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Presenting content design work to non-writers

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I have a theory. After Motorsport came out, the music industry feared what Nicki and Cardi would be capable of if they continued collaborating. They would just be too powerful together so entertainment tycoons set out to distance them or preferably start a fight between the two.

Okay, I have another theory. Everyone’s first job sucks, it’s a rite of passage of joining the workforce.

A glance at my first job

My communication skills left much to desire. I didn’t collaborate. I was overly confident in my technical capabilities. And my first job was one of the good ones!

Years later, one of the things I’m most proud of is that collaboration is a noticeable theme in my peers’ feedback. It was the only section that stayed the same from last year in the Strengths portion of my performance review (with new quotes from colleagues raving about how collaborative I am).

I can imagine colleagues from back then laughing at that statement. Me, the person who would respond to negative feedback by arguing its validity, collaborative?!

I thought everyone else’s job was easy and I could do it better with minimal training if I wanted to. I felt like the smartest person in the room while lacking any evidence to support that claim.

If you or a loved one are in your first job, I’d highly recommend printing out why was my probationary period extended at my new job? (and all Ask A Manager columns really) to get your head out of your ass a better understanding of the work world.

In a letter to Alison/Ask A Manager, someone whose probation was extended asks for advice. They mention “meetings often just seem like endless discussion with few tangible takeaways (I have been reprimanded for this too because apparently they value discussion over actual decision-making!).”

Alison’s answer is gold, adding a short excerpt below:

“And while it’s entirely possible that this is indeed an office where meetings are mainly useless discussion, it’s also true that in your first professional job, you might not be in a great position to judge if that’s actually the case or not. It can be hard to know what value others are getting out of the discussion when you have the necessarily limited perspective that often comes with entry-level roles. Is it possible that your view of these meetings is coming across to others? If so, that would definitely concern me as your manager; I’d be looking to you to show that you understand that you don’t know what you don’t know and not to assume that your take on the meetings trumps more senior people’s assessment of their value.”

4 SOOF steps for delivering effective content design presentations to non-writers

Since my first job, I learned that back then I had the necessarily limited perspective that often comes with entry-level roles, aka you don’t know what you don’t know. I’ve understood that collaboration isn’t a waste of time and it actually improves my work. I’ve also realized that feedback is a gift. My love language is quality time, but I do love gifts!

I try to make it easy for people to give me feedback. Content crits and presentations are some typical instances in which I request and receive feedback. They have different goals, but following the SOOF (Seemingly Obvious, Often Forgotten) steps is a great way to join forces with the smart people you work with and enhance the quality of your work.

If you don’t work in content design or user experience, reading below will help you better understand what to expect and how to contribute in these presentations.

1. Set the context

If I was reading an article on design critiques or presentations and it said “Step 1: Briefly introduce what you’re going to be talking about” I would groan because duh.

But I’ve been in many rooms where the presenter just started sharing their screen and talked about their dilemmas and options they had considered, then went to another design since it was related to what they were just talking about, and explained how doing X in that first design affected Y in the second design and so on… All the while, I was context-switching from the other meeting I was in where I discussed unrelated matters with completely different people and 10 minutes in this call, I had no idea of the goals of this meeting or what we were looking at because the presenter didn’t tell me.

I’ve been this presenter so I empathize deeply which is why I wanted to specifically mention that while, yes, setting the context sounds incredibly obvious it’s still a common missing piece from many presentations.

You risk having people point out that they don’t know what they’re looking at (or worse, just thinking that the whole time) if you don’t set the stage.

Before you dive in, tell people what you’re going to be diving into.

2. Use the Minto pyramid for maximum effectiveness

Named after author/consultant Barbara Minto, the main gist of the pyramid is to put the conclusion up front when communicating to increase the effectiveness of your communication and the chances of it being read because everyone’s sooo busy.

Example of a message written using the Minto Pyramid tool

Whether you’re doing content crits or leading a presentation, highlight in your Miro board or Google doc:

  • key takeaways / things to know
  • decisions needed / next steps

Donna Spencer covers this in Presenting Design Work (more on this below):

“…But the people hearing the presentation don’t care. All they are hearing is: “I thought this thing, then I changed my mind, and this was hard.” They just want you to get to the point.

“But I need to show my value,” designers often tell me, “and talking through my process and what I explored is how I do that.” To that I say: The end result is your value It really shouldn’t matter whether the design you have created took a day or two weeks-if the solution is good, you are providing value. If you can explain why it’s good in the context of the problem it is solving, you are providing value.”

3. Clarify what type of feedback you’re looking for

At my current employer, the overarching Experience Design (XD) team inclues 3 subdiscplines: Content Design, User Experience, and Visual Design.

