Episode 32: Andy Welfle, Adobe - Building a content design discipline at Adobe

June 15, 2021

When Andy Welfle joined Adobe four years ago he got to work founding and building their content design practice. He now manages a growing team and talks about the relationship between content design and UX writing, content as part of a design system and equitable terminology in tech.

Want to hear more? Join Andy at Button: The Content Design Conference this fall!

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About this week's guest

Andy Welfle

Andy Welfle is the founder and manager of Adobe’s content design practice, and is the co-author of Writing is Designing: Words and the User Experience, a book about UX writing published by Rosenfeld Media in 2020. When he’s not working, he’s probably making zines about UX writing and poetry, or podcasts about wooden pencils.

Episode transcript

Kristina Halvorson:

Hello, my friends, welcome back. It's the Content Strategy Podcast. It has been a very long time since we have gathered together. In fact, it's been since December of 2019 when I last interviewed Mr. Rob Mills, who is the superstar content strategist. Rob has since departed GatherContent and is now helping with production of this very podcast, which was not planned, it just happened as did so many things in 2020.

I was going toreboot the podcast and instead we had a pandemic. It's been a rough year for most of us and I'm happy that there are parts of the world that are coming out on the other side. I know that there are still so many of you who are struggling with this disease. I hope that the vaccine is on its way to you and that you and your family can find health and safety before too long.

On that note, let's talk about some content strategy. Besides the fact everything has changed since December of 2019, a lot has also changed in the field of content strategy. One of the biggest, most rapid shifts that I've seen in my entire content strategy career has happened under the umbrella of the content design and UX writing practices. This is a very active, but more quiet conversation that was happening in a few corners of the internet back in late 2019 and now, it has taken over so much of the content strategy channels and conversations, and it's such an exciting time to be in content.

In fact, I'm so excited because one of the people who I really give full credit for kind of striking the match that lit this flame of content design with, his book, which he co-authored, Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience is mister Andy Welfle and Andy is the founder and manager of Adobe's content design practice. I will have you know that when he's not working, he's probably out making his zines about UX writing and poetry, or his own podcast about wooden pencils. Andy is here with me today, how lovely.

Andy Welfle:

Hello Kristina.

Kristina Halvorson:

Hi.

Andy Welfle:

How are you?

Kristina Halvorson:

Thanks for sitting by patiently with my whole big exposition of welcome back to The Content Strategy Podcast. 

Andy Welfle:

I was so surprised that you mentioned the pencil podcast, because do you remember what you said to me and Michael, the first time you had like a video chat with us?

Kristina Halvorson:

... Was it like, "What is wrong with you?"

Andy Welfle:

No, you were like, "No, Andy, I don't wanna hear about your pencils."

Kristina Halvorson:

That was like, "Hello Andy, it was nice to meet you. Also, let's talk about topics that are to do, we're gonna start with the pencils." I don’t know Andy, we can talk about your pencils.

Andy Welfle:

You don't have to talk about pencils, we have plenty of other things to talk about.

Kristina Halvorson:

Andy, at the beginning of this podcast Iask people to give me a 90 second overview of how you came to content strategy and content design?

Andy Welfle:

I went to school for journalism as I feel like probably many people in this field did and I graduated in 2006 when newspapers were laying off photographers and journalists and clearly it was not the field to get into at that point. So I pivoted and worked in nonprofit marketing, I worked in an arts non-profit around the time when social media was starting to become a thing. I started figuring out how to use that for businesses and I set up a Facebook page and a LinkedIn account and all those other things, right? I really got into like the communication strategy portion of that.

That led me to work at a web development agency where I took those skills and then pivoted that to UX web content strategy. That's where I became familiar with Erin Kissane and Jeff Eaton and Sara Watcher-Boettcher and all the, the web content strategy greats. Did that for a few years and I really did love it. This was in Indiana. And eventually our mutual friend, Jonathon Coleman talked me into applying for a job at Facebook where much to my surprise, I got hired and moved out to the West Coast. So, worked there for a couple of years and then this opportunity at Adobe came along, start their content design practice. That was really interesting to me. So that's where I am now. I've been here about four and a half years, which was longer than I've ever worked in any job before ever.

Kristina Halvorson:

I think that's longer than anyone in the bay area has ever worked at any job ever.

Andy Welfle:

I think you're right.

Kristina Halvorson:

... so congratulations.

Andy Welfle:

Thanks.

