Connected by content : An analysis of the content design practice in the Canadian public sector

A visual graph of different content design skills, representing a tangled network.

In this report:

  • About the survey
  • Strengths and opportunities in the public sector’s content design
  • Guidance through words is where content professionals shine
  • Discovery + problem definition are out of reach
  • Collaboration + alignment are misaligned
  • Systems thinking is not part of the system
  • How leaders can support content practitioners
  • Treat content as a system
  • Provide role clarity
  • Encourage professional development and networking
  • Prioritize critical sensemaking and connecting skills
  • Purpose of research, methodology, sample size, and its limitations
  • Opportunities for future research
  • Resources/Thank you

*A short version of this report is available from Apolitical The skills content professionals in government need.

About the survey

In January 2020, I set out to understand what skills are being used and are considered important among content professionals across the Canadian public service, as well as what skills are lacking and needed.

I wanted to find out what are the content professionals’ skill gaps in the public service to then determine how to best train and develop these practitioners. Given that many government organizations do not have specific content roles on their teams, the skills gap analysis could be valuable to any digital transformation or user experience design team wanting to ensure that their services are effectively communicated and understood.

I collected data through the bilingual Content design in the Canadian public service survey and started documenting the findings in an open graph.

The survey included a mix of open and close-ended questions as well as a matrix of 31 skills where participants were asked to identify whether they know these skills, do them in their current job, need them, think they are important for content professionals, or if they do not apply to them. They could include multiple answers for each skill.

Strengths and opportunities in the public sector’s content design

Analysis of responses from 47 professionals across 24 different organizations reveals a few important insights.

  1. Content professionals excel at guiding people through text, rather than designing content
  2. Discovery and problem definition phases seem to be missing in content work along with the underlying skills of analyzing and using data, design thinking, and defining success measures
  3. Collaboration and alignment do not happen enough which is reflected in lack of content governance, as well as co-writing, and communication of research and insights
  4. Systems thinking is rarely used, evidenced by large gaps in information and knowledge management, lack of channel definition strategy, as well as limited use of content modeling and designs that consider experiences beyond webpages

While this research focused on the Canadian public sector, based on conversations and community engagement with colleagues from the UK and other countries, its results should be of interest to other countries and provide insights on the overall state of design (not just content design) in the government context.

Guidance through words is where content professionals shine

The survey data about the skills content professionals in the public sector use most (view the full graph of skills used as part of work) tells us that they are good at and focus primarily on writing and organizing information. They follow rules of accessibility and design systems frequently, understanding their importance. Working with others is an important part of their job, yet it can be a bit of a challenge because, as some professionals point out, among partners “content is considered publishing and just requires a button to be pushed [and] content design [is] considered a barrier to publishing content.”

They also help people navigate through layers of content and find information through search, if it is in their control. On occasion, they get to prototype what an experience would look like with real content and help shape the final outcome, but they do not often get to influence the visual communication of products, even though visuals impact the understanding of the message.

Content practitioners seem to have a rather narrow scope to their role that mostly focuses on writing, arranging, and trying to optimize information. They appear to guide people through textual content that is often already determined by others, rather than design and shape the content’s medium and delivery, because, as one practitioner notes:

the writing part is too often separated from the design process.

Sadly, it looks like separation of content and design is a systemic and ongoing issue in both private and public sectors, as Nicole Fenton, a writer, editor and content strategist, notes in 2015:

I’ve noticed a huge gap between writers and designers in the professional world. […]I first noticed this gap 10 years ago when I was working at Apple, and I’ve seen it again and again since. Designers are invited to product meetings; writers hear about them afterwards. Designers sit close to the CEO; writers are in the call center or brought in right before the launch. Designers make things; writers support them.

Discovery + problem definition are out of reach

Depending on a project, content professionals might assess existing content. Sometimes problems come up, so they use design thinking. If opportunities arise, they advise on getting to the root of business needs, understanding the context and users’ needs, and testing content with users, but do not lead this work directly. Content professionals rarely get to interpret and use data in their work. They have ideas about what success metrics should be, but don’t often get to provide input on these.

Anyone familiar with the Double Diamond design process created by the Design Council, will notice that the Discovery and Problem definition (Define) phases where investigation, research, and design thinking happen have been misplaced and are practiced inconsistently and infrequently, as the more editorial and optimizing skills are prioritized.

Content professionals are rarely involved in user research, usability testing, data analysis or problem framing, in fact, 11% think that both ‘Design and user research’ and ‘Analyzing and using data’ skills are not applicable to them. This means that somebody (or nobody) else may be doing this work (perhaps the client or other roles on the team). While this might seem like a logical distribution of labour, this reality renders content professionals unable to use the skills they need to discover the most effective content solutions. David Travis, a UX strategist, has highlighted this pervasive neglect of the ‘discovery phase’ in a recent interview:

… there is this important phase in discovery where you are trying to understand the needs of users before you come up with any prototypes or any ideas about the way that thing could look. But most people forget that first part of the design process, or gloss over it. They start their research once they have got a definite product idea. This is a problem because if you do research on a prototype web site, you’ll end up with a web site. If you do research with a prototype mobile app, you’ll end up with a mobile app. But your audience may have no need for a web site or mobile app.

A few comments from the survey provide insights about why the Discovery and Problem definition phases are missing:

  • “everything is rushed”
  • “content is not measured for performance and teams are not accountable for the content they produce”
  • “not enough good user research and user testing”

A few other content professionals mention that they would like their partners to know that

good content takes time and research.

Indeed, to ensure we create good content, leaders and designers alike need to intentionally invest into the time, skills, and space to allow for the critical sensemaking to happen both during the discovery and problem definition phases and throughout the design process.

