Before we begin… While the word “content” is broad and used in many disciplines, here we’ll focus on how the Ops discipline can be implemented in product content. UX writers, technical writers, content designers, and content strategists are referred to as “product writers”.
What is “Ops” anyway, and how can it be applied to product content? A quick internet search reveals that Ops (aka operations) is a discipline that came from the manufacturing floor and spilled over into Sales and Marketing. Later, it moved into Tech in Development, and eventually worked its way into Product teams.
Ops removes generalist, process, and automotive tasks from the people on the ground to let them get on with the actual work they were hired to do. Ops may differ in every team, depending on the business and discipline, but the core idea is the same: to increase efficiency and fluency and to gain team excellence. When it comes to product content, there’s a lot of tasks that can be taken on by an Ops role to ease the load on product writers, leaving them to concentrate on creating the actual content, and allowing it to be awesome. Let’s take a look.
Offload tasks onto Ops
When you think about tasks performed by a product content team, what comes to mind?
The team manager typically focuses on the team business strategy, that is, meeting business goals and vision. Product writers need to be hands-on throughout the product development cycle, from problem definition and ideation (including both user and competitor research), through design and development to delivery. There’s no shortage of tasks that relate directly to the product goal—beyond the words, the product writer is thinking of user needs, feature specifics, and technical requirements. And even beyond these, the product writer is balancing more general concepts such as the org-level goals, branding, styles, consistency, legal considerations, as well as ethics and accessibility.
Many of the product writer’s considerations are above and beyond the scope of the specific product feature they’re creating content for, and broadly speaking, a lot of those considerations are both dynamic in terms of company decisions, and yet static in terms of their impact on the content. It just makes sense to create alignment between different product writers, but more than that, it can actually ease their workload and improve efficiency while maintaining standards our users take for granted.
And this is where Product Content Ops comes in. By moving alignment and process onto Ops, we can ensure the meeting of overall business objectives, optimizing workflows, and removing barriers. Acting as the manager’s right-hand, Product Content Ops takes care of the framework that implements the business strategy, as well as establishing the infrastructure to execute business goals.
Tasks for Ops
We can divide tasks into a few main categories:
It’s likely that there are different processes running in every “holy trinity” (product Manager-UX designer-product writer). Different processes are completely natural, normal, and completely OK, often depending on the ratio between PM: UX designer: product writer, but also personal preferences and working styles. That said, there is room to create standards that can be used as guidelines and keep everyone in check.
Product Content Ops can:
- Research and understand team and individual pain points with a view to improve how work is done.
- Create a framework for work and guidelines for how to do it.
- This includes when and how the product writer is brought into the ideation and research stages, and how to divide and/or collaborate on overlapping tasks.
- Leveling up, guidelines can also focus on ways to best streamline the work process for optimum efficiency.
- This might also include setting up templates for briefs or design thinking.
- Define standards and establish governance.
- Particularly when other types of product writers are brought into the end-to-end user journey, it’s essential to have a clear picture of what each product writer is responsible for, and how the hand-off between the different types of content is going to be seamless for the users.
- Ease the infrastructure for testing and measuring content success.
- By establishing testing tools and templates that make it easy to plug & play.
- By ensuring there are ways to track the impact of UX content, such as analytics dashboards.
- Take on over-arching data and KPI monitoring to draw conclusions about content on the level of the company products and services.
- Interact with other teams to understand global needs and goals, especially those of go-to-market teams such as Support and Customer Success.
People & skills
Product Content Ops have a powerful role to play in team health in a way that supports but does not duplicate the manager’s role. In most orgs, a manager’s role is very clearly defined, and its focus is typically on people management and higher-level content strategy.
The Product Content Ops role can compliment the manager in a number of ways:
- Support the manager through recruitment, including establishing role-specific tests.
- This can include attending and arranging community meet-ups to drive recruitment.
- Manage the onboarding program to get the new recruit up to speed in the shortest possible time.
