[00:00:31] Chicago Camps: In your “Content Is Infrastructure!” article, you draw an interesting parallel between content and infrastructure, emphasizing they’re often invisible yet crucial roles. Could you elaborate on a specific instance where this analogy became particularly clear in your work?
[00:00:49] Jane Ruffino: First, I just want to qualify: this analogy does fall apart a little bit, right?
[00:00:54] It’s not a perfect analogy and that’s okay. But it’s really because content, we have gotten ourselves into this mindset that we think that we build products and apps and services, but they’re actually delivery systems for content. And we end up thinking we design a system of interactions and containers and then put the content in it actually it should be like, we have a bunch of things that we need to do and say that we need to build something to make it go.
[00:01:23] I was working on a project a while back, and it was a project for tech services. And at first, leadership did not really get what content design was, and there was not time to be like, this is what we do.
[00:01:38] But we were supposed to add the words after the flows were dealt and I was like, this is going to be a nightmare. They were like, oh, you will build the flows and then you can go and make it readable. And I’m like, but readability is not like a find or place activity. It’s about structure first. It’s about making sure that you ask clarifying questions before you send someone down a path. It’s about being respectful of somebody’s life situation.
[00:02:01] So there was one question that really, I won’t say I snapped. It wasn’t like that. But it was a question where they were like, okay, here’s the question flow for a disability tax credit.
[00:02:10] And the flow opened with, are you disabled? And I was like, well, there you go. I kind of panicked. Then it was like, how long have you been out of work? And I was like, hang on a second. This is really going to throw people because you’re going to have working disabled people say yes, and then be completely confused.
[00:02:25] And then you’ll have people who are out of work because of a disability who don’t identify themselves as disabled who will miss out on the tax credit that they should get. I ended up sitting with a tax accountant working on the product and we, he started to see like how many things needed to be rethought structurally.
[00:02:45] And I never had to advocate for content design again. He went to leadership and he was like, I’m not going to do my work until I get to sit with Jane first. And I can tell you by the end of it I don’t think he could tell you what content design was, what my title was, it didn’t matter. We were working at the level of the foundation of the flow of the architecture of the systems.
[00:03:08] He was just sitting there like coding it into the system as we built it. And then we were able to solve real problems. It was a really great learning experience. If you’re working at this foundational level on a shared problem, like you have expertise, somebody else has expertise, I don’t really care if he knows what my job title was. And I can’t tell you the difference between different types of accountants, which is the same.
[00:03:32] When you’re working on a project that has lots and lots of moving parts, everybody brings different expertise and all of those pieces matter. It’s not that we matter more. It’s that we’re often left out of the group that matters. And it’s actually important for everybody to be able to trust each other’s expertise because nobody has the expertise to build the whole thing, or very few people do, and not to do it well. And it’s the same on an infrastructure project.
[00:03:58] You have people who have technical expertise, people who are land surveyors, people who are legal experts, permitting experts, people who are the business side. You have all these people coming together and they do not have time to explain to each other what they do. They just have to trust that they can do it and work together to get it done.
[00:04:18] And the thing about infrastructure is, there’s a sort of engineering joke that it’s like, what is infrastructure? It’s stuff you can kick. And then if you have science and technology studies, it’s such a hot potato of a question, focusing on the stuff is not focusing on what infrastructure is and what its value is and what it does and the kind of example I’ve been thinking, it’s like focusing on the container part of content and the service provision will be like, I’m just going to build this house and I’m going to add 14 bathrooms and you call the plumber and you’re like, can you put toilets in all these different rooms? Cause I want, for some reason, I want to have 14 bathrooms and plumber’s like, where’s the pipes?
[00:04:55] Don’t waste my time with pipes. Just put the toilets in. That’s how content people get treated. And the thing about the plumber is the plumber actually has a really good understanding of how houses work, not just plumbing, not just the toilets and the sinks. They just understand, they sit there and they go how would somebody make this decision? Where might this pipe be? They’re really intuitive as well.
