Episode 30: Beth Dunn, HubSpot - UX Writing and Full-Stack Content Design at HubSpot

November 14, 2019

As the UX operations lead at HubSpot, Beth Dunn applies a content strategy lens to the way she’s helping lead the company’s UX practice. In this episode, she and Kristina talk about how HubSpot defines UX operations and design, how she’s working to advance the practice, and how teams can get aligned on terminology and goals.

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About this week’s guest

Beth Dunn

Beth Dunn joined HubSpot in 2010. Before that defining moment, she’d trained as a paleontologist, worked as a line cook, edited romance novels, marketed nonprofits, and dabbled in a few other less printable things. Since joining HubSpot, she’s been known variously as a creator of style guides, a facilitator of workshops, an editor of newsletters, a disliker of exclamation marks, and an instigator of idealistic initiatives of several kinds. She was the product team’s only UX writer for many years before finally agreeing to share the work she loved with a global team of content designers who are now doing just fine without her, thanks very much. Her current role is in UX Operations, which mostly involves coaching and cajoling others on her team and in the wider UX world to write, speak, teach, and tell their own stories in various helpful, strategic, and deliberate ways. She cherishes her cats, daily naps, and every episode of the original Muppet Show.



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello, my fellow content enthusiasts. I’m Kristina Halvorson and this is The Content Strategy Podcast. This week, I’m going to be speaking with Beth Dunn of HubSpot. But before we get to our interview, I have a couple of reminders for you.

First of all, I am hosting our very first listener call-in Q&A episode in December and I’d very much appreciate your questions. I’m asking folks to please call (510) 858-6927 and leave a message with your name, company, and question.

I also want to ask a big favor of you. Please take our listeners survey: ContentStrategy.com/Survey. We’ve got some big ideas for the podcast in 2020, but it’s important to me to have your feedback because this podcast is for you, and I want to make it amazing for you. This survey will close by the end of November, so hurry up—give me your input! Thanks so much. Here’s the interview.


Kristina: Hello, my friends. Welcome back to The Content Strategy Podcast. With me this week is one of my favorite people on the planet. She did not pay me to say that. Her name is Beth Dunn and she is the UX operations lead at HubSpot. Beth joined HubSpot in 2010. She was the product team’s only UX writer for many, many years before finally agreeing to share the work she loved with a global team of content designers who are now doing just fine without her. (She said that, not me.)

Her current role is in UX operations, which mostly involves coaching and cajoling others on her team and in the wider UX world to write, speak, teach, and tell their own stories in various helpful, strategic, and deliberate ways. Now our listening audience also loves you, Beth Dunn. You haven’t even started talking yet and they’re already just like, “Yes, Beth Dunn.”

Beth: Hi! I’m so happy to be here.

Kristina: I’m so happy to have you here. Beth, where are you located?

Beth: I live on Cape Cod and I work from Cape Cod most days. Actually, the HQ for HubSpot is in Cambridge, but I spend most of my days here on Cape Cod.

Kristina: That’s the worst.

Beth: I know. It’s terrible.

Kristina: You must be miserable. Some people go on vacation. Beth just lives there.

Beth: Pretty much.

Kristina: Beth, how did we meet?

Beth: Oh gosh. We were some of those people who met for years online, and I think only finally met face to face in the hallways of Confab when I first started attending Confab, believe it or not.

Kristina: I know. And then you spoke at Confab last year.

Beth: Yep. Which was—

Kristina: And brought the house down.

Beth: I really enjoyed it a lot and it’s just the greatest conference and you didn’t pay me to say that either.

Kristina: I know. This is the point where everybody is just like, “Oh my God, Beth and Kristina. Get a room already.” So Beth, when we reconnected recently, you had been named the UX operations lead at HubSpot and you have had a long and winding journey to get there. We’re going to talk about what that title means, but first I would like you to tell me about your long and winding journey.

Beth: Sure. Like so many of us in content, I have this sort of checkered past that eventually led me to the respectable pillar of society that I am today. So the completely expurgated version of it is that I spent a good deal of time in nonprofit marketing until the whole Web 2.0—

Kristina: I have actually not heard anybody use that phrase for a very long time.

Beth: Isn’t that amazing? Somebody used it on me the other day and I was like, “Yes, I was there.” And when that started happening, I was doing nonprofit marketing and I just realized that this was what I needed to be doing. So I dropped everything. I went back to school for an MBA because, for some reason, I thought that I needed it. And out of the MBA program, I joined HubSpot in 2010.

