Content Design London

Value of content design to your business

20 February 2020

By Sarah Richards and Lizzie Bruce

Content Design Research Research Papers

This is a work-in-progress research paper. We are opening it up for collaboration on 20 February, 2020. We will update and amend periodically.

Introduction

What is content design and how can it help your business?

In brief, you need someone with the right skills to get content right for your organisation. If someone without content design skills does the job, it can cause undesirable outcomes, from lost customers to your company being sued.

Bad content design can even cause physical harm.

You probably wouldn’t let a musician fix your electrics. The musician has skills, but not the right ones for the job. But many organisations leave it to a visual designer, back-end developer, administrator or account manager to create content.

Some industry views of the value of content expertise

Creative director of A List Apart, Jeffrey Zeldman, stated in 2008:

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” 1

Sarah Richards, creator of the content design discipline while working for the UK government, wrote a blog post about why editors need to design back in 2016:

“We don’t just write words, we look at all elements on the page and display them in the best way possible for the audience. “As a content person, you have as much skill in not writing words as you do in choosing the right ones. “You can ask users 5 questions and give them a tailored answer, rather than present them with 500 words of text. “Tools, calculators and calendars can save a thousand words.” 2

Author and content strategist Rachel McConnell surveyed content production across large organisations in early 2019, finding that:

“The people in non-content roles who answered the survey clearly recognise how content adds value and that there are challenges to overcome. “The negative business impact of letting just ‘anyone’ create the content should be obvious, but at the moment it’s still a blind spot for some organisations.” 3

What is content design?

Content design is user-focused, strategic design

The content design function is a complex and highly skilled role.

Content design is not “just writing”. It requires specialist skills, abilities and knowledge.

Some of these skills are transferable from other design or editorial roles and can be further developed. Others are very specific to content design as a discipline and need to be learnt, and then practised regularly.

Content design abilities:

  • understanding a business’s purpose, goals, ethos, mission and vision,
  • supporting business needs by meeting customer/visitor needs,
  • demonstrating to stakeholders how user needs map to business needs,
  • interpreting search analytics,
  • making informed decisions from desktop research and site data,
  • drafting content based on an abstract concept,
  • providing user behaviour assumptions to test,
  • setting questions to ask in user research interviews,
  • applying user research findings to content iteration,
  • working with stakeholders to ensure the accuracy of user-focused content,
  • advocating for the user within a multi-disciplinary team,
  • communicating with those in technical roles: understanding the logical perspective, language usage and technical framing,
  • conveying project updates to those in non-technical roles in plain language.

Essential content design knowledge:

  • user-centred design principles,
  • digital content best practice,
  • inclusive design content principles,
  • accessibility requirements,
  • psychology of online reading,
  • awareness of cognitive bias,
  • specific tools like Google Trends,
  • technical language related to websites.

Content designers should have a focus on and commitment to user-centred design. This should be clearly demonstrated through an ability to think strategically and creatively to design content that will meet users’ needs. They should be able to write using clear language and have the flexibility to iterate or re-think based on research and feedback. They should also be able to make useful contributions to research and design, through suggestions for interview questions, prototype sketches and tools.

The content designer role

The content designer role is multi-functional.

Depending on your organisation and digital team size, roles a content designer covers will vary. As a result, senior content designers can have very wide experience of digital design, user experience and content management functions.

A content designer may have experience of some, part or all of these project roles:

  • User Experience (UX) writer,
  • Customer Service (CS) writer,
  • Technical writer,
  • Service designer,
  • User Interface (UI) designer,
  • Information architect,
  • User researcher,
  • Content manager,
  • Content team lead,
  • Project manager,
  • Point of contact for product owner, developers, subject matter experts, stakeholders, board of directors, CEO,
  • Strategist,
  • Business advisor.

Richmond Pharmacology Ltd, a clinical research organisation, took the Health Research Authority (HRA) to court because its website was confusing.

The site content had been cleared through a legal department so this has set a precedent in the UK. You can still be sued, even with content approved by your legal team, if that content is not understandable. This will cost you reputationally, as well as financially.

