Nicole Jones podcast interview: content strategy at Facebook

Nicole Jones

In Episode 6 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Nicole Jones
about designing content, content strategy at Facebook, and being a maker.

Check out Swell Content and Born Hungry, and follow Nicole on twitter @nicoleslaw.

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Read the transcript

Jonathan: I’m talking to Nicole Jones, who’s joining me from Facebook in San Francisco. Nicole is a writer and a content strategist. Nicole, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the podcast.

Nicole Jones: Yeah. Thank you, Jonathan. You’re so sweet for having me.

Jonathan: I want to start by talking about what you believe, because you have this website, swellcontent.com, and it’s got this lovely little credo on it, which says, “Communication takes leadership. Content is fluid. Writing is design.” What do you mean by that?

Nicole: Let me just break it down individually. I’ve been working in communications since I got out of college. I see content strategy as a form of communication work, and I think that kind of work takes a sense of leadership and ownership, and to do what we do, we really have to go in there and own things, but know when to drop things, and know when to let other people do what they’re best at, and not try to manage every little bit of every little thing. So that’s the first bit. It’s just kind of finding a balance, and that sort of thing.

With “Content is fluid,” what I mean is that we’re working on something that’s going to change. Websites change, people change, businesses change, products change, and we should work from that instead of fighting that.

I see content as something that should be flexible, and the systems that we make for it should be responsive to that, and be able to accommodate those kinds of changes, whether it’s organizational, or meaning, or just technology changes, all these things.

Then with writing as design, that was really something that I realized when I was working with Mule Design. They treat everyone as a designer there whether you’re a researcher or not.

Basically what I mean by design is you’re making decisions with constraints that have to address business goals and help a specific audience or a group of audiences. To me, any work that you’re making decisions to solve a problem is design.

Jonathan: Do you see yourself as a designer as much as a writer in this type of work?

Nicole: Definitely. The design I’m doing is not pixel related, but I’m definitely making decisions every day about how products work and how people will interact with the products that we work on.

Jonathan: Fantastic. I first heard about you through your writing and through Twitter. At the time that we met online you were working at Apple, at the online store there. Can you tell us what you were doing for Apple and how that led you to the content strategy community?

Nicole: Sure, yeah. I started at Apple as a call center rep. I wanted to work there so bad that I just took any job that they would give me. I had that for about three months, and then I became an email rep, which is basically answering common questions. I started writing the canned responses, which is something a lot of web writers do, and then I moved into doing training, and actually writing and developing the training, and then delivering it. I kind of knew the business back and forth, knew the call center and all of the cross-functional teams.

Eventually, they let me do all the communications. What that meant was that I was writing emails to the call center… But I also worked on the UI. On the online store, I worked on the checkout and the help content, and all of that kind of stuff, working with translation teams. Yeah, it was mostly a very similar bridge to content strategy work. Then I started reading about content strategy on A List Apart, and I went to South by Southwest the first year it was a content party, and heard Margot Bloomstein talk, and got Kristina Halvorson to sign a book for me. [laughs] Total nerd.

Yeah, that was kind of when I was realized this thing that I’m doing is a part of this bigger thing, and I got really excited about that. [laughs]

Jonathan: Which part of content strategy do you think you were doing when you were at Apple?

Nicole: Well, I was mostly doing core web writing, but I was also doing some planning of overhauls of parts of the site. Like I said, the checkout process, we went through several different iterations, and I would plan the content for those, and plan where it would be and how it would interact with other bits of the site and the experience. Definitely getting more into the UX side of things.

Jonathan: Fantastic. That’s a huge site for checkout, isn’t it? It must be billions and billions.

Nicole: Mm-hmm. Definitely, yeah. It’s pretty big. Apple Retail makes a lot of money, but we were definitely doing well at the online store. [laughs]

Jonathan: Fantastic. So, we’re just about to get to Facebook, but before we do that, you’ve also worked a consultant for companies like Microsoft. I think it’s that you were working with their magazine MIX Online, Visa, Pinterest. So, I just want to know, what have you learned from those kind of consulting-style projects that you can share with us?

Nicole: Sure, yes. MIX Online actually came to me through Tiffani Jones-Brown who I work with here at Facebook. It was an editing job. But I think what I learned from that one definitely is to work for people you like and respect and who are doing great things. Even if you don’t know how to make awesome stuff, working with people who do is a way to that. And then, with Visa, I definitely learned that the idea of innovation or completely reinventing a huge company is really hard. So, if you work with small teams and really focus on culture change and small, disruptive kinds of things that really show people the way, that can be really, really effective.

