One of the most important skills for a content designer is the ability to manage relationships with subject matter experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders.
That’s because content designers are at the sharp end of digital transformation. It might be the CEO who sets the grand digital strategy but it’s up to us to implement it – to go and in change the way that people in an organisation communicate online.
We must be able to advocate for content, create consensus and build trust and credibility with stakeholders. If we build good relationships, we get better content, we publish faster and we do a better job for the user.
This ‘trust toolkit’ is a set of practical ways you can build trust with stakeholders. It’s drawn from Scroll’s experience and the experience of the wider community of content designers.
1. We’re not at war
You know the feeling when the product manager ignores all the evidence and keeps the content the same? Or the head of legal insists that your plain English draft can’t be published?
It’s an ugly truth but it’s easy for content designers to get stuck in an us-and-them attitude – where we’re so sick of having our work ignored or belittled that we can get a bit too defensive. And it’s not helpful.
Sure, you can go in all guns blazing and tell people that you’ve trashed all their rubbish changes to your content, but that kind of slash-and-burn attitude means next time you work with them it will be a nightmare. So, remember we’re all on the same side.
2. Explain the process
Don’t assume that people in an organisation know how publishing works. Explain your role (will develop and publish content) and their role (will check facts.) Make sure expectations are crystal clear. Then it won’t come as such a shock when you do your job.
“Explain what fact check is. Explain the first draft of the document they see will have factual errors in it, will look stylistically different to what they’re used to, and their role in the process will be to correct the facts. Empower them with this.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra
3. Explain digital, share the benefits
Digital content is your world, and you need to be able to confidently explain it. Demystify, myth-bust, share the benefits and your approach will look less scary.
“I’ve often found that fear of the unknown is a factor. So, I explain a little bit about why GOV.UK exists, how it works (including things like sub-topic pages, latest feeds, alerts, collection pages etc.). This helps them to see the positives of working with you to make their content more accessible to their users.” James Low, HMRC
3. Don’t be afraid of ignorance
When you first start working on something, you won’t understand the subject matter. That narrow window of ignorance is a gift – grab it with both hands! This is your one chance to see through the eyes of your users, who also won’t know they’re reading about. So – take the chance to learn from the experts. Question everything. Listen to the answers.
“I don’t understand this” is a powerful thing to say. Because if you can’t understand it, neither will users. (And maybe neither do the SMEs.)
4. Prove it works for users
If you can prove what you’re doing is what works best for users, it’s easier get people onside. (A shout-out to DVLA’s great use of guerrilla user research here.)
“Evidence is helpful. People like graphs and numbers, it takes the subjectivity out of the equation.” Alan Maddrell, Government Digital Services
5. Prove you know what you’re talking about
As well as showing evidence of how the content is used, you need to be able to show evidence for your decisions. Why do you use plain English? What is cognitive load? Why use the words your users use? Why use that piece of information here and not there? Why? ‘Because the style guide says so’ is not an answer. So, do your research. Be able to explain why. It’s much easier to trust someone who clearly knows why they are doing what they do.
6. Be credible
Acknowledge what you can and can’t do. Be straight with people. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
“Be honest about what you can and can’t do, ie you won’t be able to let subject matter experts make style changes, but you will let them make factual changes.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra
7. Workshop your content
This can work brilliantly. Use for complex pieces of content – for example, if several different organisations or departments are working on it. It’s also a good way to boost a relationship, or solve issues if you’re in deadlock.
Start by sending out a draft. Then book your workshop – in person is best, but phone is better than nothing. Try and get all the SMEs you can into the room, including legal teams. Ideally you need 2 content designers – one to make changes and one to do the talking. Gather all the proposed amends into one document, and then work through them and agree the changes you will make. Top tip: If anyone suggests a change that is purely editorial (or anything else that is your job, not their job, to do) say, “That’s a style change – we’ll consider it” and move on.
Cons: it takes a lot of time and you’ll need to say no if SMEs start wanting to workshop everything you publish.
8. Do pair writing
This works well for building trust and developing content that you and the SME both understand and support. But – use with care. If you’re working with someone who has not been exposed to user-focused design, or is a bit antagonistic, go carefully. Pick something small and easy to work on. Prepare to explain everything you’re doing and trying to achieve as you go along. Read how to do pair writing.
9. If there’s still a problem, find out why
Understand their reasons for resisting or changing what you’re doing. Ask more questions. Get them to describe their thought processes. Understand their requirements – what they want the content to do.
“Understand what the team’s measures of success are… it can help you understand why they might be pushing a particular message or agenda.” Roz Strachan, Government Digital Services.
You have to get to the bottom of what they think and why their perspective is different to yours.
“It’s all a matter of where you’re standing…” Helen Challinor, Department for Education
10. Make one small change
If things are getting difficult, start with the quick wins. There is always something that is so self-evidently in need of fixing that everyone agrees you can do it. Make a few quick wins. Then come back again the next day…
How to collaborate with subject matter experts – some good ideas for starting with bullets and getting SMEs to chunk; also mind-mapping.
Resolving differences of opinion about content – some useful questions to help you work out what someone else’s perspective is based on.
Working with SMEs to improve content – a great success story from the Disclosure and Barring Service.