Throughout the course of my many different roles at HubSpot over the last almost 10 years, it’s always been some form of applying content strategy to some business problem that we have at the organization—whether it’s like, “Oh look, we don’t have any health documentation. Let’s design that. Let’s deliver that.” Or community management in the customer forums and then eventually UX writing ... now I’m just applying that content strategy lens to the problem of UX team operations.

Kristina: Okay, so when you say content strategy—

Beth: Yeah.

Kristina: You were an active writer on products. You were shared across a variety of product teams, correct?

Beth: Yes. Correct.

Kristina: And were they like, “Come to me and give me the copy.” And you were like, “No, no, no. You have bigger problems and I’m going to tell you what they are.” I think so many content strategists begin as the writer in the room—the writer that everybody just dumps all the content requests on. Tell me how you grew into that role.

Beth: Yeah. It really was a process and it took an embarrassingly long period of time because there is that sort of gratification of being the writer in a room full of designers and engineers, right? I’m not going to lie, that was something that kind of kept me going and churning things out by request for a long time. But after a certain period of time, you realize that you are not, in fact, solving problems. You’re not actually approaching the work through a strategic place. Once I came around to that realization ... it doesn’t happen overnight, right?

I had already set things up so that I, as the only UX writer, was just fulfilling requests: “Can you take a look at this? Can you make this sound better? Can you fill in some content here?” That’s the surface level—what I consider to be late stage UX writing as part of the content design process. And I had to keep on doing that for people because I’d set that expectation while sort of identifying projects on which I could go deeper and demonstrate what this might look like if I were involved in the project from soup to nuts—from designing the research to sitting in on the research to listening for the language and the meaning. That’s what content strategy from a product writing point of view is for me: full-stack content design. And it took time to change the way people thought about that practice. I really found that I had to do that by showing rather than telling.

Once we had gotten to that point where a critical mass of people and teams recognized the value of that approach over the old approach, that was when we started building out the team. And it just kind of took off from there.

Kristina: That’s amazing. And when that happens within organizations over and over again, I see that coming from one or two people who are constantly just like, “No, no, no. Bring me in earlier. Let me help ask the questions. Let me help design the research. Let me help push back on decisions that are being made that maybe aren’t considering language or nuances of language.” That’s really exciting.

Beth: It was really exciting work. Absolutely. And I think that you have to approach it like any sort of change management. I think you do hear in the industry a lot of people get worn down by constantly going, “Invite me in early, invite me in early.” What you do is find the people who get it and you work with them. You invest in people who get it so that you’re not wasting all your calories and getting frustrated and annoyed.

Kristina: You were throwing around a lot of terminology in there. You said content strategy and product content strategy and UX writing and content design. And now your title is the UX ops lead at HubSpot ...

Beth: That’s right.

Kristina: And you said that is a job title that was made up for you?

Beth: Mmhmm.

Kristina: Okay. What do you do now?

Beth: Well, it turns out that it’s a thing, right? But most organizations, I think, seem to call this “design ops” because they call their entire UX organization “the design organization.” Our umbrella term for the design organization is “UX” because it includes product designers, content designers, UX researchers, and product analysts. That’s the entire UX org. I’m just doing UX operations, which, as defined in the classic Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz and somebody else’s name I can’t remember—

Kristina: Which people are going to love.

Beth: I know. I am so sorry. It’s just because I was just registering for that conference and so ...

Kristina: Oh yeah. Is that the Rosenfeld Media Design Ops Conference?

Beth: That’s the one, yes. I’m very excited about that. So the way they define [UX operations] in that book is that it’s divided up into people, practice, and process. And as it turns out, without even really calling it “operations,” we have a person and a team working on the practice side of things with our Canvas design system. I’m just sort of picking up the ball and running with the people and process side of things.

Kristina: When you guys talk about people and process, what are you talking about?

Beth: Right now, it looks like improving a lot of internal training and development—onboarding new hires and providing resources to existing team members to level up their game. We recently made the entire UX organization decentralized so everybody is being asked to level up in a cross-disciplinary way. I need to create some more content so that designers can learn how to do content better and content people understand the design side of things. So that’s sort of internal training on growth. And then—I think of it as two sides of the same coin—there’s also this external talking and speaking and writing about the work that we do, who we are, what we believe in, what we stand for, and why somebody might be attracted to join our team. So I’m working on both of those. To me, they’re both content problems.