Collaboration + alignment are misaligned

If they are lucky, content professionals get to name a few things in ways that might make sense to the people who use this information. Certain activities are seen as outside the scope of their work and only if they are particularly proactive do they get to develop design systems supported by research and insights and edit partners’ content. Advocating for broader governance and the importance of managing the entire content lifecycle is as close as they get to practicing this in their work. Content professionals are happy to co-write content with their partners when they are willing, but currently this is not a common part of their practice.

Based on data, it appears that collaboration that requires aligning priorities and working towards a common goal is not happening frequently. So despite ‘Stakeholder and team relations’ skill ranking high (75%), these relationships might not be as positive or strong as initially perceived, as some practitioners feel that there is a

lack of engagement (everything has been approved on this content that has taken 6 months to develop and needs to be online tomorrow, and that we’re just giving to you now), content design [is] seen as [adding] no value.

There is also a common sentiment of having little power to make substantive content changes due to the persisting culture where the client owns the content and “information arrives with preconceived plan in place, [making it] difficult to change opinions”. It is not surprising then to see that compared to “Organizing information” (77% do it), ‘Labeling of information’ (62% do it) and ‘Copy editing’ (55% do it) are not ranked high on the list of used skills. This particular discrepancy between organization and labelling of information is important, as both skills are part of the broader essential information architecture skill set and should be practiced in tandem to make content clear and understandable to the intended audience. This struggle for ‘ownership’ echoed by a number of respondents is a barrier to effective content and building truly collaborative relationships and needs to be addressed at an organizational level.

Aside from the challenges related to collaborating on content creation, working together on managing that content is an even bigger struggle, as some professionals share that they are unable “to change structures in how content is created and managed”. The place of information management and governance within the survey’s data with ‘Information and knowledge management’ being done only by 30% of practitioners and ‘Digital content management, governance, and maintenance’ being done by 51% seems to reflect the growing concern about lack of content stewardship :

government or non-profit sectors seem to focus on the immediacy of solution and prioritizing skills that put long-term sustainability and coherence on the back burner.

The importance of ‘maintenance’ in content work is echoed beyond the content and public sector communities in academic studies exploring the in-demand skills of content professionals where G. Getto identifies 5 common areas of expertise for content strategists as content management, strategic assessment, writing and editing, workflow management, and cultural fluency. A number of other scholars agree; in their article “Evolving Skill Sets and Job Pathways of Technical Communicators” they state: “students who are acquainted with content management and content strategy have better job opportunities open to them.”

If content professionals cannot shape the language of government services while making meaningful connections with partners who will stand behind these changes and willingly take care and continuously improve this content, then the public sector is creating a number of disconnected, short-lived outputs that are neither successful nor sustainable in the broader context.

Systems thinking is not part of the system

Systems thinking is a way of making sense of complexity. It includes ways of understanding, approaches, and practices that consider relationships, boundaries, different perspectives and dependence on context.

Systems thinking and content modeling are not well supported or encouraged in content professionals’ work. They don’t see information management (done by information managers), channel definition (done by marketing) and system design (done by IT) as their areas of expertise, while conversational design is too new and they have not had the opportunity to support it. Content professionals are rarely asked to provide input into anything other than text; multimedia design is not part of their portfolio.

The majority of survey respondents have identified organizational jargon and inability to see beyond the specific mandate and terminology of their particular area as one of the major challenges in content work. Some were very explicit in stating that:

projects start with creation of new content rather than review and assessments of what is there to help inform the best strategy; there is no systems thinking or ecosystems mapping, no comprehensive content inventories or audits, resulting in disconnected service offerings.

Others said that their organizations are “department-centred not user-centred”, “over-prioritise [organization’s] internal needs and language”, and “lack understanding of how users access their content”. In addition, “we put EVERYTHING online without thinking critically about its usefulness and purpose for users”; “there is no oversight into the total inventory of the content”,“similar data coming from multiple sources, not enough unity”, and we “focus on quantity not quality (i.e. overlap between departments and out-put focused)”. The result is a content landscape that many professionals describe as:

dense, indecipherable, unapproachable, complex, disparate, disaggregated, bloated, inconsistent, redundant, rampant with outdated information.

In other words, our budgets, departmental priorities, and outdated view of effective communications make us blind to the broader ecosystem.

In his book Intertwingled, Peter Morville, the co-author of the seminal book on information architecture, talks about the importance of recognizing that each organization is part of a bigger system:

We think we’re making software, websites, and experiences, but we’re not. We are agents of change within complex adaptive systems … In the era of ecosystems, seeing the big picture is more important than ever, and less likely. … Tomorrow belongs to those who connect. … What matters most isn’t what we build but the changes we make.

We are all connected by content! What government organizations publish on their websites and external platforms touches upon content from other organizations and groups that offer services related to the specific subject domain (broad topics of interest such as health, taxes, immigration, arts funding, trade and many others). For example, consider the topic of public health, effective delivery of information on this topic brings together sources from government health agencies, scientists, clinical and community providers such as doctors and alternative medicine practitioners, public education bodies, and media among others. If ‘Organizing information’ (77%) is content professionals’ top activity and they do not consider systems of information, then they are simply adding to the systemic clutter. To organize only within the given constraints, within a project scope, within budget, within the time frames is to ignore the bigger context within which the content should coherently fit in. To fail to see that content is part of a complex system of information is to fail to serve the people the government is meant to support.

In response to the survey, one content professional stated that the one thing they want their partners to know is:

That people’s time is precious. That the public doesn’t treat a government website like a magazine or blog. They do not care about who brought them the service — they just want to get to the information and service they need and leave! Don’t add stress to people’s lives by forcing them to decipher dense government speak. Provide them with clear, step by step information to help them access what they are looking for.

