GDPR: what we did and how

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect on 25 May 2018. That’s very soon and a lot of people are feeling understandably nervous about it…

Here’s what we’re doing at Scroll to prepare for GDPR – and why you should care about it.

What is GDPR?

GDPR is a piece of legislation that updates data protection law so it deals with the new ways we use data – like cookies and large-scale data collection. (The legislation GDPR is replacing came into effect in 1995: a lot has changed since then.)

GDPR makes data protection rules more or less the same throughout the EU. It gives data subjects – the people whose data is being held – a lot more rights over their data.

And, slightly terrifyingly, it means companies can be fined 4% of their annual turnover or 20 million Euros, whichever is greater, if they don’t comply.

Why should you care about GDPR?

Most people creating and editing content for an organisation will come across personal data (data that can directly or indirectly be used to identify someone) at some point.

As a professional, it’s important to understand a few of the issues and requirements around dealing with personal data, or you could unwittingly put your client and your reputation at risk. As you’ll see when you read further, not handling data properly can have serious consequences…

It’s also handy to have some kind of grasp of GDPR so if a client asks, you can look vaguely knowledgeable!

Some key bits of GDPR and what Scroll has done

GDPR is long and complex, so I can only give you a flavour of it here. Your best bet for comprehensive GDPR information is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) website.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here are some key parts of GDPR and a bit about what we did to prepare.

Holding data lawfully

The GDPR says you have to have a legal basis for keeping or using data. There are a number of legal bases but the ones we use at Scroll are:

  • explicit, opt-in consent – gone are the tick boxes saying ‘tick here if you don’t want to hear from us’: people have to opt in to stuff now
  • to comply with a legal obligation – we keep data to show that a Scrollie has the right to work in the UK
  • to perform a contract or to take steps to enter into a contract – we keep data so we can search for roles for Scrollies

We’ve planned data audits once a year to ensure the only data we hold is covered by one of the legal bases above.

Interestingly, under GDPR, personal data is not just the usual things you’d think of, like name, address and email, etc. It now encompasses web data like location, IP address and cookie data, which makes things a bit trickier.

Being fair and transparent about data you hold

There are other rules about holding data, which are identical or very similar to the current Data Protection Act. They mostly come across as rather reasonable things to demand. For example, you must:

  • only collect data you need
  • tell people clearly why you’re collecting it (we do this via short privacy notices, that we show at the point of collecting people’s details)
  • make sure it’s accurate and up to date
  • not use it for any other reason than the one you told people about
  • not keep it longer than you have to

At Scroll, we did a data audit so we now know what data we have and where it’s stored. This means we can keep track of how long we keep information for, who has access to it, why we collected it and who is responsible for it. That helps us stick to these rules.

Keeping personal data secure

Under GDPR, you must keep personal data secure, protecting it from unauthorised use, accidental loss, destruction or damage. Securing your data involves looking at whether your systems are secure and who has access to them, among other things.

As part of our data audit, we classified the data so we knew which was most important to protect – for example, we classified our newsletter sign up list as less sensitive than our Directory, which contains names, past projects, test results and interview details.

We could then make decisions as a team about how to protect the most important data first – we limited access to the sensitive stuff and we’ll be running training on how to handle data properly.

Acting quickly if you have a data breach

If your data is accidentally or unlawfully destroyed, lost, altered, disclosed or accessed, you’ve had a data breach (and you have a problem).

Carphone Warehouse was fined £400,000 when it happened to them.  Wetherspoons deleted their entire database rather than risk another breach.

If you have a data breach, unless it’s a breach of data that can’t be used to identify people, you’ll have to report it to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and soon. If you don’t do it within 72 hours, you could face a fine. You may also have to inform all the individuals concerned, depending on what kind of data it was.

At Scroll, we’ve set up a data breach procedure and a notification form, so we quickly know what to do if it ever happens to us.

Respecting people’s rights around their data

Under GDPR, people have the right to:

  • access their personal data for free
  • have data corrected if it’s wrong
  • object to or stop you processing their data
  • be forgotten (a person can ask you to delete their personal data)
  • data portability (moving data seamlessly from one internet provider to another, for example)

Most of these rights are the same ones they had under the Data Protection Act, but with some added extras – eg the right to data portability.

All of these rights make it imperative that you know what data you have on people and where it’s stored, which is why you need – yep – a data audit. If this blog makes you think we’re obsessed with data audits, it’s because we truly are!

A summary of what else Scroll has done

There’s far too much to go into in detail, but we have also:

  • documented our journey to compliance and why we made the decisions we did (GDPR is big on accountability) – this document has been really useful as a ‘to do’ list to check off
  • carried out a risk assessment
  • thought about cookies (still thinking about cookies…)
  • updated Scroll’s data protection policy and privacy policy
  • thought about what ‘privacy by design’ will mean for us if we get a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system
  • acted on Mailchimp’s recommendations for compliance (we have a Mailchimp mailing list)

What else you should do about GDPR

Most clients you work for will have data protection policies in place already under the Data Protection Act, and will be strengthening them in readiness for the GDPR. Make sure you’re up to speed with what’s expected of you.

You can also have a flick through the GDPR guidance from the ICO – it’s written in a fairly straightforward, easy-to-understand way and is pretty user friendly, with ‘at a glance’ summaries and checklists.

I hope you learnt something new about GDPR from this blog. If you didn’t… could you get in touch and make sure we’re doing it right?

New to content design? Start here

UX writing and content design – a few tricks of the trade

I’ve been working on my portfolio website recently — trying to distil large projects into succinct case studies. In a way it’s been a test of good content design in itself!

Something I realised when I was getting this stuff down on paper was there are a few things I tend to do consistently when working on projects, be it a new app or service, or a large content-heavy website.

Leverage established norms

Before you create your controlled language and vocabulary for your project or site, research what’s already being used in the real world. Sounds obvious, but there can be a tendency to get your head down and start creating content straight away. And it’s good to give yourself a bit of time early on to research what’s out there.

I recently designed an online bank account feature for the Education and Skills Funding Agency. I tried to make the interface as intuitive as possible by researching online banking apps from major retail banks, then I modelled the site’s language on established norms.

Use whatever data you can get

It’s great to use established data sources such as Analytics navigation summaries and organic keyword search, Google trends, SEMrush, user research sessions and support centre data.

But if you don’t yet have this data, there’s a lot you can do to find the all-important vernacular language that your users actually use online.

Try searching online for discussion boards and message boards, join social media communities and groups. You could also read specialist news sites and blogs, read the comments sections, or go to community events and meet ups.

This way, you’ll really tap into the vocabulary of your users and get to grips with their concerns. This will also help make your content better for your users by making it easier to find and easier to understand.

Help users to orient themselves

Helping users orient themselves around a site or service is one of the perennial challenges of content design.

You can help users find their way around your site by including a ‘Next steps’ feature at the end of each transaction.

I did this recently at the UK’s Department for Education. I worked with the UX design lead to create a widget that could be dropped into the final page of each transaction on the site.

I then worked with our User researcher to create and send out a browser-based card sorting exercise to 200 users to identify the typical ‘next steps’ that users would like to do after each transaction.

Avoid saying ‘Back’

One thing that I’ve seen a lot is users getting stuck or confused during a transactional journey.

Transactional journeys are typically linear, and are designed to allow users to submit data, make a payment, or do something else other than simply read information.

As soon as users lose confidence, their lifeline is the back button. But aimlessly clicking ‘Back’ can quickly turn what could’ve been a straight-forward step by step journey into a really messy experience.

To prevent users from getting lost, try to label back buttons as precisely as you can. For example, ‘Previous page’ or ‘Start again’.

Users will occasionally want to retrace their steps, and it’s best to try orient them as much as you can.

Check ARIA tags

To assist users with impaired vision, you can use ARIA tags that allow you to provide additional text that will be read when someone is using a screenreader.

It’s a good idea to work with a front end developer to populate ARIA tags with your content, and made sure the code is structured so that language can be read using screenreaders as naturally as it could be read using the visual interface.

You can use Apple Voiceover or Vision Accessibility or other free screen readers to show you how screenreader will interpret your pages — use the Tab key to jump to each subsequent section of the site and make sure it is structured and ordered correctly.

Reduce cognitive load

If it’s inevitable that you expose lots of information on the interface, one thing I’ve found helpful is to reduce the effort users have to make to read content by using a consistent syntax to all messages (where possible).

For example, one format I used recently for about 100 different alert messages for a complex interface was:

{Date}: {Variable}{Verb past tense}
At {Time} by {Name} — Details

You can also reduce cognitive load on users by ‘chunking’ information up into bits.

I did this recently in an online bank account system that was used by a number of different user types that needed varying levels of detail. I chunked the financial information into a series of hierarchical levels — this meant users saw only the level of detail that they needed.

Avoid choice paralysis

Most people’s working memory is around 4 pieces of information, so you want to try keep below 4 pieces of information on any given page, especially when users are being presented with choices.

In a messaging system I developed at the UK’s Skills Funding Agency I helped avoid this ‘choice paralysis’ by only ever showing users 4 ‘alert’ messages at any given time. I choose to use an even number of options because an odd number of options tends to create a bias towards the ‘middle’ option of the list.

If you really want or need to present users with more information, you could try experiment with “choice tournaments” — something that Shlomo Benartzi refers to in his book The Smarter Screen.

He gives an example where a user is choosing between 16 different pairs of shoes on a shopping website. To avoid choice paralysis, you can show the user 4 options and let them pick one of the options, then repeat that 4 times. This way the user sees all 16 options, without being overwhelmed by too much choice.

Follow things up

One final thing that I think sometimes can get overlooked on fast-paced projects with tight deadlines is content maintenance.

It’s good practice to monitor how your content is performing by measuring page impressions and bounce rates, ongoing call centre data and email enquires.

If people still have questions and are calling you and emailing you — then you’ve got some gaps in your content.

If no one is reading your content — remove it!

Blog post by Pete Kowalczyk



Digital asset management (DAM) at Content, Seriously

Two industry experts presented on DAM and taxonomies at the latest meetup for people who take content seriously. In this special one-off event, participants got to experience an eclectic corner of London in an even more eclectic venue.

About the venue: Rotherhithe Picture Research Library

The Rotherhithe Picture Research Library is an extensive collection of visual media – photos, drawings, paintings, maps, video, and even costumes – that media producers use to study eras and areas when conducting background research for their films and plays.

What makes this venue and collection unique is the approach that one Managing Director, Olivier Stockman, takes in managing the collection: the index is completely analog.

Stockman explains his philosophy behind the decision. He wanted to create an environment of discovery. The idea that someone would do an online search and settle on a single answer belies the richness of the material.

Researching a topic for a film, for example, could involve looking at streets and architecture, typical household items or clothing from that period, or typical work and holiday activities. Call this way of research the equivalent to the slow food movement, where one is expected to take the time to savour and digest what’s before you. But more on that later.

Digital asset management (DAM): Theresa Regli

The first speaker was Theresa Regli, one of the top DAM (Digital Asset Management) consultants in the industry and a new transplant to London. Hers was more of a conversation than a formal presentation, where she answered questions about how DAM systems work, and some of the challenges around managing digital assets. Here are some highlights.

About DAM systems

DAM systems are, in some respects, the new kid on the block, though the functionality is growing in sophistication quite rapidly. The need to manage digital assets grew out of organisations such as museums and corporations having large numbers of images that weren’t being stored in ways that were useful for finding and using them later on.

Digital assets aren’t just images

The notion of digital assets are expanding from static images, such as drawings and photos, to items such as video, 3D renderings, and other properties that contribute to virtual reality environments. This could range from gaming companies looking to manage all of the minutiae that gets combined in a multitude of ways during the development of games, to multinational corporations managing virtual reality apps that let you see furniture at home before you buy.

Connecting digital assets with physical assets

In the more interesting projects that Regli has worked on, there has been a need to connect the digital assets with physical ones. For example, one multinational had an extensive collection of physical objects from their century-old corporate history, and what was displayed online had to be keyed to its physical location in a warehouse.

Categorisation and data modelling

Whether you’re a company trying to organise your website images or an organisation with complex digital asset needs, Regli warned of the dangers of thinking that a technology will fix what is essentially a categorisation problem. Before pouring data into a DAM system, the organisation must do the up-front work of thinking through the business problem to be solved, analysing the assets, and then creating a categorisation system – a taxonomy or ontology – that forms the foundation of the data modelling to be done within the system. Regli says it may be a hard conversation, but it’s a disservice not to tell clients that buying the system without having the right complement of people to do the preliminary and ongoing work will be wasted, an expensive exercise.

Treasure hunting in analog

With Regli’s words of wisdom ringing in our ears, participants engaged in a treasure hunt through the stacks of the library. Regli provided a handful of topics to find, and participants could choose which topic to locate. The familiarisation on where the stacks were and how to look through them went fairly quickly, and several people chose “hops” as their topic. Hops played – and to an extent, still plays – an important part in the British economy.

Soon the oversized, loosely-bound packets of photos appeared on the desks. One of the photos found was of families picking hops in Kent. This discovery led to a discussion about how families who wanted to take a vacation, but really couldn’t afford one, would go to Kent for a week and pick hops. It seems that Stockman’s discovery method proved itself that evening.

Creating successful taxonomies: Andreas Blumauer

Wrapping up the triple-bill of DAM activities, Andreas Blumauer discussed the organisation at the heart of any digital management: taxonomies. Organising content for presentation is not as simple as it seems. Presentation needs to happen in context, and the relationships between entities are what provides enough context to give us a better understanding of a topic. Indeed, Blumauer introduced himself using an example of relationship categorisation to demonstrate the principles.

Image of Andreas Blumauer categorised

Creating successful taxonomies: Andreas Blumauer (slide 3 from his presentation)

Using recognised standards like SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organisation System)

There are a great number of factors that make a taxonomy successful, with a few of them standing out in Blumauer’s presentation. It’s important to keep in mind that a taxonomy is not meant for presentation, as is an information architecture. The taxonomy is meant for storage, to create classification, thereby contributing to knowledge.

First, effectiveness depends on the taxonomy being understood by the systems, search engines, and so on. This means using recognised standards. SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organisation System) is developing standards for knowledge systems – and the W3C is working to ensure that there is alignment between the ISO 25964-1 standard and SKOS.

Mapping to create context

Second, effectiveness depends on mappings to create context. Using a simple example, Blumauer demonstrated how connecting terms and labels creates a wider understanding of a topic.

A simple hierarchy is:

– Glassware
– – Stemware
– – – Champagne flute

Non-hierarchical connections would include:

– Champagne flute is used for Bellinis
(And then Bellini gets connected back to champagne flutes)
– Champagne flute is a champagne coupe
– Champagne is served at Tony’s cocktail bar
(And then Tony’s Bar gets connected back to champagne cocktails)

Mapping is business dependent, so it’s important to build a solid foundation and then to maintain the taxonomy. Nothing stays static, and new connections need to be made on an ongoing basis.

Include semantics in content architecture

Third, it’s important to connect the content lifecycle with a four-layer content architecture that includes a semantic layer. The semantic layer contributes to the success of search – semantic search, recommendation systems, analytics and in presenting the right content within content management systems: dynamic content publishing and automatic content authoring.

About the speakers

Theresa Regli worked for many years as a taxonomist and then as a DAM consultant for The Real Story in the US. She is now based in London, where she helps organisations turn content into digital assets, simplify complexity, and realise their potential in the digital world.

Theresa started as a journalist, transitioned to web development, and taxonomy, and then became director of content management at a systems integration firm. She has advised over 100 businesses on their digital strategies, including 20% of the Fortune 500. She is the author of the definitive book on managing digital marketing & media assets, Digital & Marketing Asset Management.

Andreas Blumauer is managing partner of the Semantic Web Company, and has experienced with large-scale semantic technology projects in various industry sectors. He is also responsible for the strategic development and product management of PoolParty Semantic Suite. Andreas has been a pioneer in the area of linked data and the semantic web since 2002; he is co-founder of SEMANTiCS conference series, and editor of one of the first comprehensive books in the area of the semantic web for the German speaking community. Andreas holds a master’s degree in Computer Sciences and Business Administration from the University of Vienna/Austria.

Join one of our meetups

London Content Strategy meetup

A relaxed atmosphere where content professionals can learn about best practices and emerging trends, and network with your counterparts in related fields.

Content, Seriously meetup

This meetup is for in-depth presentations, short workshops, and interactive sessions for professionals who may need a deeper understanding in a particular area. Suitable for content people and managers tasked with managing content.


Latest news in content: autumn 2017

News, thought pieces, advice

Content designers add value (just by doing their job)
Just having a content designer on your team means you get training, capacity development, mentoring and user-centred design advocacy for free. Content designers are AMAZING.

Map a content ecosystem
There is no better way to work out where your content stands. Then you can step back and take a critical look at the whole bangshoot. (Also, a great read.)

SEO myth-buster: 2017 edition
Exasperated post about current SEO buzzwords and fashions that are just nonsense and don’t work.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

Plain English, again
As a content designer, you will have endless conversations about why even experts need plain English. Here’s some more ammunition.

How to write a problem statement
‘Are we all solving the same problem?’ is an excellent first question to ask on any content project.

Sketch and prototype with content
(Long read, worth it.) A step-by-step guide for content designers working in interaction design. How to get the words into the design from the start.


How much will the content cost? 
Wait, HOW much? People constantly underestimate the cost of content. This tool is a quick way to work out how much a content project will cost.

And finally…

It’s so beautiful and clever and funny!
How to tell if your copy is narcissistic.

Things you get for free when you hire a content designer

Content design and user experience (UX) writing are becoming more commonplace. Digital teams are increasingly using content professionals to make their apps and websites better — but that’s not the whole story.

One thing that I think can go unnoticed when a company considers hiring a UX writer or content designer is the tacit training and capacity-building that these specialists provide on a day-to-day basis, simply by doing their job.

Here are some ways content designers added value at the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). It seems that when you hire a content designer, you get a lot for free!

(And if you’re a content designer feeling the need to raise awareness of your profession within your organisation, perhaps these things could be a good place for you to start.)

Style guides

We created a content design microsite. We created it by running workshops to draw on the collective experience of the agency’s content design contractors.

The site is now used to on-board new starters and encourage consistency across the agency’s services. It also shows the thought that goes into content design and the value content design adds to the ESFA.

Show and tells

We educated policy and operational civil servants about user-centered design via fortnightly ‘show and tell’ presentations. UX and content designers would present together, and the content people would explain the research and thought processes that informed the language structures they used and their word choices.

Showing that you base your decisions on data — even if it’s as seemingly trivial as some qualitative anecdotes from user testing — can help to instill a user-oriented attitude within an organisation.


We wrote blog posts for the ESFA Digital blog, which helped shed light on the self-aware and considered approach content designers were bringing to the project.

Writing with mental health in mind aimed to debunk the idea of mental health as a fringe issue, and showed how, as content designers, we were aiming to reduce the anxiety involved in using digital services.

Think like a content designer (to be published soon) aimed to explain the value content designers were adding to the agency by focusing on the questions we ask users, rather than the products we create (which are highly collaborative). This post also encouraged everyone involved in the project, not just content designers, to put themselves in the shoes of users.


As a content ‘clan’ we collectively mentored 2 civil servants who were new to content design.

