By Marcia Riefer Johnston published April 30, 2015

Agile Content Development: Five Companies Tell How They Do It


Every software-development team I know of that’s using an Agile approach does it differently. People like Agile for the pain it alleviates and dislike it for the pain it creates – especially for other departments outside software development.

Here’s my perspective on the pain that Agile alleviates. I worked as a technical writer for twenty-some years, so I remember the old waterfall days. Marketers threw detailed specs over the waterfall’s edge, then programmers – we didn’t call them developers yet – threw their prototypes down the waterfall, then we tech writers threw our drafts down the waterfall, and the cries of the poor product testers at the bottom were drowned out by the roar: Ship it! Ship it! Ship it!

Products took a long time to develop, and feedback often came too late to act on. Everyone, internally and externally, felt the pain of the waterfall approach.

In 2001, along came the Agile Manifesto and the international effort to “uncover better ways of developing software.” Ever since, businesses have been adopting these principles in various creative ways, dramatically reducing development cycles and ratcheting up responsiveness to feedback.

At the same time, process improvements within engineering have created new kinds of pain for groups outside of engineering. Teams that work with those engineers may feel at a loss as to how to align their processes with an Agile (or Agile-like) process.

Maybe that feeling partly explains why the panel session How To Increase Content Velocity Through Agile Practices at this year’s Intelligent Content Conference drew a crowd. The all-star panelists may also help account for the session’s popularity.


Every seat was filled for the panel session How To Increase Content Velocity Through Agile
Practices at the Intelligent Content Conference.

In a phone interview before the conference, Andrew told me that he picked these panelists because their organizations are doing innovative things with technologies and processes to align content development with Agile practices. All five organizations happen to be customers of Acrolinx, the company that Andrew founded, but, he says, the panel is not about his product. It’s about best practices that any organization could follow.

Too often, content is not connected or only semialigned with Agile development processes. In these five organizations, the teams are really synchronized. Content development is part of the main thing. Content developers sometimes complain that they can’t get budget, that people don’t listen to them. That happens when content is not embedded in the process. Content teams need to get into the process upstream. Then they become more important.

Here are my main takeaways from the panel’s rich discussion:

  • Today’s product developers – and content developers – must move quickly.
  • Content and product processes must be tightly integrated.
  • Content is part of the user experience.
  • When content is Agile, people see a difference.

Today’s product developers – and content developers – must move quickly

The panelists agreed that companies today have to move quickly to compete, with speedy software development, in particular, becoming more and more important. Jim (CA Technologies) pointed out that we’re living in an “application economy.” Software-driven companies, like Netflix and Uber, are disrupting the market in industries that used to have little to do with customer-facing software (in these cases, movie rentals and taxi service).

When companies adopt an Agile software-development process to deliver products at the necessary speed, the whole corporate ecosystem needs to speed up accordingly.

Laurel (Moody’s Analytics) and Ben (PayPal) noted that banking and financial industries often have to respond quickly to meet changing regulations. “We have to hit deadlines driven by financial regulations, or we risk our banking license,” Laurel said.

Agile methods can also enable companies to get out there first with software innovations. “Agile is a great choice,” says Ben, “because it gives us a fantastic opportunity to give customers what they’re looking for today. I need to get 667 content variations out to 203 countries and interact with a few hundred teams every 24 hours. I couldn’t do that in any other way.”

How do Agile methods help Ben’s team do all this? He explained in an email after the conference:

Agile contains the idea that we interact with our stakeholders frequently, in our case daily … Getting feedback in a two-week iteration rather than a few weeks after a release that was in development for six months makes a significant difference. When teams put months into something and you find out it does not meet the user’s needs/desires, a company may ship it anyway, meaning that a feature people wanted is not shipping, and a feature with limited value is [shipping instead]. The sunk costs are high, so the company delivers. Their costs continue as they support and maintain that product rather than something that would have been higher value.

Agile helps us refine quickly in many ways where waterfall did not. There are still some good cases for waterfall out there, but it does not suit what we do at PayPal.

Margo noted that Google has no choice but to move fast. Customers require it.

