Let’s imagine something together: Your digital product company has decided to build a new headquarters. The design of the building calls for a brick exterior. (Great choice, by the way.) Do you imagine you will hire bricklayers to lay those brick?
Why bother, right? Who needs ’em? Everyone knows how blocks work. Stack stack stack. Easy-peasy. What’s the value of an experienced mason, after all? Why not just have the electricians do it? Or the steelworkers? Surely many of them have laid brick before.
Me, I can stack blocks like a kindergarten champ. I can assemble those complicated, adults-only LEGO sets. I’ve worked right next to experienced bricklayers as a masonry laborer. I even grew up around a master of the craft: my dad. And let me tell you, friends… I can’t lay brick to save my life!
Thing is, bricklaying is a complex skill that is a lot harder than it looks — harder than it looks to do well and correctly, anyway. It requires astute application of physics and aesthetics, math and science, momentum and patience, steadiness and stamina. It’s obvious to me from my experience that the everyday insights gained by playing with blocks, looking at buildings, and hanging around the pros has not qualified me to be a professional bricklayer.
Interface writing is also a complex skill that is a lot harder than it looks to do well and correctly. It requires astute application of research and instinct, prose and poetics, gumption and diplomacy, craft and creativity, exploration and analysis. It’s similarly obvious to me from my experience that the everyday writing and communication skills learned by most folks in school do not prepare them to be professional UX writers or content designers.
This is all to say that I don’t understand the seemingly-inescapable question that plagues our field: “What’s the return on investment of having a content designer?”
I mean, practically I do, but rhetorically: What the fuck?
If the thing has words in it, the words — and the design of how they are accessed, experienced, and understood — have to come from somewhere. Do you want someone who is good at making words or not as good at making words doing that work?
The value of content design is built-in and self-evident. Having content designers, UX writers, or similarly-skilled professionals working professionally on the words and content in your experience leads to:
- an increase in quality,
- an increase in efficiency,
- and a reduction of risk.
Let me return to our analogy for a moment to explain these concepts further.
If you have the electricians lay your block, god bless ’em, the building is going to look like shit. Earnest as their efforts might be, 20 years of electrical work is not 20 years of laying brick. Even if you can’t tell the difference, people who can, will. (And the work won’t last as long.)
Quality can be a difficult thing to calculate in a spreadsheet. As a practitioner it is largely a matter of craft (as opposed to capital-D Design, or engineering, or science). You know poor quality fabric when you feel it, even if you can’t explain why. People who are very experienced at doing something, and who care enough about doing that thing to study it and make it their livelihood, are more inclined toward creating high quality work and taking pride in the details. This isn’t to say that amateurs can’t luck into something good once in a while, but I wouldn’t want to trust to that luck for something as prominent and mission critical as the brick facade of your new corporate headquarters.
Even if the electrical workers can lay as many bricks in a day as the masons (they can’t, but I’ll allow it for this discussion), they won’t actually be doing the same amount of work in a day. The bricklayer is doing work beyond slapping mortar on bricks and stacking them together that you may not notice or understand, but that greatly increases quality in the same amount of time; reduces the need for immediate, near-term, and long-term rework; and ensures a minimum amount of disruption for other teams and practitioners working on the same building; all thereby increasing efficiency.
For a large project, bricklayers will know how to plan their work and set up systems that increase velocity over time and make the best overall use of their time. They know how to talk to the ironworkers, the concrete delivery drivers, the electricians, OSHA reps and others about their craft and how to handle designs and situations where communication, collaboration, and even diplomacy may be required.
You also get the added efficiency of another experienced builder on site with unique perspectives on logistical and architectural challenges, who can help you troubleshoot and move past blockers that would have otherwise derailed days or weeks of work.
Oh, and not to mention: all of the time your electricians would spend laying brick is time spent not working on the electrical. (Thanks to Carrie Hane for this addition.)
Will the electrician know or notice materials interacting in a way that could cause water damage, leaking, and crumbling of the brickwork? Maybe, maybe not. Will they know how to conduct their bricklaying work in a way that minimizes risk to those around them, such as how many block that scaffolding can safely hold? Maybe, maybe not. Will they know when and how to speak out and raise issues when the blueprints are calling for design and build work that may not be suitable to the material, climate, context, environment, and so on? Maybe, maybe not.
Thankfully, most large construction projects and the unions and infrastructure around them are organized such that you probably won’t even have a choice not to hire bricklayers. This is, regrettably, not the case when it comes to content design.
Teams do have a choice. You have a choice. If you don’t care to have the best quality, if you’re okay with the words and writing work happening less efficiently, and if you’re okay with introducing additional risk into your process and outcomes, don’t hire a content designer. Lots of teams do exactly that. They continue to ship work that is seemingly good enough and that lets them move on to more work that will also not be as good as it could have been, but is perfectly adequate to keep the work and paychecks coming. Fine.
I’m not trying to be glib. If you don’t care about quality and don’t care about the writing work being a pain in the ass, don’t hire a content designer. If instead, you’d like to operate like professionals, do. So hire ’em or don’t, but please: Don’t make people do a song and dance to prove to you that bricks are best laid by bricklayers.
So what’s the return on your investment? It’s that the work gets done, and well, by a professional. If the work getting done, well, does not create a return on your company’s investment, that’s not really a content design problem, now is it?