[00:05:15] So I think a lot of the experiences we have now, and this is why they’re also the kind of social infrastructure of an experience is like a lot of products and services now are entirely or mostly replacing the human interaction we used to expect.
[00:05:31] You build this service and then the content is the person talking to you. So it’d be like these are beautiful, like early 20th century banks, right? Let’s say you got to open a new bank in one of these old banks and you had amazing services and free coffee and donuts. And it’s super beautiful art deco building.
[00:05:50] And you walk in and all this staff is giving you the different answers. Everyone’s rude to you. No one can actually understand what any of the offers are. You’ve spent all this money on experience, but no one has had the time to get everybody’s story straight, make sure everyone understands everything.
[00:06:05] And content is the infrastructure of that whole experience. So you can just give somebody a bad experience in a beautiful building or what we end up doing a lot with content in products and services. It’s so much more about the foundations and the content that sticks up through the foundation, the pipes.
[00:06:23] Chicago Camps: You mentioned the difficulty of quantifying the value of content because it’s rooted in trust and mutual respect. How do you approach this challenge when explaining the importance of content to clients or colleagues, particularly in engineering driven environments?
[00:06:39] I don’t think that I have ever successfully convinced someone that content matters who didn’t already think it.
[00:06:47] Jane Ruffino: And I think that’s the thing is that you can solve an awareness gap or a knowledge gap. And even, so you might have somebody who thinks everything is worthless and content is worthless. People who are just negative about everybody else, but if they’re a professional, they’re going to work with you anyway.
[00:07:00] It doesn’t matter if they value content, right? If they’re doing their job and they might not be fun to work with. It’s also really difficult because content is so foundational to the experience. It’s really hard to isolate it. You can have great language in a terrible designed experience and vice versa.
[00:07:17] Where it works is somebody who’s “we know it’s important but we really can’t see how yet can you come and help us see.” That’s where it works, right? Can you come and help us see? So I had an organization that brought me in and they had me, it was a really nicely laid out way to work.
[00:07:32] I actually really enjoyed it. So I got to work with them just for two days, hands on work. I said, okay, I’m going to take everything I learned from working with what you’re working on and talking to you, I’m going to build a workshop for you and I’ll show you how to make better decisions because the goal is to make better decisions.
[00:07:46] It’s not to turn you all into content people. I ran the workshop and I got back in touch with the lead a couple of weeks later and I was like, how’s it going? And he’s like, it’s, they really enjoyed the workshop, but now they want to rip everything up and start again. And I was like, no.
[00:08:00] But what I decided is there’s this sort of pipe loop of content, right? So you’re going, I know it’s important, but I have like 45, 000 stakeholders and four minutes to do each task. And if I add another thing to my brain, something important is going to get pushed out. I can’t think what content I’m just going to write something that’s good enough and push it out.
[00:08:18] You get them on board and you start to show them it makes a difference. I’m linking it to the problem statement . Uh, oh, people don’t really understand it. If the flow doesn’t make sense, you can’t fix it with content. And then they start to panic because they’re like, Oh no, now we have to do everything again.
[00:08:36] But actually what you really need to get them to is the next step, which is, okay, we don’t have time to redo it again and rip everything up. But what we do have time to do and what we do need to learn to do is think ,how do we get it to good enough, but with a reason behind it? And that’s the goal I always set out to is you don’t need to make everything perfect, but you need to know why you chose the words you chose.
[00:08:57] And that is where you can have them feel empowered. And then they start to see the value for themselves, not of content, but of making decisions this way. I have one other piece about the engineering culture. And I think it’s actually quite the easy part of the question, which is: engineers have the same problem content people do.
[00:09:15] And I think speaking to that problem is they’re often handed things that are actually totally unfeasible. So they are also in a job that people perceive as just like just a bunch of typing and actually they do so much more problem solving than they are given credit for.