‘The Judge published his order today. He has made a declaration that the HRA has acted unlawfully because material on its website is “ambiguous and potentially misleading … in the specific respects and to the extent set out in the judgment.”’ 4

Another example: Domino’s Pizza were told its website and app must be made fully accessible to blind people, after losing a legal case in the US. 5

Content design can save lives

Studies from the St John Ambulance call centre in Belmont, Australia 6 found that changing the script used by staff, even minutely, resulted in faster, more relevant answers from emergency callers:

In their responses to emergency calls for cardiac arrests in public or at home, ambulance dispatchers found that saying “Tell me what’s happened” instead of “Tell me what happened” saved an average of 9 seconds per call. In this situation every second can have an impact on survival. The first phrase focused callers immediately on relevant detail, and avoided them telling longer stories full of unnecessary information.

Similarly, a change to say, “We’re going to do CPR,” instead of asking “Do you want to do CPR?” increased the number of bystanders agreeing to do this while waiting for an ambulance. For every minute without CPR or defibrillation after a cardiac arrest, survival rates fall by 10 per cent. Getting bystanders to begin CPR immediately can save lives.

Director of clinical medicine at the centre, Paul Bailey, commented:

“It’s mind-blowing what a difference these linguistics make. It’s about attention to detail at every step.” Another example of content design being necessary in the field of medicine is a diabetes diagnosis that was missed for a year, simply because the reference was not visible in the default view of a digital information screen.

The GP’s receptionist did not know it was scrollable content and did not realise there was more to read further down. 7

A good content designer would have identified the most important information and structured the content so this was immediately obvious to the user. Knowledge of the user need means content can be actively and successfully tailored to meet it.

How content design saves your business money

Content design saves money. Because ignoring users wastes money. And because not having the right skills on the team to create your web content will produce bad quality content, that is not fit for purpose. Which also wastes money.

But good quality, well-researched content that meets user needs is more efficient. It will save your customers phoning, emailing or tweeting customer services, who have to answer the same questions again and again. This is an additional cost each time. A phonecall, individual email reply or tweet costs more than it would cost to provide the information online contextually when and where the user needs it and is already looking for it. Ignoring users wastes money Producing content takes time, and costs money. Here’s an example of a traditional workflow:

Author has idea > Brand agree idea > SEO team input > Write > Sign-off > Load to CMS > Proof > Publish.

Many people are involved in this process, spending time on content-related tasks. This is a percentage of their salary. What does it all add up to for all the time spent by all the people involved, to get a single piece of content live? Consider the cost of each hour for various salary roles that might be involved in the publication process.

An annual £30,000 salary is £14.42 an hour. £35,000 is £16.83. £50,000 is £24.04. £70,000 is £33.65. And £90,000 is £43.27.

But a very important group is missing from the workflow above.

Users.

All the money absorbed by the work roles involved in the example workflow has been spent on an author’s idea which hasn’t been validated with users. What happens if your audience do not:

  • want the content,
  • need the content,
  • have an interest in the content,
  • use the content,
  • look at the content?

Then 100% of the money spent on getting it onto your website is wasted. And if you think the problem is just that they haven’t noticed it, you might waste thousands more on marketing it. Why not just start by finding out if it’s something your customers want, need or are interested in?

Content design starts with users

The content design workflow starts by identifying user needs for content. It’s user-centred design, or user experience design.

Industry view: Doug Collins, leading UX designer and speaker:

“#UX #design saves money by giving you direction before you begin development work. This ensures you aren’t wasting effort and resources by going back and re-working a product when your users tell you that your solution can’t get you from where they are to where they need to be.” 8

Doing the research to make sure your content meets customer needs and uses words they understand and connect with mean you can get things right first time, and you’ll save your organisation time (money) later.

The content design workflow progresses through simple stages, that starting with user requirements for content:

Research user needs and language > Design content > Review > User test > Iterate > User test > Iterate > Final check > Publish.

Content design uses Agile processes, which save time, and money.

Agile is a proven efficient way of working. A UK government 2011 objective was to use Agile delivery: “to reduce the average delivery time for departmental ICT-enabled change programmes by 20 per cent by 2014”. 9

Traditional work methodology results in time losses

In traditional work environments, information-sharing, cross-team communications and content approvals take time. Meetings take time.

