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
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