Or as Sarah Richards of Content Design London said recently in an article about communicating clearly:

Don’t publish if you don’t need to. […] Don’t clutter up search results. If someone else is doing it better, let them. Point to them. Help everyone. Only publish if you can add value for your audience.

Not only do government organizations and content professionals need to be critical about what content they add to the ecosystem of a specific subject domain, but they also need to be aware of the different communications channels, their interrelatedness, and implications. In their study of the shape and structure of the Australian online state, scholars Paul Henman and Timothy Graham highlight the importance of the commercial sector, including key social media sites, in the contemporary ecosystem of public service information:

The web ecology of Australia’s online state is strongly Australian, and dominated, not by the government sector, but by the commercial sector. Commercial websites are among the most important websites in the network; based on the linkages/information they provide to others within the network the most important websites are social media sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The most important hub websites directing to other websites are the Australian Federal government’s webportal, Wikipedia, and WordPress.

In other words, social media channels and communication beyond words (popular on social media) should be key areas of the public sector content professionals’ work and yet they seem largely unaddressed. Nothing illustrates the importance of truly understanding all your digital channels and the medium in which you should be communicating a specific message than this powerful example of using images rather than text to communicate during a global health pandemic provided by Sarah Richards:

Some cafes are posting instagram stories of them cleaning. Would that be more reassuring [then saying that you are committed to cleaning]?

According to the survey data, more professionals know (26%) ‘Multimedia’ design than do it (9%) as part of their work (view the full graph of Knowing vs Doing skills). This finding suggests that it is not a lack of skills that causes content professionals to focus on text-first solutions, but rather the organizational culture and the scope/boundaries of content professionals’ work (as 53% think this skill is not applicable to them). This interpretation is reinforced by one of the respondents who would like their partners to know that: “there is more to content than the written word. Visuals, media rich content etc”. This gap in knowledge or fear of investing into something other than what we know — well-written pages of content — is definitely an aspect that leaders need to be aware of and plan to address.

As for the low use of ‘Conversational design’, I hope that it is because the government is not yet designing much for voice interfaces and multimodal devices, as they are a relatively new phenomenon and require a solid understanding of the content ecosystem that they will be a part of. If, however, the government is already designing a lot for these immersive environments with the help of developers and data specialists who can use artificial intelligence, without involving the content professionals, then there is a critical gap in these designs. As the basis for effective conversational design is structured content which requires the expertise of content professionals.

If organizations do not invest into the Discovery phase and make space for critical sensemaking throughout the design process, content professionals do not have the time to use ‘Systems thinking’ skills (38% do it, 13% think it is not applicable to them) and consequently fail to learn about and acknowledge the complex ecosystem that services and content are part of. It is not surprising then that content modeling, design beyond pages (such as in information systems or multimedia products), channel definition and strategy, governance, planning, and management of content are also the weak spots, as these require the organization and its content professionals to see how the content affects the broader ecosystem.

How leaders can support content practitioners

This data tells us about much more than just skills.

It is evident that the content profession is highly influenced by the processes and organizational culture and therefore requires leadership to step up to support and redefine it. This is inline with what Erika Hall notes as the need for better collaboration between organizational layers, based on a decade of design consulting experience:

Bad design gets out in the world not because the people working on it lack skills, but often because the decision-making process is broken. Fixing that is a team effort that has to go bottom up, top down, and all the way across.

So here are some ideas on how leaders can support content practitioners in using the full range of their potential and delivering helpful content:

  • Treat content as a system
  • Provide role clarity
  • Encourage professional development and networking
  • Prioritize critical sensemaking and connecting skills

Treat content as a system

In their study of the shape and structure of the Australian online state, Paul Henman and Timothy Graham advocate for the importance of “examining government on the web as a web ecology, an interrelated system of government and non-government websites.” They argue that this perspective is critical for strategic management of government’s web portfolio and to the understanding of how people experience information across a myriad of resources, sites, and platforms. Their findings are an excellent illustration of why systems thinking is so important for good user experience:

The online state makes up a tiny proportion of the web. In 2005, government websites (.gov) accounted for only 2% of all Australian (.au) websites, and 5.5% of all Australian webpages.

Government content is only a tiny portion of the content ecosystem and to create authoritative resources on different topics that would help people, the government does not need to create more content to take up more space. Instead, pick the right measures for success that consider the systems of existing content, find out where specific information will be most helpful and who it should come from, work with others to help deliver your messages on platforms and through media that make sense for the people who need it — that’s the true impact. Make your motto the words of one of the content professionals: “You don’t need as much content as you think you do”. You mostly need better designed, managed, maintained, tailored, and evergreen content.

Sarah Richards said it so well in her recent article about communicating clearly during challenging times:

We understand that working in silos is a problem in government and large organisations. Don’t communicate from one. People need a single, coherent message. In most cases, your audience couldn’t care less which department is doing what. They just want information. Get together, work out the mental models, language and needs of your audience. Communicate as a whole.

