Using links in guidance content

Content designer and long-term Scrollie, Angela Moore, on why it might be time to think differently about how we use links.

Effortless content

7 things writers just won’t believe about content design

Our guest blogger is Harry Ades, writer and long-time Scrollie. Harry’s new book, ‘An Opinionated Guide to London Green Spaces’, will be published in Spring 2020.

Do you remember the first time?

Do you remember the first time you heard the term ‘content design’? No doubt, your reaction was the same as everybody else’s: ‘What the hell is that?’

Following the initial confusion, two responses were common.


The first – as with the five stages of grief – was denial. This isn’t anything new, you told yourself. This is just the same old stuff under a fancy new name; ‘civil enforcement officers’ patrol the streets issuing parking tickets just like the traffic wardens of yore.

We’d still be writing and editing for the web as we had done for years, trying to make the best hash of experts’ and policy teams’ ramblings, while sneaking in the odd keyword for search. No need to panic.


And then, stage two – anger. Hang on a minute. Content?! Your finely crafted copy was now mere ‘content’! Your words were to be relegated to little more than placeholders, black and white squiggles, chunked and boxed to dress the page, adornments shoehorned around the things that really mattered, like adverts.

In a world of ‘content’, how could writers champion the craft? How could we look ourselves in the mirror? More importantly, how would we make a living? Soon it might as well be ‘lorem ipsum’ anyway, perhaps with an occasional request from marketing for some clickbait headlines. A postgraduate journalism degree and 20 years’ experience as a hack for this? Churning out perfunctory labels and signposts for videos of cats sneezing? ‘7 Things You Just Won’t Believe Come out of a Cat’s Nose.’ There, done.

Id response

It all seemed to confirm your worst fears about the internet. Had it finally come to this – that people no longer had the time or attention to read (properly read) online anymore? Faced with words on the screen, web users were nothing more than unthinking automata, brain stems feeding unconditioned id responses to the index finger resting on the left mouse button – always a gnat’s heartbeat away from the next click-through.

The Department of Internal Affairs just published its 212-page policy on street furniture improvement. Wait, what’s this? ‘You just won’t believe what John Craven looks like now?!’ Click, click, click!


When the dust settled, it became clearer what the brave new world of content design actually was. And it wasn’t the end of writing or the triumph of the banal.

Ultimately, it was an acknowledgement of the changing ways we look for and consume information online. It was recognition that what an organisation wants to say about itself is not necessarily the same as what users want to know.

It was an upending of the hierarchy of information transfer, putting users at the top. It reminded everybody in the chain that content is dead if nobody reads it. For that reason, the needs of the user were all important, often more important than the aspirations of the policy team, legal department, and even the CEO.

Liberation and enlightenment

It turned out that content design wasn’t the end of writing and writers, as many of us once feared. Quite the reverse. Thanks to the elevation of user needs to the top of the heap, writers now have more power than ever.

We became the champions of the user. Our job is to stick up for the people consuming information, fighting for their needs in the face of competing organisational demands. With our insight into what users want and our skill at communicating it, we have never been in a better position.


Embracing content design

It would be wrong to think that content design is just writing with a different hat on. Writers need a few extra tricks up their sleeves to emerge from the chrysalis as fully-fledged content designers.  Yes, that’s hats, sleeves, pupae and fledglings all at once, but never mind about that.

What’s important for content designers is an understanding of metrics and analytics – how we measure the effectiveness of our content. Writers tend to think that such judgements are subjective. In content design, they’re not. Success can be measured in page traffic, time spent reading, number of social media shares and so on.

In bigger organisations, there’ll be people dedicated solely to user research, so your grasp doesn’t even have to be that profound. Knowing what the key metrics are and how to interpret them is usually enough.

User research is immensely valuable.  It can win you battle after battle with people who have forgotten to put users first. When an organisation learns that literally no-one is reading their dense expert-driven expositions, but there are hits galore for the same information sweetly transformed by a content designer – that’s when the penny drops. The numbers don’t lie.

Writers make amazing content designers. Our skills enable us to attract, entertain and maintain an audience. We’re the ones who can identify the intersection between what an organisation wants to say and what a user wants to read. And into that intersection we’re the ones who deliver crisp, concise and sparkling content.

Those 7 things

It wasn’t clickbait. Well, it was a bit. But we do have a few points to make about content design for (possibly sceptical) writers.

Content design:

  1.     isn’t a denigration of the written word
  2.     has changed the way we write for the web
  3.     is about prioritising the needs of users
  4.     is perfectly suited to writers and editors
  5.     has made it easier for writers to say what they want to say
  6.     has given writers greater control of the process
  7.     has put good writers and editors in high demand

Add to your skills

If you want to know more about content design or becoming a content designer, please get in touch. We not only offer professional content training, but we’re also always on the lookout for talented writers, editors and content designers to work with us.


Image by Jan Alexander from Pixabay.

Content design weeknotes

What do content designers actually do?

We all know what skills a content designer needs, and there are job descriptions and blog posts aplenty – but what is it actually like, day-to-day? What do content designers do? Well, I’m a content designer working on a service and this is a weeknotes-style record of some of the work I did last week.

Designing something to work better for users

This is probably what most people think content designers do: I made a piece of content as clear and simple as possible for users.