- This includes training on the area of business, tools, and any skill gaps, as well as established processes mentioned above.
- Managing ongoing team education, including:
- Arranging or booking seminars and conferences.
- Identifying skill gaps and leveling up team members.
- Creating the infrastructure for IDPs.
- Ensuring cross-discipline education and alignment for different content creation teams (sales, marketing, training, CS, and support, etc.).
- Anticipating future team needs to prepare for changing business focuses.
Tools & systems
- Evaluating different tools used to produce, manage, distribute, & maintain content, which can include:
- Working with different teams to manage internal and external-facing content.
- Identifying tools that can fill gaps or ease pain points in existing or ideal processes.
- Holding meetings with providers to understand new/alternative tools and how they can best fit the org processes.
- Reaching out to other members of the community to understand how other teams have handled similar challenges.
- Keeping their finger on the pulse of industry trends.
- Exploration of new delivery mediums to keep the business at the head of their game.
- Establishing and tracking team initiatives (for example, holding content audits).
- Identifying, suggesting, and shaping team-wide projects that further team goals.
- Making sure projects progress as expected.
- Establishing and updating a content design system and other style, voice & tone guidelines, and making sure these are adopted and consistently.
- Overseeing content management hygiene.
To optimize success, the above 3 tenants of the Product Content Ops role ideally facilitates the work of others, acts in a dialog, and is available as a consultant, not as one-way enforcer.
Sounds like more than one person’s job? Quite possibly! But at the same time, not everything included in the above list needs to be solely managed by Product Content Ops. In some orgs, it may make more sense for the manager or principal product writers to take on some of these tasks. Which tasks depends on the size of the business, the team, and the biggest challenges the content team is facing.
Product Content Ops always has a place
When is the right time to establish a Product Content Ops role? That’s a great question, but it doesn’t have a one-size-fits all answer.
Small and medium businesses may not have the need or resources to have a separate role that does Product Content Ops, but that doesn’t mean that no Product Content Ops tasks should be done. Even as a single product writer in a company, Ops tasks should be identified and carried out as much as they can and according to the most pressing needs. This may look like more data analysis and establishing guidelines than education and onboarding. I would advocate that the product writer needs to make sure that a certain percentage of their time is reserved for such tasks, which means the next hire should come sooner rather than later, and the manager of the first product writer must be aware that this is an important part of the product writer’s time. At this stage, the single product writer should not be completely focussed on purely writing.
As the next product writers are hired, including a dedicated product content team manager, time should still be reserved for Product Content Ops in each headcount’s role, even if the distribution of those tasks is not allocated per person.
As a larger team is established to keep up with business needs, it makes sense to begin to consider shifting Product Content Ops off the collective and into a dedicated role. Whether this shift comes to a team of 5 or 10 product writers is going to depend on business growth, product size, team maturity, and smaller but not less important factors such as how the current infrastructure supports what’s required of the team. There may be a catalyst that means having a defined role comes earlier rather than later, such as the need to replace a tool, establish processes, or when it’s clear there are many stakeholders to collaborate with (too many for a team to keep up with).
Starting a dedicated Product Content Ops practice
It’s not that hard to get a Product Content Ops practice started. Rachel McConnell, the world’s leading authority on Product Content Ops, generously shares her wisdom both in her book Leading Content Design and in choice talks she’s given on the subject. I strongly recommend this book, catching a talk, or even joining her community Lead with Tempo to immerse yourself in the ins and outs of Product Content Ops. Let’s go over the key starting points suggested by Rachel here.
STEP 1: LISTEN
The first step is to take stock of what’s happening on the ground. This will initially take the form of a lot of interviews with “All The People,” starting with product writers and moving out progressively from everyone they work with to everyone within the org who either consumes or leverages their content. The goal of this listening step is to drill down to uncover the problems that exist, and assess their severity.