Kristina Halvorson:

Andy, people always like to say, what is content strategy? I'm gonna put the question to you, what is content design? And can you explain the difference to me and our listeners who want to know what is the difference between, or the relationship I should say, between content design and UX writing?

Andy Welfle:

That's a loaded question as you know. There's a lot of definitions out there and a lot of people who think about these terms differently and there's no true Scotsman idea about what content strategy is, and what content design is. But I tend to think of content design as approaching, writing and information and language in an experience, in a design methodology.

So, what some call design thinking, what some other people just call thinking. What we often think of as designing, where you're just highly collaborative and it's research, research tested and validated and iterated on and measured, applied to words and to writing. That's generally what I think about, when I think about content design.

And typically I think about UX writing as one of the practices of that. Like one of the things you're doing, one of the things you do as a content designer. And I know there are people who call themselves UX writers or product writers. And they're probably also still doing other things around that UX writing. I tend to think of UX writing as the actual designing with words, getting in there and creating an experience with language.

Kristina Halvorson:

To your point, that writing is not just putting pen to paper and thinking about the language and the voice and the tone, that we are also thinking about purpose, and research, and data and user journeys, and intention and prioritization and information hierarchy, and so on. Which is a really big deal. And I like the way that you described UX writing as a thing that happens during content design or as a part of the content design process. Because what my concern is, UX writing is a thing, it's a standalone thing when in fact it's not. It can and should not live outside of a larger design process or a larger design ecosystem. We can't be throwing words around in that way either.

Andy Welfle:

Yeah. But just as a UX designer, people don't call them a box drawer or a prototype maker or something like that. Right? Like they have other things they do too. They create a strategy, they advocate for that strategy, they have a lot of meetings, they're thinking about navigations and structures, as well as the actual blue buttons that they're putting on a page. That's just one piece of it. So I think content design is a more holistic title for it.

And interestingly at Adobe, our job titles are still all content strategist. That's mostly because when I started there my boss was like, "Hey, Andy, what do you want your title to be." When I went to Facebook I was a content strategist. So I was like, "I don't know, content strategist." And of course, since then Facebook has moved to content designers, their job titles.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah, well at least a dozen companies just last year were like, "Oh we're content designers now."

Andy Welfle:

Yeah.

Kristina Halvorson:

And they all wrote big posts about it.

Andy Welfle:

Big Medium posts about it.

Kristina Halvorson:

It was literally like this ripple effect. What's so interesting is that I actually remember asking one of the managers at Facebook several years ago, "What you're doing is really content design. Why aren't you calling yourselves that?" And they said, "We really fought for this title of product content strategist, and we wanna hold on to it." And I think a lot of that was about branding strategy, right? You put content next to strategy and suddenly it's like, oh, those two words together, content must have more weight than quote, just copywriting.

Andy Welfle:

Yeah.

Kristina Halvorson:

That's why they held onto it for that long. And probably, it was a blessing in disguise. I'm gonna assume that you chose that title when you walk through the door, because like it or not calling something content strategy over UX writing in the minds of people who haven't maybe heard that term before, it's going to carry a little bit more weight.

Andy Welfle:

Absolutely.

Kristina Halvorson:

Unless of course they hear content strategy and they think marketing. But let's not go down that road right now.

Andy Welfle:

Yeah (laughs).

Kristina Halvorson:

That's a whole different podcast and it requires a whole different beverage. So you walk through the door, it's Adobe, you're like, I can do this. And they're like, start practice in what, 2017?

Andy Welfle:

Yeah, beginning of 2017, I started.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah and it's a giant software company. Tell me what that was like.

Andy Welfle:

It was overwhelming, right?

Kristina Halvorson:

What were they doing with the words, that's my question.

Andy Welfle:

I'm sure you've used an Adobe product before. They're known for pretty big obtuse pieces of writing. There's a lot of really technical terminology. There's some scary error messages written by engineers. There's so much interesting language in those products. I was absolutely overwhelmed. There was so much to think about and so many ways to try to affect it and ways to start. I luckily had a lot of leeway with my boss who is a director of centralized design there. He knew this wasn't gonna be like some easy I'm gonna hire somebody and they're going to come in and fix everything.

When I started, he was like, "Hey, Andy, your first job is to figure out what your job is." That was pretty big and scary and overwhelming too (laughs). But at the same time, the way we approached it was I looked for some sort of a product team that A, had like a lot of language in it and B, just connected with a lot of things, within a big ecosystem. So I could see the connected tissue and how things interacted.

