full-time job: Content Strategist at the first Albanian native advertising platform.
  • Third full-time job before the one I’ve been at for the past 2.5 years: Content Strategist at the largest and oldest Albanian C2C platform (think Craigslist).

Each of these companies also had a web agency. The agency was the main source of income for some, for others, the agency had become obsolete since the actual product took off. These side hustle agencies had somehow prepared me for my current role at a world-class agency, but also, not really. Each agency is different and you’ll benefit more from refining your skills rather than focusing on how each agency works, aka learning coping mechanisms rather than skills.

In 5 Signs It’s Time to Quit Your Job, Cate Huston’s fantastic article that I’ve probably mentioned to 10 people at this point including my therapist, she calls out “You’re learning coping mechanisms rather than skills” as a sign.

Every organization has their quirks that people find their way to work around. Perhaps the reporting is a little overly arduous, or your manager’s manager a little political, or the culture a little too argumentative for your liking. Over time, we learn to cope with these things – we set aside extra time for the reports, make sure we take the time to sell the political person on our ideas, or learn how to argue.

The trap: Sometimes organizations are (or become) sufficiently toxic that we’re investing more time in developing and refining the coping mechanisms than the actual skills. If your list of things to develop is really a list of things that you won’t have to do in a more functional environment, none of which will make you more employable elsewhere… it’s time to walk away. The coping mechanisms trap is particularly vicious because in a healthy environment, coping mechanisms will often be harmful. The more time you invest in refining them, the more time you’re going to have to spend untangling them in a healthy environment – if you ever make it to one.”

Tanya Reilly put together this 5 Signals Rubric: template (screenshot below) based on Cate’s article. “Make a copy of this template. Set a regular reminder to re-read this article by Cate Huston and update your metrics. We all have good weeks and bad weeks. Instead of reacting to what’s happening right now, track how your signals are trending over time.” 

This content design job requirement is pretty ridiculous

Working in an agency isn’t easy. You’re quasi-forced to be organized, manage multiple workstreams and deadlines simultaneously, communicate clearly and often, present to execs, have above-average note taking or memory skills, and learn new industries constantly.

Fasteners? Medical simulation? Clinical trials? Law publications? Electronics? All of it!

Google’s content design job postings include “2 years of writing, editorial, marketing, or UX writing experience in an agency setting” under preferred qualifications.

I roll my eyes whenever I see hiring managers disregard web design agency experience and ask exclusively for product experience. Content design skills are transferable whether you’re working for clients or internal stakeholders and whether you’re working on flyers, websites, or mobile apps. Implying otherwise suggests a misunderstanding of the content design craft, what we do, and how flexible we are. Not to mention that that Sarah Winters created “content design” while working on GOV.UK (spoiler: it’s a website).

“Between 2010 and 2014, Sarah Winters and her team at the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service did what many thought impossible: they took over 400 separate government websites and transformed them into a single site designed to effectively serve its users. In doing so, they codified a new discipline: content design.”

Chickpeas and job descriptions

Fun fact: the Albanian equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack is asking for chickpeas in a rotisserie grill. This makes us sound way more vegetarian-friendly than we really are which I like. So what does a good job description look like, one that’s not looking for chickpeas in a rotisserie grill?

I like Google’s content design job descriptions. The first thing you see when you land on the page are minimum and preferred qualifications. They only ask for 4 “hard” requirements, all of which sound reasonable to me (yes, including product writing experience, as long as it’s not the first or only thing you’re looking for). Nice-to-haves are clearly labeled as such. As you scroll down the page, there’s an About the job section (4 paragraphs) and a Responsiblities section (5 bullet points). The location requirement and Apply button are impossible to miss. There’s a salary range. Okay I like it, Picasso. Did a content designer put this together?!

It should say Experience in UX-focused product writing instead of Experience on UX-focused product writing, but hey, we’re focusing on the most impactful work, not obsessing over copy edits.

Minimum qualifications

  • Bachelor’s degree in English, Journalism, Communication, Literature, Business, Marketing, a related field, or equivalent practical experience.
  • 2 years of experience in writing, editorial, marketing, UX writing, or related, as well as leading content strategy projects.
  • Experience on UX-focused product writing and shaping content for multi-disciplinary projects.
  • Portfolio highlighting UX-focused writing samples and style guidelines.

Preferred qualifications

  • 3 years of experience interacting with executive leadership.
  • 2 years of writing, editorial, marketing, or UX writing experience in an agency setting.
  • 2 years of experience working in a complex, cross-functional technology organization.
  • Experience developing information architecture for complex documentation sets or product suites, including localization and accessibility best practices.
  • Knowledge of online technology and related products, including web and mobile UI and tools.
  • Familiarity with user experience research principles and practices and how to use data to provide informed user insights.

Parting thoughts

6 months ago, I came across this post by Kristina Halvorson and felt seen. Kristina’s an industry leader, someone I deeply respect, and is not inconsequential in many of us having jobs in the first place.

I used to never write about content design stuff, but I told myself I only had to write 6 articles, and sat down with pen and paper to plan it all.

56 hours = 8h/piece 
48h left
4h a week = 12 weeks = 3 months = deadlines, Sunday, March 31, 2024

I always thought I’d go back to this post which I reposted back then with the 🫣 emoji and publicly thank Kristina once I was done.

What happens next will shock you. lol.

Before I had a chance to thank her, she found and reshared one of my articles, saying:

I LOVE THIS POST. Truly. This substantive, how-to article by Delfina Hoxha is a fantastic example of how to share your work. You can do it! Be like Delfina! 👏👏👏

This is my last (6 out of 6, baby) content design article for a while. A looot of good things happened during these 2 months (more on that another time?). Thank you Kristina for inspiring me to share my work. Please share your work! Good things happen to those who do.

Further reading/listening/pondering

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