Content design

What makes web content "good"?

When it comes to websites and other digital experiences "good" can have any number of meanings. Learn the baseline principles I follow.

The college Debating Secretary that still lingers inside me thinks it's important that we begin by defining our terms.

First, content.

You'll always find me defining content as stuff that fills space on the internet. It's the words (mostly words), images, video, infographics and other tools your audience uses, reads, experiences, and learns from.

As for 'better'? Well that's far more subjective.

And - annoyingly - it changes.

What makes something good?

Good, better and best are subjective, and change over time.

When I started my writing degree, back in the hellish brutalist tower that is UTS, The Davinci Code was everywhere. And it became the brunt of all of our jokes.

We — clever, artistic, alternate, wanky — writing students, could tell, without reading more than a few pages, that it was bad. Maybe it was our deep understanding of grammatical form and literary history that fueled our disdain for this book. Maybe it was jealousy: even as first year undergrads we knew then that no matter what high standards we held for ourselves, it would be an absolute miracle if any one of us achieved the commercial success of something like The Davinci Code. Either way, the view from our high horses was wonderful.

Millions of readers around the world disagreed. They loved it. They lapped it up. They wanted more Dan Brown. It became a movie. With Tom Hanks no less. It was good!

Who was right?

Both camps. And neither camp.

As popular fiction, The Davinci Code is brilliant. Every chapter is short and ends on a cliffhanger. It has a serious pace to it. As a reader it makes you think, what's the harm of reading one more chapter? Next second, it's 3am, your eyes are watering, your back is sore, and you've read the entire thing in one sitting.

It's the paperback equivalent of the Netflix autoplay feature.

And for commercial purposes, that's some seriously good stuff.

Forget good, go for better

So we can all agree that good is subjective yeah?

And we're not writing airport best sellers. We're guiding people through digital experiences.

It can be easy to go straight to usage metrics, like page views and scroll depth to determine "good". High audience numbers are great: if they're the right people, getting the right information, understanding it, and taking the right steps afterwards. Often, the way we measure "good" relies on something being published and out in the world.

Instead, I prefer setting the benchmark at 'better'.

Better than the current experience. Better than what we published yesterday. Better than the audience's alternatives (whether that be a direct business competitor, or another place they might get the information you provide).

Instead of aiming for a single finish line, aiming for 'better' encourages us to aim for our best against a certain set of principles.

Setting content principles

Your content principles are like guide-rails that take you in the direction of what "good" looks like for the thing you're trying to create. They can exist as strict rules, or as shared beliefs that guide content strategy, creation, review, and maintenance.

When there are multiple people handling content they help everyone define a uniform way of working. They give you confidence that you're working toward the right goals.

Those goals are going to change depending on what your content has to do, so no 2 sets of principles will (or should) be the same. However, I'd argue there are some universal principles that create a solid foundation for better content.


To make content useful, we need to think about the audience, and what they need.

To make sure your content is useful, you might ask:

  • what will make my audience seek out this content, or what is their larger journey before they get here
  • what does my audience need to achieve (on the website or within the digital experience)
  • what is my audience's context for absorbing the content and what do they need from it?

Content becomes more useful when we understand what the user wants to know and (on the other side of the coin) what we need to tell them. This means thinking beyond personas, to the specific moments that will make up the audience's experience.

As The Rolling Stone's sang, you can't always get what you want. But it's important that — as the people providing the content — we provide the audience with what they need.

For example, as someone choosing a mortgage, I probably want a really good home loan rate. On the flipside, as a bank, I can't always always give people what they want: but I can give them what they need. They need to know the rate (good or bad) as a priority. So even if my bank has the worst imaginable rate compared to competitors, I'm not going to hide it away in a difficult to find location. I give the audience what they need (even if they don't like it).

(yes, this is a real life example, no, I will not elaborate further).


There isn't much point sharing content if your audience can't find a way through it, or do something with it.

To make sure your content is usable, you might ask:

  • does the format and structure of this content match how the audience will use it (for example, to help your audience calculate mortgage repayments you could provide an interactive calculator, a downloadable spreadsheet, formulas and examples in a blog post, or all of the above)
  • can the audience take the action they need to take, based on the information provided
  • are the next steps clear
  • where does this piece of content sit in the audience's journey, in relation to those next steps?

Online journeys are never linear. It's important to think about how people get there, where they go next and how they're prompted to do that (through links, buttons, menus or other features).


Accuracy refers both to the accuracy of information and the precision of the writing.

To make sure your content is accurate, you might ask:

  • is the content missing anything important that would make things unclear for the audience
  • can any claims be backed up (just because you think something is 'the best', 'unbeatable', 'the greatest' doesn't mean those claims actually be sustained)
  • does the writing match the style guide
  • is the writing clear and grammatical?

Grammar is weird and a bit bogus, but the rules exist for a reason. They are designed to make it easier for everyone to take the same meaning from the same words, and are therefore important. Just remember that language evolves, and the rules you were taught in school may have evolved too.

Accessible, inclusive and readable

Creating things in the most accessible and inclusive way possible should be the status quo. But, until it is, it's important to explicitly call it out as a foundation of good content.

To make sure your content is accessible, inclusive and readable, you might ask:

  • does this content use simple language, simple punctuation, and clear (and consistent) number formats
  • is the content gender inclusive or gender neutral (as appropriate for the brand, goals and context)
  • are there words that assume how someone is accessing the content? (for example, 'see' and 'view' assume all users are sighted, 'click' assumes all users are navigating with a mouse)
  • have accessibility features been considered in the creation of the content, including alt tags, captions, image descriptions, colour contrast
  • has the content been checked for other inclusion standards?

Seek out information on inclusive language and content practices, and always bear in mind potential impacts on people who have been historically excluded as you create content.


This one isn't for your audience. This one is for you.

Good content is manageable.

It can be maintained by the people that need to maintain it. It's clear who 'owns' and governs it. It's cost effective, has a business case, and answers a clear need.

Having principles can help with the 'manageable' too. They smooth out decision-making by giving you a framework to make decisions by. They keep people on the same page throughout the journey. They can seem arbitrary, but in moments of tension or confusion, they're more useful than you might think.

Want some of my brain juice?

Every week or so, I smear a bit of it all over the internet. By which I mean I publish an article on Substack that you can have delivered straight to your inbox. They’re all free (for now) and give you a good idea of how I work and think. Plus, reading my emails is an excellent way to feel like you’re working while you enjoy a morning coffee.

Check out past editions on Substack or enter your email to subscribe.