Broadly speaking, design leaders can start treating content as a system by:

  1. Investing in Discovery and Problem definition. (Focus on ‘Design and user research’, ‘Analyzing and using data’, ‘Systems thinking’, and ‘Design thinking’).
  2. Focusing on impact. Consider the impact:

On people who use public sector information (Focus on ‘Defining success measures’, ‘Systems thinking’, ‘Analyzing and using data’, ‘Content modeling’, ‘Multimedia design’, ‘Digital communication channel definition and strategy’, ‘Labeling information’)

On organization through partnership building, responsible resource management, and effective service delivery (Focus on ‘Defining success measures’, ‘Digital content management’, ‘Digital governance’, ‘Information and knowledge management’, ‘Co-writing’, ‘Systems thinking’, ‘Content modeling’, ‘Communicating research and insights’)

Beyond the organization, whether it relates to other organizations, other sectors or ethics (Focus on ‘Systems thinking’, ‘Defining success measures’)

Actions to make this happen will look different for each organization, depending where they are in the process and how mature their content practice is, but here are a few suggestions to try:

  • Map your content ecosystem to understand the parts and the whole and how they affect each other. Then map your content ecosystem to the broader system (if you need an example to inspire you, take a look at Systems Thinking to Improve the Public’s Health); what is the subject domain (topic) that you contribute to and govern; what part of that topic is in your control and outside of your control? Then share the map with others, openly, broadly and invite feedback. Better yet, invite them to co-create it.
  • Help others see themselves as part of the system by bringing partners in to co-analyze, co-interpret, and co-design whatever you are working on
  • Acknowledge content work as a problem solving methodology, then check all design and content-related job description and roles to ensure systems thinking skills are reflected in them
  • Change workflows and processes to create time and space for discovery in every problem

Ben Holliday, Chief Design Officer at FutureGov, tells us that design of good services begins with building blocks of a solid foundation. As a design leader, when reviewing design work or providing feedback he looks for these different building blocks including entry points, framing, shape, and active work:

I’m immediately thinking about whether I can see a problem statement or a useful or usable vision (goal) for the work. There should be user needs, research insights, some variations of maps showing user journeys as well as internal processes and roles. There should also be evidence that the team has captured and understood assumptions and key hypotheses that are being used to frame the work they’re doing. …

All of these ‘blocks’ are part of what I think about as a good foundation for the work that’s being done. …

  • Compare the current state of your content processes and a proposed connected process and see where you might be able to make incremental changes in your organization

Provide role clarity

There is an interesting discrepancy between the skills content professionals “know” and “do” (view the full graph of Knowing vs Doing skills). For each of the 5 skills represented on the graph, the number of professionals who know how to do it is significantly lower than the number of professionals who use these skills as part of their job.

Two possible interpretations of these gaps are:

  • Content professionals often end up in jobs for which they do not actually have the skills
  • Content professionals’ roles are bloated and unclear, resulting in situations where the skills they have are poorly matched to the skills required of the positions, which might also constantly evolve

I think there is some food for thought here and it might be a good idea to look at this insight through the lens of the roles and job titles (view full graph of different content job titles and roles), where we can see there is often a marked difference between a job title and what a content professional feels their role best represents.

If skills for each position are not clearly understood and defined, it may cause inconsistency in skill set from one content professional to another. In comparing and contrasting data on the skills content professionals use versus the self-reported-tasks they do as part of their work (view full graph of self-reported tasks and the average % self-reported tasks represent in the overall work), fewer people listed “Structuring and organizing information” as a common task than “Organizing information” which was one of the most used skills. This might be a sign that organizing information, labelling, and possibly search optimization, are subconsciously grouped under a broader term: ‘Writing’. It’s an interesting observation from the perspective of discipline fluidity. This means that, from a perspective of a content professional, many information architecture skills might simply dissolve into the domain of writing. The challenge here is to ensure that when hiring content professionals or assessing the skill sets on a team, there is a common understanding around terms to ensure that those who are writing, for example, also have expertise in structuring, organizing, labeling, and optimizing information for both search and navigation.

According to scholar Jennifer Mallette, inconsistent job titles and lack of role clarity also have unintended consequences:

Depending on the organization and team, technical communicators can have varied job titles while specializing in similar work. These job titles are likely not intuitive to people outside the field and do little to reveal the work taking place. This lack of understanding regarding the work of technical communicators could result in subject matter experts or other partners dismissing technical communication work as unimportant since it is not easily described and universally understood (as compared to say, electrical engineer, project manager, industrial designer, etc.).

Having a clear understanding of what value content professionals bring to the team, what skills they should have and what these skills truly mean are essential in creating the right environment for the content professionals to thrive in. This is particularly important given the range of training and educational backgrounds content professionals have. When responding to a question about whether they have any formal content-related training, the answers included a wide range of responses including, courses, certificates, diplomas, undergraduate and graduate degrees in related disciplines.

This means that content professionals bring varying levels of knowledge about content work to their roles ranging from days to years of training. This has direct implications on how content professionals interpret the skills required for their job and may relate to earlier insights about what it really means to perform these different skills and what they encompass (for example, ‘Accessible and inclusive design’, ‘UX writing’, and ‘Content auditing and inventorying’). Developing a coherent framework that defines each of these skills could be a worthwhile effort to ensure alignment across experience and training levels, while keeping in mind some pitfalls of framework design.

Not all existing frameworks see content work as a problem solving activity.

The 2019 Singapore’s Design Skills Framework, for example, positions the content role quite differently. In this comprehensive framework, ‘Content writers’ differ quite a bit from the roles that have the word “designer’” in them. Specifically, they seem to be missing “Design thinking”, “Problem solving” , “Data analysis and interpretation” and “Systems thinking” skills. A “Content writer” appears to be more of an expert in the written word and visual communication, rather than an equal partner in deciding what problem should be solved and how. It is also interesting to note that “Design sustainability and ethics management” are solely the preoccupation of the highest-level positions (Lead and Principal designers) and not a requirement across the broad range of design and content positions. Based on this framework, a ‘Content strategist’ seems to have a more complex sense-making role in an organization than a “Content writer”, and yet it appears to be critically missing “Design thinking” and “Systems thinking” among its competencies. In the Australian framework for content design, problem definition and reframing as well as “Systems thinking” are similarly missing, even though their role seems to include an ethical lens as well as analytical and strategic mindsets.

