How Content and Design Teams Can Work Effectively Together

Community Spotlight

How Content and Design Teams Can Work Effectively Together

This week, we dive deep into several principles to use storytelling to give feedback or align teams' goals and skills, which will help make better decisions when trying to get buy-in or influence stakeholders. We also cover challenges regarding the collaboration between design and content teams. Our guest, Kelly Anneken, Content Manager for Pinterest shares her challenges as well as tactics for dealing with pushback using storytelling principles.

Kelly Anneken
Kelly is a speaker in RETHINK Mentorship Program: Storytelling to Influence Change where she teaches a workshop with actionable insights about how to get buy In using Storytelling.
See program details and apply here

Kelly Welcome! Thanks for taking the time.

You have a unique background at the intersection of content design and comedy. To break the ice, can you introduce yourself a bit and tell us your story? 

I moved to the Bay Area in 2009 with plans of developing my standup comedy craft and hitting it big. After stints working in retail and teaching kids about iambic pentameter at Shakespeare summer camp, I got a temporary gig with Pandora (the music streamer, not the charm bracelet company). They needed comedians to analyze standup tracks—if you didn’t know, human-generated values are the basis of all of Pandora’s programmatic algorithms.

After a few months, I became Pandora’s first dedicated comedy curator. As the only full-time employee working in the comedy space, I became a one-woman startup within Pandora. I tell people I basically got an MBA on the fly because I learned the basics of brand partnerships, marketing, content creation, product development, intellectual property law and more during my almost 7 years there. 

After Pandora, I bounced around to a few other streaming comedy roles—developing the metadata system for the National Center for Comedy’s media library was a highlight—but immersing myself in comedy 40 hours a week in addition to all the work I was still doing as a performer, producer and podcaster started to take its toll. 

I’ve always been a writer, so I started looking for a day job where I could lean into my language skills without working my funny bone(s) so hard. Pinterest took a chance on an unknown kid and hired me as a content designer in 2018. They were looking for candidates with experience using enterprise advertising tools, so my experience promoting comedy shows on social media gave me an edge. I was developing user empathy before I even knew what that meant! After 4 years at Pinterest, I’ve contributed content strategy and UX writing to virtually every B2B experience we offer and I’m starting on my next adventure: people management.

Show art by Adrienne Lobl

What challenges are you facing when it comes to the collaboration between design and content teams?

Content design as a standalone discipline is a relatively new concept, although of course we’ve always existed (shoutout to old-school web masters). In the past, visual designers, product managers or engineers have been responsible for UX writing, so a big challenge is often just educating designers about our value and that we are also product designers.

This year I’m encouraging content and design to collaborate more closely on their early explorations. First drafts are always a bit messy, and it can be difficult to communicate such an internal thought process to another person! That said, I think it’s essential for both writers and visual designers to be vulnerable and look at their first draft as a true collaboration because content designers are incredible product thinkers, particularly when it comes to interaction design, and we love deciphering dense product requirements and identifying edge cases. 

This feeds into the other big challenge, which is that content is almost always outnumbered by their design partners! When teams are scaling, leadership can fall prey to what we call the “copy goes here” mentality. The words you see on a website or in an app are the deceptively simple-seeming end of the very complex content design process: designing user flow language, vetting and testing those solutions, naming products and features, getting buy-in for decisions and implementing those word choices consistently throughout the product!

We can do a lot with limited time and resources, but in my opinion, to fully unlock the potential of content design, there needs to be a 1:1 ratio of content designers to visual designers on any product team. 

What are your principles to use storytelling to align teams' goals and skills so you can solve problems as a team and deliver great results?

Understand the needs & expectations of your team

Parents and other caregivers know the value of a bedtime story, which can inspire a child to go relax and go to sleep. Any good joke sets the audience up for a surprise that (hopefully) gets a laugh…and if it doesn’t, seasoned comedians have a few tags ready to go to try and get the crowd back on their side. It’s a matter of figuring out what people want, how their expectations, skill sets and roles align with yours and then making a decision about how to communicate so everyone gets enough of what they want that everyone can move forward. 