Susie (Facebook) says, “We have a well-known mantra: Move fast and break things. In an engineering-driven culture, content creators can get left behind if they don’t move quickly, too. If the content isn’t developed as the product is developed, you end up with broken experiences. It’s ugly.”

Wrapping up, Andrew noted that today’s customers are used to rapid change. “If something new comes up, they expect it to be everywhere on every device. That’s the way we have to work.”


  Left to right: Andrew Bredenkamp (Acrolinx), Susie Dickson (Facebook), Ben Cornelius (PayPal),
Laurel Counts (Moody’s Analytics), Jim Turcotte (CA Technologies), Margo Stern (Google)

Content and product processes must be tightly integrated

Another theme that had all the panelists nodding their heads was that content teams can’t work “in a vacuum,” independent of other teams. As Jim noted, “You can’t do Agile software development in isolation.” In an Agile environment, content development has to be tightly integrated into product development.

Andrew noted that this necessity is easy to understand but hard to put into practice.

How can content keep pace? What about the messy reality that not every department’s way of working fits well with the Agile approach? There’s no one answer. Teams need to experiment with ways to work together as closely as they can through rapid cycles of planning, development, and response to feedback.

Silos must be broken down “in a good way.” The Agile philosophy must extend across the enterprise, as Jim put it, “from contracts to software to marketing to documentation.”

Susie described the Facebook approach this way: “Our content creators are not just part of content teams but part of product teams,” and they have strong relationships in those teams. “They’re immersed in the development process.”

Figuring out how to integrate content development into product development takes creativity and persistence. For example, when Laurel got to Moody’s Analytics four years ago, the tech-comm group she manages sat “off in a corner.” She says, “I’ve done a lot of work to make them part of the product team so that they get the information they need in a timely way and keep up with the changes.” The technical writers are now integrated; they attend scrums and standups and all the meetings. She coaches the writers to raise questions that they’re uniquely situated to raise: “What does this mean for the technical content?”

The tight integration of content development into product development can make for a noisy workspace. Laurel says that now that writers are no longer off in a corner and the whole team sits in an open space together, it gets noisy. “Some writers can’t work in that situation.”

Each team needs to participate in making the integration work and not expect someone to look in from the outside and tell them the best way to do things. Margo noted the importance of staying flexible and being “responsible to your own strength.” For example, if someone at Google asks a technical writer, “Can you wordsmith this?,” she recommends that the writer “overrespond” – saying “Yeah, I’ll do this, but let me tell you how I prefer to work” – so that dev teams can see what writers can do and may be more motivated to bring writers in sooner to contribute in more significant ways.

Andrew reminded us of the importance of members of integrated teams “exercising all their social skills.”

Ben described the integrated content processes at PayPal this way: “To us, content development is development. We get stuff done early, and we work fast in our two-week iterations to fix the problems that come up. We do the planning up front just like the software engineers.” Content developers “get deep in” with the software-development teams. “We have built simple tools to look at the code repositories; we also go into management command-and-control consoles to make sure we’re aligned.”

The PayPal content developers don’t participate in scrums, as software folks do. They use an older methodology: Kanban, a process Toyota developed decades ago. “We look at top-level goals every morning,” Ben said. “Every team across the world gets up and discusses what they’re going to do, what they did, and what they learned yesterday. We do this continually — six times a day across my organization.” The content folks get their hands right into the source-code repositories. They have a friendly view of the code. They’re “not looking at ugly, complex XML structures. They can click into it and change the words in real time.”

Similarly, CA Technologies content developers, including technical writers and subject-matter experts, have easy, direct access to customer-facing content, Jim said. They call their content platform DocOps. It includes built-in analytics that incorporate machine learning. Content developers can see every search a customer executes and which UI screens they execute the searches from. An instant heat map in real time enables them to address content issues on the spot. The DocOps platform also provides a mechanism for sending the feedback to software developers for longer-term UX fixes.

Jim noted an additional benefit that came from consolidating their content-creation processes and technologies: They streamlined their content. “When we moved to the DocOps platform, we threw away 21% of the words. The collaborative, unified platform got rid of a lot of redundancy that had existed in previously separate systems. As you crowdsource and curate, and do analytics to throw away old stuff, you’ll have a lower volume of content.”

