This week, Tina O’Shea (Director, Content Design & Strategy at QuickBooks) talks in depth about how content design went from being “just writing the words” to a key part of the QuickBooks product design process. She describes her team structure, and how she won executive support for their contributions to design. She also digs in to how they created the QuickBooks voice and tone guide—and how they’re making sure it’s getting used across the global company.
Tina O’Shea leads content design for QuickBooks, the small business software with millions of users worldwide. Her team is responsible for bringing the QuickBooks brand to life through voice and tone. Before Intuit, she led content and social media at LeapFrog and worked on the editorial staff at Apple, where she helped develop the Apple Style Guide.
Chris Corak has been obsessed with making SEO more helpful since 2001. At his consultancy, Onward, Chris helps people understand search intent to bridge the gap between UX, content, and technical SEO. His human-centered SEO approach has helped clients like Avnet, Olive Garden, and Colonial Life keep up with ever-changing search engine algorithms. He also guest lectures at Arizona State University—go Devils!
Kristina: Hello again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.
Kristina: Hello, welcome back. Today, I have Tina O’Shea. Did I say that right?
Tina: You did, O’Shea.
Kristina: I knew how to say it and the second I read it I was just like, “I’m going to get it wrong.” Tina O’Shea. Hi Tina. Tina leads content design for QuickBooks, the small business software with millions of users worldwide, including Brain Traffic. Her team is responsible for bringing the QuickBooks brand to life through voice and tone. And before Intuit, she led content and social media at LeapFrog and worked on the editorial staff at Apple where she helped develop the Apple style guide.
Tina, welcome to the show.
Tina: Thank you.
Kristina: Now, where are you?
Tina: We’re in Mountain View out on the west coast—
Kristina: Of California.
Tina: Yes. Where we’re still waiting for our 80-degree weather to finally kick in.
Kristina: I always say coldest summer I ever spent was in San Francisco.
Tina: It’s true.
Kristina: I know, it is true. Every time I visit San Francisco, I always love seeing the poor families in their cheap, thin San Francisco tourist sweatshirts.
Tina: Come in October.
Kristina: They left all of their layers at home.
Kristina: So Tina, you lead content design. Tell me what that means.
Tina: I do. So we sit within the design team. that’s how we’re organized. Content for us is centralized so there is one content team within the design team.
Kristina: What all content do you all work on?
Tina: Most of us are UI writers, so they’re working with the product designers to design the products. So QuickBooks Online, QuickBooks for Self-Employed, QuickBooks for Accountants, all the little iterations of QuickBooks that there are including mobile products.
Then we also cover the marketing content. So we’re writing for QuickBooks.com all of the explanations of what QuickBooks does, and who it’s for, and things like that. We have a third part of our team, which is writing the help content. So that’s something that we just recently took over, was writing help content. Then we also have a little tiny but mighty content strategy and systems team.
So those guys are responsible for making sure that the rest of the writers on the team have really good tools and that we’re all using the same set of guidelines and the style guide, and things like that. And they also are working on big, sticky, technical things like taxonomy.
Kristina: So what you just described blows my mind. Because it seems to me ... So not too long ago, I started a conversation on Twitter and the question was: can someone please explain to me the word “product” in the phrase or title “product content strategist”? It was an earnest question, because I was trying to figure out what products do products content strategists work on? Is it different from “UI writers,” or is that different from “content designer”? Is that different from “UX writer”? It’s not a matter of “we must define this once and for all.” It was really just looking for clarification about if this is how someone is going to codify their skill set, what does that mean?
When did you come to the content design team at QuickBooks, and was that lexicon all set when you joined?
Tina: Yeah. We call our product content designers, or UI content designers, whatever you want to call it, “content designers.” That’s our term for our roles. That transition was in the middle of being made when I started with QuickBooks about four and a half years ago. So I think—
Kristina: That long ago. Really?
Tina: Yeah. Yeah.
Kristina: Well I mean, not you’ve been there for a long time, but oh that’s so interesting to me that the term content design came into play at QuickBooks that long ago. Because it really has only gained what I would say international visibility over just the last two or three years.
Tina: Yeah, no we’ve been using it for about four and a half years. I think right when I started, we were using “XD writer/editor.” And the problem with being an XD writer/editor inside the XD or design team was that all of the other designers on the team were called “interaction designer,” “visual designer.” Even we had “design researchers.” They all had “design” in their title.
And only the lonely writers did not have design in their title. And that we realized was actually keeping us out of some of the really important conversations that were happening about how the product is designed. And it was getting us relegated to the last step in the process. Which is where we hate to be. We don’t want to be brought in right after the product has been designed and then ask, “Hey, can you guys szhoosh this up for us? Can you edit this and make it sound pretty?”
