Content designers are digital ethnographers
30 November 2020
By Paul Cannon, Rachel Jennings, Claudia Müller, William Caston Cook
The Content Design Academy is a 14-week course where students work on a real-life project. This year we ran it remotely. 3 students from this year’s Content Design Academy talk about their work around getting to know the user and making information accessible for them.
Getting to know the user
In terms of getting to know our users it helped me to think of Content Design as a form of digital ethnography.
Ethnographers seek to understand a particular culture by gaining a ‘native’s point of view’. They do this by immersing themselves in a community and studying its habits, language and worldview. From remote Amazonian tribes to international war correspondents or Cornish surfers, ethnography is a unique way of researching micro-cultures and ‘hidden’ populations.
Content designers also try to understand the habits and motives of a hidden population: online users.
Unlike ethnographers, we don’t need to camp out in a community for a year to gain key insights into the people we research. From internet forums to keyword searches, much of the data we need about our users is already online.
Also, our task isn’t to write ‘about’ communities, but ‘for’ them. This means we have to know what their needs are as well as how they behave.
When we interview users, pinpoint their needs, map their journeys and speak their language, we can create user-centric information which best anticipates what a user wants to get done.
As with ethnography, it’s all about gaining the ‘native’s point of view.’
Using sketching to make things simple for the user
Information can be complex. And part of our jobs as content designers is to find a way to hide this complexity and make it quicker and easier for the user to understand and complete their tasks.
As content designers we can reduce the cognitive load for the user through clear language, content format and how we organise the page.
One way we did this in the Academy was by sketching user needs before we started writing content. In 3 minutes, everyone sketched a solution for the top user need. We wrote headings but no copy, and we included structure and page elements.
It was challenging. But it made us think about:
- how a user might interact with the content,
- what people need to know at any given point in their journey,
- how content informs the interface – the design and the information must work together,
- how not everything is best covered with words.
During the Academy, I realised that content design has something to do with democracy. Being Swiss, I grew up in a small country that has probably the most democratic political system in the world. Democracy is in our DNA.
If you want to change things for the better, you collect signatures and get all the Swiss citizens to decide whether your idea should be considered or not. In that sense, everybody has a voice and your opinion matters and has a value.
Content Design is quite the same. You look at things with a fresh view and start a conversation to change things with your audience. You make complex topics accessible by translating them into the simple copy.
Democracy is listening to others ideas and opinions. It’s starting a dialogue for a better solution.
So is Content Design. It’s about giving a voice to the user and readers on the internet, that is invisible. It’s opening up instead of narrowing down. It’s making information accessible instead of reserving it for a specific group.
Every citizen having access to the internet should be able to understand the information. Content Design helps in improving accessibility. That is a democratic act. It’s time that this discipline is becoming visible too. I guess Swiss people would like it.
The journey to the right words
William Caston Cook
Working in content, in my experience, means being presented with a solution to complete - “We need this page up asap”. You can argue over the particulars but the assumptions that were made along the way are not usually up for debate.
Content design is the journey to the right words. If you follow the steps, solutions will present themselves and they will be undeniable.
The process begins with discovery. Gathering as much information as possible so you can start to find meaning. Discovery obviously functions best if you are driven by curiosity but more than that, it’s vitally important to stop your curious brain from leaping to solutions.
Where UX writing seeks to remove the writer from the story, content design goes further, removing the writer from their need to tell the story in the first place.
This is one of the reasons that content design dances so enigmatically through the creative parts of my brain. You should not let your assumptions lead you to solutions.
Don’t start with what’s already on the page or what you already know - it’s not about you.
Start with your users and listen to what they are telling you.
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