Done is better than perfect

Sarah Winters, , Content design

I speak to a lot of content people who are really struggling to get their organisation to accept good content design. This blog post is for you.

As a content designer, you’ll be part-writer, part-editor, part-SEO-fiend and part-fact-checker with a smattering of typography pedant, user researcher, UX-er (whatever that means in your organisation) and someone-who-has-an-opinion-on-design.

You are smart.
You are creative.
You are analytical.
You communicate well.
You know how people work.

And you are probably a very little bit horrible.
Mostly to yourself.
Why? Because you are probably a perfectionist.

Part of being a content designer is to be an editor. An editor’s job is to find flaws. You get paid to constantly look for negatives.

Sometimes, I think some (if not all) of us can take that a bit far. We only see negatives. Often, we can’t see the massive improvement we have already made.

The beginning of perfect content design

Imagine this: you have written the perfect page of content. It’s researched, tight to a user need and adheres to the style guide.

You send it to the appropriate expert to get it signed off.

It comes back almost totally rewritten.The piece now leads with a 3-paragraph legal caveat that only applies to 4 people in the UK (and they are not going to read it anyway because their need is taken care of on another page).

There’s jargon all over the place. We are not even going to discuss the pompous, navel-gazing rhetoric that makes up the call to action and we can forget the 72-word sentences.You work with these experts. You explain usability and online reading behaviour again and again. And again.

The middle bit of perfect content design

In another round of edits your piece is better. The 3-paragraph legal caveat is now 1 paragraph at the top and 2 at the very bottom of the page. 50% of the jargon has gone. The sentences are shorter. The call to action actually looks like a call to action.

But it is still crap and it needs to go live. So it does. You see all that legal jargon glaring at you. You imagine some of your peers are judging you because you couldn’t get the expert to see it was the wrong thing to do.

What you don’t see is that page was truly horrific before.

Your inner-editor won’t let you see:

  • the usability conversations are very, very slowly seeping into the expert’s head (they’ve just agreed to 50% less jargon – that wouldn’t have happened a year ago),
  • before you and your current team came along, that copy would (probably) have gone live as a 4,000 word PDF,
  • it is better than the version the expert sent to you.

None of this helps your frustration levels – it could have been so much better. But take a step back.

This is how your expert might see it:

  • their work is complicated and has taken 20 years to learn; you are distilling all that to 11 words and a phone number (for example),
  • by shortening their content, you are devaluing their expertise,
  • by making it easy to understand, you are taking away the seriousness of their work,
  • by correcting any spelling or grammar, you are embarrassing them,
  • you are not an expert – how can you write about it?

The end of perfect content design is actually the beginning

There’s a couple of things you can do that might make this a bit easier.

Publish your content strategy

Put it somewhere visible so everyone can see what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to achieve it (if you don’t have one, get 'Content Strategy for the Web' by Kristina Halvorson or go on a content strategy workshop).

Show, don’t tell

Share your knowledge. If you have and it hasn’t worked, find a different way of doing it. Most people argue with you because they don’t understand the impact. You may have told them, but they may not understand it. Show them research, take them to tea. Whatever you haven’t done before.

Have a list of what you will and won’t die over.

This is a list I had years ago.

Will die over (aka we will not publish):

  • Broken links.
  • Grammar/spelling errors.
  • Headings that don’t match the copy.
  • Style guide conformity.

Often, the hardest arguments come from nuances that are not in the style guide. If you have ‘write in plain English’, you’ll have a lot of arguments about what plain English is. You’ll never be able to have absolutely everything in a style guide. So put in what you will definitely not accept and give examples like the GOV.UK words to avoid list.

Won’t die over:

  • Excessive use of jargon (could cap this – 10 instances and it goes to ‘will die over’ or track it and give the author feedback).
  • Legal caveat if it doesn’t stop comprehension.

Don’t get me wrong, I hated this list. HATED IT. I would still spend time on the ‘won’t die over’ items. I’d still look at it and think ‘well, that’s crap’. But I did change my mindset. The ‘won’t die over it’ list wasn’t a ‘forget about it’ list. It was a ‘this person has further to go to get to good content’ list.

I was open about what I would die over but I didn’t tell anyone what I wouldn’t die over.

“Well, they are doing it, why can’t we?”

You are bound to come up against this sort of argument if you have any sort of leeway in your writing like a ‘die over’ list.

I’ve seen this sort of rule being applied very successfully: “as long as you stick with the style guide 95% of the time, we allow leeway. You are already under the 95%. So you can change something else if you like. But it’s one or the other.”

While you don’t have to publish this list, you’ll need to make sure your boss knows. They need to be part of the decisions; especially if they are the ones who are actually going to be doing the dying.

Give your boss the die list.

It’s only fair. If you are in one of those organisations where everyone escalates everything when it doesn’t go their way, your boss is going to get it in the face.

If there’s a contained list, your boss will have fewer fights. They can focus on the important stuff (the content strategy) and not every little thing. It feels more manageable.

Perfect content design

In all of this, I don’t mean you should happily accept dross. You still need to fight for what you think is right. You still have to try. I absolutely, 100% don’t think you should sit back and accept the crap.

What I am saying is if you are not in a great environment, if there is honestly not a lot you can do, be kind to yourself. Have your standards, track the response, give feedback to the author (“your page is failing massively” is a great conversation starter).

Plan to move more onto the ‘will die over’ list every 6 months to move your organisation to better content. Make sharing usability knowledge part of your job…


…remember every little step you take is another step closer to usability. It’s further than you were yesterday. Look past the negatives to the positives. Be happy with the little wins.

This is the web. We can always go back and change it. Make 2016 the year you are kind to yourself.

EDIT: Huw Pritchard (@huwpritch) mentioned pair writing – another really good way of working with experts. For more info on this technique, see Jonathan Khan’s (@lucidplot) post 'use pair writing to collaborate with subject matter experts' for GatherContent.

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