So by really changing our identity from writer/editor to content designers, it helped establish us as, we’re part of the design team. If you’re not thinking about the language of the product as you’re designing it, then you’re basically saying that the content is like decoration. And it’s not, it’s key to actually using the product.
Kristina: Amen sister. So that is so interesting to me that it was ... So essentially, leadership decided that in order to help drive what is essentially a cultural shift to helping people understand, the words are just as important as the visual, or the research, or the UI design. That literally it was, we’re going to make this a formal member of the design team by putting design into the title.
Tina: Yes. So we definitely needed the leadership support, obviously, and HR support in all of those issues. But I’ll also say that I think it also helped the people on the team. Helped them understand that our expectation was not that they sit around and wait for someone to hand them a project. But now you guys are designers. You need to get messy, get in the process, go to research sessions. Your job now looks different and you need to start acting different.
So that meant that the writers who were used to waiting to be asked, “No, I don’t need to go to those meetings,” or, “I don’t need to go to that research session. Someone will tell me when they need the words done.” And by changing their titles, we were also helping them understand that’s not your role anymore. You’re not going to wait for somebody to ask you when to write the words. You’re going to get in there. You’re going to understand the customer issues. You’re going to help write the product positioning, and benefits, and all of those things that need to happen much earlier than if you were just waiting for somebody to ask you to edit something.
Kristina: How else did you drive that change? Because simply giving somebody a new business card or a new title is not going to fix that challenge. What else did you put into place to help them make that transition? It is. It’s like growing into a new, broader, more strategic role. So what else did you do to help them grow?
Tina: So one thing that helped was we were actually rewriting the job profiles for all the way across design. So this was an awesome opportunity to make sure that the content designer roles had lots of similar language to the roles and responsibilities for interaction designers, and visual designers, and even design researchers and design technologists. There was some shared language, there was some shared responsibility in the development of product.
So that definitely helped was rewriting the job description so that everybody understood, in this new world, what it looks like to be a designer and to act like a designer. That means, it does mean that our expectation is that you are going to research, and that you’re white boarding, and you’re helping to prototype. And all of those things that we I think had traditionally thought where the interaction designer’s job, we were helping people understand that this is the content designer’s job too. You need to get in there just as early.
Erika Hall I know has said content needs to not be a solo, and solitary, and quiet practice. That you actually need to do it with other people because this is communication. This is something that we have to get together with other people. So it also meant that we were asking our content designers to let go of their expectation that they were supposed to go back to their desks in quiet and diligently craft perfect words. Because the design process isn’t really like that. Design is messy, and it’s iterative. And it’s collaborative. It’s done in a room with lots of other people just hashing it out, talking it out, trying things, and then trying something new.
Kristina: So when we’re talking about product design, that’s definitely true. But you also mentioned that there our content designers who are working on the marketing content, or the website content, or the help content. Did I get that right?
Tina: Yes, that’s right.
Kristina: So that can be kind of a, “So now I’m going to go sit back at my desk and craft these words.”
Tina: Sometimes. Yeah. Certainly there is care and craft, and we do when we get to our final rounds, we do want to make sure that we have been super selective about word choice and making sure that we’re saying what we intended to say.
Kristina: You think that that’s a different skill set? And let’s just take help content. Is that a different skill set than creating content and working hands on with designers for creating UI copy and so on for product?
Tina: It has been, I think a little bit for us. The people who are writing our help content are just better at a little bit of, it’s longer format. So it’s a different kind of writing than writing microcopy for product UI. But what I do love to see, I have to say, is when content designers within our team take rotations on other teams. It really helps to stretch their skills. We’ve seen that there’s benefits I think to the content designers as well as for the product and the company.
One thing that we saw when we had product content designers take on either a rotation in marketing content design or they would even just take on projects when we were short staffed and we needed extra help. An amazing thing that started to happen was the product content designers were able to identify those untruths that sometimes come out in marketing. Where their marketing manager was saying, “All right, here’s what the product does, and here’s how I want you to describe the benefits.” And the product content designer was in a great place to go, “Actually no, that’s not what the product does. I know because I work on it. That’s not how it works.” So they were able to bring much more honesty and a lot of customer research and knowledge into the marketing writing process. So that was awesome.
