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Content Operations

Finish this sentence … with Padma Gillen

Robert Mills • 5 minutes

To celebrate the upcoming launch of our new book Lead with Content, we get to know the author, Padma Gillen.

Our chat covers topics in the book, what he’s learnt across his career, his ideal writing environment, and what his pet-peeve is about digital content. 10 questions, 1 bonus parting thought, and oodles of advice and insights.


1. You’ve wrangled stakeholders in government, higher ed and across many sectors. What’s one tip or piece of advice you’d give others faced with stakeholder challenges?

Come armed with data. This shows that this isn’t just your opinion against theirs, your decisions are based on evidence. And start by listening. When people feel that they have been heard they are way more open to what you have to say.

When it comes to dealing with stakeholders, start by listening. ‘When people feel that they have been heard they are way more open to what you have to say.’ – @padmasaysblah #LeadWithContent

2. The content design work at GOV.UK is often cited for its user-centred focus and positive improvement in user experience. What was the biggest learning or take-away you gained from your time as Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS)?

I learnt so much from that place it’s hard to choose one thing. I guess maybe the biggest thing from that time was the importance of backing up your team and them knowing they have your backing.

Just because a content designer is focused on meeting user needs, it doesn’t mean this is the priority for everyone across an organisation. To improve user experience significantly, a content designer therefore needs the power to say no to proposed content, with full confidence that (regardless of how far the issue is escalated) no means no.

3. You’re currently working on a digital transformation project with The University of Southampton. Many universities are faced with silos and decentralised publishing models. What’s one thing teams can do to start connecting silos?

When your organisation gets bigger than a small village, you will have silos. Rather than asking ‘How do we stop working in silos?’ I think a better question is ‘How do we make sure the way we work doesn’t negatively affecting our users?’.

In short, you need to get the content right (because that’s what users really care about). To get your content right you need the right tools, processes, systems and culture. To start implementing the necessary changes I would highly recommend reading my book 😉(Editor’s note: the book will be available *really* soon)

‘To get your content right you need the right tools, processes, systems and culture.’ – @padmasaysblah #LeadWithContent

4. What’s the most common content related challenge you’ve experienced across your career?

Navigating a difference of opinion about what good looks like.

Often the subject matter expert who drafted the content will have one idea (Such as: “This content is ready to publish”) and the editor or content designer will know that that idea is quite wrong! From this position, getting good content live can be a real challenge. To overcome it generally depends on governance, workflow and good stakeholder engagement.

5. What will organisations gain by adopting an agile approach to projects rather than more traditional linear or waterfall methods?

Happier teams, happier users, better content, lower risk, less cost, greater responsiveness to change, less pointless paperwork. Sold?

6. Why are user stories worth writing?

A user story articulates a user need. If you don’t have a user story, at best you have a semiconscious awareness of the user need you’re trying to meet. This will likely be based on the writer’s assumption, not data and will lead to unfocused, suboptimal content. At worst you have no awareness of the user need at all and focus instead on writing about the subject. The end result in this case is much worse – untargeted, lengthy, hard to find, difficult to understand babble. The internet is currently bulging at the seams with this kind of content. Let’s face it, 90% of the internet is rubbish.

‘A user story articulates a user need. If you don’t have a user story, at best you have a semiconscious awareness of the user need you’re trying to meet.’ – @padmasaysblah #LeadWithContent

7. What organisation is doing content operations well, and why?

I’m gonna have to go with GDS. Most of what I talk about these days I learnt there. I am so grateful to that gang.

At GDS there is a clear split in ownership of the facts and ownership of the user experience. That ownership split is reflected in the workflow, the team design, the content formats and the governance. And it’s all (at least theoretically) mapped to valid user needs. Of course a system must be effectively policed or it will deteriorate. I haven’t worked there for years so no idea of the current situation but the model itself is a work of beauty.

8. What’s your pet-peeve when it comes to the quality of writing that you see online?

I loathe and detest it when an organisation inserts marketing speak into content that’s at least trying to meet a user need. I assume someone put it there to make me more likely to engage with that brand but it has entirely the opposite effect. All brands need to do is make my life better, give me a great user experience, and leave it at that. Trust that this will reflect positively on your brand. Don’t ‘brand’ your content. Yuk. It’s like the creepy dude at the party. He thinks he’s being smooth but he’s the only one who thinks it.

9. You’ve written a book (thank you), which is no mean feat. What does your writing environment need to help you be productive?

I can be productive pretty much anywhere. All I need is a deadline. There are 2 things I read years ago that stuck with me (I think it was in a book about screenwriting but can’t quite remember). The first was “Don’t get it right, get it written”. The second was “Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”.

10. Share one main takeaway people will get from reading Lead with Content?

You can get content designers into an organisation, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with content design. True user-focused content requires changes to processes and culture that amount in the end to digital transformation. This book is for organisations that want to go on that journey.

In most organisations, content design is a bit like democracy. I can’t remember who it was, but some politician was once asked “What do you think of democracy?”. He replied “I think it would be a very nice idea.”

And finally, finish this sentence: It’s important to put content at the centre of digital transformation because …

Padma: … your content is how most of your users experience most of your organisation most of the time.

Meet the author … with Padma Gillen, author of #LeadWithContent. 10 questions, 1 bonus parting thought, and oodles of advice and insights.

Lead with Content

Lead with Content: How to put content at the centre of digital transformation is about the vital role of content strategy in digital transformation, and vice versa.

If content isn’t put first, projects and organisations don’t end up doing so well. This book is an antidote to ‘content last’ experiences and ways of working.

It’s less about what order the words should go in, using bullet lists or the benefits of subtitles. Instead, it discusses the organisational processes and the systems and rules you need to ensure your organisation is capable of producing quality content in a sustainable way.

From user needs, getting the right people in place, workflow and governance, this book will help you get ready to transform your content operations.

Find out more about the book and download your free copy.

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About the Author

Robert Mills

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