The problem was with a date. I was working on a letter, which included an important instruction to users to do something within a certain time. Here’s how my line read:

You must do this within 6 weeks of the date of the decision.

However, when the letter was sent for quality assurance to a group of policy teams, lawyers and other stakeholders, we realised that things were more complicated than we first expected. (No surprise there!)

There were in fact 2 potential deadlines we had to tell users about. And the original ‘6 weeks’ was actually not, legally speaking, 6 weeks – it was one calendar month plus 2 weeks. So the line would have been more like:

You must do this by the latest of these 2 dates:
– 1 month and 14 days from the date of the decision
– 2 weeks from the date on this letter

I wasn’t happy with this. It’s complicated. It takes work to read and understand. People getting this letter are already likely to be stressed, which has a negative impact on cognition. They might be reading this in a second language, or have low literacy. I thought this was too much to ask of our users.

So, I got together with my team and the relevant stakeholders and proposed a solution. Instead of making the user work out this date, how about we do the hard work to make things simple? We should fill in the specific date on the letter. The person sending this letter out already knows which date to use. As they are employees of the organisation, we can be confident that they have adequate literacy and language skills, and can ask for help if they need it.

This took some persuasion, and some influencing skills, and I needed to spend a bit of time reading policy documents and sending emails back and forth to explain my viewpoint. Eventually, everyone agreed that this was the right thing to do in order to make this as clear as possible for the user. Now the line (with an example date) is:

You must do this by 31 December 2019.

It sometimes takes a while to get even a single line right, but it’s so rewarding when it happens.

Tagging and categorising feedback

The service I work on is used by internal staff as well as the general public. All the pages used by internal staff have a feedback section, where staff can leave comments and suggestions – a bit like the ‘Can we improve this page?’ feature on GOV.UK.

We’re working on a way of making this feedback easier to measure and act on. As part of that, we’re manually tagging and categorising feedback.

I spent a day this week with a user researcher, looking at ways of doing this well. We came up with a system we thought let us capture overarching themes, as well as the individual user needs. I helped the user researcher write up this work, and write clear definitions for the tags, so we can share this with the wider team.

Updating a prototype

My team is working on a new feature for our service. I had worked with the business analyst and interaction designer to create wireframes in a programme called Sketch, showing the new journey. The developers coding and testing the feature need accurate wireframes so that they can see what it is that they are building.

This feature was all ready to go – then things got tricky. The security team requested a last-minute change. The original interaction designer was away. The new interaction designer made a series of changes. The content designer who reviewed the content suggested some changes via email. The developers working on early iterations had issues with some of the error messages. Suddenly, the Sketch files were all over the show and out of date.

I spent a couple of days checking and updating the pages in Sketch, making doubly sure everything was as it should be, so that we could be confident we were going to build the right thing.

Spending time with the content team

The final big thing I did this week was a content community day, with team members from all over the UK. Our team lead organised this, so we could get together and plan for some of the big projects we have coming up.

It was a brilliant day. We got to know each other better, talked about what’s important to us as a team, got some solid planning done and went to the pub. We rely on each other for knowledge, expertise, shared skills and support, and the rare occasions when we spend proper focused time together are invaluable.

So, that’s a week as a content designer

If this sounds like work you want to do, get in touch. We’re always looking for talented people, and we’re happy to talk to you about working with Scroll.


Latest news in content

Too good to miss: summer 2019

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…)

Practical tips and how-tos

Writing good UI
Some good rules of thumb for writing labels, buttons and other bits of UI. Example: describe the consequent state, not the current state – like the ‘pause’ and ‘play’ buttons on video.

Find your user’s language
How content designers at Scope walk the tricky line between what people say, jargon and plain English. Plus a good selection of tools and tips.

News, thought pieces, advice

Getting started as a content designer
New Scrollie, Danny Chadburn, talks us through his first few months as an ‘official’ content designer.

Making digital services accessible
How the NHS are preparing for the September 2020 deadline. Excellent work. Really well written, too.

DIY user research at Monzo
At Monzo, you don’t need a user researcher to do basic user research. Interesting approach. Pragmatic, but risky.

The ROI of content design
There are some gems in here. Sample: “Good UX, which includes good microcopy, can save 1/8th of developer time… Developers are expensive; saving their time is excellent for ROI.”


Content strategy methodology
Rahel Baillie, content strategist extraordinaire, shares her approach to content strategy methodology. Plus a free download of a toolkit, to adapt and use as you wish.

And, finally…

So, your team needs stickers?
Here’s how to make some.

Demented business processes
How ‘Unsubscribe’ worked in a major UK bank.

User inyerface
Mind-crushingly horrible UX game. Don’t forget to read the terms and conditions…

Getting started as a content designer

Today’s guest post is from new Scroll content designer, Danny Chadburn. He talks about getting his first content design role, has advice for new and aspiring content designers, and explains how Disney princess analogies helped him clarify content about arms embargoes…

My first month as a content designer

“So we’re all going to have to call ourselves content designers now, are we?”

In a coworking space somewhere in Sussex, I’d been discussing my pending contract role with Chris. He’s what I call a purebred copywriter; someone who’s ignored the emerging disciplines of content marketing, content strategy, UX writing and all the other roles that have cropped up in recent years to focus on what he does best.