Kristina: So wait. So you say that you do rotations? What does that look like
Tina: It might be as small as if somebody is interested in learning what it looks like to be a marketing writer, or they want to stretch into a product writing. So they might just take a project, so we might sort of put them on a project that’s out of their world for about three months. Or maybe it could even be a six-month thing, or we’ve even done them as short as one month, although usually a one month just leaves them hungry for more. So a three-month or longer is better.
But yeah, that might mean you move your seat, you shadow another designer, you start to see what that job looks like. You take on a few of the deliverables and responsibilities of that job, and just keep stretching yourself until you’re really getting in the groove and understanding what that other role looks like.
Kristina: So basically the content creation and editing and design and so on, you said it’s centralized. So one of the things that I get asked quite often, is centralized content services. Is that smarter? What if I have to do distributed content services? How can I protect consistency and clarity and so on?
So let’s talk about how it works for you all to be centralized. There are one million people that need content. They need a snippet, they need an email, they need a webpage, they need a microsite, they need revisions within the product. How do those requests come in and how are they managed?
Tina: So I think that that’s one reason why it helps to be part of the design team, because the design team in a broader way has to field the same kind of request. They have to decide or they’ve got to figure out by working with their product partners and their marketing partners, out of all of the things that are out there that need to be created, whether it’s microsites, websites, product features. Which of them are the most important? We cannot drop the ball on this. And this is something that’s core to our business strategy, core to our product. The most essential needs of our customers. So what are the things that we as a design team collectively recognize that we have to own this?
And then, we also have to make decisions about, okay so then there’s everything else. There’s everything say below that cut line. We don’t have enough designers to work on it, whether it’s writers, or visual designers or whatever. We don’t have the people. How do we smartly use agencies to get some of the other work done?
So I think that one of the things that’s nice about being centralized is we consider coming up with strategy part of our role. So that even can include, and it has for us, prioritization principles and agency strategy. So we’re going to do this kind of work in house, and that will mean that this is innovative work. It’s more long-term. It’s more core to the success of the long-term business strategy. It might be more experimental versus on the other end of the spectrum, might be repetitive work. Like hey, we want to make little tweaks to this newsletter and we want to just keep iterating, and iterating, and iterating on it until we feel like we’ve got the perfect formula for open rates. Increasing our open rates on newsletters or something like that.
That’s work that probably is easily handed off to an agency. So that’s the way that we handle what we’re going to do internally versus what we’re going to do externally. Then our prioritization principles also help us make those decisions. So those things sound like if it’s core to the success of the company, then we’re going to work really hard to get principal level content designers working on that. And if it’s more short term, quick turnaround, we’re going to use either contractors, or agencies, or even office hours to do that kind of work.
Kristina: What happens when people within the company go rogue? Because that always happens.
Tina: Yes, it does.
Kristina: How do you catch them, and then what do you do?
Tina: I think we actually spent a lot of time chasing after those rogue content creators. When I first started here, I noticed that there was a lot of work like that. A lot of people on our team where, because it’s frustrating. You see that the marketing team has sprung up a tutorial site and they’re working on video tutorials. And they’re beautiful, but then they’re out of date within three months. And they were not planning on updating these. Their goal really was creating. They weren’t really thinking. It’s the typical content governance issue. They weren’t thinking about how often they were going to be needed to be updated, how they were going to update them, who’s going to be responsible for doing it, all of those typical content strategy questions.
There was also a QuickBooks resource center, which is like a content marketing site, that wasn’t using our same style guide. Because the developers really wanted release notes on every single release, we were writing release notes. And one thing that I noticed was as we were stretching ourselves across all of these different things, we were actually peanut buttering ourselves across too many projects. And that meant we weren’t really nailing the things that were incredibly important to the design team.
So one of the things I think I had to do was to start reigning in the content designers who were good intentions, but they were going after all of those rogue projects. But then we weren’t really getting credit for any of them. You know what I mean? We’d be working really hard to help make this one little microsite better. Or even going so far as to edit somebody’s massive website that they had come up with, or outsource to an agency.
But then like I said, we weren’t getting credit for it. Within the design team, we were known as the team who was stretched too thin and works on everything. And that wasn’t going to help us get more resources. If we’re just doing a million jobs but doing them okay, no one was going to give us head count to hire more people, which is what we needed to do.
So we started to make ourselves a little more scarce and really, really focus on top priority projects. And once we focused on top priority projects and we really nailed it, knocked it out of the ballpark, then people start to notice us and go, “All right, these guys really know what they’re doing. They’re able to make a really big impact. Maybe we need to hire more content designers.” So that was the shift we had to make. And it’s hard. It’s hard to let those things go.
