Researching human skills for content strategy and design

Over the past couple of months I have been working on a really fabulous project curating a list of essential human qualities for content strategists and designers with my good friend Karina Smith. The best part of the project was interviewing 12 luminaries, masters of their craft, deep thinkers and doers who come from Australia, Europe, the US and beyond.

Human skills are just as important as technical skills, or perhaps more important, when it comes to the success of content strategists and designers, not just in terms of profile or efficacy but in terms of job satisfaction. This is the hypothesis that Karina and I set out to investigate in our interviews. In August 2015 we presented our findings at UX Australia and this post summarises the themes that emerged from the interviews.

Presenting at UX Australia in August 2015 - Brisbane

Presenting at UX Australia in August 2015 - Brisbane

Defining human skills

But first, what exactly are human skills? I define human skills as anything that is not a technical skill :) Things like actively listening, courage, patience, curiosity, assertiveness, courtesy, the ability and desire to imagine what it feels like to be in another's boots. Also acute self awareness, being aware of your body language, your facial expressions and the ability to understand your emotional reactions to the world and how they affect your professional life. 

Bedside manner is a great way to think about the value of human skills. Say a surgeon has a steady hand, she can make a beautiful incision, and while she is in the operating theatre she is in her element. If however in either pre-op or post-op she is not able to explain in an appropriate way what the patient needs to understand about how their lives will be changed and they exercise too early or become depressed, the quality of the incision or procedure becomes compromised and less relevant.

Themes from the research

I was blown away by the the themes that seemed to literally jump out from our interviews. I was not expecting quite so much consistency, but four strong themes emerged. It was a great privilege to compile the thoughts of our interview participants. It goes without saying that all mistakes are mine and that this work is an interpretation which can't be ascribed to a particular interviewee unless specifically stated. There is a full list of the interview participants below.

Many people have examined human skills in various contexts. The research we did was focussed on the design and content strategy vocations and inspired by the work of Dan Brown and Indi Young who have thought deeply on this subject and published on it. The objective of the presentation and this blog is to spark a conversation about human skills and their importance for content strategists and designers.

The following four themes emerged from the interviews.



Developing and giving back to a great community of practice was a central theme with nearly all our interview participants. They had pretty much all found great people to inspire, support, challenge and bring out their most generous and insightful sides.

They talked about a great bunch of people who really got what they did and who they could both learn from and support in turn. This reciprocity is crucial, a great network or community is not a one way street. Our interviewees all found ways to give back to those communities in various ways, for example, Jonathan Colman’s awesome list of content strategy resources.

Most people who have achieved great things have had a very strong community around them.
This is an idea I have also heard from people like Annabel Crabb, talking about her friendship with Leigh Sales. Another example is the creativity and excitement that came out of Gertrude Stein’s Paris Salon

Find people who get you, who understand who you are and how you work. Find people whose personal style and way of working you really like and respond to. Find people who both complement, and challenge you and stretch your abilities. This is something we all need to strive for according to our interview participants.

I am a tennis player and often think of a tennis analogy when it comes to surrounding yourself with the right people. In tennis you often play your best games when your opponent is just that little bit better than you. I find it always lifts my game. And while our interview participants did not overtly talk about competition within a network to raise performance, it was implied.

I have been writing about loose informal networks so far, but our interview participants also talked about more formal mentor/ mentee relationships and how great they can be. I was a mentor last year and I can only say good things about the process. It really challenged me to break down what I do and justify it. I learned so much about my own process and different ways of looking at issues from the guys I was working with. 

Interview participants also talked about looking after yourself and making yourself a priority, a strategy that can be challenging for a lot of people. It makes sense to me though. You can’t be that spark in the room when you are feeling tired and under appreciated and overstretched. What do you need to give yourself to get the best possible results?  

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Curiosity was another theme that emerged from our interviews. This can be expressed as an active desire, compulsion almost, to learn more, to ask questions, to read and to explore and observe. Many of our participants directly talked about a love of learning. They also had a pretty good handle on their preferred learning style and knew what was most effective for them? Do you? 

Unsurprising among a bunch of preeminent designers and content strategists, interviewees also talked about a love of problem solving, of untangling complex problems and critically finding out WHY a problem exists as a precursor to ‘solving’ it. This is distinct from the What, How and Who of a problem. Our interview participants talked about solving problems, not just for the sake of it, but in order to achieve great outcomes - providing a sense of accomplishment

Tied up in problem solving and an intense cultivated curiosity is a desire to challenge assumptions. Both personal and project based. Implicit in this is the ability to create a safe space where doing this is appreciated because challenging your own and others assumptions can be challenging. 

Active and effective listening is a critical part of curiosity. This is something that I resonate deeply with and was delighted to hear so many of our interview participants talk to. So often our thought process, thinking about what we are going to say next and having an emotional reaction to a situation blocks our ability to really listen. I would argue that active listening also encomapses the ability to shape and direct someone's words - to keep them on track :)

A curiosity in other people is also critical. The ability to imagine what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. To empathise with their situation and motivations. Be it a research participant, a client, a workshop member, a colleague or a stakeholder.