With Pinterest, I mostly did a message strategy, but I really just enjoyed working them. They’re doing some really cool things in the social space, and they really care about people and how emotion is part of design, and I obviously love that. So yes, mostly working with people that are awesome and trying to make positive change, those are things that I care about. [laughs]

Jonathan: Fantastic, that’s excellent. OK, so you’re now actually working at Facebook as part of the awesome content strategy team there, and you work on the Facebook platform. So, can you tell us what that means and can you tell us what your role as a content strategist involves?

Nicole: Sure. I work on a mix of developer and user experience things. Facebook platform is a set of tools and APIs for developers to integrate their apps into Facebook. So, if you use…I don’t know, like, I love Rdio or Readmill or any of these apps, you can connect it to Facebook so you can sign in with Facebook, and then also find your friends and that sort of thing, and also sync your activity back to your timeline. So, you have kind of a sense of that. And I work on both…

Jonathan: So your friends can see what you’re doing, or listening to, or whatever it is.

Nicole: Right, exactly. And I work on both sides of that, so I work on the content that the developers look at to understand our platform and…you know, that sort of thing. Sorry. [laughs] And then I also work on the user facing UI, the interface that they see and the messages that they see. If, for instance, you listen to a song on Spotify, there’s a story there in news feed and on your timeline, and I work on the copy for that and that sort of thing.

Jonathan: OK, so when you say users you’re talking about actual Facebook users.

Nicole: Yes.

Jonathan: So, if I’m the Spotify developer I can request the API shares with friends that I listen to Erykah Badu, but then you help to write the copy that that will show up as, is that right?

Nicole: Yes, and also that when you connect your app to Facebook, there’s what we call an authorization dialog, an auth dialog that will ask you for your permission to share, and I also work on that. So it’s like, basically I’m working on the intersection of the developer and the user and Facebook. [laughs] And that really means that I work with a ton of different teams. I work with engineering and product management and the larger design team, research marketing, PR, dev relations. [laughs] We have a lot of teams, dev ops, dev support, all of these.

Jonathan: So, when you came into that role, presumably there wasn’t somebody already doing…I mean, you call it content strategy at Facebook, is that right, the thing you do?

Nicole: Yes.

Jonathan: So, there wasn’t someone doing content strategy before, so how did you get into that process, and how do people in Facebook respond when someone comes with a new way of looking at stuff? Can you share your experience?

Nicole: Yes, so previously before I was here, some people on my team were touching platform here and there. But there wasn’t a dedicated person to it. That’s me. [laughs] I was really lucky, to be honest. Tiffani did some great groundwork, just spreading the word about content strategy to the platform team. When I came in, I tried to really listen and ask people, “What are the problems you are having? What are the things we want to do with platform that we are not doing right now?”

I really just went into my consulting mode. I just found that the whole team was like, “We need you. We need help. We want to show developers we love them. We want to show users that we are here to make their experience on the web better and these kinds of things.

So, yeah, I’ve really actually been really lucky. I just feel super lucky that way. I haven’t had to push too hard right now. Actually, I’m mostly working on just teaching voice and tone and that kind of thing.

Jonathan: Cool. Cool. Who do you see, on this platform team, as the writers?

Nicole: It’s a mix actually. We have several different content types. I write some of the stuff. Marketing writes some of the stuff. We actually have the engineers write the developer docs and then I review them and make sure that they read well and that they are within our voice and tone. Developer relations also works on those. We have other content types. We had some case studies and stuff. But, yeah. We share it. It’s my role to sit atop all of that, as the editorial voice and make sure we sound like Facebook. [laughs]

Jonathan: Yeah. That’s interesting. I think, in a lot of companies, people would say, “We can’t have engineers writing stuff. They don’t get writing. We need to have professional writers.” It sounds more like, in Facebook, everyone is expected to write. It sounds like they are OK with the idea of someone like you saying, “Here are some editorial guidelines of how we can do a better job of being Facebook.”

Nicole: Yes. [laughs] Definitely. Yeah.

Jonathan: Right. That’s pretty awesome. This takes me to my next question. Everyone knows that Facebook has this developer centric hacker culture. You all stay up all night doing hackathons and that kind of thing. How do content strategy and your work fit into that culture?

Nicole: I think actually the word hacker is true of everyone that works at Facebook. I don’t think it’s just about the engineers here.

Jonathan: OK.

Nicole: There is this kind of scrappy, make it work, build the thing you care about attitude. I definitely think you can just summarize that as the attitude of a maker, someone who cares more about doing than talking. [laughs] We have a saying here that code is truth. If you can make something, it says a lot more than if you just want to talk about making something.

Content strategy fits in, in a couple of different ways. We tend to not do extremely long deliverables. But we do them in an iterative way. For instance, if we were going to do an audit, we wouldn’t audit the whole site. That would take an eternity. [laughs]

Jonathan: Yeah.

