Content strategy for a team of one

From Shopify UX:

How to advocate for content in a room full of devs and designers

Female backpacker leaps off the edge of a proverbial content cliff, walking poles raised in the air. Photo by Brodie Vissers

So you’re a solo content wanderer in a tech wilderness of designers, developers, and product managers who might not know that you exist. Or that they need you. I hear you. I’ve been you.

As the first content strategist at Shopify Plus, I spent more than a year and a half building and promoting the content practice in Waterloo, Canada. When I first arrived, unreviewed content still “shipped” through the cracks. Content recommendations were often deemed out of scope. Onboarding narratives, feedback alerts, and helpful error messages were mostly absent from prototypes.

Sound familiar? Despair not — there is a way forward.

Here’s what I’ve learned on the ground and now share with you, content comrade: high-impact strategies to grow your team’s content culture. Spoiler: it’s all about building relationships, finding allies, and saying no to the right things.

Build relationships with the right people (that is, everyone)

Soft skills are social currency. Because content strategy is often the minority discipline, the onus is on you to reach out. How can colleagues ask for content help if they don’t know your Slack handle? Or that office hours are every second Tuesday? Be brave and make first contact.

The weightier your content design and information architecture (IA) recommendations, the stronger the bridge of relationship you need to build.

How I build relationships

  • Schedule weekly 1:1s with designers. Feedback is nicer in person or over a video chat than in written comments, where charm and wit are reduced to emojis and exclamation marks. Real face-to-face interactions are the fastest way to build mutual empathy.
  • Be approachable. Small, intentional gestures like acknowledging people and being genuinely interested in them keep the proverbial office door open. Next time they have a question, they know you’ll make time for them.
  • Coffee chats with developers. Most devs are curious about what a content strategist actually does, so this is your chance to advocate for it. Personal agenda aside, you’ll have a dev buddy for life who can save you from Git merge-conflict hell when you try to update strings yourself.
  • Pair with developers to QA your content. You’d be surprised what gets missed during implementation: wrong punctuation, casing, and even messaging. Pairing is a great way to catch legacy content and stress cases not accounted for in the original design.

You might be the first (or last) content strategist of someone’s career. Represent. Remove obstacles and provide clarity with sound rationale for every recommendation.

Build trust with a thoughtful rationale

Explain your content decisions without being defensive — consider it how you train others to think like a content strategist. Show your content explorations and thought process, not just the end result, in the same way that designers explore and share multiple solutions.

Build good content habits in your colleagues, not just hard-and-fast content rules. Ask content-first questions so often that you start to hear them repeated back to you:

  • What part of this content works? What part doesn’t work?
  • Who is this for and what are they trying to accomplish?
  • Who might this leave out or hurt?
  • What don’t people need to know?
  • Will people understand this term?

Solicit and accept feedback from others to improve the quality and clarity of your content. And when giving feedback, frame your critique as curiosity:

  • Have you considered this approach?
  • I’m curious why you chose this component — what was your rationale?
  • I might not have full context here. Can you explain this decision?

In my experience, it’s not just the what but the how I present my rationale: with an openness of mind and ability to compromise that overrides my need to be right. Because the main goal is to improve the work, right?

Invite yourself to key meetings and projects

Make sure you’re in the room when product decisions are being made. If a decision impacts content negatively or inadvertently (most do), follow up and create an awareness that you’re a stakeholder.

Thanks to your people skills (point #1) and proven track record (point #2), your involvement won’t be out of the blue. If someone is new to the project, introduce yourself and ask how you can help.

I also attend product demos to catch verbose writing, wrong punctuation, robotic or vague errors, and inconsistencies with our style guide. Then I offer help!

Get involved at the right time

Make sure you set realistic expectations of your involvement. Content design informs product design the way a content model informs the data model, so the earlier you can get involved, the better. But… if proper content modeling would take all year and five projects are shipping content weekly… consider focusing on what’s closest to users.

Figure out where you’ll have the most impact, and be strategic with your yes or no.

Know when to say no

You know you’re making inroads when the lack of content awareness turns into an overload of content requests. If you’re distributed across multiple projects, identifying low-effort, high-impact work is key to protecting your mind space and time.

