We might never solve the riddle “what comes first, content or design?” But we can have a good discussion of it. I happen to be on the content-first side of the debate. After all, what good is a pretty website if the content isn’t valuable to your users or is difficult for your team to maintain? But you are not going to get very far if either one is done in a vacuum.

Enter “content design.” There is no agreed-upon definition of content design. It is essentially an approach to creating web content that takes something that meets a user need and presents it in the best way possible.

 Content is not limited to words

Sarah Richards coined the term when she became the first Head of Content Design for the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS). In January 2017, she did a webinar (watch the recording or get the slides) explaining what content design is and how it can make your content better.

Here are the highlights from the webinar.

Content design is not limited to words

Sure, the words are important. But when you design content, you are really fulfilling a user need in the best way for the user to consume it. That might be a video, or an infographic, or a calculator. Start with doing some research to find your audience’s context. Ask “What do users want from this?” not “What does my organization want to say about this topic?” Look at these aspects to create a content plan:

Language – What words do your users use when thinking about the thing you’re creating a website for?

Mental models – How do people get to the point of doing what they went online to do? This gets to their behavior, their trigger points.

User needs – Identify the things the users need, not what they want. As Sarah says, “You cannot retrofit a business need to a user need.”

Priorities – Account for the order of elements on the page. Answer their first questions first and put things in a logical order based on importance to the user.

User stories for content design

User stories come from the Agile software development methodology. They are just as useful for designing content. They follow the same format to identify a need from a user perspective:

  • As a [person or role]
  • I want [to perform an action or find something out]
  • So that I can [achieve or accomplish something]

Here’s an example:

As a parent, I want a way to incorporate my child’s baseball team schedule into my Google calendar, so that I can keep track of his practices and games without having to check a website.

Compare this to how the vendors of many team sports software packages must think about the calendar feature:

There needs to be a calendar. It should look like a paper calendar so people can understand that it’s a calendar and print it if they want to.

(Aside: Do these companies do any user research or testing? Or do I have different needs than most parents today? I’d love to know the answer!)

User stories do a lot of things for your team as well as your users:

  • Everyone can see what they are getting
  • Less duplication of effort and less work
  • Stakeholders have more confidence in the process because they can see it
  • Sharing the stories builds trust

The key to making user stories successful for content design and creation is to involve the stakeholders. They are the experts. You are making their work web- and user-friendly. The more they see of and participate in the process, the better they will feel about having their carefully written document trimmed down to a usable web page. It’s not dumbing it down or devaluing their work. It’s making it accessible to meet a user need.

Designing with data

By using data, you remove yourself from an argument. It’s the user arguing for themselves. Google Analytics is great for this.

“Everything that we do from a content perspective is based on a number or some research or some discovery or something from somewhere, not just sitting down and writing something.” It is far easier and more efficient to create content this way.

Content critique meetings

Like everything else in this process, the stakeholders and team members need to come along with you for optimum benefit. This prevents you talking at cross-purposes. Getting everyone on the digital team – writers, designers, developers – together is essential, because content spans everything. “The design influences how you write and how you write influences the design.” And how the CMS is set up is affected and affects the design and content.

Sarah offers 4 rules for this meeting:

  1. Everyone did the best job possible with the information they had at the time
  2. Talk about the product only, not the person who created the content
  3. Constructive criticism only; “This is crap” is unhelpful and unacceptable
  4. No one has to defend a decision

Psychology of reading

There is only one way people take in and process information through reading. It doesn’t depend on age or gender or language. The only exceptions are physical impairments.

We don’t read every single word. Our eyes and brains jumps over words and fill things in. It moves along fine until it gets to a point where your brain stops and causes it to go back. If you use a lot of new words or jargon, you introduce a lot of “regressive reading,” which is essentially making the reader stop and go back to read a missing word. This happens because it is not what they are expecting. This leads to trust problems. If a readers need to read something too many times, they will leave the site.

Content is design and design is content

As the web matures and more of us focus on the content and what is working for our organizations, we gather more evidence and examples of exactly what works. GDS has done a fabulous job of documenting their process for creating the much hailed GOV.UK website on their blog. It’s been four years since it launched and is still one of the best examples of true digital transformation. And it’s certainly one of the most documented for user experience, design, content, and development professionals to learn from.

If you are in the UK or can get to London, Sarah runs 2-day training courses on content design. You can get more information about that and other content design resources on Sarah’s Content Design Centre website.

What challenges do you face to incorporate content design into your process? What successes have you had with user stories for content design? Leave a comment to share or ask questions.