We’re in client services and throughout a project, clients meet with content designers, UX designers, and visual designers. Not all of our workshops or meetings are relevant to every stakeholder on the client side. A stakeholder may be meeting me for the first time even if I’ve been on the project for months. They may also have limited visibility into the overarching project goals. You should ask for the participant list before the call so you can adjust your presentation accordingly.

For example, you can specifically point out that you’re not looking for interface design feedback at this stage. “You don’t have to focus on button colors or fonts. Megan, the visual designer on this project, will cover visual design updates on a separate call.”

You also have to specify the type of feedback you are looking for.

I recently wrote about content block diagrams, one of my favorite design deliverables. When providing feedback on CBDs, examples of where to focus on include:

  • Does the proposed content hierarchy make sense? Were you surprised by a specific block’s placement (overprioritized/not prioritized enough)?
  • Does the content hierarchy reflect key user needs?
  • How does this CBD help meet key business/product goals (like simplifying onboarding to reduce churn)?
  • Does the page provide too much, too little, or just enough information?
  • Does this content hierarchy raise any editorial (we don’t have enough people to write all this content or answer incoming questions), technical (we don’t have a Web Map Service Provider or a map component yet), or legal concerns (to show the closest business location on the map, we need to set tracking cookies to collect user data like their location which means we need to update our privacy policy)?

4. Use “a person doing a thing” examples when walking through your work

I read Donna Spencer’s Presenting Design Work book on a train ride from Vienna to Prague. The hypothetical lead designer, Alex, and her team have been working on a website for local businesses to promote used and repaired items. It’s time to present progress to the client and stakeholders but the presentation doesn’t go well, but not because she hasn’t prepared or worked hard. The book is just 50 pages and filled with helpful practical advice on how Alex turned it around.

I strongly suggest getting the book, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt on “a person doing a thing” as a way to frame your work and increase the effectiveness of your presentations:

Give them a name and a back story; don’t just talk about “the user.” For example, Alex could bring her presentation to life by introducing Norton, the father of a three-year-old, who needs to buy new clothes for his child. Because kids grow out of their clothes so fast, Norton likes buying (and potentially selling) items secondhand. Alex can show how Norton goes to the homepage, finds stores in his local area with children’s clothes, and checks out a few to see what their range looks like.

Next, present a similar task, again from the user’s perspective. Start with their goal, demonstrate the workflow, and finish with them completing the task. This time around, Alex could show Norton looking for secondhand vinyl records for himself.

I suggest starting with two core tasks that are quite similar. If some steps are repeated in both scenarios, just repeat them. Show the whole experience both times. This might feel repetitive to you, but it won’t feel that way to the audience. The first time will be too quick to take it in. The second time, they can look for the things they are wondering about.

One reason demonstrating from a user’s perspective works well is that it forms a narrative. People love listening to stories, and stories stick in their memory.

Another bonus is that it puts the user at the center of the story and focuses on them. It gives you the opportunity to communicate what matters to users with a clear and engaging story. A user-focused story doesn’t talk about features or screen elements, and discourages the audience from focusing on those, too.”

User-centric design FTW 💗

A word on ideal state

I love the internet. There’s so much you could learn in here. But also, there’s so much you could learn in here *scary voice*

My bookmarks are filled with many tools and methods that at some point, I wanted to learn more about and thought future me would need/find helpful, but never did.

Maybe you’re on the same boat and this is the third or ninth article you’re consuming but not retaining anything from.

You may be feeling overwhelmed with all the rules and steps.

It’s common to feel like a presentation could’ve gone better. Obsessing over a long silence or a missing detail on a slide? I’ve been there. Try to focus on the main goal of the presentation. Did you achieve it? I’ve often found that the answer is “yes” even if I (or the colleague who was presenting) felt like there was room for improvement.

What you’re reading isn’t our entire reality. It’s an ideal state for most of us.

As Helmut Schmidt said: “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.”

Make sure you don’t hang out there all the time.

2 thoughts on “Presenting content design work to non-writers”

  1. Nice one, Delfina!

    Practicing what you preach ain’t easy. Doing that consistently is even harder. I feel you on the design critique or flooding someone with a challenge you’ve been working on for a while. It takes a concentrated, diligent effort to set the stage appropriately. Thanks for the book rec as well! 🙂

    1. 100% and tomorrow’s a new day for the times when we inevitably fuck up!

      You’re welcome, I struggle a bit with finding work books worth reading but A Book Apart books feel less committal and I’ve coincidentally found them more valuable and enjoyable.

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