You can begin by assessing existing content skill frameworks and determining what pieces will work for your organizations and which ones will need to be further developed or modified:

Encourage professional development and networking

More than half of survey respondents (55%) have performed digital-content-related work in the Government context for over 5 years. Also, more than half of the respondents (57%) have some formal training related to content work.

While it is tempting to equate years of work with increased level of skill and to infer that this survey presents a more ‘experienced perspective’ on the topic, Jennifer Mallette, in her article about expertise of new technical communicators, warns us that in line with prior research:

expertise is often conflated with years on the job. In actuality, work experience may not lead to expertise, particularly if a worker uses the same approaches and does not strive to develop additional skills.

This point also reinforces the need to encourage content professionals to continuously develop through networks and communities of practice, whether or not they have formal training in content work.

Not only is it important to improve content professionals’ ability to make connections through critical sensemaking including systems thinking skills, but it is also essential for them to develop and work within networks. Noticing design’s expansion into complex contexts such as social care, public health, and policy-making, Mafalda Moreira developed an Amplified Mindset of Design (AMD) framework. This framework is meant to address “complex scenarios through collaborative approaches to generate sustainable ways of working and living” and includes 4 elements:

  1. Championing the art of making visual (strategic use of visuals to foster dialogue and insights)
  2. Being adept at building and working within networks (systems, holistic perspectives, exploration of boundaries and seeking cross-fertilisation)
  3. Mastering social skills (mediation, facilitation, alignment between stakeholders)
  4. Following a human‐centred and synergistic worldview (focus on human beings and sustainability)

It seems that Peter Morville’s phrase “tomorrow belongs to those who connect” sums up the essential skills that we need to nurture in the content professionals of today and tomorrow.

Survey participants were asked if they know and connect with any other content professionals in the government to get advice or share best practices. While most professionals have indicated that they are part of a community and connect with others, 34% are not networking with their peers.

There is probably a correlation here between how much time is spent on activities like training delivery, professional development, and networking, and whether they are valued and perceived to be part of one’s job. Organizational culture, style of leadership, and job descriptions have great influence over this. If the general work climate is very task-focused, little time is allocated to sharing knowledge, developing others, and continuous learning.

In fact, participating in communities and networks are not just tasks, these are the skills of the future. Recent academic research on Digital Work Practices: Affordances in Design Education supports this view. During a design industry roundtable held in August 2017 it was discovered that the “industry is expecting more of designers both in terms of their core disciplinary abilities and their ability to work at the edges of their discipline … drawing on the power of networks to realise new design outcomes through new practices.” The roundtable highlighted the importance of communities of practice, network agility, and resilience as essential for design practitioners:

Communities of practice (Eckert 2006; Poggenpohl 2015) that support designers once they are in work are another aspect of collaboration recognised by the industry roundtable. These communities allow designers to leverage the collective skills of their networks and the capabilities of their colleagues. McWilliam & Dawson (2008) refer to this skill as ‘network agility’ and argue that it needs to be recognised as part of the development and navigation of supportive social networks in increasingly digitised spaces. A roundtable participant underlined the importance of networks:

The best skills a designer can have are adaptability and resilience, right? That comes from your network. So the really good designers in my team are the ones that are deeply connected with other learning circles.

This roundtable discussion clearly underlines “the importance of networks for designers now, and into the future suggesting that ‘the ability to build relationships with people is probably going to be really critical… [it] is going to be even more critical in the future’.”

Networking and contributing to communities should be part of every content professionals’ job. This means that they should be able to dedicate time during their working hours to tend to this aspect of professional development. When these tasks are not acknowledged as part of the role and time is not allocated for the professionals to do this work, they will always fall into the ‘nice-to-do’ rather than ‘have-to-do’ category.

Prioritize critical sensemaking and connecting skills

When assessing or building content capacity, organizations will first need to acknowledge content work as a problem solving methodology. Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle explain this point perfectly in Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience:

Some problems can’t be solved by writing, and learning to recognize when that situation occurs is just as important as learning to write a good button label.

So far, the content profession’s scope of work has focused on how to communicate clearly and effectively. Language is important, but it is impossible to make something clear unless it is thoroughly understood, inside out, from different angles and perspectives. Making sense must precede communication and design in any form.

Leaders will then need to ensure that:

  • All content professionals are working from the same basic rules and principles, including plain language, structure, labeling, search implications, understanding what makes information accessible, and how cognitive psychology affects reading and comprehension of online materials
  • Expertise around research, problem definition, and testing of content are not limited to specific roles and help content practitioners understand how important the framing of the research question is in influencing the findings

There is also an opportunity to work closely with information management areas to develop strategies for how to bring governance and understanding of content lifecycle back into the digital world.