Inspire people to take action

I think about building a comedy set, a product feature or a presentation as a self-contained story that inspires the people in the audience, the app or the conference room to take a specific action (or set of actions). After all, any story, in any medium, exists for the purpose of entertaining people. The film industry creates trailers that will tempt people into paying to see a new movie and shell out for popcorn, Diet Coke and Junior Mints (why yes, that is my personal concessions order).

Tailor the message based on your audience's needs

When I need to deliver results for a new idea or ship updates to a product, I plan it out like the perfect heist. I figure out who’s got the special skills I don’t have that will make the idea a success, then see how my idea plays into something they’re working on. I tailor messaging based on the audience for my idea and I do my best to prepare for the inevitable complications that arise when collaborating. If everything goes well? My team makes a clean getaway with the perfect score.

Photo credit: Mariah Lichtenstein-Walowba

How do you give feedback as a manager in a productive and growth-oriented way using storytelling techniques?

Lead with curiosity

It’s so important for everyone, but especially managers, to lead with curiosity when they’re giving feedback! I trained as an actor in college and one of the important concepts our teachers drilled into us was that giving line readings (“try saying it like this”) is a disrespectful way of offering feedback. It’s a lesson I still struggle with because oftentimes telling a content designer exactly how I think they should solve a problem is the quickest option in the moment, but it’s a short-sighted strategy.

Ask questions that lead teams to the right direction

There is some value in leading by doing as a new employee onboards, but it’s not sustainable. I do my best to ask questions that lead other content designers in what I think is the right direction so they can either get there on their own or come up with a direction that’s even better than what I was thinking. 

Use analogies when you need to frame a complex concept or difficult feedback

When it comes to feedback, I think analogies are a really potent form of storytelling that rewards both the manager and the employee for getting to know each other over time.

I try to get a sense of my reports’ interests outside of work, which can come in handy when I need an outside the box frame for some complex concept or difficult feedback. If I have an employee who loves Lord of the Rings, I know I can drop a reference that she’ll relate to as we’re chatting about growth areas. If someone else is into cooking, I can compare the concept of a recipe with the concept of a product requirement document. 

I also use a lot of sports metaphors for everyone, which is ridiculous since I don’t think anyone on my team is particularly into athletics—just a consequence of growing up in the US, I guess!

What is your approach to prioritizing projects when there are no solidified goals between content & design teams? 

My content design team is still in the process of scaling up.  It has been really challenging to make sure that we’re able to participate in design quality weeks, contribute equally to our design system and keep our own resources updated.

This year, we’re trying something new. My team is kicking off a comprehensive content audit across our monetization experiences that I’m hopeful will lead to more regular quality updates each quarter. I also want to lobby hard during our year-end planning meetings to get some design quality projects onto our product roadmaps. It’s really challenging to get buy-in around redesigns or new tools that will reduce friction in both UX and internal processes because they’re not framed as shipping a new product or feature, but I’m going to put together a ragtag team of design professionals and see how the heist turns out. 

What is your approach to dealing with pushback?

Confession time: I hate getting constructive feedback because it’s proof that I am not, in fact, perfect! I think that’s a pretty common reaction among creatives working in tech (or any industry, really). I finally learned to just let myself feel that frustration, annoyance or even anger when someone else has the audacity to make a suggestion about my work. 

It took me years of practice, but acknowledging the hit to my ego, even briefly, allows me to let go of my emotions and really listen to what the other person is saying about my work. Even when my feelings are strong or justified, it’s important to respond thoughtfully to feedback, rather than reacting immediately. And most of the time, there’s something valuable in pushback that’s going to make your craft and your work better.  

I think whether I’m giving feedback or receiving it, listening is the most important piece of the process. No matter who’s giving you feedback, that’s a human being with a point of view and a set of experiences that shaped them, just like you. It’s important to give your critics some grace and the benefit of the doubt, even if you disagree with them. Things can be tricky if they decide they don’t need to listen to you or insist that your team move forward with a decision that you know won’t work, but approaching feedback as another form of collaboration can help you and your team avoid those kinds of conflicts before they even arise. 

Kelly is a speaker in RETHINK Mentorship Program: Storytelling to Influence Change where she teaches a workshop with actionable insights about how to get buy In using Storytelling.
See program details and apply here

Kelly is a speaker in RETHINK Mentorship Program: Storytelling to Influence Change where she teaches a workshop with actionable insights about how to get buy In using Storytelling.
See program details and apply here

Kelly Welcome! Thanks for taking the time.