We gave constructive feedback and advice, we discussed content challenges and disagreements. Sometimes we were just a shoulder to cry on!

This was part of the capacity-building that we provided the agency on a daily basis.

Email mailers

Between us, the content clan set up a group email list through which we shared content-related videos, blog posts, latest thinking and conventions with interface language. This knowledge-sharing improved the standard of all content designers in the agency and it definitely gave me the occasional bits of inspiration I needed.

And then, non-content designers started signing up to it, too.

I think one of the best things we shared here was a Google talk about how words can make your product stand out. This talk inspired us as a content clan to keep improving our services. It also helps to show how seriously big-hitters like Google take content design — because the agency’s non-content designers started to pay more attention to content design as a discipline.

Sprint planning

Every sprint, each content designer presented new design work to the rest of their scrum team.

As well as being a chance for people to interrogate the content designer’s thinking, it was also a way of educating people in other specialisms about the thought and processes that go into content design.

I think the most important thing to show here is that you’re responding to data and research, and you’re not dogmatic about any particular solution. This helps defuse differences of opinion and creates a working environment that’s more user-focused and less egotistical. And that has got to be a good thing!

Pete Kowalczyk is one of Scroll’s associates. Get in contact with Scroll if you’d like to see how much value he could add to your organisation.

Content design in the private and public sectors

Content, Seriously is a meetup for content professionals in London. It’s organised by Rahel Bailie, Scroll’s chief content strategist.

Before the latest Content, Seriously event, Rahel polled the meetup members to ask what they wanted to talk about. Content design rose to the top of the list.

As the meetup series normally focuses on content strategy, the topic was a bit of a departure, though a delightful detour into an all-too-important aspect of content.

The field of content spans a long continuum, in the context of both private- and public-sector creation and delivery. At one end of the spectrum is straightforward content creation and copywriting. At the other end is content strategy and content engineering – creating content systems. In between are a multitude of roles and responsibilities. Content design is firmly situated in the space where UX meets content.

What is content design?

Content design is a well-defined discipline in the UK. Thanks to GDS (Government Digital Service), content design is a commonly-understood role with a standardised job description. For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s the definition on GOV.UK:

“A content designer works on the end-to-end journey of a service to help users complete their goal and government deliver a policy intent.

Their work may involve the creation of, or change to, a transaction, product or single piece of content that stretches across digital and offline channels.

They make sure appropriate content is shown to a user in the right place and in the best format. They start from discovery and work closely with user researchers, service designers and interaction designers.”


Start with user needs

The content design process begins with determining user needs. This means doing user research as a core activity before you even think of putting fingers to keyboard to create content. The research can span a range of methods, such as ethnographic research, analytics, keyword research, and user journeys.

The user stories that come out of this must include meaningful user acceptance criteria. They can follow the same format as normal agile user stories – but only if the criteria is useful. In other words, a user story that goes:

  • As a user
  • I want to understand Regulation ABC
  • So that I can be in compliance

probably isn’t useful unless users already understand what the regulation is and why they need to comply.

How content designers create content

The second part of the equation is when fingers do begin to dance over the keyboard. This is where writing for digital becomes so important. It’s not just the basics of writing for the web, where we keep the text as short as possible, front-load the important points, and write for viewing on multiple sizes of screen.

It means using the language that your audience expects and uses themselves, keeping the copy short, breaking up the text with meaningful headings and subheadings, and using conventions such as lists to make the important points easier to follow.

And, last but not least, be sure to have all content reviewed by another person to catch any mistakes or bias that could have been inadvertently introduced. This is known as the ‘2i’ process – short for ‘second pair of eyes’.

Content design in the private sector

Danielle Kirkwood, a content designer with Intuit on their QuickBooks product, uses similar content design techniques to ensure that their products stay focused on their users and stay leaders in the marketplace. However, the job description is not quite the same as that of GDS.

Enterprises can make content design their own, and the demands on a content designer in this particular company make for an enjoyable job, with substantial improvements to products as the outcome.

At Intuit, content design goes beyond meeting user needs and into a technique they call ‘Design 4 Delight’. Content designers use design thinking principles to alleviate frustrations that users have, solve known user problems, and think of ways to solve problems that users might not realise they have.

Content designers are expected to do regular user visits, going to the customers’ offices to observe how they use the products in their environments. The breadth and depth of these visits facilitate customer-driven innovations.

In a business context, this means using team, tools, customers, and space to create valuable business opportunities by turning ingenuity into reality. As in the public sector, the work is a blend of content and UX. Here it shows that when content and UX are considered together, content can play a critical part in making a product understood.

See the presentations

Come to the next Content, Seriously meetup

If you take content seriously, then this group is for you. It’s a relaxed and informal atmosphere for content professionals to meet and learn from another. It’s also a place where organisations looking for serious solutions to content dilemmas can come to find answers.

We’ll discuss how to use content to solve business problems, explore industry best practices, discuss trends in the management of content, and share case studies.

Join the Content, Seriously group on Meetup

How we took Scroll’s Twitter account from 0 to 1,000+ followers

For most people joining Twitter, it can feel a bit of an anti-climax at the start. You sign up, you follow people, you learn, you laugh, and then when you muster the confidence to tweet something, it’s followed by…nothing. No retweets. No comments. No new followers. Pure tumbleweed.

This is the case for all but the biggest brands and celebrities. It was certainly the case with our Twitter account, @ScrollUK. But by plugging away, studying the analytics and trying some different things, we’ve managed to get to 1,200 followers and a healthy level of engagement.

(Bog) standards

I started working on the Scroll account in May 2016. I’d previously run @wwwfoecouk (Friends of the Earth) and @UKCivilService and I wanted to bring the high standards and consistency of those accounts to @ScrollUK.

That means there’s a minimum of 5 scheduled tweets a day during the week and 3 per day on the weekends. All the tweets contain images and there will be a tweet at the times our audience are likely to be looking at Twitter – during the morning and evening commute times and at lunchtime.

Finding content to tweet

The next challenge was the biggest job of them all – finding quality content to share. Fellow Scrollies (as Scroll’s team of content gurus are affectionately known) post regular blogs both here and elsewhere but this still leaves substantial space to be filled. Thankfully I can rely on other colleagues to flag up the good stuff.

@CopyContentCo ‏puts together a fortnightly Scroll newsletter of the latest news, research and thinking in content strategy and design which is an absolute goldmine. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Our Chief Knowledge Officer @rahelab is another excellent source as she spots, shares and comments on new developments in content strategy. I’d really recommend following Rahel if you want to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

And by following some of the other big movers and shakers in the areas of content design and strategy, I see what they share and what might be of interest to our followers.

What’s worked best

The next step is making sure that your carefully curated content gets in front of as many of your desired audience as possible. One way that we’ve successfully achieved this is by encouraging others to share.

This Tweet was shared by one of the aforementioned movers and shakers, meaning that many of her 400k followers got to see and engage with the tweet.

This also had a positive effect on one of the other ways to ensure your tweets are widely seen – increasing your follower numbers. Scroll picked up new followers as a result of that tweet and I’ve tried some other tactics to attract new followers over the last year.

Using hashtags

Hashtags have proven really helpful for this, particularly offering useful and relevant content when events or Twitter chats are happening. So, if there’s a big conference that our desired audience is likely to be attending, I’ll find out the hashtag, check out the schedule and tweet things that will interest people who are there and/or following the hashtag.

What I wish we’d done sooner

The single biggest thing that’s made a difference to follower numbers was changing the @ScrollUK bio to include hashtags that describe what we do. While there was nothing wrong with the old bio, the addition of hashtags has made it easier to find us and has seen a doubling in the rate at which people follow the account.

Do you follow?

All of these tactics have resulted in solid growth for the account and lots of learnings to take forward. Over the coming year I’m hoping to build on this by handing the account over to some of our many experts to play a more active role in content-related Twitter chats and possibly hosting some of our own.

If you have any questions or suggestions about the approach we’re taking then don’t hesitate to ask us, on Twitter of course! And that starts with following the @ScrollUK account and saying hello. No tumbleweed – guaranteed.

Latest news in content: Summer 2017

A round-up of the best advice, thinking, tools and news in content. This has all appeared in the fortnightly Scroll newsletter. (Sign up on the right, never miss out again…) Enjoy your summer!

News, thought pieces, advice

Content and emotions
Rule #1 for emotion-driven content: never assume you know how your user is feeling. Rather, focus on what you can do for them.

Mailchimp wins again
This is still the best tone guide around. That’s partly because they have focused on content types, so people know where they can vary tone as well as how to vary tone. That means this is more actionable than most. Annoyingly good.

Required reading for accessibility
Excellent, detailed advice and tools to help you meet AA compliance for accessibility. Good on the balance between font size, colour and contrast.

Government is service design
A classic by @mattedgar. Expresses why anyone who works in government, not just in digital, needs to develop design thinking capability. Required reading.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How to get hired – advice for contractors
Top advice on getting hired, from an expert. Hetty Meyric Hughes is the Scroll partner in charge of matching contractors with jobs.

Voice and tone tables
Nice, simple way to explain tone and voice. Conveys a lot of information in an easy format.

How to SEO your video content
Excellent best practice advice, updated for 2017.


Distraction-free writing app
Of the many distraction-free writing apps around, we like Focus Writer the best. Good for working when it’s sunny outside.

And finally…

The Cat in the Hat style guide
The Bank of England uses Dr Seuss to train staff in the art of clear writing.


A rubbish blog post about content design

The benefits of content design can often go unnoticed. Until content designers turn vigilante…

I’m one of the content designers working at the Education and Skills Funding Agency. As content designers, it’s our job to get to the essence of what people need and then strip everything else away.

And in the name of content design, we occasionally go rogue.

In a recent lunchtime guerrilla mission I buddied up with our content lead, Mark Avery, to tackle an issue affecting everyone in the office: overcomplicated recycling bin signs.

We had noticed how much time people were wasting, standing in the kitchen with soggy tea bags dripping into the palm of their hand, trying to decode which bin to put the damn thing in!

Worse still, people were getting frustrated and ended up putting rubbish in random bins because it was just too difficult to figure out which one to use.

Make it simple

In agile development, content designers don’t just write the words for a pre-defined problem. We interrogate the specifics of the situation to find the real-world issues that people are having. Then we try to fix them.

It was obvious with the signs that we needed to distil the meaning of the original content into clear, precise language. We removed all the graphics and reduced the word count from about 40 words per sign to around 5 or 10.

We now needed to see how effective these changes were.

Release early and often

One way of measuring success when developing service content is to measure how long it takes someone to complete a task. Anything that slows people down needs to be removed.

We put up prototype signs for the 3 different categories of rubbish. We used white text on a blue background. We could see instantly that people were no longer struggling to work out where to put their leftovers. And the world of recycling was transformed forever!

Well, not quite.

One of Mark’s mantras is “less writing, more testing”, so we canvassed colleagues for feedback. Although we were told the signs were clearer and easy to understand, a recurring theme was that they looked too similar to each other.


We knew we needed to make improvements. But how?

We spoke to our behavioural insights experts. They recommended using colour to make the distinction between the signs as obvious as possible. This would increase the likelihood of people using them.

We consulted the user experience clan. They encouraged the use of colour since people can learn to associate the different colours with different bins, meaning less time reading signs and less cognitive burden.

We then ambushed a front end developer and asked him to mock up the new improved designs. He found a clearer font and advised us to increase the size of the text.

What next?

As well as a simpler experience for users, we hope the new signs will lead to an increase in recycling.

We’ve also started seeing photocopied versions of our signs popping up all over the building, in different departments!

The wacky world of bin signage might seem trivial, but it’s just one small example of how content design can make life easier for people.

How to get hired – advice for contractors

Scroll places hundreds of contractors in roles every year. I’m Hetty Meyric Hughes, partner at Scroll, and I manage this process. Here’s my advice on what you need to do to get your next contract.

What agencies look for

I often feel like a matchmaker when I am placing a contractor in a role. This is what I look for in pairing people up.

  • You have experience that fits what the client is asking for (or that will be useful to them, even if they’re not asking for it).
  • The role will be interesting for you and ideally stretch you, helping you to extend into new areas that you’ve had some exposure to but need to practise a little more.
  • You’ll get on and fit in well with the client.
  • If several Scroll contractors (affectionately known as ‘Scrollies’) are going to work on the project, I try to balance the team (will you all get on? Do you have complementary skills?).

Brush up on multi-disciplinary team skills

There’s an increasing trend towards clients (especially in government) wanting more rounded individuals who can work in multi-disciplinary teams alongside user researchers, ux designers, analysts, developers and so on. So the more you can learn to speak others’ jargon and understand the basics of what they do, the stronger your own position will be.

When I say ‘work with’ I mean really understand their roles and even demonstrate some of those skills too. These are the sorts of people that get snapped up really quickly and who prove invaluable in the bigger and more complex projects.

So if you’re ambitious to extend your knowledge of service design or content strategy, multi-disciplinary is the way forwards.

You need to react fast

Roles are offered and filled in a matter of days – you need to be ready and act fast.

We sometimes get invited to submit a tender with a partner company at the last minute, or a loyal client rings asking for help urgently. A lot of our work is done in response to replying to an invitation to tender, and tenders now often have a single week’s deadline.

Most recently, I was called at 4pm on a Friday to include a CV in a partner supplier’s tender – deadline 5pm.

And we also have regular work with clients who know we can find them proofreaders and editors at 2 days’ notice – they come to us because they know we can meet that requirement.

So please help us to help you!

Here’s how to be prepared

Update agencies about your availability

Scrollies should contact us about a month before they finish any current contract.

Be clear about what you can and can’t do

Be clear with us about where you’re prepared to work, if you have to be part time, if there are any travel or accessibility limitations.

Update your CV and LinkedIn profile

Make sure your agency has a current version of your CV on file.

Scrollies – start by asking for your formatted CV (if we’ve ever put you forwards for a role we’ll have one on file) and update that, so we don’t have to spend time updating it.

Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date. And when you do a contract through Scroll, mention us! Some clients even see it as a mark of distinction!

Adapt your CV for the role

Wherever possible, tweak your CV to the role. Clients don’t like generic or over-long CVs. To save time in an emergency, just rewrite the introductory paragraph (5 lines or so) making you seem you’re the only person in the world who could do this work.

Create a file of recommendations and project summaries

Keep a file of handy summaries and quotations. It’s handy to be able to churn out a 10-line summary of a project you’ve done in the past (like a mini case study) and quotations about your performance from past clients.

These are gold dust as we can include them in tenders, which will position you well for the role. Have them ready so you can give them to us at a moment’s notice.

On that note, don’t be embarrassed to ask clients for comments about your performance. It’s normal that contractors need to sell themselves!

Keep your security clearances current

You’d be surprised how many people end up falling at the last hurdle because their security is out of date. At the very least, ensure your Disclosure Scotland is less than a year old and that you have a couple of referees whose contact details are correct whom we can contact.

After you’re offered a contract

Help us to clear you through any security hurdles quickly by sending us the information we ask for asap, and retaining it for the next time.

Mug up on the project: look at the website you’ll be working on, read up on the topic so you can show you’re interested.

Ask us if there are any other Scrollies who work there or have worked there in case we can put you in touch for a pre-start date chat.

Sounds like fun?

We’re always on the look-out for good content designers and strategists. If you’re interested, please send us your CV.

Holes in the template: piping content into a web CMS

When companies have large quantities of content – for example, many products, where each one has several pieces of information – that product information probably doesn’t originate from their web content management system (WCMS). The WCMS acts as a ‘presentation layer’ – in other words, a mechanism to display content.

The content doesn’t have to live in a single system. In fact, there may be multiple systems that feed different types of information, both content and data, into the ‘presentation layer’ of the WCMS. This isn’t a bad thing. Different end systems are optimised to input, store and process particular kinds of content or data.

In this post, we look at how content works within a WCMS, and how a WCMS works with other systems to present content in ways that create richer information so that content consumers can make sense of, and make decisions with, that content.

What constitutes a product?

Before we talk about how content comes together, we need to ask what information is actually needed. This search on the site for Post-it® Flags returned a typical result. The product consists of a few elements that we as content consumers recognise on the page:

  • images of the product
  • a short description
  • a price
  • quantity available
  • description
  • features
  • accessories
Results of a search on the site for 'Post-It flags'

A product on the site

This is what gets displayed on the screen, but there’s a whole other layer of technical information behind the screen that makes it possible for us to search for a product and see all of the bits of information we need to make sense of it.

To make sense of the technical side of what makes up a product, we need to look at the markup language behind the scenes. Content that needs to work between systems – for example, on different sites – needs to use a standard that can be understood across those systems. This has led to using international standards. In this case, we would use the markup language, or ‘schema’, specific to a product.

The set of standards preferred by search engines, at, defines the superset of elements that make up a product. There are 55 elements that make up a superset of a product, with some of those elements (such as ‘Offer’) being schemas of their own.

This is important to our discussion, specifically because we need to realise that what happens behind the scenes becomes critical to automating the delivery of the on-page content.

Product on shema,org

Some of the elements from the product schema

Product from

Presenting products in a WCMS

A typical WCMS is optimised for presenting content in complex ways. It doesn’t really ‘manage’ the content, but does excel at presentation of content and important post-publication functions, like providing a hook for gathering analytics. The WCMS allows all of the information to be aggregated into rich product descriptions and converge onto a single page. The front-end WCMS is good at presenting all of this information for consumers to understand the content in context.

For example, my favourite shoe store, Fluevog, can display shoes filtered by:

  • wearer type
  • size
  • style
  • colour
  • heel height
  • shoe family

A consumer can zoom in, check the fit (on a scale of narrow to wide), see the price how many are left in stock.

Shoes on the Fluevog site after the search has been filtered

A Fluevog search after refining the search using filters

Shoes are probably on the simpler side of the product spectrum. In B2B situations, products could:

  • come bundled with other products
  • be subject to bulk discounts
  • have geographic restrictions around where they can be sold
  • display company-specific information for buyers who have log-ins

A decent enterprise WCMS can calculate, based on programmed-in business logic, what gets shown where – which products, which currency, which bundling options, inventory levels, and so on.

Different systems, different functions

While a WCMS is sophisticated about the way it presents content, storing all of the content in a WCMS doesn’t make sense. The product information, such as attributes, pricing, and so on, needs to be stored in systems that are meant to manipulate content or data in particular ways.

Some systems have specialty functions to manipulate content at a granular level. Other systems have specialty functions – for example, a pricing tool may convert between currencies, round up or down, calculate volume discounts, and add the appropriate taxes per country. These back-end systems are generally highly configured, and the content in them is highly structured and tagged so that it can automatically be pushed to the display layer in a WCMS.

This kind of content, and the data that goes with it, could be displayed in two ways: a view that looks relatively dry – think of an Excel spreadsheet view that lists sizes and colours – or a view that makes the information clearer and more enticing to whoever is consuming the content. Technologists call this “decorating the data”. Seth Gottlieb explains more about this in a post on his blog.

Seth Gottlieb article: The CMS Decorator Pattern

Multiple systems, each fit for purpose

For an organisation with any significant amount of product information, there is a high probability that the images come from one system, the descriptions live elsewhere, the attributes come from yet another system, the price comes from a dedicated pricing tool, the delivery information is calculated and delivered from another system, and the ratings served up from yet another system.