Nicole: But we would choose a specific section to focus on. I focus on platforms. So I might audit the apps or games experience and one part of it.

Jonathan: Right. So you might go through five or six games and what their interfaces are like for the users, or whatever it is?

Nicole: Yeah. What are the different parts of the flow that the user sees in that flow specifically, instead of trying to audit every bit of the platform experience? It’s too much to chew. We have such a large interface. There is so much going on in it and we have so many users that we really have to focus here. I really like that actually. I think it’s more effective to take something, start working on it and then start iterating and seeing how the changes go. So we are really all about testing here and testing the content and making sure that our assumptions are working and, if they’re not, going back and looking at what we had decided with the design and that sort of thing.

Jonathan: Fantastic. What do you like about working at Facebook? What is cool about it and how is it different to the other places, where you have worked?

Nicole: One of the reasons I came here and I’m still very stoked about is I work with a team of content strategists. You don’t really hear about that. When I was at Apple, I was alone for much of the time. A few other writers joined me on my team. But generally content people are on their own. Maybe there are one or two. [laughs] Here there are 11 of us on my I team and then we have Kenny, who is our engineer. He’s awesome. It’s like a super team of 12 people. I love that. I can come up to people on my team and show them content and get a fresh perspective, from someone who works on different parts of the interface. Everyone here is so smart.

It’s not just on my team. It’s really, really humbling. I work with the smartest people. [laughs] I get to work on what I want to work on.

Jonathan: How does that work? How do you go into a place like Facebook and work on what you want to work on?

Nicole: Well, people don’t come up to you and tell you what you have to do here. People come to you and ask for your help. I can decide, “Oh yeah, I’ll help you with that. But I’m not would help you with that for another three weeks.” Or I can say, “You know what? That’s not really my specialty. I’m sorry.” [laughs] We can prioritize our own work. Me, being the person I am, I try to help everyone that comes to me. But it’s really fun, because, if I’m excited about a particular part of the interface, like I love working on the open graph stuff, I can just decide to put 70 percent of my day on that, instead of trying to do everything all at once. There are a couple more quick things.

There is a huge responsibility here. I love that. We have an enormous audience. There are millions and millions of people using Facebook every day. There is no other place where you can have that kind of impact.

I actually really like the pace here. It’s kind of frenetic. It feels like you’re working in New York City or something. But I really like it, coming down. We are actually in Menlo Park. I live in San Francisco. But I shuttle in. It’s like a super day and I go back home. I really like it here. People are super great. It’s fun work, too.

Jonathan: I wanted to talk a little bit more generally about your work. You’ve written before about how content people can collaborate with developers better. You wrote quite a long article about that. I noticed that that’s similar to…It’s somehow linked to what you’re doing with the Facebook developer platform where you’re actually working…You’re doing the content for external developers.

Why, in general, do we think that collaborating between developers and content people has been difficult? What can we do to improve it?

Nicole: I think sometimes, in most organizations, the engineer or the webmaster, developer type person, depending on their role…They’re put off into a corner and marketing’s on the other side of the building. Design, if there’s a team, is on a different side. It makes it very hard to actually get work done when you’re sending emails instead of talking to people face to face. For me, I get the most done…I’ve worked with start ups. I’ve worked with incubators. Here at Facebook, I know I get more done if I actually go over to the developer and look at their code with them and take the time to listen to how the thing works. What is the behavior of what they’re working on? How can my content work with it? How can I plan around that?

Also, this seems really basic, but how can I give them content in a way that’s easy for them to put into code?

I think a lot of writers are so resistant to break out of Word documents or whatever it is that they’re addicted to. For me, I want the thing to be as effective for the person I’m giving it to as possible. To me, that’s part of content strategy. “OK, I’m making this thing for the user. How can I make sure that it gets into the interface as fast as possible without giving eight other people a headache?”

That’s what I try to do. I try to really sit next to the people that I’m working with and sit…I have two desks here. I have a desk with the content strategy team and then I have a hotel…What we call a hotel desk upstairs. When the developers are there and they can see me, they come up to me. They ask me for help. That’s super important.

I think breaking down those actual, physical walls is really, really critical.

Jonathan: I think that if you think about pre content strategy web stuff, the developers had to do lots of content without necessarily having access to, for example, what the business model is or whatever it is. Or necessarily the skills or the techniques to do it so that if they had to do content, maybe not in Facebook but in your traditional siloed organization, they don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. It’s like just one of the many things that they have to be doing. I think your type of attitude of saying, “We are collaborating on this and we can all be more flexible in how we work,” is really positive.

Nicole: Yeah. The one last thing I’d say is that, I see my role as kind of being like a translator of sorts. I listen to all of the other teams, and then I come to the engineer with the business agreed-on solution, or the content, or whatever it is. It may be changing a button, or moving something, or whatever, but I’m kind of a translator, and I try to make sure that I bring the right information in the right way to them, so that they don’t have to keep changing the code as well.

