Content design vs editorial

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If you approach a new piece of web content with ‘how shall I write this?’, that’s writing or editorial. If you approach it from ‘how am I going to get this across to the audience in the best way possible?’, that’s content design.

Content design isn’t limited to words, it’s only limited by our imagination and our developers’ skill. Both are pretty much limitless. 😉 But let’s take a step back.
Traditionally the process of publishing has been:

  • writer writes
  • sub-editor sub edits
  • printer prints

Easy. All nicely defined and a lovely linear process.

Some early web editorial was:

  • write
  • publish (with or without subbing or sign off)

This was brilliant. We could all publish our thoughts faster. We didn’t have lengthy subbing processes or months to wait for something to be designed and printed. We were reading faster, publishing faster, learning faster, becoming a community faster. Excellent.

As far as it went.


Search engines

Then we got greedy. We wanted high search engine rankings. To be fair, it wasn’t a lot to ask. In the early days, there was a wealth of sites about local things you could trip over. People putting up street info or local football club fixtures opened previously closed doors to anyone who wanted to look. But finding a specific thing was not so easy. Search engines weren’t at the level they are now. No-one knew much about search engine optimisation (SEO), so at one time the answer was to swamp text with keywords so the copy was barely readable and add white keyword text on a white background etc. (Really, people did actually do that).

Looking back at this frenzy of publishing (and some people are still doing it this way), I am surprised we didn’t make the internet grind to a shuddering halt.

But we didn’t. Instead, we got clever. The process is, in a lot of places, like this:

  • write
  • SEO (often by a completely different team)
  • sub edit
  • sign off (often by legal people who have no experience in reading psychology or usability)
  • publish

Which is better. And to be fair, some organisations make this work. But as most of you would have spotted, there’s several flaws in this process.

Definition of content design

The ‘write, SEO, sub, publish’ type of publishing doesn’t necessarily take what user actually needs into account. Sometimes users don’t want to read anything. They want a video or a tool. In some organisations, this is taken care of in different teams. Some organisations do this well, some don’t. But content design itself is fundamental to a good content strategy. Content designers ask the question: “what is the best way to fulfil this user need?” And follow up with: “I’ll produce content that displays the answer in the way that is best consumed by the user.”

I use the word ‘consumed’ because that’s what we do with information now there is a wealth of ways to get to it. Video, memes, infographics, – not all of this is ‘reading’. You don’t read a video. If you want a user to buy your product or service, they have to find it, understand it and be engaged with it. You have to go to them and communicate with them in their language and in a way they understand, to be successful.

For example, as a content designer, you can look at information and say ‘nope, this is too complex, over 300 postcodes is remarkably boring to read so we are going to put it into a postcode look up’. That’s content design right there. You are designing the content for your audience.
You are not editing anything.
You are barely writing anything.
You are designing content.

Process of content design

Content design follows this process:

  1. define a user need
  2. decide what format the content will take – could be a video, tool, calculator etc
  3. work with a designer, developer, expert (like a legal person) to get the best solution
  4. design the content
  5. test it
  6. iterate (repeat design, test, iterate as much as necessary)
  7. publish
  8. track and make sure it’s still fulfilling the original user need and improve it whenever you can

There’s a lot of technical skill in content design. You have to know how to look at analytics and make it give you a plan for your content. You have to be aware of all forms of communication and you have to know a lot about your audience to know what is right for them.

Lastly, one thing about attitude. A content designer is humble. No-one can know everything, language moves on, users are humans – they learn, evolve and adapt and we need to adapt with them. Assume nothing, question everything and research until you are sure.

*this is an excerpt from my forthcoming Content Design book.

Sarah Richards

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