How to design content on your own

This guest blog post is written by Sarah Walsh. She is an experienced digital content consultant specialising in content strategy and content design.

I’ve recently worked as the only content person in a new digital team - the first time digital skills had been embedded in the organisation. While I was there, I started thinking about whether ‘proper’ content design can be done with only one content person.

What I mean by proper content design is taking a user-centred, bottom up iterative approach, as opposed to more traditional writing roles. If you’re the only content specialist in the team, do you inevitably end up working more as a copywriter or editor?

I didn’t have a problem carrying out every day content tasks on my own. I was still able to do research, interview stakeholders, come up with a content strategy, write user needs, map user journeys, plan and write digital content, and test it.

It’s lonely on your own

So what was the issue? Why was I finding it so difficult? Something didn’t feel quite right, but it took me a while to put my finger on it. At first, the only way I could describe it was that I missed my content buddies. But this didn’t really explain why I felt so de-skilled and ’stuck’. It also knocked my confidence. It felt like wading through treacle.

It slowly dawned on me what the problem was. Content design is an inherently collaborative discipline. I’ve always worked with other content people, either as part of large multi-disciplinary teams or small content cohorts. In my experience, this is how amazing user-focused content is created. Us content people have many different skills and strengths, and it’s this collaborative approach that really brings out the best in us and, as a result, the best for the user. Two heads really are better than one.

So I think I was missing the bits in between the different tasks and stages involved in content design - the glue that keeps it together. It’s difficult to explain, but I missed having a shared vision, someone to bounce ideas off. I missed the creative aspect of content design. I missed being able to talk through user needs with another content person. I struggled holding crits without any other content specialists. I needed a second pair of eyes to check my work. I really missed the critical thinking that’s so valuable in designing digital content. And I found it hard to defend content decisions on my own, with no one to back me up.

And then I thought about all the other content designers who are working on their own in teams and organisations. How this is normal for lots of people. You may even be one of those lone content designers. Is content design in its purest form possible in these circumstances?

How to make it better

I don’t doubt that good, even great, content can be produced by skilled content designers working on their own. But I do think it can compromise the quality of the work produced, as well as making our jobs more difficult. And probably less fun.

But we can do things to make the experience more rewarding and the content we design even better:

  • rely heavily on your digital colleagues, especially usability experts who can help you champion the user - it takes more than content designers to create useful, usable, accessible digital services and products,
  • arm yourself with usability evidence - for example the Readability Guidelines - it’s much harder for people to argue with you when you can point to the solid evidence that underpins your decisions,
  • use crits to educate your non-digital content colleagues about why you’ve made decisions - often when you talk though why you’ve done something a certain way people begin to start seeing things with different eyes,
  • join the online content community - sometimes just knowing you can share your thoughts and frustrations with others who understand can make all the difference!

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