Melanie Seibert is a senior content strategist, drawing on over 17 years of experience of planning and editing content for various clients and their own unique interfaces. She’s also the brains behind Prose Kiln, and currently works at WillowTree, a mobile product agency. From her home in Virginia, Melanie tells us how it all got started, and reflects on some of the big challenges content strategists face today.
“It’s never a dull moment,” Melanie says. Working at an agency means switching between industries and clients all the time, a few of which include Regal Cinema and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Melanie is, quite impressively, the sole content strategist at the company, working with about 25 different designers.
Every content strategist’s origin story is unique, and Melanie let us in on hers. “I was working as a technical writer for a software company in Texas,” she says. “I was noticing problems with the UI, and I would talk to designers about these things, so that got me interested.”
Some time passed, and Melanie saw a problem in the interface that needed to be fixed. When she reported the problem, she was given the task of writing additional documentation so people would know how to use the interface. “That was really frustrating to me!” Melanie said. We can’t help but echo that frustration. How does creating additional documentation to explain UX that’s difficult to navigate a better solution than just making the UX more clear and simple?
That scenario also underscores the need for content strategy, both to create something that works the first time around and to advocate for the user.
One day, a designer she worked with asked if she had ever heard of this thing called content strategy. “She sent me a link to Kristina Halvorson’s website, and that was the first time I had ever heard of content strategy. There was this whole community of people sharing knowledge and resources. “
Melanie relished in finally finding more people who were like her. “I wasn’t the only one! It was amazing, I was so excited. They knew me. It’s almost an emotional experience to share those pain points that you thought were only yours.”
Melanie recalls working on a very technical product and the moment that turned her into an advocate for users. “It was pretty difficult for the average user to understand, and cumbersome for them to use,” Melanie says. The pushback I’d get was ‘Our audience is very technical, and they understand.’ And I said, that’s true, but there’s another segment that’s not very technical.
Knowing the technical savviness of a group of users ahead of time isn’t likely. “That motivated me to want to take the side of the user,” Melanie explains. “They’re paying us so that we can make their job easier and we need to do the work to make that happen, rather than putting the burden back on them to figure it out.”
Melanie also touts the benefits of user testing and research. “We do user testing with real users, because they always find things that you don’t think of.” She then shared her most memorable user testing story.
“I was working on a media app, and there was a screen where if you wanted to back out, you had to hit “x” to cancel. We brought in a blind user, and the screen reader said ‘tap the x’ and the user said ‘I have no idea where the X is.’ I like to test everything now, as much as possible.”
Melanie also started to bridge the gap between departments that criss-cross through her company. “I spend the majority of my time on what I’ve know come to call ‘content design.’ What do I need to be doing to smooth things out, so that we don’t have content fire drills at the last minute?” Establishing oneself as an integral part of the design process rather than an order-taker who’s the last link in the chain elevates your position on the team and underscores the need for ample time to plan the content.
She also amplifies the importance of striking a balance between technical skills and soft skills, and how oftentimes, soft skills, people skills, whatever you want to call them, have the edge. “In reality, those are way more important. If you can’t deal with people, no one can work with you.”
Melanie emphasizes that content strategists provides great value to organizations via the questions they ask. No matter where you are in your career, from beginner to seasoned expert, keep doing it throughout the various stages of product creation. “It’s so important,” Melanie says. “I tell people to ask ‘why,’ and push back, and ask questions.”