The Human Centered Design Podcast with Gerry Scullion

Jonathon Colman ‘Building world class Design teams’

John Carter
November 19, 2019
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Jonathon Colman ‘Building world class Design teams’

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Episode Transcript

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Gerry: Welcome to another episode of Bringing Design Closer. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a service design trainer and practitioner based in Dublin City, Ireland. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bringing Design Closer, this podcast is focused on uncovering insights from thought leaders around the world and learnings about bringing design into organisations with a view to helping both practitioners and organisations to become more design-led. In this episode, I caught up with Jonathon Colman, a senior design manager at Intercom here in Ireland. Jon has had a distinguished career and have led teams of content strategists and organisations such as Facebook, but also served, interestingly, as a peace core volunteer in Burkina Faso in West Africa. In this episode, we discuss what it takes to build a stellar design team, and what he’s learned over the years as being important ingredients that led to that success. I’m starting to enjoy recording outdoors, so in this episode, you might hear birds tweeting in the background as I recorded in in the outdoors on a sunny day in Steven’s Green in Dublin, close by the Intercom HQ. Let’s get into this episode. Jonathan Colman, a very warm welcome to Bringing Design Closer.

Jonathon: Thanks so much for having me, Gerry, excited to be here.

Gerry: Jon is working at Intercom, but tell us a bit more about what you do and maybe how you describe what you do to people that you don’t know?

Jonathon: Sure, absolutely. I manage the global content design team here at Intercom. Located actually quite conveniently just on the North Side of St. Steven Greens, so we just walked here from there. Content design. I was just listening to a different podcast with the folks from Mule, so Mike and Erica with Christian Halverson. It’s a ten-year anniversary on her book on content strategy, actually. They described content as being the stuff that you came here for, which I really like. It’s really easy to reduce content to, it’s the words…

Gerry: It’s the interactions and things you do on the website.

Jonathon: Things like that, it’s really the entire thing, it’s the service.

Gerry: It’s the task.

Jonathon: Yes, so what did you come here for? That really is basically how you’re going to define content. Content design is how we consider that, put together the strategy, craft the system, build the structure, and, yes, in fact, write some of the words.

Gerry: Yes, so the words are not central to it, it’s more like the user experience is central to the content design.

Jonathon: Yes, just like if you’re designing a product service, you might have some button or some affordance up at the service, but you wouldn’t call that the design.

Gerry: Yes, very good.

Jonathon: Exactly the same thing. The words are important, they’re how people interact with you, yes, but it’s one percent of the work.

Gerry: Yes, very good. Tell us, how long you’ve been in Ireland and how big the team is at Intercom at the moment?

Jonathon: I’ve been here in Ireland since last December, so I’m not good at maths. That’s what you call it here, maths.

Gerry: Maths, yes.

Jonathon: Plural.

Gerry: Yes, not math.  

Jonathon: Yes, not math.

Gerry: You’d be kicked out of a pub for saying math.

Jonathon: Not to mention school. I’ve been here since last December. The content design team at Intercom is three people strong right now, including myself. We’re hiring a senior content designer here in Dublin, as well.

Gerry: Nice, you’re getting a free job ad into the podcast, as well.

Jonathon: Yes, exactly.

Gerry: Nice, they’re going to love you.

Jonathon: That’s why you got me here for.

Gerry: Absolutely. Maybe not, we’re actually really keen to talk today about building a world-class content design team.

Jonathon: Let’s do it.

Gerry: It kind of fits well into your recruitment drive at the moment, but what separates a world-class content team from, say, a world-class anything?

Jonathon: I’d say probably not much, it’s just that there’s this really terrible – who said the thing about a-players and b-players – that’s Steve Jobs, that’s a Steve Jobs quote.

Gerry: It could have been, we’ll go with that.

Jonathon: Well, you know what? I hate that quote. A-players hire a-players, b-players hire b-players, whatever it is. It’s a terrible quote. I think too many people use that quote. To talk about how they build a world-class team. Here’s how I think about it, which is a little bit different. We all know the problems with content design, which is essentially that most companies hire content designers or content strategists, they’re often called in the U.S., and then they put them in a box. The box is the words box. They hire someone with all of these design skills, information architecture skills, interaction design skills, potentially research skills and more. They say, hey, it’s great that you can do all of those things, but we really just want you to write the words. The people they hire end up being shackled, I’m holding my hands together here like they’re tied together.