Once that’s done, the organizations will need to focus on transferable skills that create effective problem solvers and connectors, those who do both the ‘blue work of thinking’ and ‘the red work of doing’, making sure that content professionals are comfortable asking questions about business objectives, adopt an investigative mindset, and are skilled in conducting desk research as well as synthesizing and connecting requirements to existing content or gaps within it. In other words, using critical sensemaking and connecting skills which are currently underutilized:

Critical sensemaking skills

  • Analyzing and using data/research
  • Frame-shifting — a way to investigate a problem from multiple perspectives and scales
  • Systems thinking — a way of making sense of complexity. It includes ways of understanding, approaches, and practices that consider relationships, boundaries, different perspectives, and dependence on context.
  • Design thinking — a process for creating problem solving
  • Defining success metrics
  • Governance
  • Digital channel definition and strategy

Connecting skills

  • Content management
  • Content modeling — a way to make sense of a system of content by breaking it up into small pieces and then connecting these pieces in a way that represents the functioning of the system
  • Communicating research and insights
  • Working and networking with others (co-writing, building and participating in communities/ networking)

The data representing the skills that other content professionals should know seems to confirm the value of the above skills, as a large number of professionals think these skills are important even though they do not use them as often in their work:

  • Systems thinking (38% do it, 62% think others should know it)
  • Communicating research and insights (55% do it, 60% think others should know it)
  • Defining success metrics (43% do it, 62% think others should know it )

‘Content auditing and inventorying’ (64% think others should know it) also ranks high on the importance list, even though the percentage is lower than the number of people who use this skill in their work (70%), perhaps signaling that some do not feel that this activity is worthwhile or effective in the current organizational culture.

Similarly, when asked what skills the content professionals need, there is an increased interest in the critical sensemaking skills that are less used. The following skills appear among the top 6 most needed:

  • Content modeling (43% need it)
  • Design thinking (38% need it)
  • Analyzing and using data (36% need it)
  • Systems thinking (36% need it)

While interest in ‘Digital governance’ (30%) and ‘Information and knowledge management’ (26%) remains lower and may require an entire cultural shift before these skills’ value is appreciated within organizations.

It is important to underline the role the organizational culture and leadership play in elevating the value of underused skills.

Based on data, there seems to be a correlation between the least used skills and the skills that the content practitioners feel do not apply to them (view the full graph of skills that content practitioners find to not apply to them), for example:

  • Multimedia design (9% do it, 53% feel it does not apply to them)
  • Information system design (17% do it, 43% feel it does not apply to them)
  • Information and knowledge management (30% do it, 30% feel it does not apply to them)
  • Digital communication channel definition and strategy (28% do it, 23% feel it does not apply to them)

This correlation might indicate that those defining content roles (employers) do not consider these skills to be important in relation to content development, which may explain why they are done the least and are not perceived as important by content professionals either.

So how do we create curricula and instructional design that support these skills? By practicing what we preach. By thinking about the ecosystem in which learning might happen, bringing different partners and content professionals together to ask questions, and coming up with collaborative and networked solutions that address multiple needs. Let’s think about the longevity of the learning solutions that will need to be developed and how rapidly skill sets can change. We should ask: How easily will we be able to update these learning products? Who will be responsible for maintaining them, and deciding to change format or medium as needed? These are the conversations we should be having together with the content community about supporting the development of their skills.

Purpose of research, methodology, sample size, and its limitations

Purpose of research

In my current role, as the Lead Content Strategist for a large government organization tasked with growing our content design practice through curriculum development and on-the-job support, it was essential for me to understand the environment from the perspective of many practitioners and not just from my personal experience.

Definition of content, content profession and content design

Having served in different content roles in the government for over 6 years, my definition of content and content work has evolved. Through my current lens, content is what we communicate through design. And in the government context specifically, content is service. For the purpose of this study, a content professional is anyone who is involved in and contributes to how digital information the government produces gets delivered to people, whether they occupy the role of a content designer, content strategist, information architect, service designer, or product owner among others. And ‘content design’ encompasses the various skills that are important to content professionals.

Methodology

This research offers a glimpse into the digital content landscape of the public sector, and can be used to identify skill gaps and opportunities. It builds on my earlier research into design competencies and my experience developing and delivering design training for the Canada School of Public Service Digital Academy in 2019.

You can see all the survey questions in this screenshot of the original Google Form — Content design in the Canadian public service survey.

As mentioned earlier, the survey included a mix of open and close-ended questions as well as a matrix of 31 pre-defined skills.

The open-ended questions aimed to provide a more rich as well as individualized picture of each content professional’s work and included questions about:

  • Tasks performed
  • Problems with content
  • Challenges in working with partners and stakeholders
  • Skills not addressed by the survey
  • Sources of professional development
  • Current areas of learning
  • What other content professionals should know
  • Other roles on the team

Close-ended questions were limited and only used when they would help provide context for an answer. Whenever possible, I included an option to provide a different answer via “Other” response.

The 31 skills were pre-defined based on my earlier work on the Design learning architecture, as well as my personal research where I began extracting content skills from various educational offerings, training programs and job postings relating to content design, content strategy, and information architecture. For each skill, participants were asked to check off 1 or more options from the following 5:

  • I know
  • I do in my current job
  • I need, as I do not currently know enough
  • I think is important for content professionals
  • Does not apply to me

The quantitative data collected for each skill and each of the above conditions was then analyzed and compared to the themes coded and discovered in the open-ended questions.

Findings were then considered through the lens of my experience and knowledge as a content professional and grouped into themes presented in this report.

Sample size

From February to March 2020, the survey was completed by 47 content professionals (42 in English and 5 in French) from 24 different organizations, with most representation from the federal government and a smaller number from various provinces as well as civic employers. Participants were sought via a call out on LinkedIn, Twitter, several content-specific Slack groups, a Facebook group for Communications professionals, and a number of groups on the Canadian government collaboration networks (GCcollab, GCconnex), as well as through my personal networks.

It is important to note that the survey was intentionally targeting a broad range of content professionals in different roles including Content designers, Content strategists, Information architects, UX writers, and anyone else who self-identified as a digital content specialist. It was meant to provide a more comprehensive picture of the different skills needed from a range of perspectives. This, however, also created a smaller sample size for each of the different roles/groupings and complicated my ability to effectively compare the data, with 16 Content strategists, 17 Content designers and 14 Other content professionals — a grouping which included Information architects, UX designers, Product owners, a Social media coordinator, a Front-end architect, and an Executive leader.

