This post is about content design.
It’s about how content design, as a process, will make your web projects go faster and your marketing more efficient.
It could be about how content design is important because it will make your content better. That is, easier to read, absorb and take action on. But there is a whole book about that — it’s called Content Design and it’s by Sarah Winters.
What is content design?
I first heard about content design on Facebook. A university friend was seeking a job and he called himself a content designer. It was the best written Facebook post I’d ever seen.
He was always a great writer, but this was different. How did he learn that?
I was gripped.
He wrote, ‘If you’d like to know more about content design, google Sarah Richards’.
So I did.
Sarah was the Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service in the UK. She and her team tried and tested the techniques that are now called ‘content design’. Her book is pulled from real life experience working with some of the most cumbersome content in the world — government speak.
It’s a practical read — and quick — I virtually inhaled it.
From gov.uk, “Good content design allows people to do or find out what they need to …simply and quickly using the most appropriate content format available.”
It is basically a term to define a process where you,
- Start with the user needs
- Develop a content plan or strategy
- Write, collate and rationalise great content by working with others
It’s not just about words, but all things content. Could an infographic do a better job that a page of text? What about video? What about a technical solution like a map, instead of a list of locations?
Content design helps us make these decisions based on what the user needs to know (not wants — which is a good distinction), and not on what we think is cool, easy or fits best within our web design.
The process could apply to a website, or an app, or an intranet, or a book — or all of the above.
By the end, the content design team will have done all the hard work for the user.
They will have gone through the pain and complexity of sorting through hundreds or thousands of facts, figures and ideas to make sure the user can quickly and easily find just what they need.
Same, same, but different
You know that your digital/marketing/website/app (whatever) strategy should sit at the centre of everything you do.
And what’s at the centre of your strategy?
To sell your products, you need to know exactly who you’re talking to and why.
The discipline of content design has come from a service based approach, rather than a sell. This means it gives us (as content marketers and business managers) a fresh perspective.
Your content design journey starts with the creation of user or job stories. This isn’t just thinking about your customer personas, but what action they want to perform when they land at your site (or intranet or whatever), and what criteria they would have to meet to consider that job complete.
For example, in my work with Big Blue Digital, I developed some resources for businesses who might consider moving to the BigCommerce website platform. Because of Adobe’s announcement of the End of Life for Business Catalyst earlier this year, our business imagined that there will be a subset of users who wanted to move from one BC to the the other.
For these users, their job story might be,
When I am looking for an alternative to Adobe Business Catalyst
I need to find out my options
So that I can make a decision, and plan for migration within 3 years
We can surmise that this story will be complete when our user,
- Has uncovered multiple options.
- Can see how other businesses use those options.
- Has compared features and pricing structures.
- Understands total cost of ownership.
- Understands the migration procedure and timeline.
- Is ready to make a decision on which platform.
The customer personas we’ve created at Big Blue Digital helped us to understand the user in the first place. They helped to define our brand voice so that we’re pitching our content at the right level. But this story gives us a much more practical and clear brief to follow in our content planning and writing.
We can use the different acceptance criteria to plan out our customer journeys — what does the user need to know first? And then what? And then what? It can help us put information in the right order on one page, across a whole website, or across a the whole digital ecosystem.
Content design is also completely based on the idea of collaboration. First, in discovery, where you’re gathering information. Then, in designing your content strategy and agreeing on the user and job stories. Then, through pair writing and crits (or formalised feedback sessions) throughout the process. It gives content designers, whether within organisations or in an agency like me, a clear methodology for establishing and maintaining buy-in.
But this seems like a lot of extra work, how does it make my project go faster?
Design for efficiencies
I’ve seen endless big web projects come to a standstill over content.
Sometimes, it’s because the business or developer haven’t left enough time in the project to create and write new things. There was an old website, the design was based on that old website, and there’s an assumption that the old content will just fit within the old boundaries.
Sometimes, it’s because a client wants to be responsible for creating all of their new content. But writing is hard. It takes time for inspiration to strike. And it’s a specialist skill.
So the site waits, and then the web team find the content isn’t optimal for its purpose — website, intranet or even BI dashboard — now someone needs to spend time refining, reviewing and getting approval on words and images that the client poured their heart, soul and most importantly, time, into. If that someone isn’t naturally a words person, this can be a real disaster.
And then sometimes it’s because, once we start the process of designing our content structure and writing the words - always after the scope of the website has been signed off - we all of a sudden discover that we need new features. This would be better with a map — we can just build one right? This little piece of text should go on every page — you can just make it do that right?
In this scenario, I become every developer’s nightmare as they watch their portion of the project slowly but surely creep wildly over budget to accommodate the approved content…that didn’t fit the design.
The process of content design avoids these three scenarios. Why?
- It puts content first, and design second.
- Your content is more likely to seamlessly fit with the design — reducing rework and costly changes.
- It provides a methodology to gain and maintain buy-in.
- Approval timeframes are reduced and, again, reducing rework and costly changes.
- It empowers cross-function collaboration.
- Problems are solved as the work happens, not when you hit major roadblocks — reducing rework and costly changes.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
Like a good digital strategy, the upfront investment can seem like a big hurdle.
Like everyone, you just want action.
But I can guarantee that a well-planned, strategic approach will save you time and money in the long run.