Pile of hats

Summer of content – part 2

What’s in a professional name

In this 4-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

Does it matter what a content person is called, as long as they get the job done? In the first part of this series, we asked how a person is supposed to make sense of the content landscape. When practitioners can’t even agree on terminology, it’s not surprising that trying to hire staff or contractors, or even commission work, can cause confusion. And looking for a good fit for a job or contract is even harder when companies create a job description for, say, a content marketer, and then put a content strategy title on the job ad. Everyone gets frustrated.

Content job titles are not standardised

One senior manager at a large agency said that she needs to see about 80 CVs before she finds a content strategist who has the skillset she feels should be standard for that role. It’s not that candidates are purposefully trying to inflate their CVs. Content is not a regulated profession, where job titles are attached to specific roles: a paediatrician, a corporate tax lawyer, or an electrical engineer. It does not have a guiding body that standardises practices, methods, and deliveries, such as the Project Management Institute or International Institute of Business Analysis, where you know what to expect when you ask for a PRINCE2 or Agile certification. Content is usually not even a category in professional lists. Content professionals need to shoehorn themselves into categories like ‘Technology’, ‘Consulting’, or the catch-all ‘Advertising, Editorial and Management’.

Job titles differ globally

When I joined Scroll, I struggled to understand how the role of a copywriter differed from a digital content manager. Or how a content designer differed from a technical communicator. For example, in North America, the Society for Technical Communication defined technical writing as “simplifying the complex. Inherent in such a concise and deceptively simple definition is a whole range of skills and characteristics that address nearly every field of human endeavour at some level.”

Technical communicators became synonymous with writers who wrote user-facing content (customers, administrative users, or technical users) for software or hardware, but in reality, they write any informational or enabling content for any audience. I’ve met technical communicators who write everything from consumer instructions, user guides, recipes, medical procedures, and policies and procedures, to documentation for APIs, engineering specifications, and technical marketing datasheets.

In the UK, technical authors seem to occupy a much more niche area. A technical writer used to mean, in North American parlance, a science writer: someone who had some domain knowledge and wrote technical content in that domain. But that’s changing. Now, technical authors are more likely to be called technical writers or technical communicators. The remit is more content development, where writing is a small part of the process that begins with user research and ends with user-centered content. In the UK, they are the communicators brought in to develop technical content for technical audiences. They often use specialised authoring software that allows them to create output at great scale.

Guidance writers, technical writers, content designers…

In the UK, writing instructions for non-technical audiences is done by guidance writers, a designation I’d never heard outside of the UK. After some deductive reasoning, I determined that guidance is a combination of informational and instructional content – it ‘guides’ users to complete a task or understand information. Yet, a search for guidance writing seems to point to documents such as standard operating procedures, user guides, and so on.

So far, so good. Now let’s add content designers into the mix. Some searches for guidance writers points to content designers. The differences between a content designer and technical communicators or guidance writers are subtle and also not codified. So, is a content designer the same as a guidance writer the same as a technical communicator? Seems to be, but not so fast.

The UK government hires technical writers to write technical content for technical audiences – for example, API documentation for developers on their digital teams. There is no mention of the use of specialised software, though in my books, any technical writer worth their salt knows their way around a help authoring tool, even if they’re not provided access to that software in their job. There is also no mention of the methodology, which has multiple aspects, spelled out in the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) for Technical Communicators.

The UK government has a very clear definition of a content designer, which I’ve described as a writer focused on ‘the UX of content’. There is a prescribed process that starts with user research, evidence-based decisions, and an outcome of user-centered content based on that research. Because of the clarity around the designation, it’s not surprising that industry is asking for “content designers with GDS experience”. There is a certain comfort level in knowing what is expected, both in terms of method and outputs.

To some professionals in the content industry, the content design process seems self-evident: every writer does that, right? After all, the expectations of a content designer is also part of the TCBOK, with a slightly different vocabulary and more variants to the methods. But to others, there is a world of difference, in which copywriters are given the mandate to “just write X” whereas content designers are expected to question whether content X is even needed in the first place before starting to write (or rewrite), and then deliver the content in a new way, if warranted. A content designer might request that a tool be created (what used to be called a wizard and more recently, an assistant) to deliver the content in a more user-centered way, as do technical communicators.

A rich professional landscape

Once we fill out this cluster of professions with some of the other common designations we encounter in our field, we end up with a rich, though sometimes confusing, professional landscape. Given the breadth and variety of the naming conventions and practices across the content field, how can we navigate this complicated landscape? How do we know whether we’re rejecting a perfectly qualified candidate because of a difference in vocabulary? In the next installment of the Summer of Content, I take a crack at creating a graphic representation of the various designations that content people wear. Fair warning, though: I’m a word nerd, so my graphic skills are limited.  I’ll map out some of the more popular names on a basic grid with liberal annotation.