I, on the other hand, embraced a lot of those waves, picking up a long list of job titles via creative agencies, SEO consultancies and startups.

This eclectic background provided a good footing for what would lead me towards content design as a trade. Writing has always been the backbone of the functions I’ve performed, but so has product development, user research, content distribution and performance analytics.

Most content designers I’ve come across share a similar smorgasbord of experience. For those new to the profession, that can only be seen as a positive. There’s no set route into the job, and you’re just as likely to see an ex-marketing professional as you are an ex-journalist turning their hand to content design.

Getting my first contract with Scroll

Having recently escaped the clutches (and abandoned the safety) of a full-time career to go out on my own, I’d heard about Scroll through the Our Freelance Life podcast.

I got in touch with Scroll to ask about potentially signing up with them. The first step was a phone interview to talk through my CV. After that, I was asked to complete a series of tests and tasks to prove I had the necessary content chops. Having successfully passed the interviews, I was given my first contract as part of a team tasked with supporting the Department for International Trade through the turbulent time of Brexit.

Handling the transition

I’d love to be able to say the transition was a straightforward one, but the reality is that the first few weeks were headache-inducing.

Theoretically, the principles of good content design shouldn’t change whether you’re crafting content for a fluffy cat charity or a guide to international arms embargoes. It’s just that some topics have a steeper learning curve and a higher degree of scrutiny than others.

Whatever the subject matter, the same rules apply around creating a sensible structure, cutting out anything that’s superfluous and focusing on giving the user clarity through plain English copy. International trade is a complex beast — I now know more about trade remedies than is healthy — but once you get past the acronyms, the pieces of the puzzle do start slotting together.

The part of the content design mindset that I struggled with most was the meticulous pondering over every paragraph, sentence, word and syllable. Having worked within the healthcare and financial sectors in the past, I’ve seen plenty of stringent processes prior to publishing, but this was on a whole new level.

Initially, I held the view that the level of editing was excessive, but I’ve slowly come around to the idea that it’s all worth it. There’s an admirable commitment to the GOV.UK view that user needs come first, and writing for them is non-negotiable.

No such thing as normal

The infamous quote coined by Donald Rumsfeld neatly sums up the 3 types of content that our team has worked on recently.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The known knowns

This is the preferred (albeit Utopian) way of working, where we’re able to collaborate with those at the coalface of department policy from the outset. We discuss the messaging, formats, user needs and intended journeys of what they want to put out there, then take this to legal advisors and press teams to go through the broader impact of what we have planned.

The known unknowns

There’s a common theme in government work that, as content designers, we’re aware of a piece of work being on the horizon, but can’t yet start on it. That might be because we don’t have access to the right people, or because we don’t have the information we need to publish something doesn’t actually exist yet (for example, if it depends on the outcome of a vote in Parliament).

The trick here is having the right resources in place for a swift turnaround, and there have been various late nights and early mornings in recent months where being ready simply meant being available.

The unknown unknowns

These are the scary ones, but working in government inevitably means things will come out of the blue, and will often be under intense scrutiny. That could be a Freedom of Information request or an unanticipated change in policy due to world events.

How do you plan for the unexpected? In many cases you can’t. However, building relationships across other government departments, joining standups from other teams and occasionally enquiring about what others are up to may well give you an earlier insight that you’d otherwise get.

Content design is also about changing processes

The role I’ve taken on has been as much about changing the process of content delivery as it has the actual content design work itself. We’ve been working to try and shift as much as possible into the first of those 3 categories, or at least the second, so that upcoming work is on the radar.

With so much day-to-day delivery to deal with, it’s often difficult for stakeholders to see beyond publishing the next piece. But content design is about planning for future content as well as what you’re currently working on.

Think of it like break-building in snooker. Potting one ball is great, but it requires a certain technique to think 3 to 4 shots ahead so you’re already in a good position when it’s needed.

For example, we’ve set up a content request form and rudimentary ticketing system as a way for trade teams around the world to request content. This will replace the current email system. It’s not the most polished of solutions, but it’s a versatile one and in the ever-changing world of government, that’s a useful thing to be.

Prepare yourself

Having now been a content designer, and watched others performing their own interpretations of the role, there are 2 pieces of advice I can offer new or aspiring content designers.

The first is that it’s essential to be seen as a valuable cog in the machine, rather than an unnecessary blocker to get through.

It’s the role of the content designer to question what’s being published, to suggest alternative ways of framing stuff, or to query whether what they’re looking at needs publishing at all. That can be quite annoying for someone at the other end who just wants to get something up on a website, especially when they’ve worked hard to get it signed off by someone senior at their end.

My first instinct is to always attempt to find an amicable solution. That doesn’t mean setting aside the principles of content design or being a pushover. Instead, consider your feedback from the viewpoint of the person who’s already put in a a lot of work to get the content to this point in the process.

Some will see you as an essential partner, some will see you as a final hurdle to get through. You should aim to change perceptions of what your role is to be seen as valuable.

The second piece of advice I can offer is to get the words off the page.

Try and explain the thing you’re trying to write about to someone who has no knowledge of the subject. This could be in your office as part of a content critique session, but ideally, it’d be somewhere else altogether. Over the breakfast table, in a pub, on the golf course; wherever makes you comfortable, and wherever gets you away from staring at a blinking cursor on a screen.