I think the action theme is better articulated as momentum and action, rather than just action, but action is a great summary that talks to a whole bunch of qualities that helped our interview participants move forward, fight inertia and hence find personal and professional success.

In this category there are a bunch of qualities that I think could be described as personality traits rather than skills - so this area might help you define human skills and what they mean for you. 

For example gumption, or get up and go, or self motivation. This personality trait, or quality was universally shared by our interview participants. They stood up and had a crack, even when they were not sure or were afraid they were going to fail. 

And that attitude gave them confidence, through experimenting, through taking a leap of faith, by putting themselves on the line. And of course this confidence, as a result of their experience, gave them yet more confidence to try new things. It becomes positively self reinforcing. They became better at judging risk and learning from their mistakes. 

Experimentation was a key part of this. Our interview participants actively experimented. They shared stories of experimentation based in the scientific method, where observation, repetition and repeatability featured.

These things build, together, to increase your ability to deal with adversity, to bolster your resilience. To raise your immunity to adversity.

Our interview participants also talked about a level or pragmatism needed to get things done. Again perhaps a personality trait, but one that is expressed in organization skills and the ability to make quick calls on where value lies - allowing your to focus on activity that promotes forward movement.

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The last theme that emerged from our interviews was honesty, and by that I mean the ability to both see and talk about what is really going on. Most importantly this is is manifest in self reflection. I think this is a bedrock theme - very important if the other themes are to be expressed.

Interview participants all talked about self reflection, the enormous benefits that comes from actively trying to get to know yourself better and really importantly being honest about your strengths and weaknesses. 

Part of that honesty is being able to talk about where your strengths and weaknesses are and being able to act based on that understanding. 

It also means being brave, both in how you communicate and how you act. It also means being brave when soliciting and listening to feedback, especially from those in your communities of practice. Being honest can mean giving clear feedback, choosing the right clients, and knowing when you should ask for help.

Be your own validation. It is really nice to hear someone say to you - great job - but you can’t be waiting for that. Kind of like the old analogy of hanging around the land line waiting for a new crush to call :) No one wants to be in that situation. You need to take the initiative. Take the time to assess what you were trying to do and whether you achieved it. 

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Can you get better at human skills?

Critical to this discussion is the question of whether you can learn these skills or if they are innate. My personal belief is that any skills can be learned to a degree, but that some people are better at some stuff than others.

Lets talk about this more

Why do we shy away from talking and thinking about these skills? Is it because they are connected with your personality, temperament or character rather than something we would typically learn at school or uni? Does politeness suggest we should keep away from these kind of thing, not discuss them because they are too close to the bone? Too integral to who we are as people? 

Lets challenge ourselves to come up with answers to these questions and start talking more about the relevance of human skills.

See all the slides from the UX Australia Presentation.
Kicking yourself you missed it? You can catch the presentation again at UX Australia redux.

More on the interview participants

Thank you so much to the amazing people who agreed to be interviewed for this research. Your time, honestly, insights and humour are very much appreciated.

  1. Genevieve is Intel’s anthropologist - she uses cultural insights to shape next generation technology and innovation. She is a consummate storyteller and interpreter of the intersection between culture and technology.

  2. Kristina is synonymous with content strategy - her first book of the same name, is seen as the leading text on this field. She runs the pre-eminent content strategy conference circuit.

  3. Janna is Principal at Meld Studios and past IxDA leader. She now works with some of Australia’s largest organisations advocating for a human-centred approach to systems and business.

  4. Jay is the longest tenured designer at Atlassian. He has over twenty years product design experience and founded the Sydney IXDA chapter.

  5. Sara is an independent content strategist who edits A List Apart. Her book Content Everywhere took content strategy into the now with an emphasis on flexible, responsive, contemporary and, content first approaches.

  6. Alvaro is a pre-eminent designer who has travelled the world solving gnarly problems and who currently heads up a new research department at the ABC - imagining what the ABC will look like for people who are currently three years old.

  7. Richard is a professor of design and innovation at Weatherhead School of Management, previously serving as head of the school of design at Carnegie Mellon University. His philosophical lens on design provides a unique and mind bending perspective.

  8. Steve is a highly influential and experienced independent design researcher who has created resources like the Dollars for Donuts podcast and the War Stories blog and is the author of “Interviewing Users”. He is a regular on the design conference circuit and his workshops are highly sought after.

  9. Ayse is the co-founder of Birsel + Seck, and an award-winning designer for Herman Miller. She brings together her design experience and creative process to show how to think about life with imagination.

  10. Jon is a content strategist at Facebook and is the creator of the industry famous compilation of content strategy resources. He is a leader in his field and regularly keynotes conferences.

  11. Indi is a user experience consultant, author and founding partner at Adaptive Path. She has been advocating for the importance of human skills for a long time and wrote Practical Empathy as an expression of that work

  12. Dan's latest book - Designing Together was the inspiration for this talk. His methodical, well considered musings on humans skills for designers is a must read.

Slide Illustration credit goes to Karina Smith :)