Mapping skill sets to roles – part 3 of 3 about content roles and skills

Mapping skill sets to roles in content

In this 3-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.

In the first 2 articles of this series, we examined how the plethora of job titles in content can create ambiguity when figuring out what a job actually entails. In this final article of the series, we’ll look at a framework for how we locate various skill sets on a map.

Using a grid to map skill sets

It was difficult to organise the various skill sets into a clear and useful visual representation. Eventually, I settled on a grid display, based on ascending/descending skills that begin with 2 common columns in the middle. These 2 middle columns cover writing skills.The assumption is that all professions have writing at the centre of their skill sets. Even there, I’ve split the writing into 2 different skill sets – persuasive and informational.

Persuasive writing encompasses about 20% of the content a typical brand creates:

  • marketing content
  • content marketing
  • sales content
  • public relations content

Informational writing covers the other 80% of content:

  • product information
  • specifications
  • instructions
  • policies and procedures
  • training material
  • customer support knowledge bases

It’s uncommon for a single writer to have proficiency at both kinds of writing. They draw on different areas of study and use delivery mechanisms with different areas of focus.

Grid shows how different content skills map to job titles

Editorial skills and technical skills

On the horizontal axis, jobs further to the left are  more likely to focus on editorial skills. For example, a copywriter is not expected to know anything about markup language. Jobs further to the right are more likely to focus on technical skills. For example, a technical writer may use an advanced authoring tool to manipulate content so that it can be automatically published to multiple channels.

Theoretical and domain knowledge

The vertical progression shows areas of theoretical knowledge. On this axis, the further to the top left a job is, the more likely that it requires knowledge of marketing and communication. The further to the bottom right, the more likely that the job requires theoretical knowledge about areas related to content efficiencies, such as automating content delivery.

Domain knowledge is the exception. Almost every profession needs some level of understanding of their domain, though it varies greatly. For example, writing about the esoterica of medical devices probably means the writer will need to have a baseline knowledge about the subject. However, an instructional designer may not know much about a domain, but they understand the theory behind how people learn, and know how to structure learning modules accordingly. The science writer must be a subject matter expert, and likely  knows little about publishing.

The messy map of content skills

Trying to align the skills needed to develop content in various areas is not an endeavour that ends in a tidy package. Skills vary greatly between countries, between companies, and between individuals. For example, the job titles used in North America don’t match up to the ones with the same job descriptions in the UK; many American or Canadian content strategists would be called content designers in the UK. Many companies asking for content strategists actually want content developers, not systems designers. And some copywriters don’t know about metadata, while others pay keen attention to the best metadata for search optimisation.

Mapping skills on a wheel, we can see how skills sets are linked and often overlap. Writing skills are at the core. The types of content being produced are broken down into 8 large categories – it took quite a while to settle on these 8 buckets. Then, job descriptions are placed on the wheel so as to connect the skill sets as they overlap.

For example, technical communication often includes UA (user assistance) writing, which is very similar to UX (user experience) writing. I could argue that guidance writing, content design, and technical communication have strong overlaps, and though they are in adjoining segments, they straddle the lines between categories. However, while guidance writers likely use common desktop publishing software, a UX writer or technical communicator is more likely to use sophisticated authoring systems where they tag up content for multichannel delivery.

For all of the silos that might exist in different departments in an organisation, skills don’t exist in those silos. Job areas cross skill sets, and the focus overlaps across several sets of skills. For example, content may be entered into systems for training material (Learning Management Systems), marketing material (Web Content Management Systems), or enabling material (Component Content Management Systems).

Content skills mapped to job titles showing how skills overlap

Beware of the chromosome factor

It’s important to avoid what I call the ‘chromosome factor’. That term stems from making a distinction between a horse, a mule, and a donkey. All 3 species look similar, with 4 legs ending in hooves, a mane and a tail, and all can be ridden or used as beasts of burden. Though they are all part of the equid family, a horse has 64 chromosomes, a donkey has 62 chromosomes, and a mule – the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse – has 63 chromosomes. However, we ascribe different traits to each of these species: as swift as a stallion, as stubborn as a mule, as slow as a donkey. It’s the imposition of traits against the species that forms our impression of them.

Among writing professionals, different traits tend to be ascribed to certain types of writing. Yet as the landscape changes within the content ecosystem, we need to re-assess how we think about skill sets. For example, rather than pigeon-holing technical communicators as developers of post-sales content, marketers could exploit their technical skills to chunk and apply the semantics to content used in a multichannel or omnichannel environment. Content designers can be a fluid part of user experience teams, and content engineers can work with software developers as easily as with content strategists.

Job titles in the evolving content landscape

The content landscape has evolved over the past 20 years, and continues to evolve. As new content genres emerge – chatbot content and content for voice interfaces are just 2 emerging fields – content professionals will need to build on existing skill sets and develop new ones. As we seek to match job titles to projects, it’s important to keep in mind that the profession is a moving target, and look at the actual skills needed rather than what name is given to any particular area of content development.

Read the rest of the series:

What’s in a professional name – part 2 of 3 about content roles and skills

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.

Read the rest of the series

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