Kristina: That is interesting to me because, when you first told me that your job had changed, you said, “I’m doing more content strategy work in this position than I’ve ever done before.”

Beth: That’s right. Yeah.

Kristina: So when you are talking about content strategy, really you are saying content strategy is a practice that tackles content problems?

Beth: Mmhmm. Well, it’s a ... I guess I probably misspoke. I guess it’s a content strategy—

Kristina: Or I’m putting words in your mouth and making it sound like you did.

Beth: I think I probably said that. What I mean is that it’s a problem that I can certainly solve—that I can approach most effectively through a content strategy lens. Because it is about delivering the right content to the right people at the right time in the right way. When I talk about content strategy, it means I’m not just … saying what I want to say or what I think needs to be out there. I’m stopping first and I’m doing the research and I’m doing the discovery. I’m trying to find out: What is it that our external audience wants to know? What are the perceptions that are out there already that might need to be counteracted? What are the needs? And then you kind of move through the process there. And then the internal stuff is the same thing, same way: What do people need in terms of internal education, onboarding, design? So yeah, it’s a content strategy problem to me.

Kristina: We talk a lot at Brain Traffic about how content strategy isn’t just for a product or a website. It is also for the way information travels throughout an organization. I think, especially when we are talking about things like content design or product content design, that tends to get lost in the conversation a little bit.

Beth: 100 percent. I didn’t even touch on the process side of things, which is the way that the problem I’m being asked to tackle is the internal communications problem. And that is a content problem, as well. It’s just like, “Oh, what do we need in terms of shared calendars? How do we announce promotions and team changes and events and somebody’s blog post about to go up?” Just keeping everybody aligned and informed—that’s a content problem as well. I have a friend from an old organization I used to work at who would say, “Communication’s the answer. What’s the question?” And I kind of feel like I say that about content a lot.

Kristina: I want to return back to the question of terminology. We were chatting a little bit before we started recording and I was saying that early in my career I was like, “I don’t care what you call it.” In fact, I think I actually wrote these words in my book, Content Strategy for the Web. “I don’t care what you call it, just get the work done.” And I no longer feel that way. I very, very deeply care what people are calling things, primarily because companies are calling me and saying, “We are trying to hire for this role and we can’t figure out what to call it. And we keep getting all the wrong people.” I think the classic thing that’s happening right now is content strategy versus content marketing. In HubSpot, as the role of content and the importance of content has grown, talk to me about how you are defining and aligning on a lot of these terms that we’ve been throwing around.

Beth: Sure. And it’s totally fair and I think that the way that we’re using these terms is probably going to change, as well. I honestly don’t think that there’s any sort of real consensus out there in the content community.

Kristina: Oh, boy. No. There’s certainly not.

Beth: I hold these terms very loosely in my mind and in our organization. But I shared with you about my path from solo UX writer, which was a term that was given to me before I knew that was a thing. When we hired our first director of design, he sat me down and asked me how I spent my day. I told him and he said, “Oh, you’re my UX writer.” And I was like, “Great, what’s that?” I had never heard the term before. I just knew that I was helping change the copy that was in the interface.

When we built that team, we hired those people as UX writers because that was the style of work that we were doing. As I said before, I think of UX writing as that late stage, proofread-and-polish part of the process. Other people use that term to mean a deeper part of the process and I respect that, but that’s the way that term evolved at our organization: UX writing is the surface part of the process. Still very important—super important to make sure that things are spelled correctly and in the right voice and tone and aren’t wrong in terms of grammar and syntax and punctuation. But it’s not about meaning.

We actually changed the titles of those people once we had changed the practice. We changed the titles after we changed how we work so that we were doing full-stack content design. We took people off being the line cook metaphor that I always talk about, where you’re just taking tickets and shipping copy out by request, to being fully embedded just on one team, just on one project, and doing it from the beginning to the end. That was our transition to content design. Once everybody was actually doing the work in that way, we changed our titles to “content designer.” Now, it’s the UX content design team. But it’s all still changing a lot. We actually don’t use the term “content strategy” a lot. I feel like—in my world, at least—that’s been the term that’s been used more on the marketing side of things, for better or worse. It just kind of seems to be how it’s shaken out.

