IN­TER­VIEW

We have just a few sec­onds to get our users’ at­ten­tion on dig­i­tal plat­forms. Con­tent strate­gist Sarah Richards ar­gues the key to hook­ing them is com­pelling con­tent de­sign

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Words by Oliver Lind­berg Pho­tog­ra­phy by Paul Clarke Pho­tog­ra­phy ( paulclarke.com)

With a few sec­onds to get users’ at­ten­tion, Sarah Richards ar­gues the key to hook­ing them is com­pelling con­tent de­sign

Sarah Richards cre­ated ‘con­tent de­sign’ at the UK Government Dig­i­tal Ser­vice (GDS). Be­tween 2010 and 2014, her team worked on mak­ing copy on the pub­lic-sec­tor in­for­ma­tion web­site gov.uk find­able, us­able and un­der­stand­able. It was a mas­sive, com­pli­cated pro­ject, based on user-cen­tred de­sign, which was un­usual at the time – es­pe­cially for gov­ern­ments.

She now runs the Con­tent De­sign Cen­tre ( https://con­tent­de­sign.lon­don), a small eight­peo­ple agency pro­vid­ing train­ing and con­sult­ing in con­tent strat­egy and de­sign for or­gan­i­sa­tions around the world. She’s also writ­ten a book about the dis­ci­pline that she cre­ated, aptly named Con­tent De­sign ( https:// con­tent­de­sign.lon­don/home/book/).

“Con­tent de­sign is a way of think­ing,” Sarah ex­plains. “It’s about us­ing data and ev­i­dence to give the au­di­ence what they need, at the time they need it and in a way they ex­pect.”

It also considers both the medium and the user. “A lot of or­gan­i­sa­tions just blast,” Sarah sighs. “They shove all their con­tent out and hope that peo­ple will pick it up but that’s not the case. You have to write in a way that peo­ple are go­ing to con­sume. Dig­i­tal is pull not push pub­lish­ing. You have to do some­thing to pull the con­tent towards you, like fol­low­ing a link. And you have to write in that way. The most im­por­tant skill for writ­ing on the web is turn­ing push con­tent – what you want to say – into pull con­tent – what your au­di­ence wants to read.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, given her en­thu­si­asm for re­think­ing the way we ap­proach con­tent, Sarah has a back­ground in both de­sign and the me­dia. Af­ter at­tend­ing art school and work­ing for a time in jour­nal­ism and ad­ver­tis­ing, she went on to join the civil ser­vice and worked on a pro­ject called Con­ver­gence at Direct­gov, which pro­vided a sin­gle point of ac­cess to pub­lic sec­tor in­for­ma­tion and ser­vices be­fore be­ing re­placed by gov.uk in 2012. “We had to take 185 sites down into Direct­gov,” Sarah re­mem­bers. “It was a re­ally hard pro­ject be­cause no­body wanted to go onto Direct­gov. It was such a bad plat­form.”

When Sarah started on the gov.uk beta, she was adamant that her team shouldn’t just be per­form­ing the role of proof­read­ers. “Most of what came out of the beta was just born out of frus­tra­tion from five years of work­ing on Direct­gov. When [GDS co-founder and deputy direc­tor] Tom Loose­more asked what we wanted to be called, I said that we were not be­ing called ed­i­tors or writ­ers be­cause we were go­ing to do so much more than that. We needed to change the con­ver­sa­tion, so I came up with ‘con­tent de­sign’ and brought all of my skills into it. For ex­am­ple, the de­sign cri­tiques that I did at art school be­came con­tent crits.”