Search result from Amazon for portable headphones

Search result from Amazon for portable headphones

These elements can be recognised in the description of the headphones shown here, taken from an Amazon search. Again, this is to be expected – sometimes there are over 50 systems working together in complex enterprise solutions. It’s fine, as long as the systems are configured well and work together seamlessly to either push the content into the WCMS or to allow the WCMS to pull the content on demand.

Putting holes in the template

How multiple systems work together is by putting ‘holes in the template’ and calling some scripts to get the right information to populate those template holes. Sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot of complexity to the equation.

A typical complement of systems that work together could be:

  • ERP (Enterprise Resource Production) system, which pushes data (SKUs, prices, etc) into the WCMS
  • PIM (Product Information Management) system, which pushes product content and attributes into the WCMS
  • DAM (Digital Asset Management) system, which pushes binary files (images, video, audio, PDFs etc) into the WCMS
  • TrM (Translation Management) system, which manages language and other market variants behind the scenes
  • TxM (Taxonomy Management) system, which controls the terminology and tags to optimise search

These are parallel processes. And just as you can ‘tag up’ content in many different ways, these systems can deliver that same content according to many different criteria.

For example, the content can be shown according to specific reader profiles. This could mean that a content consumer logs in as a premium-package member and sees something different to a standard-package member. Or a corporate buyer sees something different to a retail shopper. Or that a reader chooses some filters (women’s shoes, red, heeled, size 8) and sees content specific to their criteria.

The role of semantics

When we talk about content filters and ‘tagging up’ content, we’re actually talking about semantics. Creating content that has enough semantics to meet all of the demands on it is hard and complicated to do in a WCMS. The content has to have enough semantics, and the right semantics, for the underlying systems to understand under what conditions to display specific content.

That’s the difference between being shown the expected products and being shown something completely unexpected. Deane Barker, author of the O’Reilly book, Web Content Management, and blogger at Gadgetopia, describes the folly of not paying enough attention to what happens in the holes. And as the saying goes, therein lies the problem.

This is why companies that need to respond to market conditions in a hurry, or that want to output to multiple devices, channels, markets, or audiences, don’t put their content directly into a WCMS. They put their content into fit-for-purpose systems, and then let the WCMS do what it does best – pipe the content into the right holes.

Deane Barker article: Editors Live in the Holes

Making content more intelligent

There are structured authoring environments that push the ability to manipulate content at more granular levels. These haven’t been as popular among digital agencies but have long been staples of organisations that have to control and publish vast amounts of product content, particularly content audited by regulators. These typically replace the tangle of tools (word processing, email, JIRA, and other clunky kludges):

  • a CCMS (Component Content Management System) in which authors use recognised schemas (DITA, DocBook, S1000D) to structure content
  • a HAT (Help Authoring Tool), which uses custom schemas to structure content
  • an XML editor, which works with a CCMS or, in some occasions, a WCMS

In these cases, the authors take control of the content elements and attributes, which at delivery time get processed through a ‘build’ (much like a software build), and which then get pushed into downstream systems such as the WCMS.

Someone asked me whether using one of the popular content markup standards, specifically DITA, meant losing out on the ability to easily re-use and re-purpose content for different media and devices. Actually, it’s the other way around. Creating highly semantic content, or ‘intelligent content’, means being able to re-use and re-purpose content with ease and agility.

Ann Rockley article: What is intelligent content?

Content trade-offs

Intelligent content and schemas such as DITA are not for companies that have a few thousand pages of highly crafted marketing content that rarely changes. For those organisations, it may be enough to enter content into forms where, after clicking ‘Submit’, it eventually get piped into the holes in the templates.

Intelligent content is for companies with enough content to warrant having content developers who are trained professionals. They need to understand:

  • the theory behind structured content
  • how to write for a structured authoring environment
  • how to apply semantics and metadata
  • how to craft content for a multichannel publishing environment

It’s important to know that both options exist, and when to use the right option. By understanding how content gets moved around by systems until it is presented to end users, we can make better decisions about how and where we should be creating content.

Latest news in content: Spring 2017

A round-up of the best advice, thinking, tools and news in content. This has all appeared in the fortnightly Scroll newsletter. (Sign up on the right, never miss out again…)

News, thought pieces, advice

Structured content saves lives
US doctors had to use a huge reference book when they diagnosed cancer. This case study explains how a digital team turned that reference book into interoperable digital content, accessible via APIs. Amazing piece of work.

Q: What’s a ‘UX writer’?
A: The private sector name for a content designer.

Design patterns for trust and consent
Digital is losing people’s trust. We need to get better at this.

GOV.UK taxonomy in beta
This is a sea change in the way GOV.UK content is organised. We’d love your thoughts on this – tweet us @ScrollUK using #taxonomybeta.

Much smarter marketing
Quite a long read but rammed with fascinating stuff about how to get people’s attention, digitally.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

Get the bullets right
A satisfyingly detailed article about how to use bullet points effectively.

How to use a content model
A step-by-step walk through designing and using your own content model.

Writing for translation
By a Google content guru. This shows how much worse badly written content gets after it’s translated. (Trigger warning: may make you feel retrospective guilt if you’ve ever written anything that was translated into Thai.)

Design your own chatbot
Excellent 4-part series about using IA to design chatbots. It’s not an in-depth guide but it’ll give you a couple of ‘Aha!’ moments as you see traditional content strategy tools being deployed in chatbot world.

User research: small-ish is beautiful
Definitive answers to the perennial ‘how many people is enough?’ question for doing qualitative user research. (Hint: about 5.)


Community thesaurus
Folksonomy-style thesaurus. Lovely little tool if you’re lost for words.

And finally…

Fiendish UX quiz
Do you know your Pantone Colour of the Year from your therblings? Prove it here!

What is CPD and why does it matter?

You’ve been to school – perhaps college or university as well – and studied for some sort of qualifications. You probably still have the certificates somewhere. These qualifications may have helped get you your first job, but they’re not always used at work on a daily basis (I read ‘Paradise Lost’ in a couple of days as part of my English literature degree; it was forgotten soon afterwards).

CPD – or continuing professional development – takes a different approach. It’s all about improving your professional skills and making sure you develop and update them all the time. It’s a conscious, proactive kind of development, unlike traditional learning.

This fits in very well with the mindset of content designers and other UX professionals. In digital, there’s always something to learn – from your peers, from your users or from people in related disciplines, like developers.

CPD is relevant whether you’re employed or a contractor. Paying attention to your own skills and knowledge can give you the edge in a traditional or freelance career.

How to get started

CPD encourages you to take control of your own development. Our industry never stands still, and if you want to keep your skills up to date, CPD is vital. You’ll track and reflect upon what you’re learning – and which areas you’d like to develop. This works best if you document what you’re doing, so you can review your progress as you go.

To start, think about:

  • where you are in your career at the moment – keep a log of what you’ve learned so far
  • where you want to be – your career goals (think about the longer term, eg in 10 years’ time, and the short/medium term)
  • what you need to do to get there – write down objectives, like learning a new skill or broadening existing ones

These notes will become your CPD plan. It’s not a tick-box exercise and can be any format that suits you – but it’s important to remember to keep reviewing and updating it.

What counts as CPD

The learning and development that you’ll log in your CPD plan can take many forms, and it isn’t just about attending courses.

CPD can be informal. It includes things like:

  • reading relevant blogs and books
  • learning from your peers and colleagues (for example, at meet-ups)
  • shadowing people in related disciplines (for example, a content designer spending a day with a user researcher)
  • job swaps and deputising for other people
  • noting what you’ve learned from mistakes

CPD can also be more structured – in the form of taught courses, workshops or events. For example, all of Scroll’s training courses are CPD accredited – this means they’ve been independently assessed to meet certain standards and benchmarks.

If you’re interested in content design but haven’t yet had hands-on experience, come along to our next content design training course: the Scroll Content Design Bootcamp. You’ll learn about developing a content strategy based on user needs, writing for the web, designing with data and agile content production.

We also run Content Strategy Intensive, training for people who want to move into content strategy roles or round out their skill sets.

Why CPD is worth doing: what’s in it for you

Being proactive about your development and creating your own CPD plan is worth the effort. It’ll help you manage and direct your career. The process of recording your learning can help you:

  • gain confidence about the skills you already have
  • focus on your goals and how to achieve them
  • gather examples you can use in competency-based job applications and interviews
  • think about any gaps in your skills and knowledge and how to address them
  • build a portfolio of skills and experience that you can show to potential clients

You’re probably doing a lot of activities that count as CPD already, so getting together a plan shouldn’t take too much effort. And in practising CPD you’ll be following one of the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto – regularly reflecting on how to become more effective.

More reading

Read more about accredited CPD training and how to kickstart your own CPD on the CPD website.

The narcissism of blogging, and why that’s not a bad thing

Is there any point in blogging?

Don’t get me wrong, blogs are great if you want to see oil portraiture of ugly Renaissance babies or Kim Jong Il photoshopped unconvincingly onto North Korean civil engineering projects.

But I’ve found in software development, people tend to roll their eyes and ask, “Blogging? what’s the point?”

Personally, I think blogging – saying whatever you want online – is one of the most narcissistic things you can do. But I do think there’s a point to it. Here’s why.

Your organisation’s brain on the internet

In publishing, it’s received wisdom to think of your readership first: before you do anything think of who you’re writing for. Now I don’t think that’s the case with blogging, or at least, you can get a lot more out of blogging if you let go of that idea.

I’d say blogging is all about who’s writing. It’s all about you. It’s you letting the world know your thoughts. It’s like self-help psychoanalysis, it’s like having your own private shrink.

At a recent GDS #BlogCamp event, Giles Turnbull summed it up, saying “your blog is your organisation’s brain on the internet”.

You can blog about what you’re working on, blog about the stuff you’re not sure about, blog about your mistakes, blog about nascent ideas, blog about things that you want to do but can’t yet do.

It reminds me of an idea from Silicon Valley about carrying around a plastic toy duck with you and talking to it. Bear with me here.

Talking to rubber ducks

‘Rubber ducking’, I’m told, is a process where developers take an inanimate object (like a rubber duck) and try to explain their coding bugs to it — the theory being that articulating the problem helps them to solve it.

I’ve never seen this in practice, and honestly, if I saw our tech lead explaining the latest release to a plastic duck on their desk I’d probably ask them if they were feeling okay. But as a way of forcing yourself to really think about your problems, failures or goals, I think it’s a good idea. And it’s exactly the same as blogging.

GDS have blogged about getting titles wrong and how you can learn from making mistakes. Being open about mistakes actually promotes a culture that feels free to experiment and work without the fear of failure.

And, props to Giles Turnbull again, he blogged for GDS saying that by being open about your mistakes “your blog becomes evidence that your organisation can actually think. That it can change and adapt.”

I think blogging is all about this. All about you, thinking out loud. Sometimes inappropriately. Always narcissistically. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing!

Blogging for multidisciplinary teams

I also think there’s a role for blogging within multidisciplinary teams. It’s not something I’ve done yet, but I think it’s worth considering.

The app I’m currently working on relies on a very diverse team of highly skilled specialists, and I’d be lying if I said I know everything about what they all do!

We have product owners, BAs, quality assurance, information architects, tech leads, back end and front end devs, user researchers, UX designers, service designers, interaction designers, delivery managers, heads of profession, and, finally, content designers. We all have our own pressures, our own idea of what good looks like, our own wants and needs from the team.

For example, as a content designer, I have to ensure anything that gets built is of direct value to our users and has been validated by users through rigorous research and testing. Developers, on the other hand, have to ensure that anything that gets built is practical, robust, timely and affordable.

Allowing each team member to blog about their work could be a great way of making these pressures transparent across the team, and could encourage a more joined up way of working.

Blogging could also perhaps help embed new disciplines into a team. Content design is the newest discipline in my team at the moment, and it’s not always clear to everyone why’s it’s important, why it’s hard, and the skills involved in doing it well. I think a blog for our team would be a good way for each individual to explain their own value and their gripes.

Like I say, I think blogging is one of the most narcissistic things you can do. But I think it’s worth doing.

IR35 and what it might mean for content designers

New IR35 legislation comes into force

I’m a partner at Scroll, where we’ve been hard at work sorting through the implications of the new IR35 legislation.

This is a personal interpretation of the new IR35 rules and existing employment ones. I thought it might help to set them out, to order my thoughts and invite you to comment if your own experience has led you to different conclusions.

I’m neither a lawyer nor an accountant, so don’t take this blog as advice!

IR35 – what you should do

IR35: the big date in my calendar is 6 April 2017. Or rather, 5 April, because everything must be done by then. I’ll need a holiday on 6 April…

These are the things I’d suggest doing.

Review your contracts

Review all contracts you have that are still live (you’d be surprised: you may find that a contract you stopped working on a while ago is still ‘live’ as it still has time to run on it – eg if you work through an agency). Request to end all contracts that currently have end dates later than 5 April and start new ones on or after 6 April.

Take the HMRC IR35 test

Take the HMRC IR35 test, record the results, and share them with the next person in the chain above you (the body that pays you). If you’re paid by your own limited company or PSC (personal service company), you will want to share it with whoever pays your company or PSC as well (so in the case of contractors working with Scroll, send it to me!) Keep the results of the test for your files in case you’re ever investigated by HMRC, and take the test regularly (at least every time you sign a contract extension or a new contract).

Look at insurance

Consider taking out insurance against tax investigations.

What does the new IR35 legislation mean?

Under IR35, if HMRC have reason to believe they’re not receiving all the taxes they’re entitled to (eg employer’s National Insurance) because you ought to be an employee on payroll rather than a contractor, they can ask for back payment on projects for the duration of the contract, including pre-6 April. That’s why it’s best to end current contracts and start new contracts on or after 6 April.

Do the new IR35 rules apply to you?

At the moment, the new IR35 rules apply only to work done for end-clients who are in the public sector.

By end-clients I mean the people for whom you perform the work – the owners of the websites and content you work on.

In many contracting chains or situations there’s an overlap with employment rules, so it’s worth reviewing all contracts not only for IR35 (and the question of who pays tax and how much) but also to make sure that you are indeed a contractor and would be considered such by HMRC.

How to work out if you’re an employee or a contractor

You probably ought to be an employee if you meet a number of the following.

  • You’ve only one client and you work with them so many days every month that you’ve not got time to work for other clients.
  • Your contract has lasted 2 years.
  • Your contract has been renewed on a rolling basis.
  • You work fixed hours and in-house.
  • You’re treated as one of the staff, eg you get invited to away-days/team building exercises and take part in training for free.
  • You use the office’s subsidised canteen.
  • You review other people’s performance.
  • You manage people
  • You have little control over how you do your work.

How to test for employment

There’s a good IR35 compliance testing tool which is free to use (see the resources section at the end). It’s not an official test but it’s useful as the comments are clear.

You can’t use it as proof, only to guide your own thinking. It lists many more factors than I’ve done above – the ones I’ve mentioned are just the ones I’ve noticed as being the most common among Scrollies. You can also use the HRMC tool to check for employment status.

If you think you ought to be employed you should talk to your client about employing you, go through an umbrella company, or set up a limited company to trade through (if you’ve not done so already) and revise your ways of working so that you are truly operating as a contractor.

How to test for IR35

Take the HMRC employment status for tax test and answer it not in relation to your contract but in terms of how you actually work.

That’s what counts. An investigation would look beyond your contract up through the chain of contracts (eg if there’s an intermediary like an agency along the way) and would look especially at your working practices.

Your contract can go straight in the shredder if it’s not borne out by your working practices.

If the test says you’re outside IR35, then that’s good; make sure you continue to work in a way that is outside IR35. You’d be wise to retake the HMRC test regularly and file the results in case of an investigation. (Further down the page I’ve listed a few things you might want to ask your end-client to allow you to do and that you may want to include in your contract too.)

Alternatively, you could choose to go ‘inside IR35’ and go on the payroll. You can do this, either as an employee of your client (the agency or consultancy that you invoice every month, eg Scroll, and that holds a contract with the public-body end-client). You could also do this via an umbrella company. Your take-home rate would be lower but you can at least be sure that HMRC will be receiving its full and accurate share of taxes.

Actions that might help you work outside IR35

Here are a few things you might want to ask your end-client to allow you to do. You may want to include these in your contract, too.

Don’t be just an extra pair of hands

Rather than engaging your services generally (eg to stop a temporary gap in the project team’s staff) clients should be drawing on your expertise to complete specific tasks. They’re being called ‘work packages’ or ‘deliverables’. Ensure your contract includes them. You may well need to help to draft them yourself.

Delegate to a substitute where necessary

To be a true contractor you need the chance and flexibility to build your network and keep it sweet. You may need to juggle a contract that’s just starting with another that you’re completing. So, you may well need to work remotely or delegate your work to someone who’s suitably qualified in order to free you up.

Check your contract has clauses around substitution. Above all, discuss this with your clients. You may want to line up your substitute now so that any security issues can be sorted ahead of time.

Explain things to your end-client
Explain why you need flexibility as a contractor: hours, location, using your own equipment and email address. Emphasise the differences between contractors and staff to your clients and explain what the benefits are to engaging contractors (no overheads, expertise in short bursts, low risk, legacy of handover and training, etc.)

Things could change!

Watch out! The rules around liability and IR35 are confusing and might change again soon. The onus to declare a role as being inside or outside IR35 falls on the end-client for now (eg a government department). However, what they say is only to be interpreted as a recommendation: it isn’t binding.

The liability to ensure the declaration of IR35 status is correct could fall on the agency that engages your services or even on your own limited company as the next in the chain from you.

Everyone’s being cautious about IR35 – and you should too

I’ve noticed that everyone at every stage of the chain is being cautious, and rightly so. Even if an end-client isn’t responsible for ensuring you pay the right amount of tax, they won’t want egg on their faces if exposed as having engaged the services of someone who’s not paying their taxes correctly.

Agencies and consultancies like Scroll are being very cautious in case the blame falls on them, and you should be careful too!

Enough from me, I’m going back to revising a few more contracts. Good luck, and let me know if any of what I’ve written rings true (or not).


Trends in content strategy

The Content Strategy Applied 2017 conference (9-10 Feb 2017) ended with a trend-spotting presentation from organisers Rahel Anne Bailie and Lucie Hyde. They brought their collective experience, along with the insights from conference presenters, to the podium.

One of the points Rahel made in this presentation was that content professionals today need to constantly work on keeping their skills and knowledge up-to-date.

Content professionals – get skilled up!

Rahel says, “The divide between content professionals who are upgrading their skills and those who are hanging onto the status quo – writing in word processing programs and emailing documents for ‘someone else’ to deal with things like metadata – will become more apparent.” 

Rahel heads Scroll’s content strategy arm. Scroll actively sifts content professionals to see who has the kind of skills and experience that content projects today require. We need to be confident we have the people with the best skills available on our books.

Rahel says, “Already, digital agencies who use content strategists vet CVs in ways that weed out the writers from those with advanced skills. The content professionals who decide to upgrade their skills will find that more opportunities open up for them.”

Content trends you need to learn about

We asked Rahel what she’d picked up on at the CSApplied 2017 conference that indicated future trends. Here’s what she has to say. If you want to be a content pro that really knows their stuff, these are the trends to watch.

And for lots of content professionals, I’d guess that all of these things represent both a need and a chance to start getting skilled up.

