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.