Gov.uk stood out be­cause of its sim­plic­ity and time­less­ness. It in­flu­enced many other government projects like 18F, a dig­i­tal ser­vices agency within the United States Government. “Be­fore gov.uk there was no real push or im­pe­tus,” Sarah ex­plains. “It’s the government so you can take as long as you like, right? There’s no com­pe­ti­tion. Whereas we pushed and brought in de­vel­op­ers who wore shorts in the of­fice and wrote on the walls – crazy things like that. It was mas­sive and hugely com­pli­cated, re­ally hi­er­ar­chi­cal. We took 75,000 items down to 3,000, in tran­si­tion took a fur­ther 482 government sites into gov.uk and dealt with 26 de­part­ments. And we still did it – on time.”

Since Sarah left GDS in 2014 she has led the dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion of Cit­i­zens Ad­vice and cre­ated the con­tent strat­egy for The Co-op’s new sin­gle site. More and more or­gan­i­sa­tions have started im­ple­ment­ing con­tent de­sign, such as home­less­ness char­ity Shel­ter and NHS ser­vice Healthy Work­ing Lives. As Sarah speaks and hosts workshops on con­tent strat­egy and de­sign around the world (dates are com­ing up at Pixel Pioneers Bris­tol and her own Con­tent De­sign Cen­tre), more peo­ple are dis­cov­er­ing the dis­ci­pline.

And for­tu­nately any­one with a back­ground in user ex­pe­ri­ence and us­abil­ity should take to the con­tent de­sign method­ol­ogy like a duck to wa­ter. To start off with, you go through the user jour­ney and iden­tify user needs in dis­cov­ery ses­sions, just like designers do. Then you fig­ure out the lan­guage and find out what kind of vo­cab­u­lary your au­di­ence uses. Psy­chol­ogy and the sci­ence of read­ing, the in­vol­un­tary me­chan­ics that gov­ern how hu­mans take in in­for­ma­tion, also play a big part.

“We need to un­der­stand our users’ men­tal mod­els and take into ac­count user be­hav­iour on­line and off­line,” Sarah ex­plains. “We need to un­der­stand the lan­guage they use and their emo­tions. No­body has a magic idea they’ve never thought about be­fore, goes to Google and types it in. You have all this bag­gage and these pre­con­cep­tions that you have to con­sider.”

Dis­cov­ery ses­sions should ide­ally also be at­tended by designers and de­vel­op­ers, prod­uct man­agers and peo­ple with the au­thor­ity to sign work off. “If we find out that peo­ple like to have case stud­ies, quotes or some­thing else that needs to be a de­sign ele­ment, I ex­pect us to work to­gether to make that hap­pen,” Sarah ex­plains. “If designers are cre­at­ing tem­plates and throw­ing them over the fence to us, it re­ally dic­tates the way that we have to write. That may not be the best thing for the user. A site can only be ex­cep­tional if de­sign and con­tent work to­gether. We’re all im­pact­ing the user ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s why at GDS we took the term ‘user ex­pe­ri­ence’ out of job ti­tles be­cause it’s ev­ery­body’s re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Con­tent de­sign is not just lim­ited to words. It’s about work­ing out what con­tent will best meet the users’ need. “This nor­mally comes out of dis­cov­ery,” Sarah points out. “For ex­am­ple, if English is their sec­ond lan­guage or they’re dyslexic, then we may see if a video would be help­ful. But if we know that peo­ple just need some­thing re­ally quickly, like their VAT num­ber, it’ll be flat con­tent and we show it to them quickly and eas­ily.”

And yet de­spite its abil­ity to serve users the kinds of con­tent they re­ally need, con­tent de­sign is still un­der­val­ued as a skill. Sarah points out that many think if they have GCSE English they can write but they don’t ap­pre­ci­ate the skills that go into con­tent de­sign. Some or­gan­i­sa­tions are hes­i­tant to in­vest in con­tent designers. When new clients turn to Sarah for help and say they al­ready have a team of con­tent designers, it of­ten turns out

“You have to write in a way that peo­ple are go­ing to con­sume. Dig­i­tal is pull, not push pub­lish­ing”

that they’re not con­tent designers at all but ed­i­tors and copy­writ­ers. “I’m an ex­copy­writer,” Sarah says. “I’m not diss­ing the skill. It’s amaz­ing and nec­es­sary but it’s not con­tent de­sign. This per­cep­tion of value has got to change. Your designers, devs and re­searchers can’t show off their skills if there’s no con­tent. Or it’s bad con­tent.”