Building bridges across silos

One of the trends showed itself in the shadow of an announcement from one of the conference sponsors, Adobe. First, a little background.

Content strategists who do cross-silo strategies for omnichannel projects know that marketing content tends to be a layer of content over a huge amount of enabling or technical content. For example, a single product may have a bit of marketing content associated with it. But it will probably have hundreds of pieces of content that enables customers to use the product: warranty info, help content, user guides, admin guides, training material, microcopy for the interfaces, knowledge base articles, and so on.

When there is no way of integrating the content, it gets developed in multiple silos, with the usual discrepancies, inaccuracies, and duplication of effort that comes with a fragmented territory.

Adobe confirmed that the trend is for organisations who handle lots of content to want their CMS to be the repository for the content that gets delivered through the multiple channels. Until now, content developers creating large-scale enabling content do so in an external editing environment, and then get the content transferred into the web CMS. It seemed to Adobe that it was time to develop a technical solution to enable the integration of all customer content into a single place, while allowing authors to use their power editing tools. So,  Adobe’s created new XML Documentation Add-on for AEM. This makes AEM DITA-aware, extends its capabilities and transforms it into a full-edged enterprise-class component content management system.

Structured content tools are game-changers

Rahel sees this changing the content landscape in a big way (read her white paper: Expanding content scope to drive customer information needs).

She has seen a lot of resistance by technology departments to support content developers, often because they don’t understand the commercial value of content. But with one of the largest CMS on the market, AEM (Adobe Experience Manager), supporting a robust experience for content professionals who want to use the DITA standard for power-editing, it will be a huge game-changer.

This is a big deal for corporations, who increasingly accept that this kind of investment in content is vital for their bottom line. It’s also a big deal for content professionals, as relatively few know how to use a structured content tool or understand best practices in a collaborative writing environment. The content pros who upgrade their skills and knowledge to develop content that works for omnichannel delivery will be able to keep pace with these kinds of publishing environments.

Cognitive computing

For content people focusing on semantic content, cognitive computing came out of left field as the next big technology trend. Cognitive computing uses artificial intelligence to create self-learning programmes. And where there’s technology, there’s content, which means there will be a need for content meant for cognitive computing environments.

The technology side of the industry is moving much faster than the business side, which is creating an environment where technologists are looking to automate content. Sometimes that tactic works, but when it doesn’t, it can cause significant brand damage.

Increased automation of content delivery

There is a strong move to chatbots, Internet of Things, voice search, and related technologies. Some of these are to deliver service at scale, but a lot of it is in response to customer desire for ease of interaction. Examples include bots such as Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, where verbal search diverges from keyword search. This puts a higher demand on content, which has to sound conversational while being informative, and flow in particular patterns to make sense to humans while also making sense to the systems that deliver it up.

Shared, semantic content

For content to work within automated, cognitive computing environments, it needs to have enough structure and semantics that computing systems know when to pull specific content. Adaptive content, which allows content authors to tag content for specific contexts, is quickly becoming a core skill for content professionals in any environment where content gets delivered into shared spaces.


Content audit: how to define goals and scope

A good content audit is the cornerstone of many web projects. But starting a content audit can be scary. It’s like standing on a high board, preparing to dive into a sea of raw data.

If you want to avoid drowning in data, you need to invest time in defining the goals and scope of the audit. Work out what you want the content audit to achieve, and what content you actually want to audit.

Define your goals

You can look for almost anything in a content audit – from how well content performs in search to how well it converts for sales. So, before you start, you need to agree what you’re trying to achieve with this specific audit.

If you’re not the content strategist on this project, start talking to them now. Get an overview of the project the content is meant to inform. There is no point carefully checking metadata if this is primarily going to be a rebranding exercise.

Ask a lot of questions

Organisations are not necessarily sure what they need or can get from a content audit. The best way to define goals is to ask a lot of questions and try and read between the lines.

What they say: “We want to know which content is performing well / where we’re getting ROI.”

What this could mean: “We want to know…

  • how many people are seeing which bits of content
  • if people are acting on the content (for example, following a call to action)
  • if people are reading or otherwise using the content (not just leaving straight away)
  • if the content is doing what it’s intended to do; meeting user needs – or if there are gaps
  • if people are sharing the content on social media
  • if content is performing well in search
  • if the content is meeting our KPIs/business requirements”

What they say: “We want to know if the content is in good shape”

What this could mean: “We want to know if the content…

  • meets editorial best practice
  • meets UX best practice
  • meets branding, style, tone and voice guidelines
  • has an owner and is up-to-date
  • is accurate and relevant – on message, factually correct
  • has correct tags and metadata
  • is in correct format
  • is well-organised in a good IA”

Use the goals to define the work you need to do

Once you have agreed the goals, you will have a much clearer idea of how to conduct your audit. For example, if one goal is to work out which marketing content is giving a good return on investment, you could:

  • use analytics data and other site metrics to see which content is most popular
  • check where traffic to that content is coming from and going next
  • see how the content is being used
  • count social shares of the content
  • count conversions from the content
  • use any KPIs set by the business to evaluate

and so on.

Define scope (and acknowledge you can’t do it all)

Got the goals? Now define the scope. Work hard on getting the scope focused properly. Content audits are time-consuming work. You want a tight and accurate brief. You don’t want to spend time auditing duplicate content, or old news stories, or following redirects down rabbit holes, or anything else that does not help the client achieve their goals.

Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise

Budgets and time will almost certainly be tight. That means that you almost certainly won’t be able to get eyes on every single URL. Prioritise ruthlessly.

Quick wins

Generally, start with indexable HTML pages that a visitor can find through search. Ignore the rest, unless you’re conducting (for example) a specifically technical or SEO audit.

Double-check which bits of the digital estate you’re auditing – you might be able to ignore whole blogs and microsites.

Also, check if there any parts of a domain that are out of scope (for example all archived content, or all content in a certain /xxx/).

Find out how well the client knows their content:

  • Are there issues with URL duplication or other CMS-driven oddities you should know about?
  • Are there lists of content types or formats you can use?
  • Are there previous inventories or audits you can measure against?
  • Can you have access to someone who really knows the content and the CMS?

Look for representative samples

If there’s a repeated pattern in the content (for example annual reports, each of which comes with a standard set of links and assets) you can sometimes just audit a sample of these.

Have a think about what you need to know from these samples. Do you need to know how well a user journey is working? Or whether the assets are being downloaded? Or whether they are correctly branded and to style?

Site size rules of thumb

For sites under 500 pages, just check every page.

For sites 500-1,000 pages, focus on the most important content for full audit. This might be the business-critical content; the most-used content; the ‘top tasks’ content, or a combination of those things. It might be a few samples or patterns. Use the goals to inform this. Run a lighter audit of the rest of the content.

For massive sites, or if you need to do it all in a day, use the 80/20 rule. Identify the 20% of content that’s most important, and focus on that first. Make sure it includes:

  • representative samples of common content types and formats
  • representative samples of important user journeys
  • business-critical content
  • most-used content

Do what works

There are no hard rules about setting the scope. Successful audits depend on doing what works. Here’s one unconventional but effective solution by an anonymous content strategist.

“We divided all the content into 3 basic types: horrible, boring and important.

  • Horrible stuff. Content inside systems that could not practically be reorganised within the scope of the project. Solution: design around them and organise a future project to deal with them properly.
  • Boring stuff. Content that, due to time sensitive nature, was not worth spending effort on reorganising. Solution: Created an archiving process that involved minimal metadata changes.
  • Important stuff. Existing or imminent content that either had a long shelf life or would have high visibility at the time of the relaunch.

The Horrible and the Boring content represented the vast majority of the system and grouping them in this way allowed us leave them until another day.”

Leave room for surprises

Leave a bit of space in your schedule. Because you will almost certainly find hidden microsites, translations into strange languages, stub pages, odd redirects, and in some cases, entire sunken cities of content.

Dive in and do it!

If you define the goals and scope of your audit before you start, you will save a lot of time and energy – and in some cases your sanity. Write the goals and scope on a Post-It and put it on your screen.

Every time you feel analysis paralysis setting in, or the dread hand of spreadsheet confusion, read the Post-It. It’s the lifebouy that you can use to float happily through that sea of data.

What’s new in content

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Scroll newsletter in January. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design. Sign up on the right, never miss out again…

News, thought pieces, advice

Why lorem ipsum is the worst thing ever

Proof that filler text ruins user testing sessions (even if it’s from Slipsum, the Samuel L Jackson filler text generator.)

Politeness and tone

If you write for US and UK audiences, listen to this excellent podcast on how the word ‘please’ is perceived differently.

Boomers v millenials

There’s a big difference in the way these audiences perceive, use and create user-generated content.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How to use content types

A step-by-step guide to identifying content types and modelling them for a CMS. Excellent guide – follows on from part 1 which explains why it’s important to do this.

What would Mailchimp say?

Mailchimp’s highly respected voice and tone guide talks you through how to vary your tone for your audience’s emotional state.


Tools for finding related keywords

Some good ideas for keyword tools (not all free). Apparently Pinterest is great for this – who knew?

And finally…

A cure for writer’s block

Staring at a blank page? Lost for words? This app will fix you!

Lorem ipsum: why it’s the worst thing ever

I was in a user research session recently and it convinced me that ‘lorem ipsum’ should be outlawed.

User after user were flying through the screens we were testing until they hit upon a gobbledygook Latin brick wall. It was a part of the site that hadn’t yet been properly designed, but users didn’t know that, and it just freaked them out.

“I don’t understand this part,” said one user. “What does this say?” asked another.

Some users clicked back to see if there was something they had misunderstood on previous pages. It seemed to affect some users’ confidence in the entire product.

Why ipsum?

If only we’d had the foresight to use Slipsum (that’s Samuel L Jackson lorem ipsum) or Hipsum (random filler text for hipsters) — then everything would’ve been fine.

No! When testing an online product or service, there’s literally no use in using randomly generated text.

Testing a user interface (UI) without content is like testing a new TV without turning it on. You’re not going to learn anything.

Why does this continue to happen? Generally, it comes down to a lack of time.

In an ideal world, no content or UI would make it into production before it had been validated by users using prototypes. But that’s just not always realistic.

In agile teams, there are a lot of people working hard to develop a product and there’s a huge momentum towards delivery. There’s not always time to create well thought out content before certain parts of the product are seen by users.

What can you do?

As a content designer, I think you can gain insight by using the work other people have done.

For example, in the agile team I currently work in, our business analysts do an awful lot of work to figure out the user stories and specs that our product will be built to. And I work with them and our UX lead to design screen flows.

Recently, if I’m really short on time I might use the content that our business analysts have written. Yes, it’s not always the clearest content, and breaks many of the principles of writing for the web. But importantly, it’s not: ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, pro dictas aliquip ne’, and I get some content that I can learn from in testing.

For example, in the homepage of the app we’re building right now, there are a number of section headers that I haven’t had time to test and validate with users. So, currently some of the section headers are labelled as:

  • Organisations
  • Your team
  • PAYE schemes

Despite these headings being passive and not very instructive, user research sessions have shown that users can complete the tasks they need to without much trouble, and importantly, by putting these screens in front of users, I’ve learnt what kind of actions users expect to be able to do within each of these sections of the site.

So, what I’m saying is, you can learn from content, no matter how unfinished it may be.

But you can’t learn very much from: ‘Yardarm rigging tackle me hearties dock loot Shiver me timbers quarter bowsprit gangplank’ (that’s Pirate Ipsem!)

What’s new in content

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Scroll Training newsletter in November. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best tools, tips and tricks in content strategy and content design. Sign up, don’t miss out…

News, thought pieces, advice

It doesn’t matter what you call it

Struggling to explain what content strategists do? Put the work before the words. Client panics at the sound of a ‘content audit’? Call it a ‘content check’.

A content designer is not just a web editor

Here’s how our friend Beck moved from writing words for websites to designing content based on user needs. (Take our content design bootcamp to get these skills.)

Reasons to be cheerful

Optimistic UI design.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How hashtags work

Hashtags have different effects on different social media. This explains how they work and how to get the best out of them.

20-minute Twitter audit

Find out how well your client’s Twitter account is performing in less time than it takes to get your Deliveroo.

Design better forms

Simple fixes for common mistakes.


Clever tools for UI writers

Some useful ways to mock up designs to help you test your UI copy, or explain it to developers or designers.

And finally…

It’s content advent calendar time

And look who’s behind door #4. Don’t you wish he could run all your content projects?



Why your style guide should be a style manual

A style guide is a very useful resource for any organisation. It helps everyone communicating in and from that organisation maintain consistency. It doesn’t tell them how to communicate, though.

A style guide sets out conventions. It doesn’t tell you how to write, what tone of voice you should use, how to manage content or how to communicate effectively.

If you’ve got a style guide, you must update it continually or you’ll find that you’re speaking to users in a style that’s increasingly old fashioned.

In fact, the term ‘style guide’ is becoming increasingly old fashioned. The term ‘style manual’ is increasing in popularity and style manual editors recognise their job isn’t to tell writers what to do, but why they should do it.

Google’s style manual, for example, tells writers to avoid the pronoun “we” and explains why: “Focus on the user and what they can do with your app, rather than what you or your app is doing for the user.”

The GOV.UK style manual tells writers to use contractions because then they can write in a tone of voice that users trust.

Forget what you learned in school

Not everything you learned, of course, but some of the grammar you were taught is probably out of date.

Let’s say you’re 40 years old and were taught grammar in the 1980s by someone who learned it in the 1950s. Grammar rules have changed a lot in the last 60 years.

I edited a national organisation’s style guide a couple of years ago. Its 8,000 words had a lot of archaic rules, such as telling its writers they couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This assumes firstly that their writers know what a preposition is and secondly that they would be writing in Latin rather than English.

Everything they were publishing was stuffy and rigid. Using an inflexible style guide was making their writing difficult to trust and engage with. Yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition. I hope we can still be friends.

Did you notice I used ‘learned’ rather than ‘learnt’ in this section? A good style manual will tell you which spelling to use and why. I don’t know who you are, but I know that you might not be British or that British English might not be your first language. If so, you’re likely to be more comfortable with ‘learned’.

By using a word that all English speakers are familiar with, I’m making sure that I can be understood by all users.

Your audience knows best

You’ve probably read an American magazine recently. On the internet. Or the ‘Internet’ as it most likely would have said. Almost all American journalism follows the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which insists on capitalising ‘internet’.

Or it did until earlier this year when AP announced it was changing to the lower case usage. That’s earlier as in earlier in 2016, about 15 years after everyone else thought it was a good idea.

Do you know anyone who uses ‘phone instead of phone? I’ve had it in draft documents in the last year. That’s as in 2016, not 1916. Most users would be confused by it and possibly think it was a typo. If I used ‘phone in content, it would slow down users’ comprehension and lose their trust.

A style manual should tell you why using sentence case makes your text easier to read. Advertisers have known for decades that possessive apostrophes in slogans and display copy slow down users’ comprehension. You’ll never see something that offers “6 months’ free credit”, even though that’s correct English. Likewise, apostrophes in abbreviations and rogue capitalisation makes content harder to read and less approachable.

It’s a manual not a bible

The GOV.UK style manual has a words to avoid section. This was originally a ‘banned words’ list. I worked on transitioning central government departments to GOV.UK in 2012. The first content we transitioned was government policies.

If there’s one thing that policies like to do, it’s ‘promote’ things. There are a number of synonyms I used, but quite often the government might not have been promoting anything. There may have been a target. So instead of, say, ‘promoting energy efficiency’ there was really an action in, for example, ‘giving solar energy grants to householders’.

What if, though, I’d simply swapped ‘promoting’ for ‘encouraging’? Well, I’d have swapped one dogma for another. If in the last 4 years users had read many times that the government was encouraging something, they’d have lost trust in the word ‘encouraging’.

Use a style guide if you’re unsure about a spelling or a capitalisation. But use a style manual to help you create content in language that your users can understand, trust and find.

Content Strategy Applied

  • Content Strategy Applied: 2-day conference
  • Theme: Benchmarking content
  • 9 and 10 Feb 2017
  • London

Scroll is delighted to sponsor this year’s Content Strategy Applied content conference.

The focus is on the practice of content strategy – problems, solutions and case studies that professional content strategists are dealing with now. The aim is that you can grow your content experience in just 2 days, and take away practical techniques you can apply straight away.

Keynote speakers

Keynote speakers Madi Weland Solomon and James Mathewson both bring a huge amount of experience and knowledge with them, and we are thrilled that they will be headlining.

Find out more about our speakers.

Bookings now open

Registration includes:

  • Two full days of sessions and workshops
  • Continental breakfast, lunches and refreshments
  • Networking and social events
  • Special meetup: Content Seriously

Book your tickets now.

Trust toolkit – how to build trust with subject matter experts

One of the most important skills for a content designer is the ability to manage relationships with subject matter experts (SMEs) and other stakeholders.

That’s because content designers are at the sharp end of digital transformation. It might be the CEO who sets the grand digital strategy but it’s up to us to implement it – to go and in change the way that people in an organisation communicate online.

We must be able to advocate for content, create consensus and build trust and credibility with stakeholders. If we build good relationships, we get better content, we publish faster and we do a better job for the user.

This ‘trust toolkit’ is a set of practical ways you can build trust with stakeholders. It’s drawn from Scroll’s experience and the experience of the wider community of content designers.

1. We’re not at war

You know the feeling when the product manager ignores all the evidence and keeps the content the same? Or the head of legal insists that your plain English draft can’t be published?

It’s an ugly truth but it’s easy for content designers to get stuck in an us-and-them attitude – where we’re so sick of having our work ignored or belittled that we can get a bit too defensive. And it’s not helpful.

Sure, you can go in all guns blazing and tell people that you’ve trashed all their rubbish changes to your content, but that kind of slash-and-burn attitude means next time you work with them it will be a nightmare. So, remember we’re all on the same side.

2. Explain the process

Don’t assume that people in an organisation know how publishing works. Explain your role (will develop and publish content) and their role (will check facts.) Make sure expectations are crystal clear. Then it won’t come as such a shock when you do your job.

“Explain what fact check is. Explain the first draft of the document they see will have factual errors in it, will look stylistically different to what they’re used to, and their role in the process will be to correct the facts. Empower them with this.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra


3. Explain digital, share the benefits

Digital content is your world, and you need to be able to confidently explain it. Demystify, myth-bust, share the benefits and your approach will look less scary.

“I’ve often found that fear of the unknown is a factor. So, I explain a little bit about why GOV.UK exists, how it works (including things like sub-topic pages, latest feeds, alerts, collection pages etc.). This helps them to see the positives of working with you to make their content more accessible to their users.” James Low, HMRC


3. Don’t be afraid of ignorance

When you first start working on something, you won’t understand the subject matter. That narrow window of ignorance is a gift – grab it with both hands! This is your one chance to see through the eyes of your users, who also won’t know they’re reading about. So – take the chance to learn from the experts. Question everything. Listen to the answers.

“I don’t understand this” is a powerful thing to say. Because if you can’t understand it, neither will users. (And maybe neither do the SMEs.)

4. Prove it works for users

If you can prove what you’re doing is what works best for users, it’s easier get people onside. (A shout-out to DVLA’s great use of guerrilla user research here.)