Some signs you might want to say no

  • It’s not user-facing
  • It’s high effort or long term
  • It’s low in priority, visibility, or traffic
  • It’s related to the data model or code
  • It’s in the conceptual or exploratory stage
  • It’s a content band-aid on a deeper design problem
  • It’s not your main skillset or area of competency
  • It’s outside your sphere of influence or domain
  • It’s beyond the scope of a 30- or 45-minute content clinic*

*Content clinics are office hours held every few weeks, where I provide user interface (UI) content, IA direction, and content hierarchy feedback to teams without embedded content strategists.

Once I determine that I don’t have the “brainwidth” to provide the support needed, I direct people to content resources like Polaris, our style guide, and to content strategists in other offices.

Don’t have the luxury of backup content strategists? Marissa Phillip from Airbnb outlines helpful ways to turn “no” into “no, but…” Because pointing people to content resources is how we promote content while still maintaining our sanity.

Slide by Marissa Phillip from “Building and supporting your content strategy team,” Confab 2018

Choose your (s)word battles

Find a balance between push and yield, resist and relent. If you compromise in the negotiables, people are more willing to listen when you fight for the non-negotiables. If you feel like you’re fighting for every UI label or badge, then maybe the issue goes deeper than the content design layer. Or maybe you just need better allies.

Make content allies

Find the influencer on your project team and work closely with them. Because you’re probably on more than one project and can’t be at every planning session, you need a content ally to stand in the gap.

Schedule weekly chats with your new friend (usually the lead designer) to keep yourself in the loop, provide content feedback, and model content-first thinking. Before you know it, your buddy will defend your content choices when you’re not in the room. They will have your back. They will champion your discipline.

Share your knowledge

Your impact widens exponentially as you share your knowledge beyond the individual to the group.

Multiplying content thinking across teams is how content cultures are born.

How I share knowledge

  • Content reviews: Explain content decisions with reference to style guidelines and UX principles so you can steer the conversation away from personal preference.
  • Workshops: If you don’t have the bandwidth to design and deliver your own training material, bring in colleagues or guest speakers to teach their area of expertise.
  • Pairing: Working sessions with designers and developers are the most effective way to mentor colleagues in content thinking.
  • Resources: Compile and distribute content templates and material like noteworthy articles, books, guidelines, patterns, and anti-patterns.
  • Presentations: Promote the discipline whenever you can — during team times, lunch-n-learns, you name it. Even if it’s a 2-minute update on a content standard, you’re raising the level of content awareness in the room.
  • Articles: Write a blog post to demystify and articulate how you approach a content problem — or share someone else’s.

Advocating for content when you’re in the room — and getting others to advocate for content when you’re not in the room — is where you start to see exponential impact.

Show (and know) how you add value

Every interface is a conversation with a user. The experience breaks down when the questions someone brings to the task aren’t answered clearly — whether through the design, the hierarchy of information, or the words used. Just as content is the mediator of that conversation, as a content strategist you are uniquely equipped as the mediator of communication gaps in both the design and the team.

Your skills of organizing and communicating information can bring clarity and unblock other disciplines.

Your role becomes that of interpreter: translating machine language for a human audience; filtering what people need to know and when; deciding what is unnecessary information; prioritizing the most important message; and saying it all in simple, short words.

Your ability to ask questions and articulate the answers on behalf of others leads to better communication on product teams.

Some questions to ask along the way

  • How can I remove obstacles?
  • How can I structure the mess?
  • How does this one piece fit into the whole?
  • What’s the most important thing someone needs to know?
  • What risks do we need to highlight?
  • What are we forgetting?

Trick your team into hiring another one of you

If you’re reading this, it’s time to call in the cavalry, lone ranger. Contrary to everything I just said, you might need to push back in supporting side projects for some time, and let others feel the need for another you. Then gather and hire a team of content strategists around you — so you can focus on the real work of crafting clear, useful, and usable content.

To quote many a colleague, “Words are hard.”

Yes, friend, but words are also your superpower.

Female backpacker points the way onward and upward (with walking poles) to her new content buddy. Photo by Brodie Vissers


If you feel the call to battle, c’mon and help another content warrior out. Check out our careers page or hit me up in LinkedIn.

For more on Shopify’s product content team, read Alaine Mackenzie’s article “How we structure our content strategy team.”

For an in-depth look at how content strategists help teams build better products, read Biz Sanford’s article “Product content at each stage of a project.”

Content strategy for a team of one was originally published in Shopify UX on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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