Mastering UX content strategy

Natalie Marie Dunbar, Senior Manager of UX Content Strategy at Walmart, discusses the growing discipline of integrated user experience content strategy, and how it's getting a seat at the table along with design, research and product.

Natalie Marie Dunbar is Senior Manager of UX Content Strategy at Walmart. In this episode, we talk with her about the growing field of integrated user experience content strategy. And how this budding discipline is starting to get a seat at the table along with design, research and product.


ALFONSO DE LA NUEZ: Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.

DANA BISHOP: In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insights; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products.

ALFONSO: I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder of UserZoom.

DANA: And I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.

ALFONSO: And we are your hosts! Content strategy is everywhere - from how and when a new blog post is shared, or sharing a new podcast. It’s a process that makes sure content is published, edited, republished, repurposed, and archived at the right times.

DANA: Yeah it’s a big job! Good content strategists also must plan ahead to make sure content appears in multiple places, sometimes at specific times. On today’s episode, we talk with Natalie Dunbar, Senior Manager of UX Content Strategy at Walmart. Natalie is also a speaker, author and yoga teacher.

ALFONSO: So let's go ahead and get started. Natalie, can you please start by introducing yourself?

NATALIE MARIE DUNBAR: Yes, I am Natalie Dunbar, Natalie Marie Dunbar. I have added my middle name since I wrote my first book as there's another author out there who's named Natalie Dunbar who writes romance novels. Excellent writer, but that is not my genre. So I'm an author, a speaker, teacher, and UX content strategy, senior manager at Walmart.

ALFONSO: That's awesome. Thanks so much once again for joining us today. You've recently written this new book, From Solo to Scaled, which is a book about building sustainable content strategy practices. Can you please tell us a little bit about it you know what inspired you to write this book?

NATALIE: Well, I was approached by Danielle who is CEO of, Danielle Barnes, CEO of Women Talk Design, an organization that provides training and speaking opportunities to women, non-binary people of color who may not normally be in the limelight or the spotlight for speaking opportunities Dannielle reached out and said that Lou Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Media wanted an introduction. I thought, oh, maybe I'll speak at a conference or something like that. Lou and I had our first conversation and he asked me something to the effect of, what is some of the things that people ask you about when you speak at conferences or when you write articles about content strategy?

And one of the questions that I got asked a lot was "How do we find people like you? How do we build a team like that?" It dawned on me that those questions were some that had been touched on in many books, but not to a level of detail, like a manual for building a content strategy team, and specifically a UX-focused content strategy team. Because there will often be a team that's called content strategy that sits in marketing and we work with them. But as we know, as UX practitioners, we have a different approach to things that we take, always with the user in mind, of course. And after going back and forth with Lou for a while, it just seemed like this would be a topic that really hadn't been touched on in all the many awesome books that have been written on content strategy. And basically, that's kind of how the idea came to be.

DANA: Can you please tell us, so you mentioned the content strategy in terms of UX specifically and product development. Can you speak to that a little bit? I mean, content strategy is a term that can be very broad and you're focusing on the UX part of that.

NATALIE: I mean I'm a purist, As you probably are well aware there's content design, there's UX writing, there's content marketing strategy. When we talk about content strategy from a UX point of view, we're talking about getting the right content to the right people in the right format at the right time, we're always looking to be joined as I like to say, joined at the hip with a UX designer and researcher in everything that we do because we want to make sure that not only what we create resonates with users, but that it's actually useful. We're not always talking about the actual words that appear within a digital experience. We're sometimes not even writing. In my current role, I do a fair amount of UX writing, but I've had roles of the content strategy lead where I didn't do any writing at all. There was a separate team that we would hand off to.

We're talking about what thing or format do we need for the content to be expressed in? And I should say as an aside by content, again, not just words, but what visual elements, infographic or video, or should we have a long block of text or should it be a bulleted list? All those kinds of things that we learn from partnering with research and partnering with visual design and understanding what it is that the user is looking for in order to complete a task.

Also, elements like wayfinding, which kind of overlap with the information architecture, but we are also very concerned in how do we label things? What are the top tasks that people are looking to complete when they come to a site, when they use an app, any number of things. We're getting a lot into conversational design with AI and chatbots and things like that. What are ways that we talk about voice and tone, we're not just talking about grammar and the way we say things, but how does tone need to shift for the different user types and personas that we have? Those kinds of nuances, which our partners in marketing do consider. But from our standpoint, we're deeply embedded in the practice of UX and totally focused on being that advocate for the user throughout from the end-to-end experience.