“Evidence is helpful. People like graphs and numbers, it takes the subjectivity out of the equation.” Alan Maddrell, Government Digital Services

5. Prove you know what you’re talking about

As well as showing evidence of how the content is used, you need to be able to show evidence for your decisions. Why do you use plain English? What is cognitive load? Why use the words your users use? Why use that piece of information here and not there? Why? ‘Because the style guide says so’ is not an answer. So, do your research. Be able to explain why. It’s much easier to trust someone who clearly knows why they are doing what they do.

6. Be credible

Acknowledge what you can and can’t do. Be straight with people. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

“Be honest about what you can and can’t do, ie you won’t be able to let subject matter experts make style changes, but you will let them make factual changes.” Ronan Fitzgerald, Defra


7. Workshop your content

This can work brilliantly. Use for complex pieces of content – for example, if several different organisations or departments are working on it. It’s also a good way to boost a relationship, or solve issues if you’re in deadlock.

Start by sending out a draft. Then book your workshop – in person is best, but phone is better than nothing. Try and get all the SMEs you can into the room, including legal teams. Ideally you need 2 content designers – one to make changes and one to do the talking. Gather all the proposed amends into one document, and then work through them and agree the changes you will make. Top tip: If anyone suggests a change that is purely editorial (or anything else that is your job, not their job, to do) say, “That’s a style change – we’ll consider it” and move on.

Cons: it takes a lot of time and you’ll need to say no if SMEs start wanting to workshop everything you publish.

8. Do pair writing

This works well for building trust and developing content that you and the SME both understand and support. But – use with care. If you’re working with someone who has not been exposed to user-focused design, or is a bit antagonistic, go carefully. Pick something small and easy to work on. Prepare to explain everything you’re doing and trying to achieve as you go along. Read how to do pair writing.

9. If there’s still a problem, find out why

Understand their reasons for resisting or changing what you’re doing. Ask more questions. Get them to describe their thought processes. Understand their requirements – what they want the content to do.

“Understand what the team’s measures of success are… it can help you understand why they might be pushing a particular message or agenda.” Roz Strachan, Government Digital Services.

You have to get to the bottom of what they think and why their perspective is different to yours.

“It’s all a matter of where you’re standing…” Helen Challinor, Department for Education


10. Make one small change

If things are getting difficult, start with the quick wins. There is always something that is so self-evidently in need of fixing that everyone agrees you can do it. Make a few quick wins. Then come back again the next day…


Want more?

How to collaborate with subject matter experts – some good ideas for starting with bullets and getting SMEs to chunk; also mind-mapping.

Resolving differences of opinion about content – some useful questions to help you work out what someone else’s perspective is based on.

Working with SMEs to improve content – a great success story from the Disclosure and Barring Service.

How to cope with the increased demands on content

The complexity of producing and delivering content has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, as the demands for content have grown. In simpler times, content was produced as a single-channel deliverable. We would write an article for a magazine, or a user guide, or a maintenance manual. There was one piece of content and one deliverable.

Writing content in simpler times

When the web came along, things changed considerably. We made the transition from writing in the book model for print and chunking the copy up for the web, to writing in topics for the web and then stitching the contents together for the print version that got delivered to customers.

For the most part, we still worked alone on a content deliverable. Each person on a team would be assigned an area to cover. For example, a company that produced a product would have:

  • marketing collateral in print done by a marketing team
  • marketing collateral on the website done by a digital marketing team
  • a user guide done by a technical communicator/technical author
  • a maintenance manual done by a different technical communicator
  • PDFs of the product material, uploaded (and forgotten) by a webmaster

Content got more complicated

As time went on, content got more complicated. The inconsistencies between digital and traditional channels became more apparent, and less tolerated, by customers. There were more demands on content, and more channels demanding content to fill them. There was not only the marketing funnel waiting to be filled, which makes up about 20% of any large website, but also product support material, the other 80%. Traditional product content was needed, such as quick start guides, user guides, training manuals, and service-center material. New channels also needed content: forums, knowledge bases, social, and so on. This didn’t account for the additional channels for that content, such as tablets, smartphones, wearables, and newer channels such as chat bots.

Multiplicity and the demands on content

Organisations are now in a situation where the volume of content and number of delivery variables means that the complexity of producing and delivering content has reached a tipping point. The demands on the business, the content developers, the technologies, and the content itself have grown exponentially, and it’s harder and harder to keep up.

For a moment, let’s picture 4 unique pieces of content that come together to describe a feature of a product. Now let’s say that that particular feature is used in 4 different product lines; that content is now being used 16 times. Now, imagine that each product line has four products within each line that uses that feature. Those 4 pieces of content get repeated 64 times. Now, multiply by 4 delivery channels, and that means those original 4 pieces of content are used a whopping 256 times. That’s a lot of copy-and-pasting.

4 pieces of content can be used 256 times.

How 4 pieces of content can balloon to 256 different uses.

This example of multiplicity is not understated. In fact, the phenomenon is all too common. As organisations develop more products and services, they create more content deliverables to support them, and deliver that content through multiple channels. At its best, content re-use is a laborious, time-consuming way to track where content is used and re-used. At worst, the process of tracking content use becomes a maintenance nightmare.

Finding a way to cope

How are organisations coping with this explosion of content? In my experience, not well. Too many clients have finally broken down and sought help because they’ve run out of spreadsheet management capacity – even in environments with a web CMS. Yet the demands on content continue to grow, and a greater level of sophistication is needed to deliver on the value propositions anticipated by the business.

So how can organisations cope? With a CODA (Create Once, Deliver Anywhere) strategy based on the COPE (Create One, Publish Everywhere) strategy used by the US’s NPR (National Public Radio). The basic idea is that a piece of content can be created once, and then re-used through automation, instead of using a copy-and-paste approach.

By pulling content into the many places it gets used, content developers experience a marked decrease in maintenance effort. After all, CODA also means Fix Once, Fix Everywhere. This is because when content is re-used by ‘transclusion’, the original piece of content is the only actual instance of the content. All of the other ‘copies’ are actually only a reference of the original. Fix a typo in the original piece of content, and all of the derivative content is automatically fixed as well.

Multichannel content

How 4 pieces of content can exist in multiple channels, in multiple contexts.


What goes into CODA

Creating CODA content is based on the principles of intelligent content. This means that content is structurally rich and semantically categorised. The definition, created by Ann Rockley, goes on to say that this makes content automatically discoverable, re-usable, reconfigurable, and adaptable. Those may sounds like technical benefits, so perhaps they are best rephrased in business terms.

  • Business efficiency. With less maintenance overhead, content developers can focus less on low-level tasks like searching for duplicate content and filling in spreadsheets, and spend more time on value-add activities. On one recent project, a particular task that took several staff several months to complete could have been completed in a matter of minutes, had the content been highly structured and semantically categorised.
  • Accountability. When a CODA framework is implemented well, there is a granular audit trail that would make any auditor swoon with delight.
  • Accuracy. Brand, marketing, legal, and compliance are all concerned with content accuracy. Having a single source of truth to draw from means less mistakes, fewer review cycles, and less legal checks before content goes live.
  • Personalisation. Whatever personalisation means to your organisation, it is more easily done within a CODA framework. The semantics added to content means the content is adaptive – in other words, it’s easier to change a sentence or two within a message to reach a different audience, to vary an offering, to output specific parts of a block of content to different devices, and so on. This can be done without losing the context, and makes maintenance so much easier.
  • Extension of reach. The idea that content can be produced in a tighter way also means that the company can leverage the content in new ways. Going into new markets, adding new product lines, taking new languages on board – all of these are possibilities that can be supported with content. No more lag between the intent and action.
  • Dynamic publishing. In companies with large quantities of content, the ability to publish content on the fly, collect existing content into new contexts, and create new assets for customers, whether paid or promotional, becomes competitive advantage.

Adopting CODA

A logical question is, “If CODA is so good, why isn’t everyone doing it?” The content developers who have been doing CODA for decades ask that question a lot. It’s a technique that has been used extensively for large bodies of content (in all fairness, the technique has traditionally been applied to post-sales content such as technical documentation, customer support content, and training material) to cope with demanding production schedules and a high likelihood of post-publication maintenance.

However, as the complexity of content delivery grows and the demand on content grows with it, the imperative for well-structured, highly semantic content will need to become the norm. It has implications for all areas of business, from how we create content to how we deliver it, and all the steps in between.


Must-read only: what’s new in content

Too much internet to wade through before you find the worthwhile stuff? Never fear – we read it for you, cut the dross and keep the best. Then we put it all together in this round-up of the latest thinking, advice, tools and events in content strategy and content design. (Hint: you can get this straight to your inbox if you sign up for the Digital Content Academy newsletter. Never miss out again…)

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

How hashtags work
Hashtags have different effects on different social media. This explains how they work and how to get the best out of them.

Run a user journey mapping workshop
Brilliant post on how (and why) to run a user journey mapping workshop. Sample takeaway: you really don’t need a fancy template to create a user journey map. Digital agencies make these to justify their fees…

Make your content live longer
Publishing brilliant content is one thing. Sustaining its life is another. Here’s some good advice.

Tools, tools, glorious tools

Clever tools for UI writers
Some useful ways to mock up designs to help you test your UI copy, or explain it to developers or designers.

Trello for Slack
We’re one step closer to achieving mind-meld.

News, thinking, advice

It doesn’t matter what you call it
Struggling to explain what content strategists do? Put the work before the words. Client panics at the sound of a ‘content audit’? Call it a ‘content check’.

Cognitive pyschology and content design
Content designers need to be able to explain their decisions – it’s not enough to say ‘because it’s in the style guide’. What we do is based on sound evidence, and you can learn about some of that here.

A content designer is not just a web editor
Here’s how our friend Beck moved from writing words for websites to designing content based on user needs. (Take our content design bootcamp to get these skills.)

Forgotten your password?
So have 82% of other people. Here’s the latest thinking on design patterns for log in pages.

And finally…

“We’re going digital!”

Rahel Bailie named in the top 25 content strategy influencers

Scroll’s own content strategy guru, Rahel Bailie, has been named one of the top 25 content strategist influencers 2016 by MindTouch.

MindTouch evaluated thousands of content strategists and created a measurement that took into account a wide range of metrics, including internet presence, influence, community engagement and participation. This is a snapshot of what’s happening (and who’s hot) in the world of content strategy today.

Read the list of top 25 content strategist influencers on the MindTouch site.

A content designer is not a web editor

In 2009, I started working as a senior editor on the Directgov website. This was a dream job: I liked the public sector and had already spent years working as a web content manager for a regional government organisation most people hadn’t heard of (it doesn’t exist anymore). I wanted to write stuff that mattered and work on a big website that people actually used. I knew Directgov: I’d seen the adverts on the telly. I even used the website every now and then – most people I knew did – and so being part of the team working on it really appealed.

I’d been there for about a year when Martha Lane Fox published her report about the future of Directgov. In short, there wasn’t really one: Directgov and Business Link, its sister website for businesses, were to be converged into a single website. That website became GOV.UK, but I’m skipping a bit.

How I became a content designer

After the report was published, Directgov as an organisation became the Government Digital Service (GDS). The Directgov editorial staff were sent letters saying their jobs didn’t exist in the new organisation. We were invited to apply for new roles as ‘content designers’.

I’d never heard of content design, and I was cynical. Was this just a way of getting rid of the editors, I wondered? Did they already have lots of these mysterious content designers lined up to replace us?

I applied for the job anyway, and I got it. My cynicism was misplaced: it turned out to be one of the most satisfying and interesting jobs I’ve ever had, and I very quickly realised that content design wasn’t the same thing as editorial at all.

Traditionally, government publishing had very much a ‘push’ model, with websites telling users what government wanted them to know. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as what they *needed* to know, though.

With GOV.UK, the idea of content design turned that publishing model on its head. As content designers, our first task was to work out what users needed. Then we designed the content around that: sometimes it was written copy, but not always – sometimes, a tool of some kind (like a decision tree) worked better. This felt so liberating: huge chunks of Directgov content were dispensed with and the new website was clearer, simpler and faster. I worked on a section that replaced 42 Directgov pages with a single GOV.UK guide and a couple of one-page ‘quick answers’. It was immensely satisfying.

It’s been 5 years since those first content design roles were created, and although the idea of content design began in government, it’s now spreading much wider as other organisations realise that content design isn’t the same as editorial. A content designer must be able to write, but being able to write doesn’t automatically make you a content designer: you also need to be able to analyse data, work out user needs, advocate for the user and – sometimes – have difficult conversations with stakeholders about why you’re doing things a certain way.

Content design resources

GDS has written a lot about what content design is and we’ve produced a video explaining the principles of content design. It’s a great career to get into, especially if you want to help make government – or indeed any organisation – work better for people. You’ll learn that people don’t read on the web and how to structure your content accordingly. You’ll also realise that content design is about being brave, trying things out and changing them if you didn’t get it right first time. The internet isn’t carved in stone, and it’s okay to iterate if something isn’t working.

Become a content designer

Interested in finding out more? Come along to our Content Design Bootcamp, a 2-day course covering user needs, writing for the web, designing with data and agile content production. It’s run by our sister company, the Digital Content Academy. Complete the 4-module course and you’ll get a certificate of completion accredited by the CPD (Continuing Professional Development) Certification Service.


Editorial, content marketing, advertorial: are we being clear?

For a while, during the earlier epochs of digital evolution, the future looked rather bleak for writers. Extinction seemed the inevitable consequence of an online marketplace whose users expected to get quality content for free. How could such an arrangement be supported; how could a writer make a living out of that?

As it turned out, things aren’t so bad. Hunger for engaging digital content has only increased as the online world begins to supersede more traditional platforms of entertainment and commerce.  Successful organisations are now only too aware that content underpins the relationship they have with their customers; without content there is no relationship. And they are willing to pay good money to keep the relationship sweet.

Content contentment

Not only that, it’s a relationship that can be traded. Advertisers looking to find ways to reach a publisher’s hard-won audience will gladly pay for access to this relationship – and are currently paying more than ever. A record £8.6 billion was splurged on UK digital advertising last year, a jump of 16% on 2014, representing the industry’s fastest growth rate since the economic downturn.

Around 9% of that – some £776 million – was used on content and native advertising, the areas of most value to writers and content designers. It was an increase of 50% on 2014 levels – and the figures don’t even account for money directed towards content marketing, online PR and search engine optimisation.

The UK enjoys the largest per capita digital advertising spend in the world, according to Clare O’Brien of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), who shared her insights at a recent Content, Seriously meetup. A happy alignment of factors, such as the UK’s highly developed creative and advertising services, its mature and ‘compact’ national news and broadcasting industries, and high per capita online consumer spend, make it extremely attractive to digital advertisers.

Predictions about the extinction of writers and other content producers were clearly misplaced. In the race to build audiences and influence opinion, there’s arguably more appreciation for their craft than seemed possible to hope for a decade ago.  And given that users expect free content and are generally hostile to display ads, banner ads and pop-ups (more than 1 in 5 online adults currently use ad-blocking software; under the age of 24 it’s almost a half), it’s no wonder that native advertising is taking an increasingly prominent role in marketing strategy.

Native advertising: softly, softly…

Native advertising is far more subtle than the rude sledgehammering of pop-up ads, and when it’s done well it can be just as appealing as the content it sits in. The idea itself is nothing new. Victorian-era companies twigged early that supplying content to gently steer customers towards a primary product, itself often far removed from the subject matter, was a highly effective way of increasing sales.

A much-cited example is the tyre company Michelin, who published their now famous maps, hotel and restaurant guides as a means of encouraging people to travel more by car – and use more tyres. Their marketing material was so popular it eventually became a brand-defining product in its own right. And even in the 1950s, Guinness was using advertorials about oysters to get people to drink more stout.

The principle online is much the same. It’s about camouflaging the main message – ‘buy our product’ – in content that an audience will not reject as bald advertising. Advertisers use promotional material that appears ‘native’ to the standard editorial content that surrounds it, matching it in style and get-up, and making it seem at face value that it’s from the trusted content provider rather than an advertiser.

…but stay honest!

Of course, advertisers are not allowed to pass off adverts as factual editorial or deceive audiences by concealing the commercial arrangement made between an advertiser and publisher. Native advertising is regulated and the UK has one of the strictest regimes in the world, underpinned by the CAP Code (rarely referred to by its full name, the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing) and enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Their remit has covered digital advertising since 2011, with sanctions that include pre-vetting of content, adverse publicity, removal of paid-for search advertisements; more serious cases can be sent to Trading Standards or the Information Commissioner’s Office for criminal prosecution. In the US, by contrast, general guidelines on native advertising were only introduced at the end of 2015.

Editorial or advertorial?

Regulatory framework has given birth to a whole new glossary of terms for the different types of content that seek to persuade opinion. Scroll through a digital marketer’s playbook and expect to find mention of content marketing, sponsored content, partner content, native advertising, thought leadership, public relations, marketing copy, paid-for content, promoted listings, advertorials, in-feed ads, and probably another small thesaurus’ worth of related terms and euphemisms.

In such a welter of overlapping and fuzzy terms, it can sometimes be difficult for content producers to be sure that they are stepping on the right side of the regulatory line. After all, content is very often designed to be persuasive or influence behaviour. Does that mean such content is automatically subject to the CAP Code?

The crucial difference between content marketing and native advertising, for instance, is that the latter has been paid for and the message is controlled by an advertiser, promoter or marketer in a commercial arrangement with the publisher. Content designed to boost the publisher’s own position, but not directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods or services in non-paid-for space on a company’s own website – what many call content marketing –does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Code.

Be up front about advertising

Clarity is the core principle behind keeping native advertising on the right side of the Code. If a publisher has been paid to communicate or endorse a brand’s message, then it’s advertising – and if it’s advertising the audience has to know it before they start to consume it.

There are many ways to flag up native advertising – one of the reasons there are so many terms for such content. For instance, it could be labelled as ‘sponsored’, ‘suggested by’, ‘presented by’; we’re all familiar with Facebook’s ‘suggested posts’ and Twitter’s ‘promoted tweets’. It could have a visual cue or demarcation to make the boundary between advertising and editorial content obvious. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, Clare O’Brien of IAB said, but it does have to be clear and up front.

In the end, advertisers are paying for a slice of the trust that you have built up with your audience. Fall foul of the Code and you risk facing the reputational damage of naming and shaming and taking your ads down. If you’re audience feels duped, the trust will go – and that was the very commodity you were trading on in the first place. Get it right and your audience will continue to trust and enjoy your content, and advertisers will continue to pay.


Many thanks to Clare O’Brien for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup. Join the next meetup: 


Get the best bits! The latest thinking in content design and content strategy

Here’s what you might have missed while you had your ‘Out of Office’ on (metaphorically or not) for a sunny, summery August.

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Digital Content Academy newsletter in August. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design. Sign up, don’t miss out…

News, thought pieces, advice

Agile is for everyone
New to/terrified of agile? Think a sprint is something to do with Usain Bolt? Here is some excellent advice on how to find your feet as a content person on an agile project.

Pandas, penguins and hummingbirds
Penguin 4.0 is launching ‘soon’, says Google. If that means nothing to you, maybe read this cheatsheet.

Content strategy at non-profits
Content strategy work at non-profits has some specific issues – budgets are tiny, resources are tight, and there is generally a huge content / tech debt to sort out. Here’s how Josh Tong did it.

Practical tips and ‘how-tos’

Are you sure?
How to write a confirmation dialogue. Brilliant.

