On how to effectively pair content and design with Christina Wu from Facebook
The Grit

On how to effectively pair content and design with Christina Wu from Facebook

Maks KarpovichMaks Karpovich

Hi Christina. Thanks for taking the time. To break the ice, as a content designer, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Hello! Thanks for having me. These days with a toddler, my free time is pretty limited, but I always manage to make time to play word games on my phone. I’m obsessed! Scrabble is one of my favorites, but there are many others like Boggle and Bananagrams. I also enjoy crossword puzzles. Hit me up on Boggle or Words With Friends (@hellochristina). I’m always looking for people to play with.

Very cool. Can you introduce yourself a bit and tell us what makes you busy these days?

I work at Facebook with the newly minted title of Content Designer (formerly Content Strategist). More on that later. I’m a San Francisco Bay Area native. Growing up, my parents didn’t pressure me to get top grades or pursue a career in medicine or computers, even though they themselves worked in those fields. I felt like I had a lot of leeway in whatever path I chose. This was a huge relief since I was absolutely terrible at science and math. The one thing I had was a love of reading and writing, which was bolstered by a kind and encouraging English teacher I had in high school.

After graduating college with an English degree, I worked various temp jobs while looking for something permanent and happened to get placed at a small advertising agency doing administrative tasks. I loved the energy of the place, particularly the creative department where the art directors, designers, and copywriters were gathered. The owner’s 74-year-old mother worked in the proofreading department. After learning that I was looking for a job, she talked with her son, who then hired me as a proofreader. Over time, I was given a few copywriting projects to work on by the creative director, and that’s where my career started. I’m forever grateful for the people in my life who have taken a chance on me, and that’s why I try to pay it back by helping others where I can, whether it’s by making connections, giving them feedback on their portfolio or offering career guidance for people interested in working in content design.

Fast forward a few jobs, and I eventually made the switch to Product Content Design. In some ways, it’s flexing the same muscles, and in many other ways, it’s building many new skills that, to this day, I feel I’m still learning and will continue to do so.

Tell us about what you do at Facebook.

Content designers at Facebook are embedded in product teams and work on things like naming, interface writing, information architecture, and planning content to scale across the massive system that is Facebook. I spent a couple of years working on the Profile team, and for the last few years have been on a team that focuses on people in emerging markets. Most teams at Facebook take a global approach to build products, and my team is unique in that we focus on addressing barriers that certain populations face in using Facebook.

This minority approach is actually a majority stake for Facebook. More users are in emerging markets than in developing countries. This means many people either use Facebook in a language other than English or use Facebook in English but may have varying comprehension levels. I was intrigued with the challenge of how to scale the English language so it’s understood by every type of user - from a fluent American to someone who may barely be able to make out a few words here and there. For example, in India, nearly everyone is using Facebook in English, but the level of comprehension varies wildly in the country.

One of my favorite examples of how English isn’t a one-size-fits-all is the phrase “What’s on your mind?” It’s one of the first things you see when you open Facebook, prompting you to create a post. The data showed that posting was low in India, and after digging into why this could be, we learned that people in India didn’t understand what the phrase meant and didn’t realize what they were supposed to do. After rounds of testing different content dimensions, the winning variant was “Write something here.” Being direct and instructional clarified the action we wanted people to take as well as where to take it. This is now what everyone in India sees.

How Facebook localizes the 'Create Post' component

The Content Design team at Facebook recently changed its name from Content Strategy. What are your thoughts on that?

My personal opinion is that the Content Strategist title has been going through somewhat of an identity crisis over the years. The title has grown to mean a lot of different roles and responsibilities. The word “strategist” is so broad and can be applied to many content practices. I love that we’re better defining our function and aligning it with our closest counterpart, product design. We design experiences for people using words. We partner with product designers on how best to visualize these experiences in a way that is clear and straightforward.

You have a journalism degree. What pushed you toward copywriting and eventually content design?