Nonetheless, since content-specific roles related to digital communication are still not very common or well-defined in the public sector,

According to the 2018 State of Canadian UX Report which includes both public and private sectors — ‘Content Strategist’ was one of the least popular UX job titles representing 46 professionals, while ‘Information Architect’ represented 87 professionals, in total 133 out of 447 UX professionals who filled out the survey, with no mention of ‘UX writers’ or ‘Content designers’.

even though the population size of this group must be quite large across Canada, 47 respondents who self-identify as content professionals is a relatively small but informative sample size for a study that aims to learn more about the current state and make incremental improvements. While the richness of qualitative data and my experience as a researcher and practitioner in the field give credibility to the findings, to generalize broadly from these insights would require further research.

Biases and hypotheses

I want to acknowledge that this survey was approached through the lens of my own biases and experiences.

Some of the perspectives that have shaped my view of the topic can be gleaned from my earlier reflective articles Digital content crisis in the public sector and Digital content needs accountability, governance and multidisciplinarity. So in many ways, subconsciously, I was likely looking for a certain level of confirmation of my thoughts and observations. At the same time, I was very open and excited about discoveries that may arise.

As a result, I had a number of assumptions that I was looking to assess. For example, based on my experience doing content work in the government and observing some content fiascoes, I was convinced that content audits and inventories were the Achilles heel of the public sector. I also believed that the skills of the different content professionals and their roles were not clearly defined and likely overlapping (namely those of content designers, content strategists and information architects, among many others).

Research questions

With this in mind and with a mix of closed and open-ended questions, I sought answers to many questions among the following:

  • What are the most common skills content professionals use (do)?
  • What are the least common skills content professionals use? Is this gap indicative of something?
  • What skills do content professionals value most? (important)
  • Are there any differences between what is done least and what is needed least/most?
  • Where are some key gaps in knowledge in the public service (know)?
  • What are the skill differences between different groups of content professionals?
  • What percentage of content professionals is part of a broader community?
  • What percentage of content professionals has formal training?
  • What are the skill differences between junior and senior content professionals?
  • What skills needed by content professionals are missing from the survey?
  • What are some common challenges with government content and in working with partners?
  • What should we be teaching public service content professionals?

Limitations of study

It is also worth noting that I was not able to answer some of these questions due to time constraints (I had 2 months to collect and analyze the data)and the limitations of data.

For instance, it would be incorrect to assume a true correlation in skill difference between junior and senior professionals due to a big difference in the number of respondents in these two groups and given that the majority of respondents were senior.

The collection of data and the way I have framed some of the questions have also made further analysis of some data difficult. For example, the question about whether a content professional had formal training was intentionally broad, as I was curious to know what each professional viewed as ‘formal training’. As a result, a wide range of training including courses, industry certification, continuing education diplomas as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees all made the list, with varying levels of specificity. Given the range of free-form responses, it is hard to accurately group and represent this data in a statistically meaningful way.

I also did not have the time to tackle the question about the differences of skills between the different groups.

Some additional limitations include lack of definitions for some skills or definitions that were too broad (view content design skills data summary in a table), resulting in data that is hard to interpret accurately.

In hindsight, I also wish I created a broader range for the years of experience doing content work in the government, as there could likely be some interesting insights about practitioners who have many more than 5 years of work experience (for example 10, 15 or even more). It would also have been helpful to know how many years of experience in content work they have in total (which may include extra years outside of the government context).

Do/Use skills — Observations

While most of frequently used skills seem logical (view the full graph of skills used as part of work), I was thrilled and surprised to see “Accessible and inclusive design” so high on the list. I want to be optimistic, yet I know that creating truly accessible content is still an uphill battle for most organizations, so I wonder whether mental models around accessibility are still very different and an interpretation of accessible and inclusive to one designer might be quite different to another.

The rare use of systems thinking might also explain my confusion about why ‘Content auditing and inventorying’ ended up being the 6th most used skill (with 70% of content professionals doing it as part of their job) given that my initial hypothesis was that Content audits were not being done much, resulting in a redundant and confusing content landscape. I now realize that I may have unconsciously given ‘content audits’ the meaning of ‘systems thinking’, imagining that a quality audit would look beyond the constraints of the organization and uncover overlapping content and competing messages that would need to be addressed at a systemic level. However, this may not be how most content professionals see or perform content audits, given the low use of “Analyzing and using data’ and ‘Systems thinking’. The scope of what is considered a content audit is likely much smaller and is project specific, rather than ecosystem specific. As such, what “Content auditing and inventorying” actually represents for the different content professionals warrants further exploration.

Not applicable skills — Observations

I should note that it is not clear if the respondents interpreted the question as ‘applying to them’ or ‘to their job’ which could have somewhat different connotations (view the full graph of skills that content practitioners find to not apply to them).

Know skills — Observations

I intentionally created “Know” and “Do” as two separate categories, since a professional may know how to do something well, from previous work experience, but might not use it in their current job. Also, knowing something is not the same as doing something, which arguably requires more skill. So my assumption was that I will see a higher ‘knowing’ graph than a ‘doing’ graph, or at least an equivalent. What I got however is the opposite (view the full graph of Knowing vs Doing skills).

A possible interpretation is the flaw in the survey design, where I asked participants to check all columns that apply for each skill. The 5 columns included the following options:

  • I know
  • I do in my current job
  • I need, as I do not currently know enough
  • I think is important for content professionals
  • Does not apply to me

I wonder if some chose to only mark “I do in my current job” and left the “I know” column unchecked, thinking that if they “do it in their current job” it must also mean that they “know it”.