Writing a style guide? How to explain tone
It’s insanely hard to pin down tone in a style guide – to explain it in a way that makes sense to senior management and is actionable by content creators. This Nielsen article gives a good example of a tone scale (and quantifies customer reaction to changes in tone.)

Do better UX for video
We watch 4 billion YouTube videos every day. Mark Zuckerberg says that soon the majority of content we consume will be video. So let’s start learning what good video content looks like for users.


Best. Graphic design tool for dummies. Ever.

And finally…

No more postcodes
Mongolia is changing all its addresses to 3-word phrases. (I know, I also thought it was a hoax, but it’s definitely a thing – look at what3words.) Developed because 75% of the world’s population have no mailing address.


Image copyright: Chris Blakely, Flickr CC

Good translations start with good source content

If you’re surprised to hear that the biggest impact you can have on your translation budget lies with your source content, you’re not alone. Shoring up your source content seems counter-intuitive, but it’s exactly the right strategy to get the most value from your translation and localisation projects.

Organisations can achieve 50% to 80% reduction in translation costs and a 30%-plus reduction in delivery time by implementing best practices around managing source content. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply says that operating in an omnichannel environment is increasingly a part of supply chain challenges – so streamlining and cost reduction is as important as thinking about the customer experience.

Translation is the too-late phase

It’s hard for translators to work in today’s business environment. They are perpetually at the end of the supply chain in any iteration of content production, and they are asked to produce localised content – that is, translations that have been adapted for suitability in local markets – in often impossibly short time periods, increasingly making it difficult to meet an unrealistic standard of quality.

More often than not, translators can see the problems upstream in the supply chain, but find themselves unable to effect any changes that would make the situation easier for themselves or their clients. They may not have direct access to the actual client, as a translation agency sits between them and acts as gatekeeper, and they may not even have reliable access to the tools that could improve the production process.

The client, meanwhile, struggles to get the content out to the translation agency and back again in a smooth manner. There continually seem to be bumps in the process that cause delays, mistranslations, or increased administrative overhead – needless cutting and pasting, for example.

It may be of some comfort, then, to know that good practices start at home, to mangle a perfectly good saying. Having a sound production process and robust source-language ecosystem lays the foundation for smooth development of localised content. In turn, this makes it easier to integrate the localised content into your products, websites, apps, knowledge bases, and content hubs.

Ready to adopt good localisation practices

It’s when companies are at the stage in their content maturity models when they recognise that content is an important part of their product or communication strategy that they are willing to invest in content as an asset. For companies not at that level of awareness, the rest of this article will not resonate. This is an important assumption, as in-house practices often reveal that companies are willing to live with broken content processes all along the line. They may say that content is king, but the king is shackled in a dungeon, and the keys have gone missing.

For the companies that are at the level of the maturity model where they are ready to take action, we make the following assumptions.

  • The company values content for its business value. Content isn’t considered that afterthought that fills in the pretty design, but a work product in its own right. In other words, the company recognises that the way that customers understand the products, services, instructions for use, value proposition, and the brand itself.
  • The company recognises that content production is not a commodity, and so does not fit the traditional supply chain model. Content returns in various iterations – new version, new language, new revision, and so on – and needs to be managed with the same care as other work products with iterative processes, such as code.
  • The company recognises that content is intrinsically different than data, and manages content with checks and balances suitable to it.
  • The company has equal interest in customers in the many markets, and aims to give them as much respect as the customers in the primary market.

Meeting these assumptions is an important point, as organisations which have not reached this stage of awareness are likely not willing or able to move to an operational model where they are ready to optimise management of localised content.

Put controls on source content

The single biggest impact you can have on your localisation efforts is to get your source content in order. A foundational principle for producing good translations is managing your source content well. Ideally, an organisation would create a superset of their source content, and re-use it across all of their output channels. This model accrues a tremendous amount of ROI, and the more languages you produce, the more this applies. Managing source content well involves making the most of semantic structure and metadata tags to help computer systems understand what the content is about, and as a result, how to translate that content more effectively.

Make your content translation-friendly

There are several writing theories with principles that apply to localised content. The principles of the Plain Language movement, for example, are a way to ensure that content is accessible to everyone. Controlled vocabulary is another technique from which you can borrow to ease confusion when terms need to be translated. Both of these theories agree on avoiding jargon, idiom, slang, and euphemisms, as they are harder to translate and often meaningless in the target language. Also pay attention to colours, gestures, and images. For example, there is no hand gesture that is not offensive in some culture. (Even the Facebook “thumbs up” for Like is a rude gesture in an entire area of the world.) Professional writers and translators will spot these errors and point them out or correct them.

The 3 techniques that are most common are:

  • translation – a faithful word-for-word rendition in another language
  • localisation – translation with additional compensation for differences in the target markets
  • transcreation – completely changing the message, if necessary, to make it meaningful to the target audience.

Transcreation is obviously the most resource-intensive, and will likely get used for marketing and other persuasive content.

Make your content interoperable

Industry has hundreds, if not thousands, of content standards that help store content, move content between systems, move content through the production, and so on. Your web or software developers may know about W3C standards that relate to the Open Web Platform, accessibility, semantic web, and the Web of Devices (the Internet of Things). They may not be as familiar with XLIFF, an interchange format commonly used to move content through the localisation process, image standards such as SVG, which has a handy text layer to store multiple language translations on a single image as metadata. Knowing the standards and deciding which ones apply to your projects can dramatically ease workflows and save significant time and money.

Use established workflows

When you use industry-standard workflows for translations, your project can go around the world in a day or two, and be translated with a minimum of drama. A typical workflow would be to export well-formed content (going back to interoperability standards) to a competent translation agency through a Translation Management System. The agency will run the content through your translation memory, subject the new content to machine translate, and then have it post-edited by a qualified translator. The quality-checked content is pushed back into your content repository and is ready for processing. Now, you can see how managing your source content can affect production efficiency of your translated content.

Use the right tools

The operational overhead of managing translations manually can be significant. It’s possible to bring down that overhead by using some industry-standard tools. Translation processes have become very sophisticated, and these tools are at the heart of automation and scale.

  • Translation memory. At the very basic level, a translation memory is a must. If you use a professional translation agency, they will use the translation memory to compare new translations with previous translations, and avoid translating sentences which had previously been translated. You own your translation memory, though, and are entitled to have the file for your own use, for example, with other agencies.
  • Translation automation. At the next level is project automation. If you translate or localise content regularly, a TMS (translation management system) can improve your processes a lot. Source language files get passed through to a TMS, which handles everything from calculating the number of words to be processed, to passing the files to translators and collecting the translated content, to calculating costs and generating invoices, to passing the translated content back into your content editing system into the appropriate file or database structure.
  • Machine translation. The larger your project, the more likely you are to use machine translation as the first pass at translating content. Machine translation happens before translators polish up the language in what is called the post-editing phase.
  • Content optimisation. The larger, more advanced organisations use software that scans the source content for not just spelling and grammar, but also for consistency, form, and harder-to-measure things like tone and voice. This sophisticated software can also offer authoring assistance to keep cost-sucking language problems from entering the body of content at the source.
  • Managing content as components. Organisations that produce masses of content have been using authoring environments called a CCMS (component content management system), where the source content is managed at granular levels. This means that content gets created once and re-used wherever it’s needed. This is called CODA (Create Once, Deliver Anywhere), which began as a topic-based, modular way of developing content that has become the centre of multi-channel publishing strategies.

Up-skill your content developers

Using the right kind of content developers to manage your content is important. Investing in the right skill sets will pay itself back in no time. The skills that content developers such as technical communicators, user assistance writers, and content designers bring to the table are often learned while working on larger teams with other skilled content professionals. On the scale of most-to-least suited to the job of writing content for translation are product managers and software or web developers. They bring important skills to the table, but it’s not creating content!

A word about Agile projects

Corporations using professional writers – that is, technical authors who understand how to manipulate the technical side of content to automate and scale – generally get source language delivered within the same sprint as the code, and translated content delivered one sprint later. This may seem like an over-generalisation, but the observation comes from years of experience and discussions with dozens of technical communication managers around the world. The work done up front to ensure that this can happen takes place in Sprint 0. This is where the story arc gets determined, based on the customer journeys, along with the work that projects the number of target languages, the output devices, content connection points, and so on. This allows content to be set up in ways that anticipate a content framework and lifecycle that works in that situation.

What you can fix, what you can’t

We can recognise the possibilities that strategic management of content can open up. These techniques will benefit larger companies that have:

  • translation and/or localisation needs
  • variants in language usage across multiple markets
  • cross-market content or native languages in alternative markets
  • cross-border commerce adaptation of language
  • usage differences, such as outputs to multiple devices
  • omnichannel marketing environments
  • rising use of social content
  • a strong need to respond to growth that involves more content

There are no silver bullets to solve localisation problems; to believe that would be naïve. Small companies that have limited translation needs, for example, would struggle to justify putting in a full-blown translation management system. They might need to find a hosted solution where a third party handles the management side of translation. Yet the same principles apply: localisation best practices begin with good source content.


Image copyright: Jayel Aheram, Flickr (CC)

What happens when content design crashes into the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?


What would it be like to produce content in a total data vacuum? Picture yourself working in soundproofed blacked-out box with a computer that can only send but never receive information. You have a brief to design some content, but you haven’t been given much information about your users. You’re going to have to rely on intuition and assumption about their needs, interests and behaviour. No matter – you’re a resourceful person, so you make the best of it and cobble together some best-guess content. It’s a relief to press send.

Off it goes into the ether and you’ll never have to think about it, the users or their needs again – because there won’t be any feedback. That includes all metrics, page views, click-throughs, bounces and everything else you’re used to for assessing whether your work is fulfilling its aims. It sounds like a recipe for awful content, doesn’t it? It must be – though of course you won’t get to know either way.

Data drives content

For content professionals, such a scenario in the real world is unthinkable. Content is driven by data and databases, from analytics to A/B testing. Data is the beating heart of how content designers think about user needs and what we do to deliver on them. It’s also the biggest weapon in our armoury when it comes to dealing with sceptical and obstructive forces in the organisations we work for.

And yet, the situation above isn’t just a thought exercise. Working in a data void – or at best with a seriously diminished data set – could well become a reality for many of us in a couple of years if we don’t take timely steps to stay compliant with imminent new data protection legislation, according to Hazel Southwell, Data Protection Consultant, speaking at a recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Ignore data protection at your peril

Content producers who ignore the new rules will be destined to launch their content into the void, she warned, like the Soviet scientists who shot Laika, a Moscow street dog, into space with scant means of monitoring her progress and no hope of her survival. The ill-fated dog died from overheating after only a couple of hours and the scientists learned next to nothing from the adventure. At least she got to be the first animal in orbit – which is far more than content producers can hope for in return for their doomed efforts.

Producing content without user research and analytics (both pre and post publication) makes it far more likely to be irrelevant to target audiences – and useless to our objectives. More than that, data is the trump card, the invincible ace of spades, in any argument about the direction that content should be taking.

How often does data come to our rescue when subject matter experts are blocking improvements to clarity and readability, or when managers are resistant to important content changes? They can’t argue with the data. Without data in the armoury, we’re fighting blindfold with both arms tied behind our back.

Say hello to the General Data Protection Regulation

On 25 May 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force, making sweeping changes to rules governing the way we collect, use and store data. It will have an impact on any organisation, whether based inside or outside the European Union, that processes the personal data of any resident of the EU or any EU citizen elsewhere.

Companies will no longer be able to sidestep data protection obligations because their head office is in the US, say, or their servers are in Vanuatu. If they’re dealing with the personal data of EU citizens then they must comply with the rules. So Brexit will not provide a way out for UK organisations either.

The UK currently has one of the toughest data regimes in the world in the Data Protection Act 1998, backed up by the enforcements of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But the GDPR knocks that into the shade, not least with sanctions that are designed to bring the global tech behemoths out in a cold sweat. Even the likes of Google and Facebook might think twice about transgressions, faced with fines totalling €20 million or 4% of worldwide annual turnover – whichever is greater.

Personal data will include photos, email addresses, bank details, social media posts, cookies and IP addresses – anything, in fact, that identifies you directly or indirectly in your private, professional or public life. And if you’re processing this data, whether you’re a multinational or working from your front room, whether you’re turning a profit or not, then you’ll need to comply.

It might be a shock for a humble WordPress blogger to find their use of tools such as Google Analytics (much of which is based on monitoring IP addresses) could fall foul of the law. And their difficulties will be compounded if they deal with personalised content tailored to their audiences – for example, if they use a formula whereby 2 users might see a different paragraph within a single page depending on their age. It seems the quest for making highly relevant content is to become even more tortuous.

So how do you comply with the GDPR?

You’ll have to get explicit consent for obtaining and keeping personal data, which must be given to you freely, rather than as a bargaining chip for accessing your services. You’ll need to ask for it in clear and obvious way, not just imply you’re taking it and going ahead.

Having obtained consent fair and square you’ll have to store it, not only so the ICO can check you’re doing things right, but also so individuals concerned can see what you have on them. They should be able to transfer their data to other data controllers if they want – what’s being described as a new right of ‘data portability’.

Consent can be withdrawn as well as given, and you’ll have to erase data or correct inaccurate data if requested, or restrict processing data if you get an objection. If the data you’re keeping gets compromised through a security breach you may have to notify the relevant authority, the individual concerned or the public at large.

You’ll have to demonstrate that you’re complying with the GDPR, through policies and procedures, staff training, monitoring, documentation – and if your organisation is large enough, with the appointment of a designated data protection officer and appropriate records of your data processing activities.

Privacy will be prioritised by better design (privacy by design) and through more stringent default settings (privacy by default), and you’ll be encouraged to use data only when strictly necessary for your services.

Privacy fights back

If it sounds tough, that’s because it is. There are some obvious exemptions to the rules – such as for national security, defence, law enforcement, public services and health and so on – but it seems the EU has had enough of companies storing and selling huge quantities of personal information, our interests, health, social background, jobs, wealth, education and much more – information that has very likely been obtained in ways we were not wholly aware.

While we unwittingly surrender the details of our address books, calendars, emails and map co-ordinates to apps and companies that seem to have no call to know them, many of us are only dimly realising that our most private information is forming part of a vast global trade far beyond our control. Marketing giant Acxiom, for instance, is said to have stockpiled up to 3,000 separate nuggets of information on each of the 700 million people in its files.

In this context, the GDPR could be a welcome rebalancing in favour of the individual. Even so, EU member states still have some flexibility about how they implement many of the GDPR’s 99 Articles – not to mention the uncertainty of how a post-Brexit UK might slot into those arrangements.

There may also be ways to anonymise or ‘pseudonymise’ data so that it can be used without stepping on anyone’s toes, or making the most of exemptions for statistical research that doesn’t rely on the identifying aspects of the data. The sweep of the legislation may be fixed, but the crispness of its final boundaries are still to be defined.

Respect privacy, improve content, win trust

However the cookie in your cache might crumble come May 2018, content strategists must start putting data protection much higher up the agenda now. Content professionals are creative people and will be able to conjure up inventive and unimposing ways for users to give consent about their personal data.

It’s in everyone’s interests that content is engaging and relevant, and it won’t take much for users to understand how important data is for the best in content creation. It will be even more important for content professionals to create the kind of compelling content that will make users care enough to click the consent button – in whatever form it takes – without a second thought.

Many thanks to Hazel Southwell for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.



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Scroll welcomes new staff member Beck Thompson

First week at Scroll – introducing myself

This week, I joined the Scroll central team. I’ll be helping to look after Scroll clients and content designers, scoping out projects and providing editorial guidance and quality control – amongst other things.

I’m really excited to be doing this role: I’ve worked alongside Scrollies in content design teams, and I’ve also been a Scroll client, so I know how much expertise the team has. Now I’ve got the chance to be part of it and help shape what Scroll is doing.

Work in government content design

I’ve got 18 years’ experience in digital content. I was a senior editor on the Directgov website before the Government Digital Service (GDS) was formed. Then I worked as a content designer on the award-winning team that launched GOV.UK. After that, I became the GDS content lead for digital services, managing content designers working on 25 ‘exemplar’ services as part of the Digital Transformation Programme. I also led the content design work on the GDS Agile Governance Principles, which were published in the Service Design Manual.

Most recently I’ve been a content lead at Citizens Advice, working with a team to develop user-centred content for a website that was visited 36 million times last year by people looking for help to solve their problems.

A content geek at heart

I suppose I’m just a massive content geek at heart. I love taking complicated things and making them simple, or helping others to do that. I love championing user needs and talking to other people about digital content. It’s an exciting field to work in at the moment, with the opportunity to learn and collaborate with some brilliant brains – and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

Don’t miss this – advice, tips and tricks for content strategy and content design

Here’s what you might have missed last month while you were busy with Brexit and related drama…

This blog is a round-up of the best of the Digital Content Academy newsletter in June. The newsletter is itself a round-up of the best advice, thinking, news and events in content strategy and content design.

The newsletter goes out every second Thursday. Don’t miss out.

News, advice, thought pieces

Government digital needs you!
The Government Digital Trends survey shows that, while the digital transformation agenda is a growing force in government, lack of skills is a major blocker.

Data + narrative = user journey
This is a brilliant case study, showing how you need to understand the analytics and also the narrative, the story arc, if you really want to craft a journey that works for users. So imaginative.

How millennials behave online
Confident, error-prone, different to everyone else.

Practical advice and how-tos

How to do remote moderated user testing
Common excuses for not doing user research: 1. no budget 2. don’t know what to test 3. don’t know who to test it on 4. actually don’t really know how to do it. (If you want to keep using those excuses, don’t read this post.)

Link to 1 thing, once only
This is the user experience rule we probably don’t follow enough.

Google’s style tips for UI
Writing copy for user interfaces? These will really help you up your game. Sample: ‘Focus on the user and what they can do with your app, rather than what you or your app is doing for the user.’


Amazing visual search tool
We love this tool. It scrapes Google search suggestions to provide keywords, but powerfully grouped into question facets. And then beautifully visualised.

Exactly what people do on your website
HotJar is a brilliant little tool to help you (and your clients) understand how people are using your site. Heatmaps, visitor recordings, conversion funnels and form analytics. Free to try.

And finally….

Exit strategy
A level-headed look at why you need a strategy in case you need to exit a position – be that a CMS, a social media channel or, say, a political union of countries. Emphasises the need to plan carefully, to account for what could go wrong, and to be prepared to act if the worst happens. Deserves to be widely read.

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Sign up here for the Digital Content Academy newsletters, every second Thursday.

Prevent content from being a project blocker

A common time for organisations to take a long, hard look at their content is during a ‘web refresh’ project. This is when an organisation wants to update the look and feel of its website. It’s usually prompted by a business need – new functionality, rebranding after an acquisition or merger, or a simple update to keep the brand fresh. 

Often now, the scope of such projects goes beyond the website – complexity grows as we see more mobile access, more personalised content delivery as part of omnichannel environments, and more connectivity between software systems. So the term ‘web refresh’ is showing its age – but that’s a whole different article.