Reddit’s ELI5 (Explain Like I’m Five) trope is a useful approach to take, and I’m lucky enough to have a real life 5-year-old living in my house who I use to test my ability to convey a message. Yes, I’m having to use various Disney princesses within my analogies, but I’m getting valuable responses and questions that genuinely help when going back to the editing suite.

So are we all becoming content designers? Perhaps, for the sake of more clarity in digital services, that’s something we should all embrace.

Content design part-time, while writing a book: how it worked for me

Our guest blogger is Scroll content designer, journalist and author, Olivia Gordon. She talks about combining her work for Scroll with writing her book, The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves The Most Fragile Lives.

Writing a book and discovering content design

When I started writing a book proposal, in the autumn of 2016, I had never heard of content design. I had worked for more than a decade as a freelance journalist for the national press, as well as being a freelance copy/content writer.

The idea for my book, The First Breath, grew out of my experience as a mother of a child with a genetic condition who was born critically ill and premature, spent his first 5 months in neonatal care, was tube-fed until the age of 2, and had had 5 operations by his fifth birthday. Once my son’s health was stable, I returned to journalism, and started writing features about foetal and neonatal care and genetic screening for newspapers like the Times, Telegraph and Guardian, as well as writing a column about being a ‘SEN mother’ for a parenting website.

I always felt the subject of foetal and neonatal medicine deserved a book, though, and after much emotional bolstering from a writer friend, I worked up the courage to contact a literary agent. Next I found myself writing a detailed proposal, and by the following spring, I had a book deal from Pan Macmillan. There was a minute of joy and then it hit me: now I have to write a book. I had 16 months, which meant I’d have to write just over a chapter per month.

My husband Philip Clark, a music writer, coincidentally got a book deal for his forthcoming biography of Dave Brubeck around the same time as my book deal came. Our advances were very good, but would be paid in segments over a period of years, with part on signing, part on delivery and the last part on publication. I needed to continue earning, then, and would only have 2 or 3 days per week for writing the book.

Yet as soon as I began writing The First Breath, I stopped enjoying writing features and copy – my heart was in the book now.

Transferring my skills to content design

When I heard a former journalist colleague (now a Scrollie) mention on Facebook that she had moved into content design for the government, and was very happy and earning well, I was interested.

She told me about Scroll, I sent in my CV, I did the interview and written test, and a week later I was offered a part-time contract at the Department for Education (DfE) in Westminster.

Although the title ‘content designer’ was new to me, I had actually been practising content design throughout my career as a journalist, just using different terms for the same skills and techniques.

For example, the principle of creating content according to user needs, which is central to content design, is second nature to any journalist. The same goes for the content designer’s duty to publish content that is accurate, and also clear and accessible. As a journalist, there is the same responsibility to get facts right, plus you always focus on what the audience wants to know, and make content engaging for them.

In fact, the emphasis on user needs in content design surprised me at first because to me as a journalist, it was just so obvious. You wouldn’t last a day writing or editing for a national newspaper if you didn’t look at everything you wrote from the reader’s point of view. It’s about what readers want to know about your interviewee, not what the PR wants to communicate. In content design for GOV.UK we also focus as much as possible on what our users need to know, as opposed to what (for example) the government wants to tell them.

Another element of content design is working diplomatically with others: for example, being able to redraft waffle or impenetrable bureaucratic terminology while maintaining a productive, positive relationship with the author. Again, any seasoned copywriter or editor already has this ability.

So my journalistic and content/copywriting skills translated well.

Getting the balance right

Content design has also proved the ideal complement to writing a book.

I worked 2 days a week at the DfE and had the other 3 for writing The First Breath, which turned out to be a good balance. The content design work stimulated a different, more business-like part of my brain from the writer part, so I could keep my ‘creative’ energy for my writing days.

On top of all this, because of my son’s extra needs, I spent around half a day every week (out of my ‘book’ time) taking him to check-ups and doing admin relating to supporting his health and education.

Thankfully, the DfE is a friendly, forward-thinking place to work. It was never a problem if I needed to swap my days around, or when I needed to take a week off to focus on meeting my final deadline. And after the first few weeks, I was able to work largely from home, so I didn’t have to do the 2- plus-hour each way commute from my home in Oxford too often.

Being part of a big team of content designers meant I always had someone to help me with anything I wasn’t sure about – at last, freedom from the constant stress and sole responsibility that often accompanied pitching as a freelance journalist. As a contractor in the content design team, I never had to ‘take work home’ mentally or physically at the end of the day. And the tasks – and income – were reliable and stable, while I negotiated a rollercoaster of twists and turns as my book took shape.

Even after I had finished the actual writing of the book, my ‘writing’ days were filled with the various edits and, more recently, the marketing and publicity.

My contract kept being renewed, and I’m still at the DfE 20 months later, as The First Breath is published.

I would recommend working for Scroll as a part-time contract content designer to any author or artist. It certainly seems a popular path: several of my fellow contractors at DfE are also writers and journalists, dividing their time much as I do.

Find out more

Photo credit: Nina Hollington

How to do content crits well

Content crits are an excellent way to improve your work, share good practice and establish standards in a team. Other than 2i (second pair of eyes), crits are probably the single best thing you can do for your content.