Kristina: For sure. So if that’s the case, then how ... You mentioned governance. And you have obviously within your teams worked hard on creating and then sustaining the voice and tone for QuickBooks.
Kristina: How are you able to maintain that consistency across all the different channels, and platforms, and properties, and products?
Tina: Yeah, so that was a huge priority for us when we were kind of just building up the team. We had to make voice and tone our top priority, because we do have writers all over the place. We’ve got writers who are not in our team, or not really writers. We’ve got marketers and product people who are creating content. We had lots of customer support agents who were creating a ton of content.
So what we did as we were embarking on our new voice and tone strategy project was we went out and talked to a lot of people. This has to be a social event. So we interviewed tons of internal stakeholders. We interviewed people in customer success, we interviewed marketers, we interviewed product people, we interviewed VPs. We talked to a bunch of people and we asked, “So what do you guys think of our voice and tone? What do we sound like? Who gets to decide what is the voice and tone of QuickBooks, and how do we know if we’re doing it right?”
And what we found was all over the place. The writers were just really frustrated because they were like, “Well, it’s the product manager’s job to tell me what the voice of this feature needs to be.” Or it’s the marketing manager, or basically it was like whoever felt like they were in charge of the product, or of the project.
So that really meant we had no voice and tone at all. So we knew we had an issue and we had to come up with a new voice and tone strategy. But the fact that we had also started that project by talking to so many stakeholders meant now we were on people’s radar as really caring a lot about this.
So, as we were developing, and I don’t mean that then we went off into a room and closed the door until we were ready to gift the content strategy to everyone, because people hate that. We had lots of check-ins with lots of people. We invited lots of people into the process so that they felt like they were co-creators of this voice and tone strategy. That included bringing in even people from corporate comms, or people who we didn’t even work with all that often. The idea was how do we make everyone at QuickBooks feel like bought in and that they are part owners of the voice and tone themselves? Because like I say, it wouldn’t have helped if we had grabbed a few select top tier writers and locked them in a room, and had them create our voice guidelines. And then ta-dah. Let the company know we’ve done this, you’re welcome. Because it’s just too hard to get buy-in that way.
Kristina: Yeah, that never works. We talk about that a lot at Brain Traffic where so many consultants are never going to go away and we’re going to do the consulting magic. Then we’re going to tell you what your strategy is, and that backfires every time.
Tina: Bringing people in I think really helped.
Kristina: So great.
Tina: And we have to continue to do that really too by going out and doing trainings, and demonstrating that we’ve got the voice and tone strategy on our website, and showing people where it is. Yeah.
Kristina: So it’s an ongoing thing?
Tina: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Kristina: And what happens when someone comes across, “Oh hey, this is not on brand.”
Tina: Yes, that is an “influence opportunity.” So that usually just lets us know there’s a group out there who probably doesn’t know, they’re not jerks. They just don’t know that we have a voice and tone strategy. It’s really well documented. We have examples in there. And if you want help, we’re here. You can ask us for help. You can come to our office hours. During office hours, we can either work on a project with you, or we can just provide you the consulting guidance and help make sure you understand. And if it’s a bigger team than we feel like we need to influence a bigger team, we’ll set up a voice and tone training session. In those we try to make interactive and fun, and they always have a little bit of writing activity in them.
Part of that too is we’re not necessarily trying to train the entire organization how to write. Because that is hard, would be impossible. Not everyone is a writer. It’s more to train them and teach them that we have a voice and tone strategy, and that we have a team who cares very deeply about it. So if you are not comfortable writing something on your own, come to us and let us help.
Kristina: So the content design team reports up through design. Who do the content strategists report up through? Where do they sit?
Tina: So I’m a little on the fence about whether we are going to have two roles. One is content design and one is content strategy. Right now, we kind of do. Because like I said, we have our where our small little team which is responsible for tools and systems and things like that, right? So we do have what I would, I’m doing my little air quotes right now, “content strategists” on that team. Those guys are not usually responsible for doing a lot of writing. So their deliverables don’t look like microcopy, or help articles, or web copy. Their deliverables look more like audits, and recommendations for re-architecting a site, and all of its URLs, and what’s going wrong with your search and things like that. It’s all the recommendations on bigger projects.
However, one thing that this team has started to do that I just completely love is they’ve started content strategy boot camp where they have this six-month boot camp, they invite all of the content designers. Then at the end of it, they go through a training. What is content strategy? What does it look like, what do the deliverables look like? Then you challenge the content designers. Now go back to your work, to your projects and the teams that you work on. What is a content strategy project that you might take on? Do you want to do a competitive audit? Do you want to try to reverse engineer what you think is the messaging strategy of some of these competitors? Do you want to come up with a process for, you’ve recognized that reviews always go wrong with this one particular team. So you’re going to come up with a new process for how you’re going to get reviews done.