 One of the common choke points during a web refresh project is content.  At the end of a conference presentation, it’s not uncommon to be approached by a developer, manager, or other project team member with tales of woe about the state of their content. These reveal common themes:

  • “It’s been two years since we finished our end of the work, but the site hasn’t launched yet because they don’t have the content for it.”
  • “We had our user experience guy do the information architecture, but migrating the content over from the old system is such a nightmare.”
  • “We wanted our bid to be competitive so we excluded content, and the client has no idea how to deal with it, and we’re not prepared to deal with it.”
  • “We did this great design, and now we have to make all these adjustments because the content doesn’t fit.”

The systemic bias against content

The industry adage is that ‘content is king’, yet experience shows that it more often gets treated like the court jester. This bias against content is real. On digital projects, the visual designers are asked to mock something up to show the client. They might even be asked to mock up some functionality – a slider or a carousel. The content that goes into that mockup is often some dummy Latin text as a placeholder. The assumption is that the client will be persuaded by the beauty of the container, no matter what goes inside.



To use a metaphor, let’s pretend that your company is a coffee chain, and you ask an agency to update your business presence. They obsess about the signage, the shop windows, the furniture, the fancy barista equipment, the colour of the coffee cups and the angle of the lids. But when it comes to the actual coffee? They’ve brought in a couple of teenagers, handed them a jar of instant and an electric kettle, and poured something brown into the cup.

This is too often the case with content.

Look inside the digital agencies that get the web refresh contracts, from the boutique micro-consultancy to the world’s largest and most reputable, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find qualified content professionals. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find content professionals at all. You will find developers and designers, because they are perceived as specialists and their work has therefore become valued.

Content, however, is perceived as ‘that stuff that anyone can do’. Agencies are happy to leave content to the client – hoping that the client can figure it out on their own.

Content development as a business skill

If the business adage is ‘content is king’, there’s an adage among content pros that goes something like ‘just because you can write, it doesn’t mean you can write professionally’. We all learned to write in primary school, but that writing bears little resemblance to the work that content professionals do. You might enjoy your Sunday bike rides, but that’s got nothing to do with the Tour de France.



So, writing is no longer ‘just’ writing; it’s no longer adequate to simply create copy. The craft has become content development – and it can get complicated.

To give you a few examples, the difference between writing for business communication and writing for digital delivery is like the difference between making a sandwich at home and running a restaurant. It’s not just the amount of content that is the difference. It’s the planning and scheduling; it’s understanding the differences of writing for desktop and writing for mobile; it’s the tagging and metadata to make sure the content can be processed properly and is findable by search engines. To quote a client, “this is what separates amateur speculators from professionals.”

Also, let’s not forget the external forces that content developers need to factor into their work. One example is organic search. A professional content developer pays attention to the changes to the algorithms that search engines, particularly Google, use to determine what is ‘good’ content. Content developers need to understand the implications so they can adjust their writing styles, metadata, and schema use, to help search engines find content.

Putting content to work

We have established that content is central to how you describe your products and services. It’s the articles that people read. It’s the instructions that people follow. It’s the photo and the description, the infographic or chart, the product specs, and the supporting material that persuades consumers to click the ‘Buy’ button. Copy is the content that consumers see, and metadata is the content that consumers don’t see. Together, the copy plus metadata comprise content that can be searched and found, delivered and viewed, understood, and acted on.

What goes into the making of digital content starts with a strategy and culminates in the content itself. Here are some of the basic considerations.

The content structure

The structure, codified in a content model, defines how content works within delivery systems, such as a CMS (content management system). The model is created by determining all the kinds of content that need to be created and work together to meet the business requirements. A content strategist would create a domain model, content types, content flows, and then consolidate them into a model. The developers or CMS integrators use this model to build rules about how content gets transported through the system, and delivered to a publishing system or shared with other software systems.

The semantics

There are various standards that technologies such as a CMS use to deliver content to other technologies. The content needs to conform to these standards. A content strategist would work with the technologists to determine which schemas are used, how the taxonomy is set up, which metadata fields are required and how they will be configured, how many channels the content needs to get published to, and so on.

The content

The copy must engage consumers, and fulfil their expectations in terms of user experience. A content professional also writes the adaptive copy that will be delivered to specific channels or outputs. They then add the metadata that allows systems to automatically process the content and provides search engines with the right information. The content also needs to be checked for editorial quality, factual accuracy, consistency, and technical integrity.

Remove the blockers from your project

Given the prominent role that content plays, and the complexity involved in dealing with the setup and management of content, it is time for organisations and their agencies step up their game. Rather than minimise the role of content in digital projects, and the role of the professionals who develop it, it is in the best interest to involve them throughout the project. 

Involve a content strategist while the vision and strategy are being formulated. Have the strategist work alongside the CMS integrators to develop the content model, or at least contribute to it. The content strategist will understand the vision for delivering content to meet business requirements, and their perspective will inform what the content model looks like.

Assign content strategists or content designers to work alongside the user experience team as they flesh out the presentation framework. Content takes time to develop, whether it’s new content or content rewritten to work in the new content model or on the new site, and this gives the content professional time to work on the launch-critical content.

Have a content professional work with the client-side writers to teach them how content will work in the new system, and what the expectations are around creating and maintaining the content. This is often a new experience for writers, who need some training around topics such as using formats and templates, semantic structures, metadata, and taxonomies. They may also need help with content governance, such as setting up and following workflow.

In the end, the best strategy toward removing blockers from content is to embrace the role of content and face the challenge head on: put content in the centre of your project. Getting your content in order is an integral part of the process – and integral suggests integrating content into the overall fabric of a project.

There is no magic bullet, but when done right, the result *is* magic.



How to produce quality content

We all want quality content. Nothing is more likely to lose an audience than badly designed, poorly written, uninformative content – and no-one sets out to produce that.

But what is quality? How do we know when we are getting it right? How can we measure it?

Content is the difference

What we do know is that content is king. In a multi-channel universe with millions of sites shouting for attention, there’s only one thing that differentiates your page from the rest – content.

Content is also all you have working for you at the crucial “zero moment of truth”, the period in a user’s decision-making process when the research is done before buying, according to Andrew Bredenkamp. He is the founder and CEO of Acrolinx, a linguistic analytics software platform, and he was a speaker at the recent Content, Seriously meetup.

Companies are slowly waking up to the reality that content matters for the bottom line. We’ve moved from a time when content was operating as little more than glorified placeholder on websites whose sole purpose was to carve out a corner of the web and bag a domain name.

Companies had to have content, but cared little about it, Dr Bredenkamp said. Now, they still have to have it but they want it, because they know content gives them a competitive advantage. Whether your aim is to get new customers or to retain existing ones, it’s content that’s going to do the job.

Who decides what quality is?

So, how do we make sure our content has the quality it needs to deliver? The problem is that quality is deeply subjective, meaning many things to many people. Ask copywriters and content designers what good quality is, and they’ll talk about the words, grammar, spelling, style and tone. They’ll want tight copy with a logical structure that’s clear and easy to read, in short sentences and paragraphs, free from typos and inconsistencies. They’ll also be concerned about the substance of the material: how engaging, interesting and informative it is.

They’d have an eye on what we might call its authorial quality too. Is the content coming from an expert or enthusiast who knows the subject inside out and wants to communicate that knowledge for others’ benefit? Does the content have authority, build a relationship of trust with the reader and genuinely put their interests first?

The content strategist’s view

The content strategist, meanwhile, would look at the bigger picture. They’d be thinking about content and its role in the sequence of steps users are likely to take fulfil their needs, and how content could create a consistently positive experience throughout the user journey regardless of the platform or device they’re using.

In larger organisations this could involve co-ordinating a number of content-producing teams who each have their particular agenda to push. If the sales team’s material sings in harmony with the after sales team, for instance, then customers are more likely to get a unified, integrated experience. Uneven content that pulls in opposite directions conjures up a chaotic vision of a brand. Disjointed, inconsistent content tracks with poor ratings for reputation, Dr Bredenkamp said.

Quality for marketing

Ask marketeers the same question about quality and you’d get a quite different answer. No doubt they’d be delighted if the content did everything the content strategist and content designer wanted – though this isn’t their primary concern.

They’re far more interested in the findability of the content. They need hits – and whether this is on the back of fancy prose is irrelevant. What use is well-written high-quality content if no one finds and reads it? Quality content for them scores highly on the search engine results page (SERP), and draws users towards their website and away from their competitors.

Don’t try to trick Google

Working out what Google wants has long been the preserve of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) experts, who have traditionally used every weapon in the armoury to give their content an edge. What is becoming clearer is that the old SEO techniques are not nearly as effective as they once were. As many people in SEO will tell you, the days of using content as a vehicle for keywords and backlinks to dupe Google’s algorithms are numbered.

Google is doing what it can to neutralise the tricks of the trade and people who game the system. After all, the search engine wants to offer content of high quality too – search results that provide good information to the people looking for it. It doesn’t want to give them a parade of keyword-bloated SEO-tweaked trickery that fools algorithms as much as it short-changes its users.

Searching for quality

A measure of how important this is to Google can be seen with the care it takes over perfecting its search processes. Every year it makes at least 500 changes to its search algorithm, occasionally adding to this with major overhauls, such as Google Penguin and Google Hummingbird, that can make significant differences to how it gathers results.

Google’s systems are further augmented with the input of real people – providing a human element to Google’s search iterations that is better able to evaluate content and detect true quality. Google search quality evaluators, as they’re known, scour pages looking for characteristics such as expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, satisfying information and a positive website reputation – measures that are far more difficult for an algorithm to assess.

Make your own quality

As Google gets more interested in the question of content quality and how to measure it, where does this leave us? Should we just accept that quality is whatever Google says it is? Doing so would be to fall back into the old modes of second-guessing Google’s designs – and this contradicts what Google has been trying to tell us for the last few years. Their message is clear: think less about trying to please Google and more about delivering the best possible experience for users. Get that right, and, in theory at least, high search rankings will follow as a matter of course.

We are in a position, then, that the meaning of “quality” among those who have a stake in creating it, is becoming far more closely aligned than it has been previously. Quality for copywriters, content designers, marketeers, content strategists and search engine optimisers seems to be increasingly about responding closely to the needs of users and ensuring a positive experience for them across platforms.

It’s not just user needs

But there’s more – and this point can be painful to hear for people passionate about content.

It’s not all about the user. Our services to users are built upon the aims and objectives of our organisations. Quality requires time, thought, investment, planning – among the reasons that many companies have been slow to embrace it. There’s no reason to go to the trouble if your quality content is not achieving what you want it to.

High quality content does not automatically become highly effective content, as Lucie Hyde, Barclaycard’s Head of Content and Digital Channels, said in a later presentation at the meetup. A Bach cantata is of exquisite quality, but it’s not going to be a dancefloor hit in Ibiza.

Getting the conversion

Your content has to be effective. This could be commercial effectiveness, clinching the sale, or it could be non-commercial, fulfilling an obligation. It has to achieve what it sets out to – and make what Bredenkamp called the ‘conversion’. It’s not enough for content to be of a high standard – although it definitely helps. The more problems there are with the content, the lower the conversion rate tends to be, he said; the fewer style errors there are, the higher the rate.

You have to know the needs of your organisation to create a definition of quality. When you work out exactly what your business needs are, then you’re better able not only to recognise quality, but measure it too. Comparing the conversion rate of one page against another very quickly gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t, he said. Your notion of quality can then be supported by something indisputable – data.

Quality is driven by data

There’s nothing like data to cut across disagreements in the meeting room about the direction content should be taking. Content producers may have style sheets and writing guides, they may be writing “on brand” and “on board”, they may be getting the top readability scores and high search rankings. But, as football commentators are so fond of saying, there’s only one statistic that really matters – and with content it’s the conversion rate, the ultimate measure of the effectiveness and quality of your content.

Quality is about context as much as standards. It’s about recognising user needs and mapping them to the objectives of your organisation – and it all has to be done with the right style, tone, accuracy and relevance to engage and entertain. It’s a lot to ask, but nothing worthwhile ever came easy.

Many thanks to Dr. Andrew Bredenkamp for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @abredenkamp

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Webinar: Delivery – the misunderstood piece of the product content puzzle

Content professionals spend a lot of time talking about the content creation and content management phases of the content lifecycle, but they seldom talk much about delivery. That’s because delivery is often misunderstood. And, it can be challenging. It requires a different skill set and specialized tools designed for the job.

Webinar with Rahel Bailie: 21 June

On Tuesday, June 21, 2016, join Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, for part one of a three-part webinar series on content delivery. The first webinar in the series kicks off with a discussion about delivery with content strategy maven Rahel Anne Bailie, Chief Knowledge Officer at Scroll UK, and intelligent content guru, Joe Gelb, President of Zoomin Software.

You’ll learn what delivery is, where it fits, why it’s important, and how it works. You’ll discover how some forward-thinking organizations leverage the power of dynamic content delivery to ensure prospects and customers alike have access to the right product content when, where, and how they need it.

Live online: 21 June at 6pm UK time.
On demand after.
60 mins.
Sign up for the webinar.

How to write tangle-free government guidance

It’s easy to get in a tangle writing guidance for GOV.UK. Usually, it’s because too many people want too many different things from one piece of content. As a content designer, you need to know how to manage this.

Tangled webs of guidance, policy and spin

Imagine the government is launching a big new scheme – say, grants for small businesses. You’re the content designer tasked with getting information about this onto GOV.UK.

You think you’re writing guidance for business owners, telling them how to get the money. The policy teams think you’re also explaining the policy behind this new scheme. The ministers think you’re doing all that and also explaining how this specific policy supports the wider aims of government. And the press office want to tweet it.

The result? Everyone’s unhappy.

Especially the user – that business owner, who has to untangle the messy mix of guidance, policy and spin.

There is a better way

Here’s one approach to stop the mess from happening:

  1. Get your user stories straight
  2. Think about the whole user journey
  3. Map all the information to different products
  4. Only say what people need to know right now
  5. Ask a lot of questions

Get your user stories straight

As ever, start with user needs. In our imaginary scenario, there are at least 3 users: the business owner, the policy researcher and the press.

Write user stories and acceptance criteria for all 3 users.

Understand the whole user journey

To get the right information in the right products (and the right products for the information), you need to know the whole user journey. For example, the business owner will also need:

  • an application form
  • an email telling her if she got the grant
  • a contract to sign, if she does get the grant
  • etc

Even if you’re not writing it all now, you need to know what goes where. That means you need access to the wider project, so you can design the information to fit the user journey.

Map all the information to products

Armed with your user stories and the user journey, you can map information to products. For the GOV.UK content, you’ll end up with something like a detailed guide plus application form, a policy paper and press announcement (tied in with a ministerial speech, say.)

It can be helpful to show policy teams your content maps. It’s reassuring to see that every piece of information has a logical home.

Only say what people need to know right now

Think about what users need to know at specific points in their journey.

For example, that business owner might need to know which complex EU structure is funding her grant, if it limits which other grants she can apply for. But she doesn’t need to know that now – only if she actually gets a grant. So, that information goes in the communications for successful applicants.

Ask a lot of questions

It’s easy to miss or misinterpret things. Spend time learning about the product. Reading the source material is not enough – read between the lines. Ask.

Sometimes, what looks like policy outcome (“These grants are to help small businesses grow”) is actually a requirement (“To get a grant, your business must spend some of it on hiring 2 new employees”) – or vice versa.

Question everything.

How to convince people you’re doing the right thing

I’d like to say there’s a clear, widely accepted role for content designers in all this. The honest truth is, this way of working is still very new in most government departments.

You’re pathfinders. You’ll probably have to do this on your wits alone. And it can be very hard work.

Here are some tools that will help.

  1. Explain what you’re doing, and why. Now that we’re on a cross-government platform, we’re all required to meet these new standards. Remind everyone that we’re all on the same side and that these conversations are happening all over government, right now.
  2. Meet with people, if you can – speaking to people face-to-face makes it easier for them to accept your role and expertise. Try pair writing with someone on the policy team.
  3. Get policy teams to help write the user stories and acceptance criteria. Then you’ve agreed the overarching principles that set what you can say in your guidance. This also helps people understand what needs to be cut.
  4. Strictly control your copy when it’s going through QA and fact-check. Explain to people exactly what you want from a fact-check: checking for factual errors, not style issues. Don’t let SMEs rewrite, or revert to what they’d written originally. Hint: don’t send Word documents to fact checkers.
  5. Remember, you are responsible for the user experience. This is your job, so don’t feel shy about doing it!

Better metrics for social media

In 2015, virtually all companies have an online presence, from the Fortune 500 down to the local dry cleaner. Companies encourage customers to like, follow, share – anything to show engagement. But does that really work?

According to Charlie Southwell, most companies aren’t putting enough thought into their social content. He points to an article on Marketing Week reporting that nearly half of Chief Marketing Officers claim that social media has a “below average” impact on profitability. So where is the disconnect?

It’s not a numbers game

In 2016, we can buy thousands of Twitter followers, YouTube views, or website views for the price of a fancy coffee. But it won’t change your business. Charlie points out that you would get more business impact by taking the money you budget for social and throwing it off the roof. There’s even a name for it: the MoR (Money off Roof) Test. The premise is that the excitement of seeing an executive standing on a roof, throwing money at passersby, would generate more viral excitement than most social media content.

Productive uses of social media

There are six main uses for social media in business, and you need to plan your social media strategy with all six pillars in mind. To summarise Charlie’s points:

  • HR – social content can be used to attract talent, onboard staff, and keep them engaged, both while employed and as alumni.
  • PR, marketing, and advertising – social content can help with lowering the cost of marketing, acquisition, and customer retention.
  • Sales – the use of social content here is embodied by FRY: Frequency of purchase, more customer Reach, and Yield of average transaction.
  • Customer service – Fielding and resolving customer problems has become one of the top uses for social media.
  • Business intelligence – Combine any of the number of measurement and analytics tools in the market to draw some powerful conclusions about how business is perceived and how to proceed.
  • Internal communications – Social tools help your teams collaborate, and reduce down time spent on fruitless information chases.

Charlie provided a number of example objectives that could be used as a starting point, and emphasised that each organisation will have unique objectives. Those objectives should be platform agnostic, as platforms come and go (remember MySpace?). Each platform and channel has its own idiosyncrasies, and the timeline for seeing return on your investment will vary. You don’t have to be Einstein to measure social media, Charlie reminds us, but you do have to engage in some rigorous planning that starts with business objectives.

Many thanks to Charlie Southwell.

Twitter @charliesaidthat



Talk to us

Need a deeper understanding of content best practices?
Attend the meetup for content professionals – Content, Seriously

Want to upgrade your content strategy skills?
Take a content strategy workshop – Content Strategy Intensive

Need help with your content strategy?
Scroll can help – Scroll content strategy services

Applying science to content analytics

Analytics Eats HIPPOs for Breakfast was the attention-getting line that opened Adrian Kingwell’s presentation at the March meetup of Content, Seriously. Any line that involves large mammals is bound to get the audience’s attention, even though in this case, HIPPO stands for “HIghest Paid Person in the Office”.

The vast majority of writers can relate to the situation where the HIPPO, whether that be client or in-house executive, decides that content should be written in a certain way, or delivered in a certain channel, generally based on personal opinion. The writers are left scrambling to mind-read the HIPPO’s instructions, balancing that with what information could be gleaned about what content actually works for the intended audiences.

Using analytics, the HIPPO can be tamed, and may even be happy about it. Instead of acting on opinions, writers can use the data behind analytics to determine what content works and why.