What is a content crit?

A content crit (content critique) is when a content designer shows some work in progress and asks for specific feedback. It’s a chance to:

  • review your work
  • come up with different options
  • share ideas
  • explain decisions to a wider team
  • get help when you’re stuck on something

The idea comes from design critiques.

How to run a content crit

The mechanics of running a content crit are best kept as simple as possible. That’s so that you can set up and run crits quickly and easily.

All you need is:

  • a piece of work in progress to show – on a screen, or as printouts on the wall
  • a group of people to take a critical look at the content
  • someone to take notes
  • you, to explain what you want from the crit, give some context and keep the discussion focussed

Anyone can do this. However, there are a couple of ways to get as much as possible out of a crit.

What content can you crit?

Any content will benefit from a crit, as long as it’s a work in progress. Showing your work at all stages helps you work in the open. It makes things better. Show your work as often as you need to. Crit early, crit often.

If you’re working on a service, rather than on (eg) guidance content, there’s a bit of an arbitrary distinction between a content crit and a broader design crit. It’s quite hard to focus specifically on content when it’s so intrinsically bound up with the interaction design.

But I’ve always found value in a long hard look at the words alone. It’s particularly good way of spotting inconsistencies and finding emerging content patterns.

Have a clear idea of what you want from your crit – set the scene and give context

Crits are at their most useful when you have a clear idea what you want to get out of them. You need to be able to tell people what you want feedback on.

This could mean asking people to:

  • focus on or ignore certain sections of the work
  • look at specific phrasing, or solve a specific problem
  • review a particular aspect of the work
  • review in the light of their own user research

You also need to set the scene – give people some context. That might mean talking about the users, the user needs, any constraints or assumptions you have made, how advanced the work is, or how you have iterated based on user research.

Keep bringing the focus back to what you want. This is important. Crits get off-track easily. If the discussion shows you need to focus on something else, make a note to come back to it after the crit.

Get the right people in the room

Another good reason to know what you want from a crit is to make sure you get the right people in the room – no point having policy folks if you’re only reviewing for style.

But you definitely don’t need to restrict content crits to content people. You’ll get an excellent range of feedback and ideas if you invite your wider team – subject matter experts, product managers, user researchers, designers and developers. Crits have great silo-busting power.

Opening up the crit means that you can improve collaboration, explain design decisions and build a shared understanding. It’s a good way of helping non-designers understand what we do when we do user-centred design.

Content designers at Scope do multi-disciplinary crits really well.

How to behave at a crit

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

-Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Norm really sets the scene there. Positive, helpful crit culture is where people are kind, supportive and unafraid to express a viewpoint. The old gamer meme, ‘Don’t be a dick’, sums it up too. If someone consistently breaks that rule, they should not be at your crit.

If you are bringing your work to a crit:

  • don’t be defensive – you’re asking for help and constructive criticism, accept it when it’s given
  • keep people on-track – crit time is precious, use it wisely
  • ask lots of questions about people’s suggestions

If you are invited to crit someone’s work:

  • speak up – someone’s asked for constructive criticism, so offer it
  • don’t make it personal – don’t talk about ‘you’ (‘Why have you done X?’)
  • keep it neutral – ‘Does X meet the user need?’ or ‘I wondered if Y might work’
  • call out the positives as well as the negatives
  • ask for clarification if you need it – ‘What was the thinking behind the decision to X’?

Sarah Richards writes really well about the rules of the crit.

A few useful lines

To set the scene:
“Here’s what we want to look at today – x, y and z. Feedback on a, b and c can wait until next week.”

When someone is giving feedback on something you don’t want to focus on:
“I hear you on that. Now, what do you think about x?”

When you think it’s time to end the crit:
“Thank you all for your feedback. I’ve got what I need for now, and will go and work on the next iteration.”

Mapping skill sets to roles – part 3 of 3 about content roles and skills

Mapping skill sets to roles in content

In this 3-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

In the first 2 articles of this series, we examined how the plethora of job titles in content can create ambiguity when figuring out what a job actually entails. In this final article of the series, we’ll look at a framework for how we locate various skill sets on a map.

Using a grid to map skill sets

It was difficult to organise the various skill sets into a clear and useful visual representation. Eventually, I settled on a grid display, based on ascending/descending skills that begin with 2 common columns in the middle. These 2 middle columns cover writing skills.The assumption is that all professions have writing at the centre of their skill sets. Even there, I’ve split the writing into 2 different skill sets – persuasive and informational.

Persuasive writing encompasses about 20% of the content a typical brand creates:

  • marketing content
  • content marketing
  • sales content
  • public relations content

Informational writing covers the other 80% of content:

  • product information
  • specifications
  • instructions
  • policies and procedures
  • training material
  • customer support knowledge bases

It’s uncommon for a single writer to have proficiency at both kinds of writing. They draw on different areas of study and use delivery mechanisms with different areas of focus.

Grid shows how different content skills map to job titles

Editorial skills and technical skills

On the horizontal axis, jobs further to the left are  more likely to focus on editorial skills. For example, a copywriter is not expected to know anything about markup language. Jobs further to the right are more likely to focus on technical skills. For example, a technical writer may use an advanced authoring tool to manipulate content so that it can be automatically published to multiple channels.