The second part of this step will be to observe what is happening in real-time. This might look like the Product Content Ops attending meetings to observe processes as they happen live, taking time-tracking surveys to understand how much time is spent on different tasks, or holding post-mortems to look critically at what is and what is not working.
By the end of this step, you should have the answers to the following questions:
What should product writers be doing vs. what are they actually doing?
What are the desired outcomes of their work vs. what is the actual outcome?
What’s being said?
STEP 2: MAP
In the second step, the Product Content Ops should assess and map the tools and processes that are currently in place in the organization. This step should surface data that’s less biased than people’s opinions, and more rooted in the nuts and bolts of the mechanism serving the system. Look out for gaps in addition to what exists. Together with data collected in the first step, the biggest pain points and challenges should be emerging quite clearly.
By the end of this step, you should have the answers to the following questions:
What are the biggest pain points?
What categories do the issues fall into?
What’s already being done about them?
STEP 3: SOLVE
In the third step, it’s time to brainstorm solutions to all the identified problems. Since product content is mostly a Product discipline, I’d recommend using Product methodologies such as problem framing and ideation through design thinking. This just seems like the natural choice to me, but it’s certainly not the only way. As well as identifying the “what” of the solution, give some thought to “how” you can establish alternatives, and what that will look like and how long that will take for each solution.
At this point, it’s probably also prudent to link the problems and solutions to your org goals. Prioritization, which we’ll get to in the next step, will be affected by your business focus, so it’s good to be able to tie the benefits associated with the problems you’re solving to those goals.
STEP 4: PRIORITIZE
Once you’ve identified solutions, the fourth step is to prioritize how and when you are going to tackle the issues. An easy way is to use the high/low effort/impact quadrant, but again, this is not the only way. At the end of this step, you should be able to have a roadmap of what you’ll be tackling immediately, and what you’ll start in the short term, and what can wait one or two quarters, or not be tackled at all this year.
AFTER: ONGOING IMPROVEMENT
Once you’re up and running, the Product Content Ops should keep the discipline in check by continuing to monitor the success of implemented changes, and keeping checks on both the level of severity of problems that were identified but not prioritized, and staying alert for any new problems that arise. The Intent Cycle maps the process of establishing the Product Content Ops practice to the ongoing cycle of establishing that allows for constant improvement as time goes on.
We can also see that the Capability Maturity Model integration, borrowed from manufacturing, shows the progress achieved when Product Content Ops is applied and matures:
CMMi – factory model
Getting buy-in for Product Content Ops
Leaders of content teams hopefully already inherently know and understand how Product Content Ops can support and improve their own leadership by taking operation tasks off themselves, and also from every product writer on their team. Having Ops as a role gives both managers and product writers valuable time to concentrate on the work they were hired to do, making both roles more efficient with their time and execution, and also better at their area of expertise. Both these factors are critical to success of the content, the feature, the product, and the business. And when everything is running smoothly, it’s easier to show the ROI of the content team.
Managers of content leaders may need to be woken up to the understanding that when the content org are free to do their best work and meet all levels of business goals, they are working in and maintaining the best system possible to align with business goals and give the highest ROI. That the content team is able to support the business goals and various org teams (not to mention customers!) on every level with their best work, inevitably means that the content they produce is the best in class. And if this isn’t the case for some reason, there’s a designated role to address why not. With a Product Content Ops role on board, the product content team is where it needs to be to scale up as the business grows.
Product Content Ops is the now!
I hope this walk-through of Product Content Ops has shown you how much of a necessity it is in any size team, even when there’s only one writer. Product Content Ops is a role that creates the infrastructure that enables and optimizes the strategy and implementation of the content team, making it easy to scale. Product Content Ops lightens the load of product writers, freeing them up to concentrate on content creation, while Ops supports both direct and higher management leaders and business goals.
It doesn’t really matter whether you have a team of one or many, you can start practicing Product Content Ops as soon as you put down your coffee.