DANA: It's really interesting that the phrase I think you used was, "Attached at the hip," with the UX designers and researchers, I'm interested in where a content strategy usually sits within an organization in your experience?

NATALIE: That's a good question. The reason why I answer that way is because more and more you'll find content strategy, UX-focused content strategy, either as a service to the rest of the UX organization or sitting within. Now that we have design ops, sometimes we'll be a part of that whole design ops team.

There's also content ops, which is a little bit more focused on how the content strategy work gets done, but can encompass some of the things that I've written about in my book and some of the things that we do on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes we may dabble with some marketing work and we may write speeches. We may do all kinds of things that have to do with content. Usually you'll find that in a smaller organization where we're a service to the larger group, but mostly you'll find us sitting within a larger design organization, at least these days I found.

DANA: And why is it important to have a content strategy plan and how early should that content strategist be rolled into a project?

NATALIE: Oh my goodness. That is a thing that continues to be, not debated, but it's just a conversation that is always present. How soon is too soon? I like to be involved in pre-kickoffs even. When there's a concept for an idea for a product or a service, depending on what kind of vertical you work in, I want to be able to understand what it is that we're trying to create. Or maybe we're, I don't know, maybe we're redesigning an experience and there's a need to go in and audit, take an inventory and audit of the existing content, current state to see if it matches future state goals. We need to do that really before the kickoff.

So there's like an idea that we know that we're getting leadership buy-in, we can go and start dabbling and trying to figure out what do we have? How much content do we have right now? Is it going to fit that future state need? Then once as the requirements are being fleshed out to the point that we have a product requirements document that is fully baked, we're not surprised by what's coming. We've already got an idea of what's happening. And when there's an official kickoff and all the disciplines are at the table, we already know where we're going to need to go with whatever plan we have for content strategy. So the earlier of the better is the TLDR. The short version of that answer. The earlier the better. And if it's too early, we'll let you know. We'll back out and say, "Okay, we need to reengage at this point in the process, or at this point in the process, or bring us back in so we can see where you are. We'll step back out, we'll be back later." Because we likely have other things going on anyway.

ALFONSO: We're talking content strategy, but there is such a thing as information architecture, right? And of course you mentioned Louis Rosenfeld; he wrote that famous book Information Architecture, right, back in the day. That's kind of how I got started in the field back in the '90s, when I started with designing the first websites, I could see that customers would want to dump everything into their website in terms of information and content. And one of the first things that I try to do is to talk about information design and information architecture and reduce, less is more on the website.

NATALIE: Absolutely.

DANA: How do you insert user research into your process? I'm curious.

NATALIE: I have been lucky. I've worn that hat before and I've kind of come full circle. I started as a digital content writer. I was a product manager. I was a user researcher and I came right back around to content. I think these days, it's so wonderful that we can work in tools that help us create early prototypes and we can use actual content and we can see, if we label this way, if we have this information as a how to, does it make sense for people? And we can be right there in lockstep with research, observing the research experience, but also even in creating the scripts for the research that's going to be done.

A lot of times I've been in situations in the past where we are being more prescriptive or some of our partners are being more prescriptive about what they want in a prototype. And we actually will say, "Well, let's strip it back." And in some cases let's ask the user what they would call this thing. Let's ask the user, how would you search for something? Where do you think this thing should live?" And we'll be part of that structuring that research. And then also too, making sure that once the research readout is done, that anything that touches content, that we're making those changes before the experience is fully baked and ready to be launched. It's a great partnership.

DANA: Yeah, sounds great.

ALFONSO: It's been a super interesting conversation related to a very important topic, obviously, to produce or to deliver great digital experiences, content strategy. So thank you so much.

NATALIE: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

DANA: Thank you, Natalie. It was great meeting you.

ALFONSO: That was Natalie Dunbar, Senior Manager of UX Content Strategy at Walmart

DANA: Thanks for listening to UXpeditious. Make sure to continue listening to our new episodes each week for quality insights from UX industry leaders. If you like what you heard, help us out by rating and reviewing the show on your favorite podcast platform.

ALFONSO: UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier, and Michael Aquino.