It’s also im­por­tant to point out that con­tent de­sign is dif­fer­ent from con­tent strat­egy, the process that gives you an idea of what it is you’re pub­lish­ing and why. Sarah ex­plains that, in an ideal world, you should un­der­stand your con­tent strat­egy be­fore you start work­ing on con­tent de­sign. Con­tent au­dits are of­ten seen as a cor­ner­stone of con­tent strat­egy but Sarah is quite vo­cal about them and has his­tor­i­cally blogged about how con­tent au­dits need to die.

“I’ve re­vised my feel­ing about them a bit,” Sarah ad­mits. “Con­tent au­dits are just done at the wrong time in my opin­ion. Peo­ple will de­cide on a new con­tent pro­ject and to au­dit ev­ery­thing they’ve got. But they do that with­out think­ing about what they need as a busi­ness, what the users want from them and what value they can add. It’s al­ways back­wards-look­ing and you can’t make for­ward- and fu­ture-think­ing con­tent de­ci­sions. I just find it re­ally in­ef­fi­cient. If you’re go­ing to do a con­tent au­dit, do it af­ter the strat­egy ses­sion.”

Sarah finds it a lot more use­ful to go through dis­cov­ery ses­sions and come up with a range of user or job sto­ries that the whole or­gan­i­sa­tion can make use of. They’re ways of cap­tur­ing what a user wants to do. Of­ten they’re writ­ten on lit­tle cards and stuck up on the wall, so that the whole team can un­der­stand the user’s per­spec­tive. “Hav­ing a bank of those, in­clud­ing rel­e­vant data, is far more use­ful than a spread­sheet that some­body will live in for three months and then it just dies.”

Sarah is a big fan of de­sign­ing with data. “Ev­ery bit of ev­i­dence that you get speeds up your jour­ney and it’s a lot eas­ier to have con­ver­sa­tions about some­thing you have data on. You al­ways have some­body in an or­gan­i­sa­tion who says ‘I just want this’ and you have to do it be­cause they’re the CEO or another im­por­tant stake­holder. But most of the time you can talk to them and ask them to take a look at what the users are say­ing and what lan­guage they’re us­ing. You can then look at your page and an­a­lyse why it’s fail­ing. It’s far eas­ier to talk about a prod­uct and try and make it bet­ter as a team, with the per­son that’s block­ing you, than to just tell them they’re wrong.”

Sarah finds that 60 per­cent of the prob­lem is ex­plain­ing what con­tent is and has ded­i­cated a whole day of her con­tent de­sign course to stake­holder man­age­ment. “It’s not just a tech­ni­cal skill like how to struc­ture a page re­ally well. It’s also how to work with stake­hold­ers,” she says.

Once you’ve de­signed your con­tent and pub­lished it, you’re not done though. You need to de­velop and evolve your con­tent. “You still need a re­view process, maybe ev­ery six months,” Sarah rec­om­mends. “You need to check if your con­tent is still ful­fill­ing the need be­cause hu­mans change their minds. And yet some peo­ple just pub­lish some­thing and leave it for five years. You re­ally need to try and keep on top of it, as the user in­ten­tions and the user be­hav­iour change.” As Sarah puts it at the end of Con­tent

De­sign, “Re­mem­ber, if your con­tent now isn’t per­fect be­cause you had to com­pro­mise with a stake­holder, you are still fur­ther ahead than you were. One step at a time. Be­cause of you, the in­ter­net is getting bet­ter.”

Info job: Con­tent strate­gist and dig­i­tal con­sul­tant w: https://con­tent­de­sign.lon­don t: @es­c­mum

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