Content is part of the user experience

“Content is part of what we deliver because it’s part of the experience of PayPal,” says Ben. “It’s not separate.”

Calling for content teams to take an “Uber approach” to product documentation, Jim described the way the DocOps platform enables any subject-matter expert anywhere in the company to contribute technical content via a centralized, customer-facing wiki. Writers serve a curation role. He compares this collaborative approach to Uber’s: Anyone who can drive a car can participate. “It’s the corporation coming together.”

(In my preconference phone interview with Andrew, he brought up the concern that when subject-matter experts are expected to create content that customers see, they need guidance in the moment as they write. They aren’t interested, motivated, or trained to create tight, clear language; they just want to get the information out to the customer. That’s one reason he created Acrolinx software: “Guidance in the moment of writing is critical.”)

Following up on Jim’s description of collaborative writing across the enterprise, Margo noted that Google still has a ways to go toward the goal of experts producing the content that the technical writers don’t have the background to create. I could have sworn I heard a collective sigh, as if attendees were thinking, If Google’s not there yet, there’s hope for the rest of us.

Susie gave an example that illustrated the importance of software engineers and content developers partnering closely with user-experience researchers at Facebook. It’s impossible to anticipate “which flows people will struggle with and which they will breeze right through.” When UX researchers go into homes in India or Indonesia, the product team goes along to observe “to see how these words are working. There’s nothing more powerful than watching users interact with the content in the wild.”

In our preconference phone call, here’s how Andrew described the relationship between content and the user experience in the panelists’ organizations:

What these five companies are doing well is taking a transactional view of each piece of content. The customer wants to get something done: get the software working, buy what they’re looking for, use a particular feature, install a driver, reformat a paragraph, get the license. There’s a transaction. You have to have that transaction in mind when you create the content. You have to give people all the content they need – and only the content they need. It’s hard to get that right. You have to get the user story right. You have to understand the customer’s mental state at a certain moment and figure out how to get that person happy. You have to know what this person knows already. Jargon may be helpful or not. Taking all that seriously requires a certain discipline in the team.

When content is Agile, people see a difference

After changing to an Agile approach to content development, what kind of feedback do these organizations get? At CA Technologies, Jim says, “We’re getting positive feedback from customers, maybe because documentation before was so bad.” Internally, as their content teams have broken down silos, they have found ways to help their business partners in customer support, product management, and software development. “We have empathy for what they’re trying to do and are making them more successful.”

Laurel noted that at Moody’s Analytics customers didn’t have anything to notice at first as the tech comm group began adopting a more Agile methodology. “But as we get documentation fixes out instantly, not just making changes with new releases, they will notice.”

At PayPal, Ben said,

Here’s what we don’t hear any more from our internal customers: ‘Your team is late. Your stuff isn’t here. I’m going to miss my release. My revenue is at risk.’ Externally, customers are happy because we do heavy analytics. We have to because it’s a heavily regulated industry. Instead of making that a thorn in my side, I think, ‘How can I make this one of my team’s greatest strengths?’ So when we change words, if that’s the only change made, I can show our internal teams that there was an uplift in the total payments being used against that flow. Or I can show that reducing bugs, increasing the quality of the flow, improved the financial result. We can show provable business value related to the content strings in the experience.

Facebook teams have heard positive feedback as well. Internally, Susie says, people “see the value and appreciate that we move as quickly as they do.”


At the end of the panel discussion, Andrew said, “Agile is becoming the way things get done.” It applies “in a lot of places you wouldn’t expect, not just software.” For this model to work, content developers must find ways to fit into it.

How about your organization? Are your product developers using an Agile process? If so, how are your content developers fitting into it? Let us know in a comment below.

Learn more

You can purchase access to the video recordings of all conference sessions (except workshops), including the panel session described in this article, at the Intelligent Content Conference 2015 Video On Demand Showcase Site.

For more on Agile approaches to content development, check out these articles:

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Full disclosure: Acrolinx was a sponsor of Intelligent Content Conference.

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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