[00:09:29] So I think sometimes building alliances with developers is easier than anyone else. And if you go into them and you say, I can be responsible for things like naming and concept definitions. They’re like, come into this room and never leave. It doesn’t always work that way. That’s a thing that they get stuck with.
[00:09:45] And they usually have really smart ideas about things like ontologies. And they need help and they don’t want to own that. Sometimes they do. And then they’re really fun to work with. I think it’s engineering cultures is one thing, but actually building alliances with individual developers and teams is often very doable.
[00:10:05] I’ve never had a project that was successful where the success of that project hinged on people understanding what content design is. Not saying that it hasn’t been good if they do, and I think some of it comes down to, I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’m perceived as quite senior. And so I’m allowed to take up a more leadership position on a project in a lot of cases where if it’s not a come sit with our team, we’ll exclude you just like we exclude everyone else. I do have projects where I’m like, can you please give me Figma edit access?
[00:10:37] And someone comes to me and they’re like, We have these 4, 000 words that need to fit on a button. Can you make them better but also not change anything? Has legal already approved the word? That happens to me too. It happens to everybody. You never senior your way out of that.
[00:10:50] I actually think there’s a point where we still have to start asking, why is design, why are content people trying to report into design when actually maybe design should report to content? And that is a setup that isn’t outrageous. If you think about content being this kind of end to end narrative experience.
[00:11:08] I think some of the success I’ve had is because of being able to be perceived as a leader and not having to explain what content strategy is because I do a lot more than that and no one going like, why are you doing that? Is that really content work? And it’s like, nobody cares.
[00:11:23] It’s getting done. But I think if I were perceived as more junior, it would be like, why is she doing that? . I just think I’m lucky that people started to see me that way and I was like, oh, okay. So use that.
[00:11:34] Chicago Camps: Reflecting on your statement that “we don’t notice infrastructures until they’re broken,” can you share an experience where a breakdown in content infrastructure led to significant insights or changes in how content was managed or valued?
[00:11:49] Jane Ruffino: Ooh, okay. This is one that I’m having a hard time thinking about, but I will explain the people don’t notice until it’s broken. There is a thing called Thing Theory. It’s a theorist called Bill Brown. It’s not a super original concept where he talks about how you don’t notice the thingness of something until it isn’t doing what you expected.
[00:12:10] And that is why we don’t notice a lot of these broken things. I think it’s hard to answer this because it’s like every project breaks down because of some infrastructure not working, whether it’s nobody looped in the developers and it turned out this thing we wanted to build is more complicated than we thought or this other project where we were brought in, where I had the tax accountant on the other part of that project, it totally was a mess.
[00:12:35] This was asking for Figma access on things. And that was why I said I’m going to go sit with the tax accountants and work on that stuff. That just is just soul destroying. And it was an element of these things are going to become a problem, I presented it to the leadership, I said, here are the things that we need to work on. Here’s what I predict will become a problem and make things difficult for us to finish. And then three, four weeks later, they’re like, Oh, we need to do this thing. And I was like, okay.
[00:13:00] And a lot of it was to do with tightening up language, having a style guide, having a controlled vocabulary about elements of the product and using designer speak in your product and then going, Oh, we’ll name that component later. And going, well, what are we calling that component with users?
[00:13:17] And I think that’s actually one of the most common ways that things break down. And sometimes you don’t need to call it anything, but you need to stop using components speak with users, especially in a consumer space or in any space where they’re not actually designers.
[00:13:33] And I think that’s one of the most common ways that the kind of infrastructural part breaks down because you actually have to define those concepts early on before you start calling it the clicky card or something. And now, what do you call it with users? And I’m like, I don’t know we’ll just come up with a branded name.
[00:13:48] That’s how you ended up with terrible branded features.
[00:13:51] Chicago Camps: In your multifaceted career, you’ve had to educate people on the basics of various subjects. What strategies have you found most effective in making complex technical concepts like the Subsea Fiber Optic Network or content design accessible and engaging to a broader audience?