Cascading information takes time. Relaying information back to management about why something they decided from the board room doesn’t work, takes time.

Sign-off communications take time and can cause a lot of delay – often right at the end of the process. The time it takes to get content approval from subject matter experts is often underestimated. It can even can impact your go-live date, if your organisation has set one.

Content teams split across locations can lose time on travel, or through missing something by not being there when it was said.

Agile efficiencies

Agile ways of working are flexible, and are designed to save time. Here are a few examples of those efficiencies.

Team communication efficiencies

Co-located teams, sitting next to each other in the same room, with daily stand-ups makes communication very easy and efficient. Co-location facilitates communication between disciplines, which is always beneficial, and reduces time spent on emails and in meetings. When a question comes up, it can simply be asked of the relevant person.

Design efficiencies

Agile empowers content designers and other creatives to make decisions based on professional experience and user research. It allows them to make changes to prototypes without a chain of approval, and to feedback back on progress to management through regular show and tells, rather than time-consuming meetings.

Sign off efficiencies

Pair-writing between content designers and subject matter experts saves a lot of time. Approval happens as content is created, so there’s no final hold up.

Subject matter experts can understand the content designer’s decisions by experiencing their methods and processes. They can instantly say if something has affected factual accuracy. Content designers can ask them for the missing information that users need. Compare that with a chain of different roles communicating over email.

Case study: NAO: more efficient by 36%:

“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.” Figure 1.8, NAO ‘Governance for Agile delivery’ 9

Plain English saves time and money

In a US study reported on by Joseph Kimble the time participants took to read, process, and answer questions about a plain language rewrite of a regulation was almost halved in comparison to the original. It decreased from an average of 3.5 minutes for each question with the original, to under 2 minutes with the plain language version.

The UK Plain Language Commission reports that using plain language for your company’s internal and external communications will reduce the time spent reading them by 30%.

Industry view: Shelly Davies, business writer and trainer and speaker:

“How many minutes a day do your staff spend reading regulations, standards, policies, procedures and other indecipherable stuff? Just imagine how much time they could save.

“So the question is, really, can you afford NOT to invest in upskilling your people and embedding beautiful, crisp, clear plain language communication strategies throughout every inch of your business?” 10

Churchill memo to staff https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/churchills-call-for-brevity

Industry view: Caroline Jarrett, AI feasibility investigator, and forms specialist.

If you know enough to say it’s correct, you know too much to say it’s clear. No one can judge both clear and correct. https://twitter.com/cjforms/status/707209269565919232?lang=en

More case studies here: https://www.plainenglish.ie/plain-english/why-use-plain-english/

Content designers are skilled at translating complex concepts and terminology into plain English. Even subject experts need content designers, to keep their content clear and brief.

With content design, web content will not include jargon or terms that most users do not understand. If your content is not understood, creating it is wasted time.

How content design generates money for your business

Content design satisfies universal user intents

These 5 user intents are generic to all websites and applications. All users, everywhere, want to be able to do these basic things on your website. Meeting these intents supports your business goals, as customers will stay on your site and will be more likely to return to it.

  1. They need to find out something quickly.
  2. They need to trust your web content, and feel confident in it.
  3. They need to be able to complete a task.
  4. They need it to be accessible for them.
  5. They need to get around your site easily.

Investing in content design will enable your organisation to satisfy these intents.

They want to find out something quickly

Industry view: Jakob Nielsen, usability expert, 2008:

“On the average web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” 11

By employing people with content design skills or training your staff in content design, your organisation will be able to produce concise content, that readers can scan through quickly.

Users don’t have time for anything else. If they are faced with dense, lengthy information and cannot get through it to find out what they want quickly, they’ll give up and go to your competitor.

They need to trust your web content, and feel confident in it

Industry view: Drake Bennett

“Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard.”

Drake Bennett, ‘Easy = True’, 2010

Consistency of style rules like language usage and grammar, and of design decisions like layout, makes it easier for users to trust your website. There’s an unconscious reassurance from familiarity, finding what you expect to find, and dissonance from irregularities between one page and another. Steve Krug, a leading usability expert titled his world-famous book on user behaviour ‘Don’t Make Me Think’.