Theoretical and domain knowledge

The vertical progression shows areas of theoretical knowledge. On this axis, the further to the top left a job is, the more likely that it requires knowledge of marketing and communication. The further to the bottom right, the more likely that the job requires theoretical knowledge about areas related to content efficiencies, such as automating content delivery.

Domain knowledge is the exception. Almost every profession needs some level of understanding of their domain, though it varies greatly. For example, writing about the esoterica of medical devices probably means the writer will need to have a baseline knowledge about the subject. However, an instructional designer may not know much about a domain, but they understand the theory behind how people learn, and know how to structure learning modules accordingly. The science writer must be a subject matter expert, and likely  knows little about publishing.

The messy map of content skills

Trying to align the skills needed to develop content in various areas is not an endeavour that ends in a tidy package. Skills vary greatly between countries, between companies, and between individuals. For example, the job titles used in North America don’t match up to the ones with the same job descriptions in the UK; many American or Canadian content strategists would be called content designers in the UK. Many companies asking for content strategists actually want content developers, not systems designers. And some copywriters don’t know about metadata, while others pay keen attention to the best metadata for search optimisation.

Mapping skills on a wheel, we can see how skills sets are linked and often overlap. Writing skills are at the core. The types of content being produced are broken down into 8 large categories – it took quite a while to settle on these 8 buckets. Then, job descriptions are placed on the wheel so as to connect the skill sets as they overlap.

For example, technical communication often includes UA (user assistance) writing, which is very similar to UX (user experience) writing. I could argue that guidance writing, content design, and technical communication have strong overlaps, and though they are in adjoining segments, they straddle the lines between categories. However, while guidance writers likely use common desktop publishing software, a UX writer or technical communicator is more likely to use sophisticated authoring systems where they tag up content for multichannel delivery.

For all of the silos that might exist in different departments in an organisation, skills don’t exist in those silos. Job areas cross skill sets, and the focus overlaps across several sets of skills. For example, content may be entered into systems for training material (Learning Management Systems), marketing material (Web Content Management Systems), or enabling material (Component Content Management Systems).

Content skills mapped to job titles showing how skills overlap

Beware of the chromosome factor

It’s important to avoid what I call the ‘chromosome factor’. That term stems from making a distinction between a horse, a mule, and a donkey. All 3 species look similar, with 4 legs ending in hooves, a mane and a tail, and all can be ridden or used as beasts of burden. Though they are all part of the equid family, a horse has 64 chromosomes, a donkey has 62 chromosomes, and a mule – the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse – has 63 chromosomes. However, we ascribe different traits to each of these species: as swift as a stallion, as stubborn as a mule, as slow as a donkey. It’s the imposition of traits against the species that forms our impression of them.

Among writing professionals, different traits tend to be ascribed to certain types of writing. Yet as the landscape changes within the content ecosystem, we need to re-assess how we think about skill sets. For example, rather than pigeon-holing technical communicators as developers of post-sales content, marketers could exploit their technical skills to chunk and apply the semantics to content used in a multichannel or omnichannel environment. Content designers can be a fluid part of user experience teams, and content engineers can work with software developers as easily as with content strategists.

Job titles in the evolving content landscape

The content landscape has evolved over the past 20 years, and continues to evolve. As new content genres emerge – chatbot content and content for voice interfaces are just 2 emerging fields – content professionals will need to build on existing skill sets and develop new ones. As we seek to match job titles to projects, it’s important to keep in mind that the profession is a moving target, and look at the actual skills needed rather than what name is given to any particular area of content development.

Read the rest of the series:

10 great gifts for content designers

A list of things that any discerning content designer would be delighted to unwrap this Christmas.

1. ‘Oxford library’ candle

Evoke sliding ladders, spiral staircases and leather-bound books. Best customer review of this says it “smells like a freshly showered Sherlock.” If this is all a bit clubby for your taste, try ‘Reading at the cafe‘ instead.

'Oxford library' soy candle

‘Oxford library’ soy candle

2. Wipebook notepad

Like a very cool whiteboard – all the rage and really very handy. Range in size from little notebook to A3.

Wipebook pro notepad

Wipebook Pro notepad

3. Bathtub book holder

Reading in the bath is one of the small acts of decadence that makes life worth living. Choose one big enough to handle a Tolstoy-sized novel, a glass of wine and a couple of candles.

Bathtub book holder

Bathtub book holder

4. A writer’s retreat

The sheer unalloyed joy of some time dedicated to entirely to writing. There are lots to choose from, including creating writing charity Arvon, which provides some grants for its courses and retreats.

Woman outdoors writing in notebook

Creative writing retreats and courses

5. ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’ t-shirt

Grammar nerds, out and proud!

'I am silently correcting your grammar' t-shirt

‘I am silently correcting your grammar’ t-shirt

6. UX myths posters

A series of myth-busting posters, which you can download and print yourself. Sample: “People read on the web”.

UX myths poster saying 'People read on the web'

UX myths posters

7. A Book Apart

The classic series of short, focused books for people who design, write and code. Get a gift card if you can’t choose.

Books from A Book Apart

The classic Book Apart series

8. A coffee subscription

We have a lot of work to do, making things better on the internet, and sometimes we need a bit of fuel. Has Bean gets rave reviews for its monthly coffee subscription service.