[00:14:09] Jane Ruffino: So I’m going to get in my time machine and I’m going to go back to about 2003, where I wasn’t teaching about content design. I was doing the first round of a failed PhD, I didn’t fail, I quit, but I was in a university and one of the things that I started to do was teach archaeology to school kids.
[00:14:31] And we have this teaching collection of objects and no one cared about them. I was like, this is great. I’m going to use these. I go into a school, I think the kids were like 12 or 13, it was a boys school, and this history teacher had asked me to come in, and he was like, these kids don’t get a lot of attention, this school is not doing great, so can you come in and get them excited?
[00:14:52] Great. So I walk in, and I did this thing, where I would ask kids okay, who here has a sibling? And they go, yeah, me. Have you ever had any experience with archeology? And they’re kids, so no, they haven’t. And have you ever snooped in their room? And then they’re like, yeah, of course. If you snoop in their room and you find something under the mattress versus out on their desk, what does that tell you about what is actually something they don’t want you to see?
[00:15:18] Well, you’re all archeologists now. And then I would do this thing where I would have them interpret stuff from my house. I would get them to ask questions that you can know anything you want about me, but you have to ask questions about these objects to get that information.
[00:15:31] And then I would write the questions on the board and then I would hand out all of these objects and like I’m standing in the front of the room, there’s 35 kids in this overcrowded classroom, of course, and I just handed 35 tweens and teens, weapons, prehistoric weapons, they were all weapons.
[00:15:51] And I just armed a classroom of children, but In the end, I was like, what questions do you ask? How do you get information? I wasn’t trying to teach them to do my job. I wasn’t trying to teach them you should come and be an archeologist, a terribly paid career.
[00:16:06] You should not be an archeologist. But it was trying to give them access to a lens on the world that can help them do something they want to do. And I think it’s really about going, what is it that people want to do? Are you trying to turn them into you or are you trying to help them get a lens on the world that can help them do something that they want to do?
[00:16:27] It was really fun. And what I started to hear from the teachers was that the kids who were the least likely to be able to sit still in class or try or turn in their homework were actually the ones who tended to ask the most questions in these sessions. And I was also very unafraid to answer slightly cheeky questions.
[00:16:47] They didn’t need to know all the vocabulary. It took out all of the vocabulary. You can know some words and then a new word, but that’s not what they care about. And I think it’s the same when you’re teaching people about content were and about technical things.
[00:17:01] Take a design perspective. What is it that they want to do? And how do you help them get there? They don’t need all of the information and that can be really hard. And then I also think one thing that gets left out and you hear a lot about, Oh, there’s all this design education and they’re not being taught by people who have industry experiences.
[00:17:20] Okay. That’s fine. But I don’t hear enough people complaining about whether people are actually good teachers. Do you care about being a good teacher? If you don’t care about being a good teacher, don’t care how much industry experience you have, you shouldn’t be teaching anybody. Do you have a teaching philosophy?
[00:17:36] Do you want people to walk away, feeling smarter? Then you have to meet them where they are. These are common misconceptions; I’m just going to address them at the start so that people know that they’re not alone, that they don’t feel stupid. That you never help someone get smarter by making them feel stupid.
[00:17:53] The university experience of the liberal arts and humanities is the greatest education there is, unfortunately it costs so much to do that now. When I was teaching, I designed and delivered this UX rating course for three and a half years, like seven semesters.
[00:18:08] And the first course that I did was back in early 2020. And one of the first students was a really super awesome guy who came from advertising. And he was really experienced. And he thought, I think our agencies, advertising needs to know about UX writing, which by the way, is very true. It’s a totally untapped opportunity.
[00:18:30] If we would stop being snobs about that side of the business. And he said I had to do a lot of googling about what UX was. So the next time I ran the course, I did a little intro video and I did a little thing where I was like, you’re watching this and you’re in the comfort of your home.