There's a product called the Admin Console, which if you let's say you're like the IT admin for Pepsi and you have 2000 designers who need Creative Cloud licenses, you use this tool to distribute them. Embedded with that team, started talking through the designers, to the program managers and the PMs and engineers, and tried to get a feel for what the Adobe way is like, how does Adobe make software?

They were really game to just experiment and try some things. So I started plugging in. I had a lot of one-on-ones with designers and PMs and people who I needed to talk to and just started gradually trickling in suggestions and changes and philosophies. I always try to back up the changes that I was making with rationale, with the things that I was talking about.

I was very uncomfortable talking about my work and rationalizing it and trying to show value at first. But that's a muscle, right? You have to get better at doing that as you go. Eventually it felt like I established a process after about six months. Then I turned my role away from being an individual contributor there, and more as an evangelist role. I started looking for meetings of people, right? Like a big design manager meeting or a big meeting of creative cloud PMs and just developed a slide deck that says, Hey, this is what content strategy is in this particular definition of it, here's what I do. Here's why you need it. Here's how we can help. So help me, help me find resources to get head count.

That led to about nine months after starting there, I got a couple more headcount and I hired, Sarah Smart, who is a very smart person. And my coworker Marissa Williams, they started and slowly built on that and then built on that. And we're still so far away from being able to cover every product and really bringing the practice throughout all of Adobe, but we have like some big strategic ones covered. And we're at about eight people now.

Kristina Halvorson:

You know, these stories of, I walked through the front door to start content design or content strategy practice at this giant company. They all start that way with one person and it just blows my mind. That is quite a story that you tell.

Andy Welfle:

I love those stories. When this opportunity came up at Adobe, I reached out to Alaine Mackenzie who was the first Shopify content strategist. She's really great. She gave me a lot of really good tips and she talked to me about her origin story. I talked to Sarah Cancilla, who was the first one who came to Facebook. It was really helpful. And I appreciated having a really good foundation of leaders who forge this path.

Kristina Halvorson:

Yeah, that's fantastic. So one of the things that I think you are still working on isthat you've really been trying to ommunicate or share how important it is that content strategists at Adobe are working directly within their design teams, and design systems versus getting called for the content later. Can you talk a little bit about that at Adobe?

Andy Welfle:

The organization that I work within, my design director also oversees some of our centralized design practices. So like, Spectrum our design system. And we have a team of brand designers who designed workflow icons and brand illustrations and. They do that and they're all kind of service organizations, right? Somebody can file a Jira ticket saying, ‘Hey, I need a workflow icon that means this and ideally represent this’. And it goes into a queue and they take it and they run with it.

I think a lot of people assumed that it was the way we were going to be engaging as well. Because we were small, we reported through a central org within Adobe design instead of directly to the product teams. I really fought and still fight pretty heavily against that, just because to really do this work you need to be able to build relationships with the people involved. Especially with our very technical tools, you have to develop a subject matter expertise and understand what it is you're writing.

It's really hard to get familiar with that across the board. So all of those things take time and I really hesitate to engage on a team for less than six months, right? We've hired contractors or we've embedded short term stuff, but six months is really what it takes to really get up to speed I think.

Kristina Halvorson:

I've heard from a lot of other companies that the model, there are pluses to it and that there are minuses to it. I recently appeared in a Clubhouse room with the fantastic Dominique Ward from Atlassian to talk about content ops as a part of, or adjacent to design ops.

Oone of the things that she was talking about is, it's pretty well established that every organization when it comes to design has a path to maturity. And that part of that path to maturity is ensuring that design teams are embedded throughout different kinds of business lines or throughout the business versus one centralized service organization. Where do you see content design and strategy services, or even as a function sitting within a content ops function, where do you see that sort of growing within the enterprise?

Andy Welfle:

That's a great question. I think that it could be way different considering like, depending on the size of the team. We're a team of eight right now. We're about to hire a ninth. We have a couple of people who don't report to me, but still work very closely with us that we consider part of the team. So we have about 10 ish people. And we are big enough, I think, to have a mini centralized function within it.

Jess Sattell who is our content strategist embedded with our Spectrum design system team, but also oversees a lot of our central content strategy projects. So, if we're doing standardization work or if we're like taking some work we did on, let's say one product and are trying to scale it bigger, build it into the design system. Jess typically oversees that.