You have a unique background at the intersection of content design and comedy. To break the ice, can you introduce yourself a bit and tell us your story? 

I moved to the Bay Area in 2009 with plans of developing my standup comedy craft and hitting it big. After stints working in retail and teaching kids about iambic pentameter at Shakespeare summer camp, I got a temporary gig with Pandora (the music streamer, not the charm bracelet company). They needed comedians to analyze standup tracks—if you didn’t know, human-generated values are the basis of all of Pandora’s programmatic algorithms.

After a few months, I became Pandora’s first dedicated comedy curator. As the only full-time employee working in the comedy space, I became a one-woman startup within Pandora. I tell people I basically got an MBA on the fly because I learned the basics of brand partnerships, marketing, content creation, product development, intellectual property law and more during my almost 7 years there. 

After Pandora, I bounced around to a few other streaming comedy roles—developing the metadata system for the National Center for Comedy’s media library was a highlight—but immersing myself in comedy 40 hours a week in addition to all the work I was still doing as a performer, producer and podcaster started to take its toll. 

I’ve always been a writer, so I started looking for a day job where I could lean into my language skills without working my funny bone(s) so hard. Pinterest took a chance on an unknown kid and hired me as a content designer in 2018. They were looking for candidates with experience using enterprise advertising tools, so my experience promoting comedy shows on social media gave me an edge. I was developing user empathy before I even knew what that meant! After 4 years at Pinterest, I’ve contributed content strategy and UX writing to virtually every B2B experience we offer and I’m starting on my next adventure: people management.

Show art by Adrienne Lobl

What challenges are you facing when it comes to the collaboration between design and content teams?

Content design as a standalone discipline is a relatively new concept, although of course we’ve always existed (shoutout to old-school web masters). In the past, visual designers, product managers or engineers have been responsible for UX writing, so a big challenge is often just educating designers about our value and that we are also product designers.

This year I’m encouraging content and design to collaborate more closely on their early explorations. First drafts are always a bit messy, and it can be difficult to communicate such an internal thought process to another person! That said, I think it’s essential for both writers and visual designers to be vulnerable and look at their first draft as a true collaboration because content designers are incredible product thinkers, particularly when it comes to interaction design, and we love deciphering dense product requirements and identifying edge cases. 

This feeds into the other big challenge, which is that content is almost always outnumbered by their design partners! When teams are scaling, leadership can fall prey to what we call the “copy goes here” mentality. The words you see on a website or in an app are the deceptively simple-seeming end of the very complex content design process: designing user flow language, vetting and testing those solutions, naming products and features, getting buy-in for decisions and implementing those word choices consistently throughout the product!

We can do a lot with limited time and resources, but in my opinion, to fully unlock the potential of content design, there needs to be a 1:1 ratio of content designers to visual designers on any product team. 

What are your principles to use storytelling to align teams' goals and skills so you can solve problems as a team and deliver great results?

Understand the needs & expectations of your team

Parents and other caregivers know the value of a bedtime story, which can inspire a child to go relax and go to sleep. Any good joke sets the audience up for a surprise that (hopefully) gets a laugh…and if it doesn’t, seasoned comedians have a few tags ready to go to try and get the crowd back on their side. It’s a matter of figuring out what people want, how their expectations, skill sets and roles align with yours and then making a decision about how to communicate so everyone gets enough of what they want that everyone can move forward. 

Inspire people to take action

I think about building a comedy set, a product feature or a presentation as a self-contained story that inspires the people in the audience, the app or the conference room to take a specific action (or set of actions). After all, any story, in any medium, exists for the purpose of entertaining people. The film industry creates trailers that will tempt people into paying to see a new movie and shell out for popcorn, Diet Coke and Junior Mints (why yes, that is my personal concessions order).

Tailor the message based on your audience's needs

When I need to deliver results for a new idea or ship updates to a product, I plan it out like the perfect heist. I figure out who’s got the special skills I don’t have that will make the idea a success, then see how my idea plays into something they’re working on. I tailor messaging based on the audience for my idea and I do my best to prepare for the inevitable complications that arise when collaborating. If everything goes well? My team makes a clean getaway with the perfect score.