They have all of these skills, they have all of these tools on their tool belts, toolboxes, they can’t use them. The thing is, the company needs those tools. They just don’t know that they need them. Here’s what we think, the content designer should be unshackled, take off the ropes and put them to work doing everything that they can do. The first thing that we did at Intercom, we started doing this enough at [inaudible 00:05:04], is we used to have content designers spread across three teams, five teams, six teams, more than that. They were only able to do what my friend Amy Tibido at Shopify calls: Dusting the content. They’re dusting the content on the surface. Fix this up there, fix that up there.

Gerry: People don’t understand what that means.

Jonathon: Yes, let’s change this word for that word. Let’s fix the capitalisation of that. Maybe there is some deeper concept, like, let’s do an audit of how we use this word throughout our product system and try to fix that up. They would never get to work through the entire stack of the product, because they’re just spread too thin, and that’s the problem. The first thing we did was, we said, okay, content designers from now on are going to work exactly the same way product designers do, which is one person, one team. Just one product at a time. No more being stretched across a dozen products. That was one really big change.

Gerry: How has that affected the product itself? What kind of uplift have you seen?

Jonathon: That’s the thing, when you are working on one thing at a time, you can work very deeply in that space. You get to understand the problem area, you get to understand the ecosystem, the product, you get to understand the system that it’s built on. You can be active in all of those things. You can start to influence product direction, product strategy instead of just writing the words or fixing up some concept here or there, you’re actually building a product. More than that, you’re earning the trust and the relationship with the team. You’re attending all team rituals, all of your stand ups, your retrospectives, your road maps, your planning, all of that, which the content designers just simply couldn’t do before.

Gerry: Absolutely. You’re the owner.

Jonathon: Exactly. You’ve taken ownership for the product, that’s really the thing. It’s exactly the kinds of things we expect of product designers, and now content designers can do the same thing. Then here’s the final change. If content designers and product designers work in the same way, doing the same things, using the same materials, the same approaches, the same process, all of that, then shouldn’t we therefore hold them accountable for the same things? That’s what we’ve done. We have updated our expectations, what we sometimes call job levels for both product designers and content designers, so that they are now both held accountable for the same things. We have 18 expectations and for both product designers and content designers, 15 of them are the same, two of them have slight differences, and then there’s one that only content designers are held accountable for. Because they work in the same ways, they are held accountable for the same things, we also pay them the same, which is relatively uncommon. That’s how I think you build a world-class team.

Gerry: We’re going to be finished really quickly. Only joking. What I’m keen to understand is, I know there are people out there listening who are product designers or are user experience designers, and they go, well, if they’re doing the same thing, why do we need both?

Jonathon: Yes, there’s that. I think the materials of design are the slight difference. Your content designer is always going to be more natively focused on your information architecture.

Gerry: It’s the perspectives.

Jonathon: Yes, the material will be different. They are keenly focused on information architecture, keenly focused on language, so using word as a design material, but they’re not going to be as strong in some of the areas of interaction design. They’re not going to be potentially masters of things like sketcher figma, although, our content designers are actually really strong in that area.

Gerry: It’s becoming more of a thing.

Jonathon: Absolutely.

Gerry: Looking at content design, I know we’ve had a few content design people on before, like Sarah Richards and Rachel Mullins out of Melbourne actually. A great person. What I’m really keen to understand is, how do you see the content design discipline evolving over the next five years, say?

Jonathon: Well, one this is when we discovered this, content designers are becoming quite canny with design tools. There are content designers who are just brilliant, you know, your figma, your sketch, your XD. They can prototype their own work more than that, they can code their own work. There are quite a few content designers who have switched into what I sometimes think of as content engineering, who are building their own content in the system, which is great. One thing we see is this diversification of skills. I think that’s going to continue. The other thing is, I think content designers as an industry sometimes tack a little bit closer to design than they do to product. I actually think that’s a mistake. I think both content designers and product designers, other content designers should actually tack towards product. When we have this conversation about, I’ve got to get a seat at the table, or I need to influence a business, things like that. The way to do that is not to go on and on about design quality or best practices, things like that. The way to do that is to focus on business outcomes, product impact, the more that you can speak that language, build alliances, relationships with product, the better off you will do.

Gerry: You’ll organically find yourself at that table, as opposed to pushing for it.

Jonathon: Absolutely.

Gerry: Looking at content design, just going back to that point about content design in five years. Do you think the role of content design and the emergence of content design, do you think the dissonance around the term user experience around the world has led to the proliferation of content design becoming a thing?