Has Bean coffee

Has Bean coffee

9. Super-sticky notes

This is quite exciting: extra-sticky Post-its with full adhesive on one side! Definitely a level up.

Full-adhesive sticky notes

Full-adhesive sticky notes

10. Give something back

Books2Africa will collect books from your house. Listening Books provides audiobooks to people who cannot otherwise read. Skills for Change always has ‘microvolunteering’ opportunities for writers.

Latest news in content: autumn 2018

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…)

Practical tips and how-tos

Use words at the start of the design process
How to use the right level of content in different stages of design. Also: “We never use lorem ipsum at any stage of the design process.”

Content design techniques
Using ‘just in time’ content and setting user expectations, with really good examples.

Create good HR content
Human resources content is often low-quality, boring, jargon-ridden and generally incomprehensible. Let’s fix it!

User research is a team sport
How to work with user researchers. Really good read by a guru in the field.

News, thought pieces, advice

Plain English – new research
Actual research (rare) about the effects of using plain English in legal writing. Excellent ammunition for your next chat with the legal team. (Unfortunately, you’ll need to follow a few links and then download a PDF – sorry!)

What’s ContentOps?
Explains how a ‘content operations’ (#ContentOps) practice could work. Quote: “This is low-level, tactical, operational work that needs to be done on content to…well, make it go.”


A user research library
Hackney Council’s brilliant library for gathering and sharing user research.

Content models will change your life
Trying to figure out how to tailor lots of content to meet user need? Don’t have hundreds of editors to update pages manually? You need content models.

And finally…

Font geeks – try this
Can you tell which is Helvetica and which Arial? Fiendishly tricky.

Content design for services

Content design for services: what’s it like?

What’s in a professional name – part 2 of 3 about content roles and skills

What’s in a professional name

In this 4-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

Does it matter what a content person is called, as long as they get the job done? In the first part of this series, we asked how a person is supposed to make sense of the content landscape. When practitioners can’t even agree on terminology, it’s not surprising that trying to hire staff or contractors, or even commission work, can cause confusion. And looking for a good fit for a job or contract is even harder when companies create a job description for, say, a content marketer, and then put a content strategy title on the job ad. Everyone gets frustrated.

Content job titles are not standardised

One senior manager at a large agency said that she needs to see about 80 CVs before she finds a content strategist who has the skillset she feels should be standard for that role. It’s not that candidates are purposefully trying to inflate their CVs. Content is not a regulated profession, where job titles are attached to specific roles: a paediatrician, a corporate tax lawyer, or an electrical engineer. It does not have a guiding body that standardises practices, methods, and deliveries, such as the Project Management Institute or International Institute of Business Analysis, where you know what to expect when you ask for a PRINCE2 or Agile certification. Content is usually not even a category in professional lists. Content professionals need to shoehorn themselves into categories like ‘Technology’, ‘Consulting’, or the catch-all ‘Advertising, Editorial and Management’.

Job titles differ globally

When I joined Scroll, I struggled to understand how the role of a copywriter differed from a digital content manager. Or how a content designer differed from a technical communicator. For example, in North America, the Society for Technical Communication defined technical writing as “simplifying the complex. Inherent in such a concise and deceptively simple definition is a whole range of skills and characteristics that address nearly every field of human endeavour at some level.”

Technical communicators became synonymous with writers who wrote user-facing content (customers, administrative users, or technical users) for software or hardware, but in reality, they write any informational or enabling content for any audience. I’ve met technical communicators who write everything from consumer instructions, user guides, recipes, medical procedures, and policies and procedures, to documentation for APIs, engineering specifications, and technical marketing datasheets.

In the UK, technical authors seem to occupy a much more niche area. A technical writer used to mean, in North American parlance, a science writer: someone who had some domain knowledge and wrote technical content in that domain. But that’s changing. Now, technical authors are more likely to be called technical writers or technical communicators. The remit is more content development, where writing is a small part of the process that begins with user research and ends with user-centered content. In the UK, they are the communicators brought in to develop technical content for technical audiences. They often use specialised authoring software that allows them to create output at great scale.

Guidance writers, technical writers, content designers…

In the UK, writing instructions for non-technical audiences is done by guidance writers, a designation I’d never heard outside of the UK. After some deductive reasoning, I determined that guidance is a combination of informational and instructional content – it ‘guides’ users to complete a task or understand information. Yet, a search for guidance writing seems to point to documents such as standard operating procedures, user guides, and so on.

So far, so good. Now let’s add content designers into the mix. Some searches for guidance writers points to content designers. The differences between a content designer and technical communicators or guidance writers are subtle and also not codified. So, is a content designer the same as a guidance writer the same as a technical communicator? Seems to be, but not so fast.

The UK government hires technical writers to write technical content for technical audiences – for example, API documentation for developers on their digital teams. There is no mention of the use of specialised software, though in my books, any technical writer worth their salt knows their way around a help authoring tool, even if they’re not provided access to that software in their job. There is also no mention of the methodology, which has multiple aspects, spelled out in the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) for Technical Communicators.

The UK government has a very clear definition of a content designer, which I’ve described as a writer focused on ‘the UX of content’. There is a prescribed process that starts with user research, evidence-based decisions, and an outcome of user-centered content based on that research. Because of the clarity around the designation, it’s not surprising that industry is asking for “content designers with GDS experience”. There is a certain comfort level in knowing what is expected, both in terms of method and outputs.