And then they present at the end of six months. They present their project, and we give prizes, and it’s super fun. And I think that the thing that has been amazing and awesome about that is helping the content designers realize that their deliverables can look a lot different than just microcopy, landing pages, things like that. And that also, it reinforces this thing that you don’t have to wait for somebody to tell you to go, start on that project. Because there’s a gazillion things that no one is going to create unless you create it, like content audits and things like that.
Kristina: This is amazing. So tell me again, where do the content strategists sit within QuickBooks?
Tina: Yeah, they sit within my team. It’s just a small team that we call content systems and strategy.
Kristina: So that does sit within the larger design organization?
Tina: Yeah. And the idea with creating that little team was, we’re a global company. And that started to look like, as we were growing into each new market, our leadership would say, “How are we going to go into Mexico? How are we going to go into Brazil?” If the answer is always “Well we have to repeat the whole, we’ve got to replicate this entire design team out there.” Well that’s never going to work. So we knew that we needed people who are going to help the rest of the team scale. That’s really what, their main job is help the rest of the content team scale.
So that’s why they work on things like tools and processes. They maintain our voice and tone system within our design system websites. So they’re responsible for making sure that the style guide is updated, and that everyone can access it. They add new examples to it. That means a lot of contribution from the content design community of course. But they have to do a lot of advocacy to make sure that the content designers are contributing to that. Yeah. So their job is help us scale.
Kristina: Where do you see content, content design, content strategy? Where do you see it growing and evolving within QuickBooks over the next couple of years? Or are you just looking to refine the systems that are in place?
Tina: We’re definitely doing some more things that are stretching us out of comfort zones. Like many companies, we have our QuickBooks Assistant, which is our chat bot. And so CUI is becoming really important for us. And that has been a really interesting learning for us is understanding that our CUI writer here, our conversation designer says that CUI is a very wasteful art. Which I loved because he is demonstrating that you have to produce a whole lot of it in order to have those delightful moments that get noticed, that people end up screenshotting and putting on Twitter.
To put a lot of personality into your chat bot, you need to create a lot of character in the chat bot. And that means you got to know what is the chat bot’s favorite movie, what does the chat bot eat for breakfast? Things like that.
So that’s one of the transitions we’re making. Also in that space, we’re realizing that that requires some new technical skills. So our conversation designers need to create multiple branches to conversations, and then they need to understand the logic that determines the right answer based on the context of the question that was asked. So that’s some new stretching that we’re doing.
I think that also just more personalization of content means that we need our content to be readable by machines, and that means much more tagging and structure of content. Which is again, something that our content strategy and systems team is really good at understanding. And they are doing the hard work of teaching the content design team who is wordsmiths basically, people who love to write. But teaching them the importance of structure, and tagging. Yeah. So that’s some of the stretches we’re doing.
Kristina: I think I’d like to come visit you.
Tina: We would love that.
Kristina: You are doing such interesting work, and it’s exciting. Because all the different parts and pieces of what you’re describing, I think organizations are really struggling with trying to figure out where do we put this, how do we connect the dots between these different pieces? I have not spoken to an organization who has content set up in a similar way. Which frankly, I think is a result of leadership, recognizing that words are a business asset. And the words that go into product all over the place, that’s what shapes people’s touch points with you quite a bit or their perceptions of you within those touch points.
So it’s really exciting to hear you talk about that awareness within the organization and to hear about all the different ways that you are continuing to foster that awareness and help it evolve.
Tina: Yeah, it takes time definitely. We keep getting new people joining the organization. They come from companies that don’t have content designers. So that means our job is never done on teaching people what is content design, what is content strategy, and why it matters. And why you should care.
Kristina: And that is part of what this podcast is all about. So on that note, I think we’ve got to wrap. We’re out of time. Tina, thank you so, so much for taking the time to come and speak with me today. And I know that people are going to be excited about hearing what’s going on at QuickBooks. If people would like to find out more about you or get to know you a little bit, where can they find you?
Tina: You can find me on LinkedIn. You can find me on Twitter. I’m @xtinaoshea. Yeah. And then very shortly, I wish I had a URL for you, but we are creating our own team site which is Content.QuickBooks.com where you can learn more about us as people.
Kristina: I can’t wait. I will promote that like crazy. Bye Tina, thanks so much.
Tina: Bye bye.
Kristina: You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This broadcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks, and we’ll see you next time.
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.