The starting point for analytics

Adrian Kingwell

Adrian Kingwell

The reason that organisations create content is to solve a business problem. That meant asking the right business questions. Then, the primary job of analytics is to get answers to those questions. Start with why: why is content being created at all? What is the business purpose? Then ask how: how should the content be created and delivered? Which channels are most appropriate? For which audiences? Once those criteria have been established, ask what: what content would be most appropriate for those audiences, in those channels, for those business purposes?

Starting with “why” and working backwards, analytics can reveals information about our customers and shows ways to improve content. Every piece of content on a website has an objective. It’s important to agree on the objectives and the key results. As well, ask what else could add value? Once that’s been decided, have the analytics analyst tag the pages.

The goal of analytics is to improve results

Adrian pointed out that the content strategist’s best friend is the conversion rate, which can be calculated as goals divided by number of visits. Each organisation has different goals, which could translate into number of sales, value of sales, number of subscribers.

Goals unrelated to conversion might be time on page divided by time on site, return visitors, recency of visit, or page values. What’s important is that the metric is agreed upon, and that you measure results over time. A single-day snapshot is meaningless. The iterative cycle of measuring, improving, measuring again, and improving again that will ultimately get results.

Many thanks to Adrian Kingwell for his contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup.

Twitter @adrian_kingwell
Mezzo Labs

Talk to us

Need a deeper understanding of content best practices?
Attend the meetup for content professionals – Content, Seriously.

Want to upgrade your content strategy skills?
Take a content strategy workshop – Content Strategy Intensive.

Need help with your content strategy?
Scroll can help – Scroll content strategy services.

Content strategy tips for future-friendly content

No one likes stale content. That’s why we do our best to give it a long life, making it interesting and relevant to our audience in ways that could endure weeks, months or even years.

The same goes for content design, but this has the added difficulty of going past its sell-by date because of the technology it relies on.

The past is another planet

Only a decade ago, your phone was a tiny thing with a small screen and numeric buttons like a school calculator. You used it to make a call – it’s a phone, isn’t it?

Somewhere in its labyrinthine menus was an option to go online, but once you’re there it was so slow and clunky that you didn’t bother, and did all your surfing on your computer at home.

Anyway, there was no hurry, no relentless soundtrack of pings from incoming emails, chat and tweets. Twitter, Apple Push Notifications, apps hadn’t been invented. Social media was just a fuzz on the dim horizon that only a few were coming to realise would be massive.

It’s not that long ago, a decade, and yet in terms of the way we communicate with and relate to each other, it might as well be another epoch.

When Wikipedia was launched, there was up to a five year time-to-obsolescence on web-enabled services. Now it’s around 12 months, and shortening all the time – a rate of change known as ‘velocity of obsolescence’.

And if change is ever quicker for software and hardware, where does this leave content design? How can content designers meet the goal of providing fresh engaging content across time, space and devices?

A content-first approach

We may not know what the future has in store for us, but this doesn’t have to be an obstacle, according to Mike Atherton, veteran information architect and UX coach. For him, it’s not so much about defying time, but about being future friendly.

Talking at Scroll’s Content, Seriously meetup recently, he stressed the importance of putting content first. Design the content before thinking about the interface, and the future isn’t such an issue. Users get to engage with your content as and when they please, whether on a laptop, tablet, phone or watch.

He illustrated his point with his design for the latest website of the upcoming IA Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously, a new site had to be designed every year from scratch, which was a good exercise for volunteers, but left the summit without a clear and enduring brand.

The task, then, was to create a future-friendly website that could be easily updated and applied to changing user needs, regardless of interface or location.

Complexity behind, clarity in front

The trick, he said, was to create a ‘domain model’ from the off, which describes the subject and how all the concepts and relationships hold together within that. It’s not the same as a sitemap – it’s a stage removed from websites – and nor is it just a summary of content.

The domain model explains the complexity of the subject and enables content designers to decide which parts they want to show on what interface. It also enables them to balance comprehensive detail against user accessibility, what Mike called ‘complexity behind the scenes and clarity up front’.

He showed how the domain model described the relationship of the main concepts to each other, such as event, venue, location, person, role, session and session format. If domain models capture the overall context, the content model zooms in to detail, its properties and how it’s offered to users, giving it its structure.

In his example, the ‘person’ concept from the domain model becomes explained in terms of its inherent properties, such as name, company, job title, biography, job title, associated website and Twitter ID.

Once content is broken down into these atoms, it’s only at this stage that the design needs inform the ‘granularity’ of the content model, where and how the atoms appear in relation to each other.

Structured content is future friendly

This makes it straightforward to apply the structured content into the content management system (CMS), which can deal with it in terms of its properties, content types and relationships.

Use an unstructured CMS and you get what Mike called ‘blob’ content – a mess of pages, titles and rambling body fields, in which the relationships between each part are lost, formatting is made ad hoc and links are added by hand.

Style clashes are far more likely, but even worse from a user’s point of view is that the core concepts that hold the content together become trapped in and swamped by the body field.

Future-friendly content, he said, is ‘stored, structured, and connected outside any interface’, but ‘ready to use in every interface’.

In ten years from now, as we zip around on hoverboards, browsing the web on our trousers, these principles are still likely to be true.

Next steps

Buzzzzt! Content is energy

Content. We hear that word all the time. But think for a minute, what does ‘content’ mean to you?

The way we think about content has a profound effect on how we approach content-related problems – and how we solve them.

For some, content is a commodity to be packed, packaged, displayed and (we hope) consumed. If it’s a popular, desirable commodity, the value is reflected in an accumulation of views, likes, shares and comments.

The trouble with this perception though is that it gives content a passive role, not only in its relationship to users, but also to the organisations it’s supposed to serve.

A decade ago, this view prevailed. Websites were built with rigid, lifeless layouts that attempted to recreate print documents online.

Unfortunately, many organisations still treat their content this way.

A dynamic view of content

At Scroll’s last Content, Seriously meetup, Kate Thomas suggested a more dynamic view.

A long-time content strategist and former Head of Content at ORM London, Kate argues that content is better seen as energy – the vital, sizzling force that powers the page.

Some content is like kinetic energy – the short, snappy, vibrant, engaging material that crackles off the page.

Other content is more like potential energy, ready to unleash its potential at the click of a mouse. You can store up this kind of content on the site – it’s always fresh, relevant, and interesting to users.

Content should fizz and pop like electricity – but it does no good if left as a livewire, wasting its power and frying you and your clients in the process.

That’s where content strategy comes in.

Harnessing content energy for business benefits

If it’s going to work properly for you, you must harness the energy of your content. A good content strategist has the systems, processes and tools to do just that.

They can plan ahead, with a full understanding of the users’ needs, backed up with analysis of the data, and fit the plan to the organisation’s editorial calendars. They understand the systems, the governance structures, the content models and content plans.

They oversee the resources, whether human, financial or content-related; and they know how to utilise the technology, including software, hardware and hard copy, applying the right media and channels to the message.

Unlike colleagues such as copywriters, SEO experts, UX teams, content designers and so on, it’s the content strategist’s job to see the whole picture and make sure it all works together. Their goal is getting the right content, at the right time, to the right people.

In this way, the content strategist channels the power of content to support the client’s business goals.

The result is real-world benefits, not just a rack-up of shares, likes and retweets in the ether.

In one of Kate’s recent projects, for example, her client saw gains of £600,000 because of improvements she made through the content strategy.

Correctly harnessed, content is the current of a digital presence – a liquid and energetic force that powers effective responses to business and user needs.

Next steps

Evidence-based content strategy and design

There is a lot of talk about evidence-based design these days. A quick search for evidence-based design, or EBD, returns results mostly focused on health care and the construction industry. Both of these professions have a vested interest in developing an empirical understanding of how people interact with their environments so that their practices can improve the effectiveness of project outcomes.

In healthcare, this means improving patient and staff well-being, patient healing, stress reduction, and safety.

In construction, the goal of evidence-based design is to improve the performance of buildings, and not only looks at ways that people interact with the built environment, but also how the various components of buildings interact as a complex system.


Evidence-based design method – Wikipedia

Evidence-Based Design Journal

Evidence-based design in digital services

In the realm of interactive digital services, the term evidence-design has crept in, largely unheralded. The benefits are seen as credibility.

Evidence-based design bases decisions on research, both user and scholarly, and increases the likelihood of effectiveness and ultimately success. Human Factors International, a consultancy known for its scholarly contributions and its accreditation program, describes the process as:

  • clarify the question being asked regarding UX methods or design
  • identify sources of research or best practice to help answer the question
  • find available research or best practice
  • review for credibility and applicability
  • check to see if other research or practice has come to the same conclusions
  • save copies of the materials along with links or citations for future reference
  • communicate and apply what you have learned


Evidence-Based Best Practices and Research – Human Factors International

Evidence-based content strategy and design

The more research we do into evidence-based design, the more that Scroll can attest that all along, it has been using an evidence-based design approach to content strategy and content design.

The methodologies are quite similar.

Evidence-based content strategy

Content strategy recognises that an organisation is a complex system, where various components interact to optimise content performance. A successful project outcome requires foresight and planning.

The discovery phase of a content strategy involves making a diagnosis, and then finding the right prescription.

The steps are:

  1. Clarify the organisational problem that content is being asked to solve.
  2. Research the content requirements of the organisation, the content consumers, the content developers, the technologies used to manage content, and the content itself.
  3. Conduct a gap analysis by looking at the difference between the current state and the ideal state.
  4. Determine the gaps that have prevented the organisation from reaching their ideal future state.
  5. Research content lifecycles, and identify best practices for the context.
  6. Map out a high-level solution and validate for feasibility and applicability.
  7. Communicate findings and get buy-in to proceed with implementation.

Once there is organisational clarity and agreement around the roadmap to a solution, the evidence-based content design process takes over.

Evidence-based content design

Once the big-picture goals have been established, the implementation phase begins. This is where content design comes in.

The content has to work from an editorial perspective, a user experience perspective, a comprehension perspective, and a technical perspective before it’s fit-for-purpose. That doesn’t happen by accident:

  1. Use evidence from analytics, user research and elsewhere to clarify the problem the content is being asked to solve (the user need).
  2. Research the requirements that allow the content to make the user of the content successful at their tasks (the acceptance criteria).
  3. Find the best practices for developing and delivering content in that context.
  4. Validate for credibility and applicability.
  5. Communicate findings and create the content.

Qualifying this approach as evidence-based design

Developing content and content systems is subject to the same rigour that goes into designing a healthcare environment or a building envelope that improves the performance of a complex system.

There is no room for opinions and conjecture.

An organisation must know they have a better system than before, and that their new system delivers better-performing content than before. They must be able to demonstrate this with data.

In content design, this is done through an empirical understanding of how people interact with content, combined with deep domain knowledge of editorial processes, learning theory, comprehension techniques, information architecture, and content development theories and practices. Once the content is live its performance can be measured using various metrics from web analytics, as well as through direct feedback from users.

In content strategy, this is done through a knowledge of content design combined with an understanding of the various ecosystems used for content development, management, and delivery.

In both disciplines, the experts at Scroll have a keen understanding of using content as a business asset to further organisational goals.

Be brave with your content design

The role of the content designer has changed. Before, a business or a subject matter expert used to write something then hand it to us for a few hours copy-editing before it went live. This just doesn’t cut it anymore.

The competition for readers’ attention online is now so intense that no-one can afford to publish poor content.

To do our jobs properly, we need to be involved at the start of the process. We’re content experts and while we don’t own the message, we own the user experience. (In many organisations, this sometimes still feels like a distant dream.) So we’ve all got to find ways to be brave, step up and help people use our expertise properly.

Start with user needs

When someone hands you a piece of content to work on, it’s probably already had a lot of people

working on it. It might have been signed off by the CEO and the lawyers. Maybe people will tell you

that ‘it’s always been done this way’. Everyone will think it’s finished.

It’s not.

But there’s something about a written document that can make it feel ‘done’ – sometimes, a written

page is harder to own than a blank page.

The best tool to use to help you resist the power of a completed document? The user need.

Check the user story and the acceptance criteria for this piece of work. If you’re in a government

department, you’ll may have to get out the trusty Post-Its and write these yourself.

The user story will set the structure for the whole piece of content.

Trust the process

You and your content team probably have a well-established process for producing content. Trust

the process! Take what you’re working on and go through every step.

Once you’ve got the right user story and acceptance criteria in place, do some keyword research so

you’re using the right language. Then, follow the basic rules about using plain English and writing

well for the web.

That ‘finished’ piece of content probably looks radically different now.

Try working in pairs

Working in pairs to collaborate on a piece of content can produce really good results. It’s an Agile

tool – software programmers use it to improve the quality of code and cut down on delivery time.

Work with someone at the design stage. (Don’t wait until the proofread at the end, as that’s too

late.) As well as writing excellent content, you inspire each other, share knowledge, and you’ll get a

more consistent tone and approach in your team.

Don’t be scared of ignorance

When you first start working on something new, you’re probably unfamiliar with the subject matter

to begin with. That narrow window of ignorance is a gift – grab it with both hands! This is your one

chance to see through the eyes of your users, who also won’t know they’re reading about.

Question everything you don’t understand. (You’ll sometimes find no-one else understands it,

either.) Be rigorous about this. How else are you going to bring clarity to what you’re writing?

What if you get it wrong?

The truth is, we’re all going to get it wrong at some stage.

Track your content, so you know where you’re failing and how to fix it, fast. Keep iterating and


And one thing you can be totally sure about is that, if you have followed the process, you will have

got it more right than it would have been.

Using links in ‘how-to’ content

When should you use a link in copy? How many links should you use on a page? What happens when a user sees a link?

We know lots about the technical aspects of using links on websites. But it’s hard to find solid advice for copywriters about when to use a link and where to put it.

Links work differently in different kinds of content

In commercial content, the end goal is to sell something. You’re trying to hang on to readers, using links to lure them deeper into a site and entice them back to your core proposition.

But we’re thinking about ‘how-to’, instructional or information content, like government guidance. Here, the goal is for people to get what they need and leave as quickly as possible. We’ve got to use links in a different way.

What happens when a user sees a link?

Links are visually distinctive. They act a bit like subheadings. People use them to help them scan the content on a webpage.

So the first thing someone will do with your links is use them to see if they are in the right place – on the right web page, or in the right section of a page.

That means you should only use links that are are salient and relevant to the content on the page. Links that look random will confuse people.

It also means that clicking on a link is really a secondary thing for users. First, you have to convince people to read; then they might actually click on a link.

Make links relevant to your users

So, how do you make links relevant to your users? In instructional content, only use a link that supports the user journey at that point. That usually means:

  • giving users something they need to complete a task
  • linking to supporting information
  • triaging people who should be somewhere else

Give users something they need to complete a task

From the MOT testing content on GOV.UK, here’s a great example of giving users something they need to complete a task:

(They should call it something like the ‘MOT appeal form’, though.)

Here’s another good example of helping users complete a task – linking to contact information:

Link to supporting information

Linking to supporting information is trickier because it’s tempting to chuck a whole load of these links in. So only link to supporting information if:

  • people need it to understand what you’re saying on this page
  • it offers a level of detail that some users will need

This is a good example of when to offer extra detail.

And here’s a link for people who can’t understand your page without reading something else – what’s an enforcement notice?

Help people who are in the wrong place

It’s fine to triage people who may be in the wrong place – for example, breadcrumb links can be used to help your users to immediately understand where they are on your site. If they’re in the wrong place they can then make a choice about where to go next.

Click here!

There’s plenty of advice about how to write good anchor text. (And yet, so many otherwise good writers seem to ignore it.)

Here are a few rules that aren’t often spelled out:

  • don’t ever, ever, ever use ‘click here’
  • frontload – people only read the first 2 words
  • to strengthen a call to action, use commands to tell people what to do (like ‘read’)
  • don’t hyperlink too many words or a whole sentence – it’s hard to read
  • say exactly where the link goes
  • if in doubt, hyperlink the nouns

Where to put links

Write links in running copy (‘inline links’). That means users will find them as they need them. They also help people scan a webpage, acting as little signposts to explain what the paragraph around them is about.

Inline links work well in mobile content. They help people navigate without having to use dynamic page elements (like buttons) that eat up bandwidth.

Don’t add a list of links to the end of a page or a section – people probably won’t read that far.

How to use links to fill people with rage

There are some things you should never do with links, or you will seriously annoy your readers.

Never say one thing and link to something else.

Don’t keep linking to the same thing in one piece of content.

Don’t link to anything people can’t get directly to (like anything behind a password-protected firewall.)

Check it works!

People don’t read

It’s true! People don’t read. At best, they’ll read less than 30% of your (brilliantly researched, skilfully crafted, elegantly honed) copy.

We all know this, right? We all know about the F-shape – users scanning briefly down a page, only reading across when something salient grabs their attention. We know that they hop around in sentences, like over-excited bunnies, skipping 30% or so of each one.

Most people will give your page about 15 seconds of their time.

But people really, really don’t read

This was brought home to me recently when I watched 17 hours of video showing users ‘reading’ pages on the GOV.UK website.

Users missed an unbelievable amount. There are some simple design features that appear on lots of GOV.UK pages – like metadata showing the date and type of a publication. Users missed some or all of this. Or they saw it on one page and not on another, identical, page.

They miss sidebar navigation. Page titles. They miss links, logos, call-out boxes, you name it.

It’s enough to make a copywriter weep.

People scan – accept it and write for it

We all know the golden rules of writing well for the web. But there are some elements on a web page that specifically help users when they are scanning – like signposts.

It’s worth taking extra care with these.

How to help users scan your web page

Think about the structure of your content from the point of view of someone who’s scanning it quickly. They are checking to see if this is the right page for them. What are the signposts they are likely to see?

The most attention-grabbing structural elements are:

  • headings and sub-heads
  • bulleted lists
  • captions
  • links

Frontload headlines and subheads

These are your best chance to feed information to scanners. Do your keyword research, and use keywords in your headers.

People will be scanning your page for the words they used in Google. If they see their keywords in a nice big bold subhead – bingo! They’re in.

Use 5 words or less and front-load them. Use as many sub-heads as you need. Try writing them first.

Use bullets properly

Users like bullets because they:

  • jump off the page
  • are concise
  • are easy to read
  • signpost what the page is about

So, don’t just shove a bullet point at the start of a long, convoluted sentence. Don’t use sub-bullets, either. It’s defeating the point.

Write bullets that are a just few words long. Front-load them. Only use a few bullets in a list, and only a couple of bulleted lists per page.

Make sure your bullets reinforce the message for scanners: “This is what this page (or section) is about!”

Write proper captions

People are more likely to read a caption than any body text, especially if the image is good and relevant.

This is a golden opportunity to bang your message home. Write longer captions – 2 or 3 lines – like newspapers do. People will read them. (It’s astounding.)

Use links carefully

Use links and link text that help users work out what this page is about – as with bullets.

That means you should only link to things that are directly relevant to what you’re writing about. Read how to use links in content.

Be smart with structure

Keep paragraphs short. Remember, every time you start a new paragraph you create white space.

Single-line paragraphs can work well.

Scan the page yourself

Try and scan the page yourself. Only look at the structural elements we’ve talked about here.

Can you tell what the page is about without reading any of the actual copy? If so, your work here is done, and you’ll make a lot of quick-scanning readers very happy.