Content Design — what is it all about?
Content design is fairly new as a role in its own right and therefore one that not many people are familiar with, unless they are working in the field or alongside a content designer. However. we are now seeing a rise in the demand for content designers to work on projects, with the importance of products and services having a clear content focus becoming more evident.
Though content in itself has always existed, it has often been down to marketing folk or people in other roles to create content, especially for online purposes. However, this brings with it the inevitable conflict between creating content for marketing and creating content for users. Both of which have very different purposes.
Fast forward to present day, and we now have an exciting content design movement which has emerged from the work of Sarah Richards during her time at GDS, whilst working on the project we know as the gov.uk website. She has defined what content design is, how to approach it and is educating industries as to why a content designer is a key part of the design process.
So, what is content design?
Content design is about giving information to a user, at the right time, in an appropriate format so that they can find the information they need — without endless hunting or having to use an assistive function, such as a helpline, FAQ or online chat. Or, even worse, they may never get an answer to their need. I think we’ve all been there and can sympathise with the frustration of hunting for contact information on a website to just speak to a human, as we cannot find the information we need. ‘Has this page answered your question?’ Hmmmm, no.
There are many aspects to the role, including;
- creating and assessing user needs
- developing the structure and flow of content
- honing the message and tone of voice
- tweaking prototypes (oh yes — they let me loose on html!)
- breaking down complicated and jargon filled content
- finding gaps with existing content
- working with stakeholders and subject matter expert (SMEs)
- being involved in user research to tests the effectiveness with the actual audience
- ensure content follows style guides
- and much more
Ultimately, our goal is to find a way to satisfy the user needs highlighted at the start of the process. As a content designer you have to work closely with colleagues in other disciplines such as user research, UX or frontend designers, developers, information architects, product owners, business analysts, subject matter exports, and whoever else is relevant to your project.
There is a lot of opportunity to collaborate and cross into other disciplines when completing tasks, and in my experience so far, the more open you are and willing to get stuck in the better. The user testing especially is invaluable to get involved with and leads to many design assumptions being challenged and provides some great context to your product.
Why is a content designer so important to have on a team?
There are still many companies out there who think that staff in other roles within their company can just ‘knock-up’ some content for them. However, by having a content designer on board, you are ensuring that you have someone working with user needs at the forefront of their mind. Not sales, not policy speak, not marketing influences. Someone who can get into the mind of the user and take a step back from policy, targets and the like to fight for the users needs.
A content designer understands how to get information across to a defined audience — using the language in which they speak, and in a way that is accessible to them. It isn’t just about the words either, a content designer will look holistically at the end-to-end journey to look at how all artefacts are aligned in terms of message, tone of voice, accessibility, routes in and out of a service, and any other interaction a user may have with a product. We understand the context in which a service is used and the external influencing factors in their environment which can affect their interactions with the product or service.
What makes a good content designer?
It is not necessarily vital to have worked as a content designer before, but some experience in writing content is important. I came from an Instructional Design (writing e-learning packages) and Graphic Design background. The combination of writing and design skills put me in a unique position to combine the broad skillset I had developed and hone them for a different output. And I have been excited by the amount of crossover between instructional and content design. Like, genuinely excited — I even wrote a Medium post about it.
A good content designer will:
- have an analytical mind, being able to respond to data and analysis
- be able to breakdown information into concise, digestible chunks
- be able to look at the ‘whole’, not just a narrow slice
- have empathy for the user and fight for their needs
- be collaborative
- communicate well
- have a passion for design
- be willing to learn new things
- be enthusiastic
- be adaptable
Okay, so what are the best bits about the job?
Being a content designer is great. Eight months in and I am still learning every day — which is great for an eternal student like me. I am picking up skills in HTML and prototyping (well, kind of… there may have been the odd merge conflict here or there), UX and user research, as well as learning new things about content design.
There is also a great community emerging, with a number of experienced and enthusiastic designers at the forefront who are very willing to help newbies on the scene. Knowledge sharing is key, as is getting fresh eyes on content when you have looked at it for a while and you are glazing over. It is really rewarding to be part of a new profession and to help build knowledge as to the importance of content design and having a dedicated content specialist on a team.
I am also learning loads about my writing style and becoming so much more aware of how, when and why I am writing, plus how to hone it for the audience. Never a bad thing!
Where can I find more information?
So, if I have got you intrigued a good starting point for more information is to check out these links below:
- Gov.uk ‘Content designer: skills they need’
- Gov.uk ‘Content designer: role description’
- How to get a job in Content Design by Rebekah Barry, Head of Content Design at Hippo Digital
- Content Design London