Year notes: my 2022 in review

Finding a niche, walking the line between content and service design, trusting the process, and accessing charity services myself: my 2022 in review.
A minimalist digital illustration of a woman wearing glasses a sitting at a table in a cafe writing in a diary on new year's eve with pages from a calendar and clocks flying around her

I know weeknotes are the typical format, but I’ve never been able to get into the habit and keep up the pace. So instead, I’m doing year notes: a reflection on and round-up of my work in 2022.

What I did

  • Worked with two teams to define and capture their content strategies
  • Helped six organisations prepare for website designs
  • Conducted c.50 user and stakeholder interviews/research sessions
  • Carried out four content audits, covering c.200,000 pages of content
  • Designed 3 information architectures (including the most complex one of my career to date) and helped a team shape another
  • Delivered three workshops/talks, including the biggest face-to-face workshop I’ve ever done at UX London
  • Ran four online events
  • Launched three new content strategy toolkits
  • Wrote 12 blog posts
  • Sent 46 email newsletters/updates

When I look at this list, it becomes really clear that I’ve got a niche. Until now, I’ve been a happy and intentional content generalist, working on content strategy, content design, UX writing, operations, and more. But more and more of my work is now focused on helping charities and non-profits that focus on services and advice/information prepare for website redesigns. The nature of the help varies: sometimes it’s a content audit, sometimes a strategy, sometimes an IA, or a content model. I love this niche. It’s varied, interesting, impactful work, focused on making sense of content mess. Plus, the more I do it, the more effectively I can deliver projects for my clients.

Another reflection is that lots of my work has walked a fine line between content design/strategy and service design. I like being in this space. It poses some interesting questions that I’m looking forward to trying to answer next year:

  1. Is content a service in non-profits that offer information and advice? And does thinking about it as a service change how I approach it?
  2. At what point does an IA project start being a service design project? Should I be bringing in a service designer on some of my IA projects?
  3. What are the problems that content can’t solve, and at what point should service design take over? And how can I help stakeholders see when they need a service, not content?

Who I worked with

  • Art Fund
  • Community Works and NHS Sussex
  • Compassion in Dying
  • DACS
  • The Hepatitis C Trust
  • Jacobs Foundation
  • Trust for Developing Communities

…and a mystery culture client I’m not allowed to name.

When I started my business, I’d only ever worked with two third sector clients, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find my place. So I feel extremely happy looking at this list.

I also got to team up with Lizzie Bruce and Mike Pattinson, who were both fantastic collaborators.

What I learned

This year has been full of lessons. These are some of my big takeaways:

  1. Trust the process: I’ve taken on some complex projects this year, and I found one in particular wildly intimidating. It was an IA project made up of hundreds of tasks, several different products/services, specialist subject matter, and a diverse audience. Every time I thought about where we were starting and where we needed to get to, my stomach flipped. But I pushed on, doing interviews, a top tasks survey, card sorting, tree testing, and more. Slowly but surely, step by step, the process worked, and everything fell into place. I’ve got a couple more complex projects coming up next year, so I need to keep this front of mind.
  2. Embrace the ambiguity: I might have found comfort in process, but I also learned to be more comfortable with uncertainty. The brilliant Amy Hupe wrote about middle ground and rejecting binary thinking late last year, and it stuck with me. (The Middle Ground, Amy Hupe). I’ve been steering away from the idea of ‘best practice’ and ‘rules’ and keeping myself open to other ways of solving problems. It came into play when I was creating my toolkits: I tried to create flexible processes, rather than rigid rules and recommendations. I think ‘golden rules’ and ‘hacks’ would sell better, but it would be bullshit in a content strategy scenario. And it also came up in my workshop on content audits at UX London: I was constantly saying ‘it depends’ in a scenario where people want you to tell them ‘do this’.
  3. I need people: A conversation with Jonathan Kahn, where he held up a mirror to some stuff I was whining about, made me realise that I need more collaborative working relationships. Since the pandemic, my work has become very remote and asynchronous. In some ways this suits me; I think of myself as an independent, introverted person, and I have responsibilities outside work that make the extra flexibility really handy. But at points, that way of working has got me down, because I value feedback and need a response to my work. I’ve made some changes based on this realisation: my work with Compassion in Dying was almost all face-to-face, and I’ve been booking in more one-to-one working sessions with clients. I’ve also got so much out of being part of a peer support group with Jonathan, Laura Morgan, and Joel Chippindale.
  4. You have to be able to hold your nerve (and know when to pivot): I had a big lull in October and November. Two clients I was excited about working with ghosted me, I had no new leads, and all my projects were finished. It was really, really hard not to take it personally and as a sign that I’m a talentless hack. I had a sudden flood of exciting potential projects and new work in December, so the lesson was to hold my nerve. Q1 of 2023 is looking very busy, but I’m feeling apprehensive about how the rest of the year will turn out. The current economic and political climate is making things tough for parts of the third sector. I know content is a great investment, but I need a more flexible way of providing my services. I’m going to start offering coaching and mentoring, because I think this will be a more affordable and sustainable way to get some expert advice, and also help keep knowledge and skills inside teams. (More on this soon, but get in touch if you’re interested.)
  5. It’s hard to ask a charity for help: I became a charity ‘beneficiary’ (I hate, hate, hate that word) this year. It took me a long time to get to the point where I felt like I could ask for help: I thought I should be able to manage things myself, and that charity support was for people more deserving and in a worse situation than me. It’s far from unusual to be on both sides of the fence – I see it with charities I work with that have peer services, or recruit current and former service users as staff or volunteers – but it’s new to me. I’ve always felt icky about the ‘benevolent white saviour vs deserving poor’ narrative, and thought I was above it. But this experience has shown me that I’d internalised it a bit, and I think that awareness will help me do my job better.

That’s it. Here’s to learning more in 2023.

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