Kristina: I think we’re really starting to see that, too. And this kind of leads into my next question. When we hear content design and UX design and UX writing, a lot of times who we’re hearing from are people who are building products—things that people are using to produce or to get things done. The websites seem to have been almost shoved over to marketing, and marketing is not typically coming at websites with a UX lens. They see it as a means of engagement and communication and conversion. And then we’ve got tech comm who is creating the support content that oftentimes lives on the website or on a platform that is directly connected to the website. Are there clear lines of division between what’s happening on the public facing website and when people sign into and begin using the product?

Beth: Yeah, I think less and less. I think that’s really the friction that we’re all feeling: there aren’t any of these really clear lines of demarcation anymore. If the whole point of content strategy and content design, as I envision it, is to design things—experiences for the user, with the user in mind—then we have to recognize that those distinctions are completely artificial and meaningless to the user. People encounter our content through our blog first and then they go to the product pricing page and then maybe they kick off a trial and then maybe the trial expires and then they end up back in the—it’s more loopy than a linear progression. To have these silos of people who are approaching the work in very distinct and different ways just makes less and less sense. We’ve definitely seen—and this is part of our reorganization to being very cross-disciplinary—that we just need to really break down some of these artificial barriers.

Kristina: Do you think there is a possibility for there to be a real seamless, consistent content experience across all those various touch points? In my mind, there needs to be a chief content officer who is overseeing the way content is moving throughout an organization, the people who are touching it, the processes that are hopefully breaking down these silos, the different tools and platforms where the content is living. If you think about content as an actual business asset, I guess that makes sense. But is that the only way that we’re going to be able to coordinate and create consistency across all these different touch points: having the person who is in charge and connecting the dots?

Beth: I think it depends on how your organization runs—whether or not it makes sense for you to appoint a C-level content czar. It’s definitely an idea that I’ve heard people talking about, whether it’s because if you have somebody with the word “content” in their title at the C-level, that’s like a visible sign that the organization recognizes the value of this sort of thing—

Kristina: This is like having a chief customer officer.

Beth: Exactly.

Kristina: Or a chief experience officer.

Beth: Right. If that’s the way that your organization works and that’s actually the way that capital gets played out in your organization, then it might make sense to appoint a content czar. My organization doesn’t tend to be like that. We’re highly distributed and our core value is prizing small, autonomous teams that are not really trammeled too much in terms of how you achieve your goals. What we focus instead on is making sure that all of our goals are aligned. And then we offer these sort of guidelines that help you make sure that you’re staying on track.

In an organization like mine where autonomy is so vital to how we get work done, appointing a content czar really isn’t going to be the way to go. It’s about awakening everybody across the organization to the value of taking this unified approach. And my original answer to your question—how do we make sure that this happens—is just making sure that everybody’s aligned on the same goals. I think that’s where we see the fracturing: Marketing is interested in conversion. Everybody’s trying to solve their own little atomic problems. If those don’t roll up to a unified business goal that we’re all being measured against, then we’re just touching various little pieces of the elephant.

Kristina: This is the depressing answer I have to give people when they push and push. “Well, how do we get this done? How do we create that consistency? How do we get everybody aligned?” It has to come from leadership. Leadership has got to define, in a clear way, what those goals are so that different teams know they’re all laddering up to the same thing. They’re all the same page. They’re all playing on the same team.

Beth: We are all in this together. That’s the key thing, right?

Kristina: Yeah. I feel like this is what I keep coming back to in my own work lately. So many folks who have grown come up through the ranks and who are in leadership positions are not great at putting a stake in the ground and communicating what those goals are to their audience of internal employees, which is a content strategy problem—

Beth: Communication’s the answer. What’s the question? That’s right. Exactly.

Kristina: I know. And so that again is just trying to help equip folks who are in the trenches with content and making choices about content with the right questions to return to management leadership to say, “If you could help us answer this question, we would be able to make better choices from the get-go.”

Beth: That’s right.

Kristina: You were a pro, clearly, at asking these questions to help evolve people’s thinking throughout the organization. If somebody were struggling with, “I feel like I’m a pinball in a pinball machine. I just keep bobbing back and forth between all these different requests and problems and I’m not really getting anywhere,” what kinds of questions would you suggest they start with?