But at the same time, she is one human and we have so much of that work to do. We generally find that about 15-20% of our time we try to spend working on that centralized stuff. But organizationally, and interestingly, this is a talk that I did among a small group discussion at Confab this year. We talked a lot about growing and nurturing teams. We talked a little bit about the distributed model where content designers embed on product teams. They, as well as other designers report up to the design manager, versus a centralized model Adobe has, where all of us sit on one centralized team, and we have dotted lines that go to pods of design teams.

Some advantages to a distributed model, I think that you can get much stronger alignment with product strategy, right? You are embedded with the folks who are downloading this information from the business and working on the strategy. It's also easier to focus on developing subject matter expertise. If I'm sitting with the folks who are designing Premiere Pro, like digital video, editing products all day, chances are, I'm gonna be able to develop a better subject matter expertise there.

But it has some challenges, right? It's harder to align between teams for all of those connected efforts. Like all of the centralized projects, unless you have somebody really proactively rallying you, it can be harder to do that. I think it's harder to grow and progress in your career when your manager isn't also a content designer, right? Even though content designers are designers, there are some differences in the skills that you're trying to build. And the way that you're thinking about your career and the way that you're collaborating with people.

To me there are more advantages to the centralized model, you have that strong alignment for style guides and design system level stuff. It's easier to reallocate resources when you need to. So if you're staffing up some new big push for the company, and then all of a sudden everybody's like, we don't need that anymore. It's easier to just to move people around, reassign people.

This is something a lot of centralized models, centralized content strategists face, where it's harder to go deeper and really focus on some product work, because you have all these other obligations too. You have your content strategy team, you have your product team, and maybe you have more than one product team. We try really, really hard to limit that, but sometimes that happens so it's harder to focus.

You have an extra layer of distraction that prevents you from getting involved earlier and more often, which is always a challenge. I just drill into people's heads, you can't involve us too early or too often. Those are some of the challenges that I've outlined there. Generally I think a centralized model works best for us, but if we get really big, I think we would have to break that out a little bit. We're not there yet.

Kristina Halvorson:

An interesting thing that you mentioned is that when your manager is not a content strategist or a content designer, it can make things a little bit more challenging. You're the manager for content strategists and content designers. Is that correct?

Andy Welfle:

So far (laughs) I'm trying to be.

Kristina Halvorson:

So your boss is not a content strategist or designer, but at the same time, it sounds like you've had extraordinary sponsorship and support from leadership for the work that you're doing. Talk to me a little bit about how you have referred to yourself as a reluctant manager. What does that mean and what it's been like growing a team? You walk through the door as a content strategist, and now suddenly you're a manager responsible for establishing a bunch of career paths for folks who are looking to you for new opportunities and growth.

Andy Welfle:

I mean this is something that I'm trying to articulate a little bit more and put into words and think about it a lot harder. It comes down to managing the careers of people is really scary (laughs). And it's a challenge that I am honored to have, but also, I really want to make sure I'm doing right.

I started thinking about the practice and at one point we needed a people manager. Originally I was just like, I don't think that's me. I don't think I can be in charge of people and in charge of careers. At Adobe and at other organizations too, there's parallel paths.

You can be an individual contributor and be an IC and still progress up the chain to senior, into principal and affect big things. You could be a manager and you can move up that chain and go from manager to senior manager, to director or whatever. That's generally fine. But it doesn't really shake out that way. I think when you're still establishing your practice, your people are your practice. And it became clear that if I wanted to continue trying to steer the practice and advocating for content design within Adobe, I also needed to manage people and be in charge of that practice and how that goes.

So, I stepped into the role. I became a people manager and I'm learning so much about it every day. A book by Julie Zhuo, formerly a Facebook design manager called, The Making of a Manager, is really good. It talks about certain leadership and managing up and emotional vulnerability. It's really interesting. I've consumed that and I try to approach it with honesty and transparency and humility, but of course, sometimes that's hard too, but I'm still figuring this out.

Kristina Halvorson:

I've owned my own company for almost 20 years. I too as still figuring this out.

Andy Welfle:

(laughs).

Kristina Halvorson:

I'm not kidding. Of everything that I have done over the last 20 years, to this day the most difficult scary thing for me is managing people. Mostly I just try to leave them alone and get out of their way. But I so deeply respect and admire any practitioner, however senior saying, "Yeah, I do wanna go this route because this is a whole different set of muscles and needs to be taken seriously. And I do think that, especially in large sprawling enterprises, we can see people who were thrust into the management role without A, really understanding what they were getting into and B, being provided the resources and support that are necessary. I admire that you were like, okay, I'll do it.