To some professionals in the content industry, the content design process seems self-evident: every writer does that, right? After all, the expectations of a content designer is also part of the TCBOK, with a slightly different vocabulary and more variants to the methods. But to others, there is a world of difference, in which copywriters are given the mandate to “just write X” whereas content designers are expected to question whether content X is even needed in the first place before starting to write (or rewrite), and then deliver the content in a new way, if warranted. A content designer might request that a tool be created (what used to be called a wizard and more recently, an assistant) to deliver the content in a more user-centered way, as do technical communicators.

A rich professional landscape

Once we fill out this cluster of professions with some of the other common designations we encounter in our field, we end up with a rich, though sometimes confusing, professional landscape. Given the breadth and variety of the naming conventions and practices across the content field, how can we navigate this complicated landscape? How do we know whether we’re rejecting a perfectly qualified candidate because of a difference in vocabulary? In the next installment of the Summer of Content, I take a crack at creating a graphic representation of the various designations that content people wear. Fair warning, though: I’m a word nerd, so my graphic skills are limited.  I’ll map out some of the more popular names on a basic grid with liberal annotation.

Read the rest of the series

Exploring the landscape – part 1 of 3 about content roles and skills

Exploring the content landscape

In this 3-part series, Rahel Bailie explores and maps the various roles, skills and job titles in content today. Rahel is a renowned content strategist and part of Scroll’s management team.

Talking about working in the field of content is a bit of a minefield. You can ask what someone does, but their job title, job description, or even self-perception may not match your mental model. You’re a “content evangelist”, you say? Why, how … interesting! And that means you – here you pause, hoping for some clarity into what a content evangelist job might actually entail – promote content, or do you do the copywriting as well?

Whatever the outcome of such awkward discussions, you can be sure of one thing: the answer you think you’ll get is likely to be something different from what you thought it would be. As a seasoned content strategist, I can look at the job boards on any given day and easily spot a dozen content strategy jobs whose descriptions that bear no resemblance to each other, let alone to what I’d describe as content strategy. I imagine it’s the same experience for many of the other content-related areas of expertise in the industry.

The maze of content roles, skills and titles

For example, what is the difference between a copywriter and a digital content developer? In my mind, copy is the editorial side of content – it’s what a content consumer reads, whether that is on paper or on a web page – so a copywriter is the creator of that copy. In the digital space, copy needs to be accompanied by an extra component: metadata.

Without proper metadata to help the copy to be found in search, without well-crafted search result titles and descriptions to entice content consumers to click through to your copy, the task of content creation is not complete. Digital content means not only taking care of the editorial side but also the metadata that makes copy into content.

When looking for digital content managers, is it common to ask for this expertise, or do the hiring agents even know that this is “a thing”, a very important thing, in fact?

Marketing v technical content – how things used to work

There used to be 2 general buckets into which most business content fell.

Persuasive content – that is, content meant to entice readers to buy, or at least to enter the sales funnel – was created by marketing or advertising departments.

Enabling content – that is, content that enabled readers to complete tasks – was created by technical communicators (guidance writers in the UK), or instructional designers, when that content involved training. Sometimes enabling content was created by subject matter experts in the departments themselves, for example, HR policies and procedures.

Changes to the business content landscape

The business content landscape became large and varied, as the genres of content used in business has multiplied. We now have more buckets: persuasive, enabling, social, and content that I will call entertainment content. It’s not the same genre as television shows or films, but corporate-produced content such as corporate YouTube videos created to entertain. Each of these genres has multiple sub-genres, and some genres that defy categorisation – for example, is edutainment education or entertainment or marketing?

Shifts in terminology

Complicating this is the way that terminology shifts. Whether it is a human need to “claim and name” or a tendency to ignore history, it makes for some comical confusion around names.

For example, in the early days of the web, there was a transition from creating independent help files (not so affectionately called “help as tumour”) to embedding bits of the help directly in the interface. This became known as embedded assistance. That term is still in use, and academic programs teach methods and best practices for developing and maintaining embedded assistance.

As online interaction became more ubiquitous, the vernacular became “UI strings” or “string tables”, depending on how advanced the software developers were in cooperating with writers to store the content.

Developers who didn’t understand the pain of edits or translation would hardcode UI strings, whereas those had been through the pain of a translation cycle or two quickly learned to put the embedded assistance into a table.

Later, as start-ups decided they couldn’t afford trained technical communicators, responsibility for UI strings shifted to marketing or UX staff, who did this off the sides of their desk. As these companies grew, this type of work became a job in itself, and has been rebranded as UX writing.

Not only has the name changed, but the writing itself is now more brand-focused. To technical communicators with several decades of experience behind them, the work seems to be focused more on copy than content, and more on delight than comprehension. To those who have never heard of embedded assistance, they are creating their own best practices as they go along.

So, what’s next?

How is a person supposed to make sense of the content landscape? In the next instalment, I’ll discuss some of the differences in jobs, both geographically and in core competencies, that make this such an interesting, albeit sometimes frustrating, landscape to navigate.

Read the rest of the series

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



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

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.

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.

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!)

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.

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.

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.


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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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 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!

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.

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