Live from Confab: Creating a Content Lab

Creating a Content Lab: Your Best-Kept Resourcing Secret, by Kate Garklavs

confab logoStarted life as a fiction writer, and uses a lot of those fiction ideas in her content. Now, at 18F, she’s one of nine content designers. She used to be the only one. Still, as nine, that’s not a ton, so they designed a content lab.


18F works on civic design:

  • They’ve made the immigration process easier through resource and form design
  • They’ve brought kids into national parks
  • They’ve made campaign finance data easier to find and understand

Working as the sole content designer in 2014, Kate had a hard time providing people with enough high quality content. They determined they needed a process or system to do more good, more efficiently.

What is a content lab?

A content lab is a virtual writing center, where people can get personalized writing and editing help from members of a core team.

They offer 4 types of help:

  • Generative help: coming up with ideas
  • Developmental help: writing the actual content
  • Stylistic help: editing it for voice and tone
  • Proofreading and copyediting

“We structure our work as a conversation.” At the content lab people fill out a form with information about their request. Someone at the content lab then asks questions. They have a conversation about specific points and ideas. In this way, they build the idea that creating content is iterative. This leaves room for experimentation and failure.

The content lab takes the idea of understanding users and meeting their needs, and puts it into the internal realm.

  • They have a limited menu
  • They manage expectations
  • They demystify the content creation process
  • They’re non-judgmental
  • They help people think differently about their content and their work

They are intended for short-term projects, but if a project needs more than 10hrs of help it needs a dedicated content person.

Benefits of Labs

  • Having access to the content lab stops people from getting screwed last minute, because they can pull people in throughout for little blips of time even if they didn’t plan for it at the beginning
  • Good content takes time. This helps increase awareness without hurting the project
  • Encourages interaction with the content team (more so than if we just wrote content for them last minute)
  • Labs serve as a diagnostic tool, helping identify what projects should have a content person and starting conversations about longer term solutions
  • Collaboration can ultimately result in better content
  • Better organization-wide use of time – for example, the swiss cheese method:
    • Don’t beat yourself up
    • Identify a small side task, related to the project
    • Keep on keepin’ on
  • Increased organization-wide knowledge of what everyone’s working on (at least within the content team!)
  • Lab work creates side-projects, which can be welcome diversions
  • It helps people get to know their coworkers
  • Depending on the lab’s capacity, it can serve as a review board for content
  • There’s always a place to send content-related questions

Strategies for getting started

Step one: Determine your organizational need. How can a content lab benefit the team?

Ask yourself:

  • Do you have dedicated content folks?
  • What needs have you observed from coworkers? Are those needs being met?
  • How might a content lab help you meet these needs? (what services could you offer?)

Step two: Assemble your core team. The lab’s goal is to meet the organization’s (changing) needs.

  • Better to be overstaffed than understaffed (people need to have availability to help!)
  • People should be excited to join
  • They don’t need to be content strategists/writers/content designers!

Step three: Determine your service offerings

  • What skillsets do people have, and what do they want to do?
  • Discuss what style guide to use
  • Start small, dream big
  • Take on tasks that align with user needs and team skills
  • Prepare to do some expectations management: be clear, complete, and direct
  • Consider the team’s tech skills, their tools, and how they communicate best

Step four: Become an integral part of the organization

  • First let people know you exist
  • Then provide more and more help
  • Collect feedback and iterate – track how you’re succeeding and how to improve
  • Communicate to the organization how you’re helping others

With ingenuity and dedication, you can be just as good as a pizza rat.

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