I went to graduate school with no idea of what I wanted to do after. I just felt that journalism was a nice base to work off to pursue some kind of career in writing. My motivations for grad school are a little murky as I was drawn to the opportunity to live in London. It turned out to be an unforgettable year, both academically and personally. When I came back to California, I ended up back in the same industry I was in before I left advertising. I worked as a copywriter for companies like Gap and Williams-Sonoma before landing at Hotwire, a travel company owned by Expedia. It was there that I first heard about the UX practice and UX writing. By then, I was feeling burnt out with trying to write catchy headlines and was intrigued with the challenge of solving people and business problems. I had a few roles at Hotwire and the last one was on a product team, helping to set up a new CMS. While it wasn’t UX work, it was a step in the right direction.

What are the main differences in responsibilities and tasks of a Copywriter vs. a Content Designer?

The goals and the ways the roles function are the primary differences. As a Copywriter, you’re writing with the intent of getting people to want to buy something. You tend to use subjective adjectives and can be abstract, playful and clever in communicating the benefits of the product. You’re usually working off of a brief, with many decisions already made for you. Communication with the client or stakeholder is more disconnected than a content designer, who’s usually embedded on a product team.

As a Content Designer, you usually have a stake in deciding what products to build and how they will be built. You define frameworks to guide the content direction as part of a system, accounting for scalability in size and locales. Your words are simple and straightforward with the goal of getting the user through a flow with as little friction as possible. In both roles, you consider the audience, choose your words wisely and follow established voice and tone guidelines.

As a Content Strategist at Facebook, you are talking to a global audience, but how do you approach the issue of localization?

Content designers at Facebook create content in English first, and the content is then translated into all of the languages we support. While we work at scale, we’re thoughtful about localization and ensuring that the content not only translates well but meets the needs of each locale. We make sure that terminology is well-defined and that translations carry the same tone as was intended in English. Our voice is simple, straightforward, and human, so we can be sure we always sound like Facebook, no matter the language. Content Designers work closely with the localization team in all phases of our work.

Creating a Story with the Facebook app. Source: facebookblueprint.com

When somebody in the room says “people don’t read”, how do you react?

I hear this phrase in meetings from time to time, and it’s like nails on a chalkboard. On the one hand, I know what people mean to say, that yes, not everyone reads every word on a screen or wants to parse through paragraphs of text. People tend to scan. But it can come across as dismissive and inconsiderate of the needs of our users. Of course, people read. If an app had no text and was full of empty boxes, how would people know what to do? Every word matters. And every word should be there for a reason. Content Designers have run countless A/B test results that show changing the content - whether it’s the tone, value proposition, or even the verb choice - can make or break an experience.

The chicken or the egg conundrum. What comes first - content or design?

I’d say it depends on the situation. A content- vs. a design-led initiative seems self-explanatory but when it’s not as clear cut, I would say either could come first. The Content Designer may have more on their plate and is unable to start a project as early as the product designer, and vice versa. I don’t think it matters so much as the importance of collaboration and early sharing of work between the two roles.

What is your best practice regarding the collaboration between content and design?

Design and content work very closely at Facebook. Oftentimes, we’re literally sitting next to each other (when we were actually in the office). If the partnership is working at its best, we are each other’s right-hand person. We make decisions together. Run ideas by each other. Create principles and frameworks. We run brainstorms together and use data to inform what we should work on. We gain alignment and make sure our work tells a cohesive story before presenting it to the team.

What problems are you facing when it comes to the collaboration between design and content?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is being outnumbered by the number of product designers I support. When a Product Designer is able to dedicate 100% of their time to one product or pillar, they’re able to work at a deeper level, and produce work that shows depth and breadth. This makes it easier to build subject matter expertise and be seen as a key player. A Content Designer can only be so effective when they’re splitting their time between two, three or more workstreams.

On a more tactical level, collaboration in asynchronous design tools like Sketch is a challenge for content designers. We either have to rely on the Product Designer to make content updates, or we have to figure out some type of process of taking turns updating the Sketch file. Figma solves this big problem, and I’m so glad that teams are moving in this direction.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn. If you like word games, find me @hellochristina on Boggle or Words With Friends.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite way to eat avocado?

Can I start with my least favorite way to eat avocado? I love avocado, and I love sushi, but the two do not go together! I’m a sushi purist and feel it’s wrong to include avocado in a roll. Now my favorite way to eat avocado, and this is going to make me sound so Californian, is avocado toast. Toasted sliced sourdough with avocado, then sliced tomato and topped with a fried egg. Drizzle a little salt and pepper. Perfection.

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