[00:18:45] You can make as many surprise faces as you want. Here are some super basic things that somebody in the class doesn’t know. Here, I started to learn how to anticipate what people were worried about and basically said, everyone’s constantly Googling under the table, and that’s basically the job.
[00:19:01] So if you open with an atmosphere of, I don’t know everything. My job is to teach you. It’s not to know everything. And I think that’s the thing is like when teaching is recognized as a skill, then you don’t feel like you have to know everything and then you don’t have to feel like more than everybody else.
[00:19:17] Chicago Camps: You discussed the need for advocacy and education around content and other infrastructures. What are some key messages or tactics you use in your advocacy work to highlight the importance of content and how do you measure the impact of these efforts?
[00:19:32] Jane Ruffino: The thing about advocacy is it needs to get done.
[00:19:36] The best kind of advocacy is a sort of triangulation, right? Like you advocate for me and I advocate for you. If you can build those kinds of alliances, cause no one should ever have to prove their worth. No one should ever have to explain what they’re doing in a room. And if you’re spending your time doing that, you’re being wronged.
[00:19:54] It’s knowing what is the gap you’re closing. So are you closing an awareness gap? Are you closing a knowledge gap? Or are you trying to close a gap where someone doesn’t value you? You can’t close that gap. You’re going to have to navigate it, right?
[00:20:07] Sometimes you knowing where you’re positioning yourself. Are you going in and presenting the work and acting like it’s already important? I think that’s actually the best way to do it. I have a very hyper puppy, blind them with enthusiasm.
[00:20:23] You either want to get on the train or you don’t. And isn’t it so much fun to be on this train where content design is so awesome and so important and you can be excited about it too. And some people get super mad and they hate it and then they write really mean things about my personality in the reviews.
[00:20:41] And some people don’t, and I think walking in like it’s already awesome is better than positioning yourself, please care about this thing. That’s just like a TV ad. You’re going to flip the channel because you’re begging. And I think that is really difficult and it’s really hard, right? Because you might be in a position where you don’t have a lot of power.
[00:20:59] I will say, I think it’s hard to measure the impact of advocacy. I think it’s hard to measure the impact of content because it’s like this thing where, If we focus on too much measurement, then we focus on things that you can measure, which is usually something that is growing and you cannot measure the prevention of harm, you cannot measure the prevention of something going wrong.
[00:21:22] So if the impact of your advocacy is actually that people allow you to maintain things or improve experiences or fix broken things. That might not show up in a metric that anyone really cares about that much because they want to grow and make money for shareholders. It’s really about looking for indicators. And keeping the bar really low. If you’re in an organization where you’re dusting the words at the end, don’t set the bar at “I want to be leading a team by the end of the year,” just set a bar that’s okay, like figure out who your allies are.
[00:21:52] I think a lot of the advocacy is about knowing who should advocate and who should you advocate to, and what are you asking for? If you can get someone, an engineer or someone else who gets heard to advocate for you, then that’s great. Or you get someone else to do it.
[00:22:08] You need to have, especially if you are someone who has an identity that’s marginalized, people to say your name in rooms you’re not in. That is, sometimes your advocacy is , “Hey, my friend who is a design lead, who gets listened to. I’m not getting included. Do you think that when you’re in this meeting, you could just say nice things about me” and that is advocacy because yes, you need to show people the awesome power of content.
[00:22:35] It’s not your job to manage their emotions about content. You do need to help people get there. And also you need help together. It can’t be your job to be an invisible leader.
[00:22:45] I had this module about this work and power and it was like power in your organization, power in the world, how do you navigate the world and how do you understand where you have power and where you don’t, so you don’t waste too much of your time.
[00:22:59] All of this work that you’re doing, this invisible work is emotional labor and it’s leadership work because most of leadership work is that kind of emotional labor. It’s sitting on your feelings and trying to convince people. You’re doing leadership work, but you’re often doing it invisibly and uncompensated. So it’s not just uncompensated emotional labor, it’s uncompensated leadership, and you are trying to do that.