There's one other thing that I wanna make sure that we touch on before our time is up, because I also feel strongly that this is indicative of your leadership, not only at Adobe, but also within the larger content strategy community. Which is that, you are really stepping up to talk openly about equitable terminology in tech. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what that means to you.

Andy Welfle:

It's something that I think has been simmering for a long time, right? This language that has been present in tech for decades that has metaphorical roots in oppression. There's the idea of two databases. One ix the parent and one the child and they call it master and slave sometimes.

There's terms like blacklists and whitelists, which have real life origins that were rooted in oppression. There's the idea of redlining, which is very much when you would draw literally red lines through neighborhoods to keep people of color out. I think it came to a head last summer. A lot of people started talking about this and, and we really started taking a look at Adobe where this stuff exists. I searched the Adobe support forums, just for the word slave, 'cause, you know, I thought the master slave metaphors were very outdated and you just wouldn't see it. I found 300 examples of those words throughout.

We created a set of inclusive UX writing guidelines for our design system documentation. Sarah Smart on my team really spearheaded that. But I noticed a lot of people talking about it, but I didn't notice a lot of people talking together about it, discussing it, coordinating. So I approached, Jess Sand who manages the Content and UX Slack community, which has just a bananas number, like 11,000 people in it. She allowed me to set up an anti-racist language channel. And it's since really taken off, there's like 3,300 people in there, but it started with me and somebody from Shopify, somebody from Intuit and somebody from Intercom and groups of people saying, "Hey, we're also like identifying some of these words. Do you think the word white label is problematic? What do you think when we talk about light mode and dark mode, do you think that's problematic?" We all discussed it and tried to come up wit some frameworks and ways to think about it.

It's certainly nota huge centralized, coordinated effort, but it was a really good conversation to have in that time. It's something we are trying to find and correct every day in our own products. It's not only doing the right thing, like trying to find language that doesn't actively harm others, but sometimes you can actually provide more clear language. Like with whitelist and blacklist, I think Google suggested a replacement in their developer documentation for allow list and block list.

That's fine. That gets it out of that route. But the way that we went, instead of saying a one-to-one replacement for whitelist, blacklist, is we said these are locked IP addresses, or these are allowed usernames or things like that, where we actually get the noun of the thing that it's whitelisting and blacklisting into the title. That I think is actually providing a clearer, better term for these things.

I eally see it as an opportunity not only to be more equitable, but also be clear, which is the whole reason we're there. Right?

Kristina Halvorson:

I have always said I work with the best people. Content strategists are the best people. They are inherently centered on user needs and helping people complete tasks online and making sure they get the content that they need when and where and how they need it. But what has also just really become visible and apparent, is that the content strategy community is also deeply concerned about being inclusive, about being accessible, about creating places of safety about lifting others up and about making things more accessible and clear to all.

This seems like a simple tactical thing, let's just go and scrub this language of oppressive terms. But these parts and pieces come together from all different parts of the community. Shining lights on these areas where we can make improvements that carry so many different benefits for so many different people, within different parts of the organization within different parts of the larger field. I'm just so excited to see how quickly those tides are rising.

Andy Welfle:

And it's not just us in UX. I don't know if you watch HDTV at all, but there's so many shows about renovating homes and people buying homes and walking through them. And I've noticed this shift in people saying, instead of master bedroom, people are talking about main bedrooms.

A coworker of mine who is a design manager for Premiere Pro, which is our digital video editing app has taken this to heart and spent some time with our team and has taken all of these various master descriptors, like the master sound file and master controls and found a better and more descriptive way to name them - source, source files, main controls, things like that. That's not real examples, but he's done a really good job of taking that to heart and making a change in the industry.

A lot of our products are industry leading. And when we can change them, things follow. We're in a very important place and we can't take these matters trivially, or lightly.

Kristina Halvorson:

Andy, I so very much appreciate your helping me reboot The Content Strategy Podcast for 2021. It is always such a pleasure to speak with you. I always learn something new every time we talk.

Andy Welfle:

Yeah. Welcome back.

Kristina Halvorson:

Thanks. (laughs). Welcome back to all of us.

Once again, Andy is the founder and manager of Adobe's content design practice. He's a co-author along with Michael of, Writing is Designing. You can find Andy on twitter @awelfle or on the web @andy.wtf. Well, all right, Andy, thanks so much for joining me.

Andy Welfle:

Thanks for having me.

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.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.