Photo credit: Mariah Lichtenstein-Walowba

How do you give feedback as a manager in a productive and growth-oriented way using storytelling techniques?

Lead with curiosity

It’s so important for everyone, but especially managers, to lead with curiosity when they’re giving feedback! I trained as an actor in college and one of the important concepts our teachers drilled into us was that giving line readings (“try saying it like this”) is a disrespectful way of offering feedback. It’s a lesson I still struggle with because oftentimes telling a content designer exactly how I think they should solve a problem is the quickest option in the moment, but it’s a short-sighted strategy.

Ask questions that lead teams to the right direction

There is some value in leading by doing as a new employee onboards, but it’s not sustainable. I do my best to ask questions that lead other content designers in what I think is the right direction so they can either get there on their own or come up with a direction that’s even better than what I was thinking. 

Use analogies when you need to frame a complex concept or difficult feedback

When it comes to feedback, I think analogies are a really potent form of storytelling that rewards both the manager and the employee for getting to know each other over time.

I try to get a sense of my reports’ interests outside of work, which can come in handy when I need an outside the box frame for some complex concept or difficult feedback. If I have an employee who loves Lord of the Rings, I know I can drop a reference that she’ll relate to as we’re chatting about growth areas. If someone else is into cooking, I can compare the concept of a recipe with the concept of a product requirement document. 

I also use a lot of sports metaphors for everyone, which is ridiculous since I don’t think anyone on my team is particularly into athletics—just a consequence of growing up in the US, I guess!

What is your approach to prioritizing projects when there are no solidified goals between content & design teams? 

My content design team is still in the process of scaling up.  It has been really challenging to make sure that we’re able to participate in design quality weeks, contribute equally to our design system and keep our own resources updated.

This year, we’re trying something new. My team is kicking off a comprehensive content audit across our monetization experiences that I’m hopeful will lead to more regular quality updates each quarter. I also want to lobby hard during our year-end planning meetings to get some design quality projects onto our product roadmaps. It’s really challenging to get buy-in around redesigns or new tools that will reduce friction in both UX and internal processes because they’re not framed as shipping a new product or feature, but I’m going to put together a ragtag team of design professionals and see how the heist turns out. 

What is your approach to dealing with pushback?

Confession time: I hate getting constructive feedback because it’s proof that I am not, in fact, perfect! I think that’s a pretty common reaction among creatives working in tech (or any industry, really). I finally learned to just let myself feel that frustration, annoyance or even anger when someone else has the audacity to make a suggestion about my work. 

It took me years of practice, but acknowledging the hit to my ego, even briefly, allows me to let go of my emotions and really listen to what the other person is saying about my work. Even when my feelings are strong or justified, it’s important to respond thoughtfully to feedback, rather than reacting immediately. And most of the time, there’s something valuable in pushback that’s going to make your craft and your work better.  

I think whether I’m giving feedback or receiving it, listening is the most important piece of the process. No matter who’s giving you feedback, that’s a human being with a point of view and a set of experiences that shaped them, just like you. It’s important to give your critics some grace and the benefit of the doubt, even if you disagree with them. Things can be tricky if they decide they don’t need to listen to you or insist that your team move forward with a decision that you know won’t work, but approaching feedback as another form of collaboration can help you and your team avoid those kinds of conflicts before they even arise. 

Kelly is a speaker in RETHINK Mentorship Program: Storytelling to Influence Change where she teaches a workshop with actionable insights about how to get buy In using Storytelling.
See program details and apply here

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People who support Leadership Circle

Deepest thanks to the following people who graciously offered feedback
and support while beta testing Leadership Circle.

Leslie Yang

Director, Product Design
OpenTable

Jeff Smith

Senior Design Manager
Coinbase

Julie Zhuo

Co-Founder
Sundial

Aniruddha Kadam

Product Design Manager
LinkedIn

Jen Kozenski-Devins

Head of Google
Accessibility UX

Jian Wei

Design Manager
‍Zendesk

Courtney Kaplan

Leadership Coach

Cammy Lin

Product Design Manager
Everlaw

Sun Dai

Senior Product Designer
Facebook

Liana Dumitru

Design Manager
Plaid

Mike Dick

Co-Founder
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