Jonathon: Maybe, it’s hard to say. Here we are in 2019.

Gerry: We still can’t define user experience.

Jonathon: Exactly. We’re still arguing. We’re still trying to define the damn thing, DTDT. That’s one thing, but you look at the explosion of roles. There are more jobs now for content design strategy, UX writing than every before. There’s so much crossover between these roles. Sometimes the same organisation will be hiring for both a content designer and a UX writer, and I have no idea what that means. The same thing as you’ll see an organisation hiring for a UX designer and a product designer. I’m also not sure what that means. I think there is something about the definitions that we just haven’t quite gotten to. I also think there’s something about first movers and people understanding they have some kind of need and associating it with this term.

Gerry: Yes, and it’s also the use of labels and titles and doing the thing. I’m keen to understand, going back to building a world-class content design team, what does a world-class content designer look like and what are the labels that you’d put on them, if any?

Jonathon: Well, yes, I think that if any point is really strong, there’s been this movement over the past year to, what do we say, focus on outcomes, not on outputs. I think that within content strategy, content design, there’s this big movement around getting to that point of outcomes, but I think historically, we’ve been focused on things like, we’ve got to do this audit, we’ve got to do this inventory. We’ve got to build this term library. We’ve got to build this controlled vocabulary. Yes, you probably do have to do those things, but they’re not really the things to focus on within your business. If you want to build alignment around these areas, or get this world done, the thing to focus on is the outcomes. What can you do with those things that you build? I think a world-class content design team is keenly focused on those outcomes. How does this work that we think we need to do relate to the business goal? How does it have an impact on the customer experience, the user experience? What are we going to get out of this? Why should we invest in this thing?

Gerry: Yes, so what was it that led Intercom to arriving at, we need to get content design as part of our team? What are the problems it’s solving?

Jonathon: Yes, so as a company, our mission is to make internet business personal. Really hard to do that without focusing on the quality of conversations people have, the quality of the content within the product. Most enterprise business products, ours included, are pretty complex. They do a lot of stuff our task and our goal is to make that as easy, frictionless, seamless as possible. Content plays a big role in that. If you took a look at any given interface in our product, or most enterprise products, once you take away the colours, the logos, the lines, any of the shading.

Gerry: The interface.

Jonathon: Yes, things like that. You’re left with words, and I bet those words take up like 80 percent of your screen. Possibly more than that. They need to be good. Remember, it’s what people come there for. They don’t come there for the lines, they don’t even come there for the words, they come there for the combination that those things provide because that’s where the value is, it’s in the service. You have to make it good.

Gerry: I really like that. Now, we were chatting earlier about building a world-class content design team or building a world-class anything. When you add a new member to the team, it adds an extra dynamic, what I’m really keen to understand is, how do you manage for those dynamics when they’ve been added to your team? It will affect your culture; it will change how you work, and it’ll change how you behave on a day-to-day basis.

Jonathon: Absolutely. I would say those changes are a good thing. Company culture has to evolve. If you have the same culture in year ten as you did in year one, something has probably gone wrong. I think that there are foundations to culture that you can build in and you can even hire for. At Intercom, one of the things I really love about us is that we have kindness as a cultural value. I’ve worked many other places where that is not the case. I didn’t realise how much I needed it under I had it.

Gerry: What does that mean in terms of a day-to-day?

Jonathon: I think it would be easy to say something like, “We never argue.” We argue all the time, that’s fine. It’s not that you don’t argue, it’s that you trust one another, and nothing is hurtful.

Gerry: How do you do that? How do you enable a culture where people trust? Say, the leaders of Intercom were like, “Okay, we want everyone to start trusting each other.” That’s not going to happen.

Jonathon: No, you build this from the bottom up. It was already a cultural value when they formed the company because they all believed in that, all the founders really believed that this was important. Then what you do is, as you build out your company, your team, you keep on hiring for this. To the point where we’ve published internally, I don’t know what to call it besides like a golden book, it’s like a children’s golden book. It’s like those story books that you might give your kids. We’ve published our cultural values in this, what I think of as a children’s book.

There are 11 of then and it has all of these pretty illustrations and details, but when I was interviewing with intercom, I knew about the book because they posted about it. They talked about it openly. Even in my presentation to the design team, I talked about these values and I showed how I had practiced them previously. I tried to show I was pre-disposed to already believe in these values. I think that’s the thing, you have to hire for this, you can’t expect to change people or transform people, you need to find people who are already pre-disposed to believe the things you believe and support them.