Content designers follow style guides and apply consistency to your web content, so you’ll never be saying ‘shopping centre in one place and ‘shopping center’ in another. You won’t be The Special Company in the first paragraph and the Special Company in the second.

Users also naturally trust content that is easy to instantly comprehend. They’ll feel more confident about buying or doing something that feels easy. Content designers are trained to choose plain words and clear language above jargon and verbosity. So they can create content that’s easy and simple to understand. They’re also skilled at researching words users themselves use to describe something or talk about a topic.

They need to be able to complete a task

To enable a customer or user to do something, you have to make it clear to them how to do it.

The Nielsen Norman Group carried out a formal usability study and found that task completion rates on web sites improved for both low and higher level literacy users when the content was rewritten in plain language and generally made simpler.

It was almost 3 times faster for higher level literacy users to complete tasks, and more than twice as fast from low level literacy users. 12

If your customer does not buy something from you because they don’t understand how to, you have lost a sale and you have lost money. Content designers can save you that sale, and make you money.

Industry view: Rachel McConnell, author and content strategist, 2019:

“…if users don’t understand what they’re reading, then they won’t understand what they’re buying or signing up to either…..Confusion can lead to a loss of custom, complaints, and negative sentiment.” 13

They need it to be accessible for them

1 in 4 of people in the UK have a disability or are temporarily disabled.

Industry view: Adi Latif, inclusive design consultant, AbilityNet, 2019:

“I can’t pick a flight date using VoiceOver on the British Airways or RyanAir apps. So I use Easyjet instead. “When websites are not accessible it makes me go and use a different app or a different service provider. “Our organisation recently changed suppliers as the previous software was not accessible. That was a hundred of thousands of pound contract.”

Content designers are trained in and skilled at designing inclusive content. They know how to structure a page so that text-to-speech software users can navigate the page as conveniently as sighted users who read the headings.

They know where to position a hyperlink in a sentence so that a user with cognitive challenges is more likely to be able to read the complete sentence from start to finish.

They need to be able to find their way around

Websites with poor signposting and a navigation systems that sends them round in circles, confuse and frustrate users, which will put them off returning.

It may also negatively influence their view of your brand. This could cause them to:

  • not buy offline either,
  • say negative things about your brand to friends, family and colleagues,
  • say negative things about your brand on social media.

You might waste more money marketing to them on another channel, like direct mail, oblivious to the fact that they are not going to shop from you because of their bad online experience.

Content design in the right places prevents this from happening. By funnelling your users through to conversion, good content design will help your customers.

Industry view: Colleen Jones, leading content strategist, 2018:

“Business is digital, so content is critical. Does your company have a content liability or a content advantage?”

https://content-science.com/publications/

Convincing your organisation that content design is worth it

Why content design is currently not valued highly enough

Content is not valued as highly as it should by some organisations. If it is given time, it’s often assigned to staff who don’t have the right skills to do it. This is a sad fact known by many content professionals. Why is this, and what evidence do we have?

Assumptions

These are based on the professional experiences of the Content Design London team.

  • “Not tech” (tech = big spend associated)
  • “Anyone can write, it’s just words”
  • “Not design” (design = thought of as look and feel, flashy stuff which is still frequently presumed to be a hook for site visitors/best way to engage them, when really users are, first and foremost, after the content)
  • Smaller/no budget for content
  • “Editing the website” tacked onto a staff member’s job description, with no training or extra time for doing it
  • Someone who has “always done the website” feeling threatened by a central digital transformation team
  • Non-content people not going to content conferences or reading content articles (or attending meetups, hearing talks, following content hashtags)… so not learning all the amazing things – is there a content bubble?
  • Subject Matter Experts think they are also the expert on how something should be written
  • “Sign off” often not defined as purely factual sign off so a non-content expert influences content design (for the worse)
  • Titles like “product owner” and “product manager” instead of “project manager”, or “project lead”, invite an imbalance… even in a multi-disciplinary team, this role can think their opinion should be final say on everything, including content design decisions.