Beth: For me, it always comes back to asking, “What are the metrics that you’re getting judged on?” and trying to find a way that content can move that needle for them. That’s where the light will come on … when you say, “All right, so what are you getting measured on? What does your next promotion hinge on? What’s the team? What’s the number that’s hanging over your head?” There is almost always a way that content can help move that needle for them. If you can say, “All right then. Let’s do this. Let’s try this,” and scope it nice and tight so that it’s a limited time pilot thing … you establish your baseline on that number that matters to them and then you run it for the period of time, whatever it is. You’re able to show how content has helped advance things for them. It just travels by word of mouth from there. That’s the way I’ve found it happens.

Kristina: For content strategists who have come up through UX—whether or not they’re now starting to embrace the title of content designer or product content strategist or whatever—one thing I hear regularly is that people are fiercely, radically focused on doing what’s right for the end user. And a lot of times management and leadership don’t care. They want to move those metrics. What I have seen and what I think—and what I’m hearing kind of from your story, too—is that if you begin with meeting those metrics, you’re going to have the ear of the people who are setting the goals and who are making choices and who are funding the research and who are asking those bigger questions.

Beth: That’s right.

Kristina: And then you can kind of bring those values into play.

Beth: Yeah.

Kristina: Not that you have to sit on those values until then, but if you are just entering the workforce or you’re new to a team or you’re trying to bring change within an organization, simply going around and banging your fists on the table ... people aren’t going to listen.

Beth: No, they’re not going to listen. And you very quickly become the party of “no,” you know what I’m saying? And then people will start to tune you out. If you align your goals with their goals and you say, “I’m just trying to help you get stuff done,” then they’re just a lot more willing to take you along for the ride and see what it is that you have to offer. I’ve been really fortunate that those numbers at HubSpot tend to be numbers that are focused on user outcomes—that are focused on audience happiness and customer joy or whatever. So no, you don’t have to sit on those values. But I know that’s not true in a lot of places.

Kristina: Here’s my last question for you. If someone is writing for marketing or they are writing for a magazine or they are just coming out of school and they know that they want to write for products or the interwebs or whatever, what advice do you have for them?

Beth: The first thing that I always tell people to do is to join that terrific Slack channel that Michael Metts started that has now taken on a life of its own, Content + UX. That is now this thriving global community of people who are established and aspiring people working in this field. It’s just a terrific, supportive community where, if you want to take a class, you can find out about a class. You can find articles and books—whatever. It’s just a great place to learn and meet people and get job postings and that sort of thing. So I always recommend people try that.

And if you want to get applied experience doing this sort of work and all you’re doing is writing magazine articles or whatever, the classic advice is to find a small startup or find a nonprofit or something. Find an organization where you can do some sort of a thing—do a case study. Honestly, in my experience, that’s not quite as necessary. I was always happy to hire people from more traditional media fields. I built out the first team with people from advertising and people from classic brand design organizations, health documentation … all sorts of different things. I just really want to see that you’re coming at this from a design process point of view. That you recognize that it’s more about meaning and semantics and systems than it is about Oxford commas and apostrophes.

Kristina: Sorry, listeners, you can still love Oxford commas and apostrophes.

Beth: Oh, believe me, I love Oxford commas. And I made my name at one point in my distant past taking a stand against exclamation marks, for crying out loud. I wrote this whole piece that I still get cited on. So I’ve definitely spent my time on the punctuation police force. We all have.

Kristina: And look where it’s gotten you. Wild success. Well, Beth, I could talk to you forever and I will continue to speak with you again. But unfortunately, our time here on The Content Strategy Podcast has come to an end. Where can our fantastic listeners find you?

Beth: I’m @bethdunn on Twitter, which is probably the easiest place to find me.

Kristina: Good work getting that ID.

Beth: Well, I was definitely an early stage Twitter adopter. I’ve been less active on it of late, but I was in there in like 2007 or something ridiculous like that. That’s probably the best place.

Kristina: Awesome. Or in the Content + UX Slack community. And please send me your piece on exclamation points because we clearly need to share that with our listening audience.

Beth: I would love to share that with you. It’s one of my proudest moments, I have to say.

Kristina: Fantastic. All right, Beth. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Beth: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.


Kristina: Thank you so much for joining us today. This podcast is produced by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy, and makers of fine conferences and workshops. Please visit BrainTraffic.com for more details and sign up for our mailing list to hear about new workshops, dates, and locations, as well as content strategy insights and little personal notes from me with hilarious jokes.

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About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

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