While this is highly likely, this might not always be true. I am sure many of us have been in a job where we do what we do not know and we ‘learn on the job’. This interpretation might also be true, given that around 43% have no formal training in content work (view formal training in content-related work graph).

Regardless of what the reason for this difference in graphs is, it is also important to note another observation about self-reporting a level of ‘knowledge’. We need to keep in mind the different motivations people may have for responding in a certain way and certainly our biases in wanting to present ourselves in a positive light. Also, based on a comparison of self-reported level of skills in content-related areas of a Design course we ran at the CSPS Digital Academy in the beginning of 2019, we’ve observed that people who have limited knowledge in a particular area, often overestimate their level of knowledge whereas those who have higher levels of expertise in an area, often underestimate their knowledge. Specifically, this could be observed in that after a post-assessment, the level of expertise at levels 4 and 5 often decreased. This can likely be explained by the fact that as you learn more about any given topic, you recognize its breadth and how much more there is to know. This in turn, leads to a more critical assessment of one’s skills.

Need skills — Observations

It is important to keep in mind that unlike responses about professionals’ knowledge, which would likely result in higher percentages (people may want to appear more competent), we are likely to see fewer people indicating that they ‘need’ skills (view the full graph of needed skills) in a particular domain (not wanting to appear incompetent). This might mean that the survey data would not give us a strong indication of the perceived skill needs of the public sector content professionals and that asking about ‘needs’ might not be the most effective way to identify them. It may also indicate that we do not have the right language around what skills are required or what people need to be an effective content specialist.

Skills missing from the survey

The skills that served as a basis for the survey are just one way of trying to make sense of the content professionals’ competencies, so it was important to find out if there were essential skills missing from the perspective of the respondents. A number of suggestions were shared and I found these to be the most distinct and relevant as possible additions:

  1. Project management
  2. Instructional design
  3. Translations equivalents and multilingual review (this also came up in what content professionals want their partners to know as “Bilingualism requires a different perspective”)
  4. Ethics
  5. Foresight
  6. Marketing and advertising
  7. Social media (in line with the findings from the study of the shape and structure of the Australian online state)

Having reviewed the results of the survey, I have also noticed skills that I would add or change if I were to pilot this again in the future or to use these skills in further projects.

Specifically, ‘Stakeholder and team relationships’ skill was too loaded and included too many aspects which deserve being separated out as unique skills. It included conversations with clients, collaboration, cross-functional teams, negotiation, coaching, training, and feedback. I would expand this one skill into 7 separate skills:

  1. Stakeholder engagement, relations and alignment (Supported by insight from How to Succeed in Industry (as A UX Researcher): Strategies and Skills to Maximize Your Impact: “The ability to strategically harmonize UX and business goals is key to differentiating UX practitioners from others. Practitioners need to not only understand but also improvise strategic and empathetic approaches to ensure the balance of business and user needs.”)
  2. Feedback and reflection (This would include critiques and would reflect the statement that “As a designer you’re only as good as your feedback loops”.)
  3. Conducting retrospectives (Supported by insights from The most important overlooked design skill : “As design manager, I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for visual, product, UX, UI, and interaction design positions. Of all of the candidates, there is one skill that is always present in successful ones — and that’s the ability to critically conduct a retrospective on your work post-shipping.”)
  4. Facilitating and mediation (Supported by insights from Preparing Communication Design Students as Facilitators: A Primer for Rethinking Coursework in Project Management: “Facilitation is a design skill that is in demand, in particular when it comes to carrying out project management work in design.”)
  5. Coaching
  6. Training development (Supported by insights from Information Architects: What they do and how to Become One)
  7. Training delivery

I also identified a number of skills that I would have added to the existing list:

Opportunities for future research

Further research into different UX specializations (such as researchers, service designers, visual and interaction designers, among others) and how they perceive these 31 skills could reveal the difference in what user experience means to these professionals and which skills end up being the focus at the detriment of others.

Given that not every skill was clearly defined in the initial survey, any future studies should ensure to clearly define each skill, to avoid possible misinterpretation.

While the initial questions I’ve shared framed my research, there were a number of questions that emerged as I started exploring the data. These could be great areas for future exploration:

  • Are mental models around accessibility very different and an interpretation of accessible and inclusive to one designer might be quite different to another?
  • What does “Content auditing and inventorying” mean to different content professionals?
  • Who is designing the multimedia content of the public service?
  • What types of teams are content professionals part of in terms of roles and skill sets?
  • How do these teams work together and at which point are the content practitioners involved in the design process?
  • What skills do employers see as important for content professionals?

Resources

Skill frameworks

Academic research

Thank you

Putting together research projects, getting participants, visualizing, analyzing data, and putting thoughts together into a meaningful report is so much work and I want to thank all those who have supported me in this journey:

Louis Michaud (Ottawa, Canada) and Michelle Morrison (Saskatoon, Canada) for being supportive of my research as part of discovery for the content work that needs to be accomplished!

Damien Middleditch (London, UK) and Denise Eisner (Ottawa, Canada) for providing feedback on the survey

All those who have shared the survey with their networks and those who have filled it out!

Samantha Lovelace (Ottawa, Canada) and Jessica MacQueen (Edmonton, Canada) for pouring over 30+ pages of the initial draft and providing invaluable insights, suggestions, and edits!

Anders Brønd (London, UK) for his editorial insights and feedback!

Mary Whiteside (London, UK) for her excellent title suggestion and for the opportunity to present my research at the 2020 virtual ConCon conference!

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::

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