Jonathan: I want to talk about your other projects as well, because you have loads of stuff going on. You recently started “Born Hungry,” which is an online magazine about why we cook and the curiosity that drives us. I love the magazine. I think it’s great. So, why did you start that?

Nicole: Well, I started it because I feel like I need a little baby project at all times. I feel like it’s really good for me to learn how content works on a mobile device. I decided to start from scratch with that, and work with a front-end developer to make sure it looked good on the phone. But yeah, I love food, and I realized that I don’t want to be a professional cook. My skills are all web-related, and I think that I just wanted to explore this idea of, “Why am I always in the kitchen? What is it about cooking that I love?” Actually, I see cooking as a creative, and writing is creative to me. I just kind of wanted to make a space for doing those things, and encouraging other people to feel brave, and get in the kitchen, and that sort of thing.

Jonathan: Yeah. So you’re publishing articles about people’s fear of the kitchen, which I think is super interesting.

Nicole: Yeah. You’d be surprised. I took this cooking class, and I was so taken aback listening to people talk about how afraid they are to not get takeout food, and actually chop an onion, or whatever, and these things are really important. If we don’t know how to feed ourselves, it’s really sad to me. I think we all have fears and insecurities in the kitchen. I know that I do, especially with baking, but it just takes practice. You just have to work through it. To me, it’s almost like a form of hacking. You have to kind of work backwards. [laughs]

Jonathan: Yeah, and it’s a form of improvisation as well. I think that’s one of the things people are so petrified of about cooking, that they feel a lot comfortable with the cook by numbers recipe, where it tells you exactly what to do but then the idea that you have to decide when it’s ready or taste to see how it should taste, that’s more like an improvisation thing. I think people are petrified of that.

Nicole: Definitely, yeah. If you’re not salting your food and tasting it or checking it when it’s in the oven. Every oven is different. Every vegetable is different. In London, you might need to add more salt than I do here in San Francisco or whatever. You have to taste. I think that scares people, but I actually find it brings me closer to the food.

Jonathan: Fascinating. That’s great. It’s a great project. Obviously, I said I’m going to write something so I’m definitely going to write something…

Nicole: I would love that.

Jonathan: Just to finish off, you publish a lot of awesome writing and photography and stuff like “Born Hungry.” I know a lot of people who wish that they could do that but somehow haven’t done that. We all struggle with getting stuff out there, especially the non-work stuff. What kind of advice can you give people who are struggling with that, with consistently getting stuff out there that isn’t strictly work?

Nicole: I would say none of this is really my original advice.

Jonathan: That doesn’t matter.

Nicole: [laughs] Anne Lamott would say, “Just write something every day, even if it’s only 100 words or something.” I find that even Twitter helps me keep writing. But with making something, you just have to decide that it’s part of your life and that you want to make something. You want to see it come to fruition.

For me, I don’t actually have that much time for Born Hungry and I have so many other interests and hobbies that I feel guilty not doing it, but it’s for me. It’s like a slow project for me and the world. [laughs]

I would just say don’t tell yourself that you can’t do it. You can do it. You can decide to put something else aside for 20 minutes. It doesn’t have to be perfect. To me, any project is just the way I come to content. It’s the way I come to a product or anything. It’s not going to be perfect.

You’re going to have to work on it. Even if it means you work on it for 20 minutes a week. Iterate. [laughs] Just get in there and feed your curiosity.

Then, the last bit I would say is if you read that Dear Sugar column she says, “You don’t have a career. You have a life.” I think that these “non-work” things are just as important as your “work” things.

I find that these things feed my work. By taking time away from looking at the web and doing these things, I come back and I have better ideas than if I was just always working. Make time for yourself. That’s really important.

Jonathan: Yeah. It’s really interesting to hear that since we’ve been talking about Facebook and how you were describing that culture as being a maker culture. Because you are a maker because you make stuff and that’s not necessarily about what you did for a corporation. There’s definitely a link there between Born Hungry and working at Facebook.

Nicole: Yeah. I honestly think that anyone who does anything is a maker. I think that even making something for a corporation is making something.

Jonathan: Right.

Nicole: People are going to look at that, right? It’s important.

Jonathan: Right, right. Sure, sure. Excellent. Well, congratulations on all the making you do. It’s awesome. People should definitely check out SwellContent.com, to see you’ve got this list of articles which is amazingly long and great. Congrats on that. Thank you so much for joining me Nicole, and giving us your time to talk about what you do. It’s been really inspirational and great. So thank you.

Nicole: Thank you. It was my honor. You’re so sweet.