CMS is valued, content designers aren’t

Jack Garfinkel CMS tweet https://twitter.com/CuriousScutter/status/1133388956924616704

and responses, particularly: https://twitter.com/CuriousScutter/status/1133666894656016384

@lukemicallef

Clearly CMS salespeople are doing something that we’re not though. Why are businesses willing to spend a fortune on CMS licenses and migrations, but not on content?

@CuriousScutter

Interesting! Any of these? 1. Branding 2. Changing your CMS is hard, but culture change is harder 3. People like being told it’s easy 4. Managers think content is like gold when it needs to be looked after like an old car (because of breakdowns) or puppies (because…mess)

Evidence around content not being valued enough

1. Rachel McConnell ‘The current state of content’.

Analysis based on a survey Rachel carried out with 53 respondents in multiple countries. blog.prototypr.io/the-current-state-of-content-4a1a068c7c54

“When it comes to who owns the brand voice and style guides, I got the following responses: Brand team 36% Content design/UX writers 13% Content strategist 8%” “…only a tiny percentage of content design roles have ownership of content style and tone guides. In my experience brand tone of voice guides never go to the depth that is useful for writing interaction or navigation copy. This means a lot of content creators are still fumbling their way through content design…” “…when asked specifically about what respondents saw as the biggest challenges, here’s what they answered:

  • 68% said content isn’t joined up enough across their business
  • 60% said they don’t have enough content specialists
  • 60% said content isn’t being measured effectively (probably down to the lack of expertise and skills)
  • 58% said content isn’t involved enough in the design process
  • 36% said there are skill gaps in content areas” “It seems the majority of business are still probably designing without content involvement upfront. This is misguided, as content is a fundamental element of design. But these businesses are also failing to recognise the value of content due to the lack of expertise and measurement existing in their business. It’s a vicious circle.”

2. Yael Ben-David ‘Lorem ipsum is dead. Hallelujah!’.

Design has commonly used placeholder text rather than hiring a content person early on.

https://contentdesign.london/content-design/lorem-ipsum-is-dead-hallelujah-by-yael-ben-david/

“Placeholder text relegates content to an afterthought, literally, instead of its rightful place as a powerful element of UI design that is also cheap (in a good/lean UX way) and ubiquitous.”

Help us expand this research

We’d like to keep adding to this. If you have any research to add, thoughts or comments to help us make this better, please get in touch on Twitter: @ContentDesignLN and Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/15174113.

Sources

  1. Found on Twitter. Content precedes design quote.
    https://twitter.com/zeldman/status/804159148?s=20 

  2. Sarah Richards ‘Why editors need to design’. How designing content not writing words helped GOV.UK create robust content.
    contentdesign.london/content-design/why-editors-need-to-design/ 

  3. Contributed by Rachel McConnell from her article ‘The current state of content’.
    blog.prototypr.io/the-current-state-of-content-4a1a068c7c54 

  4. Case judgement on Alltrials.net
    Richmond pharmaceutical company court case by Health Regulatory Authority 

  5. Dominos Accessibility case 

  6. Discovered through Gerry McGovern’s Confab talk 2018. How content design can save lives: studies from St John Ambulance call centre, Belmont.
    watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/every-breath-you-take-every-move-they-make-counts-for-wa-paramedics-20180329-p4z6zp.html 

  7. Found on Twitter. GP digital information screen with content hidden from view.
    https://twitter.com/ermlikeyeah/status/1123898735170347008 

  8. Found on Twitter. Doug Collins tweet:
    https://twitter.com/dougcollinsux/status/1146063860220043265?s=11 

  9. National Audit Office (NAO) report: A snapshot of the use of Agile in central government
    https://www.nao.org.uk/report/a-snapshot-of-the-use-of-agile-delivery-in-central-government-4/  2

  10. Joseph Kimble and Shelly Davies
    https://www.shellydavies.co.nz/blog_and_testimonials/plain-language-save-money/ 

  11. https://www.plainenglish.ie/plain-english/why-use-plain-english/ 

  12. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/writing-for-lower-literacy-users/ 

  13. Rachel Mconnell: how to measure content:
    https://medium.com/clear-left-thinking/how-to-measure-content-60cac43fa675 


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