Gerry: Yes, so they’re already displaying those traits, those personality traits and professional and behavioural traits.

Jonathon: Yes, that’s why we don’t do things like… I don’t know if you have a bleeper on this podcast, but we don’t tolerate assholes. We do not believe in the talented asshole theory of team building.

Gerry: I’m with you on that. I’ve commonly referred to it as the asshole-syndrome on the podcast.

Jonathon: Beep.

Gerry: iTunes with little red flags will be going around the offices when we publish this one. They said the a-word. Just looking at when you’re hiring for people, what are the common pitfalls to avoid? How do you avoid hiring an asshole?

Jonathon: Well, for one thing, you have to ask questions that try to get at, what are people’s past behaviours? How did they respond to things like conflict, or how do they connect with people? If you find that people don’t generally turn to one-on-one conversations, or they withhold feedback, or they’re unable to provide hard feedback to people to have those hard conversations, probably not going to be a great match. That’s probably true of most organisations. I think that past behaviours are indicative of what people do in the future, but that’s one of the ways we talk about that.

Gerry: Building a great design team, I know you’re going to say, “It’s a difficult thing to do.” But imagine when you do hire your dream team and you’re like the Chicago Bulls in the 90s.

Jonathon: As a child of the 90s, I appreciate that. I love that.

Gerry: Absolutely. I did my research. Talk to me how you maintain it and what do the rituals look like in a company like Interco to maintain a great design culture? What does that look like?

Jonathon: This is a great place for the value of deign ops.

Gerry: Talk to me about design ops because not everyone knows what design ops is.

Jonathon: No, right. Design ops is like the operationalisation of really the growth and care and feeding of your design team. Everything that you need to do for your team to be successful from onboarding, professional development, how you grow your community outside of your company, coming up with things, like we talked earlier about expectations and levels. If you have a manager or director in a room all by themselves trying to do everything, they’re not going to get the real work done. This is something that you have to distribute an operationalise, get the entire team involved in because they have a really big stake in it. You do design ops work well and everyone’s lives get better. All those things that cause friction or pain points or slow teams down, or just super frustrating, you’ve solved them by incentivising design ops work.

Gerry: What do that look like on a ritual? Say, like, on a day-to-day basis, give me an example of what that means?

Jonathon: Yes, sure. One of the things we’re big believers of at Intercom is this idea of goals and goal setting. We set six-week goals and we use that to try to make sure that, hey, there’s this whole universe of things we could be doing, but at the end of the next six weeks, here are the things we must get done. We make really strong commitments to that. Then each week we set aside a series of sub-goals that relate back up to those six-week goals. A good example is when we were putting together these levels and expectations. I had this six-week project to do that.

Gerry: You did that on your own?

Jonathon: Well, here’s the thing, I set the goal, I was sort of accountable for making this happen, but I then went and set weekly goals around things like, okay, I need to talk to all of the product designers. I need to talk to all of the content designers. I need to talk to the design managers. Like, I set up this series of interviews, got their feedback, understood pain points, and then eventually set goals around, okay, now I need to clarify this in the level stock. Now, I need to get rid of that because no one is using it. We simply don’t consider that. Then I need to draft this back, then I need to get it reviewed and so on.

Gerry: You design a new process using the design methods, basically.

Jonathon: Yes. It’s the kind of thing any team can do, you don’t need any special skills, you just have to decide as a team to incentivize this kind of work. Then you’ll actually see it get done.

Gerry: Yes, excellent. That’s a really good answer. Jon, we’re coming towards the end of the episode. I want to thank you for your time today, if anyone wants to reach out to you about any of those roles, and also, maybe if they just want to hit you up on Twitter, how might they do that? What’s your handle?

Jonathon: I’m @jcolman on Twitter, J-C-O-L-M-A-N.

Gerry: Great. I’ll throw a link to that in the show notes. I’ll also throw a link to anything else that you want Intercom wide in the show notes, as well. Jon, great chatting with you.

Jonathon: Yes, thanks so much again, Gerry.

Gerry: So, there you have it. Thanks for listening to Bringing Design Closer. If you want to learn more about the other shows on the This is HCD Network, feel free to visit:, where you can also sign up to our newsletter or join our Slack channel, where you can connect with other human-centred design practitioners around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

End of Audio

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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