What is content design?

Sarah Winters, , Content design

Content design is answering a user need in the best way for the user to consume it.

In my book, I said:

“Content design is a way of thinking."

"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.”

Let’s pull that apart:

  1. Data and evidence.
  2. What the audience needs.
  3. At the time they need it.
  4. In a way they expect.

Data and evidence: the content design process

The content design process is:

  1. research,
  2. user needs,
  3. channel and journey mapping,
  4. language and emotion,
  5. creation,
  6. sharing,
  7. iteration.

1. Research

The main difference between many other forms of writing and content design is that content designers generally don’t move without research.

It can be desk research, usability research, expert research, any kind of research really but there has to be data and evidence of what the audience wants and needs.

2. What the audience needs: user and job stories

Next, we define what our audience wants from us in user or job stories. This is a formalised way to express what comes out of our research.

We work from what the user wants from us to solve a problem and then look at what we as an organisation can do to help them in that task.

We don’t chase traffic. Traffic alone is a vanity metric. We chase quality. So does Google as it happens. It is your unique, great content that ranks.

We want fewer but more valuable, more successful interactions with our audience. No organisation can be all things to all people. Much better to do what we do well and stop there instead of being mediocre at everything.

When we write content based on well researched user needs, it's automatically answering specific tasks the user has at that point in their journey. This kind of content helps them move on to the next stage and, ultimately, reach their goal.

At the time they need it: journey mapping

Another outcome of our research is that we begin to understand the user’s journey.

This means all the offline and online steps the user has to take to complete a task. That can be something physical they get at the end, or it can just be a piece of information.

User journeys help us figure out 3 important things:

  • what the user’s motivation is when they come to our content,
  • how much information they can take in on the journey,
  • how much work it is for the user to get to a result,
  • what information they need exactly at what point.

At the time they need it: consistent messaging

While they are on this journey, people take in a lot of information unconsciously. Having consistent messaging across all our channels makes it much easier for our audience to understand the information and act on it.

They can follow a clear thread that runs through all parts of our communications, for example from a Tweet to a content page and into a service.

Creating these messages works best in a mixed team. Content works with marketing, comms, PR and any other part of your organisation that’s involved in communicating with your audience.

3. At the time they need it: channel and journey mapping

Next we look at which channels are the right ones to get the messages across at a particular point in the journey.

Don’t just think digital here. Channels can include:

  • the website,
  • social media,
  • any kind of advertising,
  • events.

Content designers may not have the access or responsibility for all of these points but we do need to know what is going on. This gives us priorities, language and a flow to work with.

We can decide if we are creating a reflection journey (a journey that reflects existing mental models) or a disruption journey (where we interrupt a model because it is incorrect).

We know that giving people information too early or in the wrong place can make people leave a service. They'll get frustrated and not trust us. Understanding what our audience needs – at the time that they need it – can be the difference between success and failure.

4. In a way they expect: language and emotion

We use the language our users are using. For the simple fact that they won’t find us, connect with us or trust us if we don’t.

We don’t use language for search engines – we use it for the humans behind those engines. We don’t pull people into useless pages or manipulate. We help people. Language through a product must reflect our audience’s vocabulary. Otherwise, they may find the interaction too difficult and abandon it.

Emotion is a layer that sits below it all. We use this type of research to:

  • inform our tone,
  • actually connect with our audience,
  • help them along their journey.

We follow a simple empathy mapping quad showing:

  • see – what will the audience see (and where are they seeing it)?
  • hear – what are they hearing and who from? Which channel?
  • feel – how they are feeling
  • do – what will our audience be doing? What decisions do they feel they have to make?

At the end of all this, we have a complete picture. We know what kind of content our audience needs at each step of their journey to help them make a decision, we know the language they use and the emotions they’re dealing with at each point.

All this means we can create content that helps create a good experience for the user.

5. Creation

Content designers don’t work in isolation. (Or they shouldn’t but sometimes reality bites.)

Content design is not just writing.

It is a collaboration with other teams to find the best solutions for our audience to cover their needs.

This means that content designers work with research, design, UX, engineers, service design, product owners to figure out what something should be. That may be a content page, tool, calculator, poster – whatever the best solution might be.

The basic principle here is that user needs come first, then comes the format. We could also say we figure out what the problem is before we create a solution.

6. Sharing

We share quickly and easily to get feedback. We know having fresh eyes on a piece of work is generally a good thing.

We use paper and google docs. We don’t put a stack of work into something we will improve and change quickly.

We use several techniques including: using research, peer review or a crit.

7. Iteration

No point doing any research, testing or looking at data if we don’t learn, apply and move on. So we iterate. In our content strategies, we always have review and delete dates. Content never just goes on and on. Our content needs love.

Content design is for every style of communication

Product, service, website, social media, marketing: it’s all communications and you can use content design techniques on all of it.

Let’s look at some content design myths.

Content design is not for marketing or creative work

Disagree. Content design is a user-centred approach to solving problems. I am an ex-copywriter. I wish I had known all I know now. I would have found it much easier.

Content design doesn’t make everything grey and boring. It focusses your content and gives it a clear structure. It means you know how to connect with your audience. That’s creative and can be used in marketing.

Read our blog post on content design for marketers.

Content designers are stepping on UX/UI designers’ toes.

Content design and user experience both work towards the same goal: creating a great user experience for the audience. It is true, sometimes the 2 areas overlap. But the best products are created where people are open to working together to find the best solutions.

Culturally, content is often seen as a skill everyone has so it isn’t valid. People who work with content designers generally change their minds pretty quickly.

I have numerous stories about how content designers can make or break a service with their wily ways. More of that in my next book. You can see an example of how a single word stopped a multi-million pound service in Signals, a free book by Public Digital.

Content design is for digital

So much wrong with this one. When we take a problem, we look at it holistically. Where is the user when they are making this decision? What information do they bring with them? What language are they using? What channels have they been on?

A good content designer will understand the whole journey and give the correct content at the right time. It may not be digital.

Example: a health service was going to spend millions on an app. What they actually needed was a poster in doctors’ offices. Content is content. It doesn’t have to be digital. It just needs to serve a user need.

So what is content design?

Content design is serving the audience.

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