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

2 replies
  1. Sorcha
    Sorcha says:

    Hi. Where and how, exactly, does Content Design differ from Content Strategy? Few things in process noted here seems out of the range of what content strategists do. The only difference is the honoring of the importance of information in a line parallel to that of the UX project timeline — something content strategy is not offered. This feels like a muddying of the discipline for the sake of a new title that UX seems ok with.

  2. Rahel Anne Bailie
    Rahel Anne Bailie says:

    The easiest way to describe the difference is that content strategy is about developing content systems. As a content strategist, I look at all of the content and figure out why the system isn’t working to product, deliver, and maintain content at scale. I don’t write the content, as I assume that the client has a handle on the editorial side of things. It’s more like management consulting than anything – content strategists do content turn-arounds to help failing content perform better.

    A content designer actually designs the content itself for maximum usability. They don’t really look “under the hood” as much as content strategists do, though that’s not entirely the case. But they will look at a flow of content to ensure that it’s editorial sound, is sequenced properly, and so on. If you go to the site, you’ll see a very specific description of a content design position, which has been well established for at least a decade, and comes with a specific skill set.

    Hope that clarification helps – I admit there seems to be a lot of confusion about the difference between the roles. I would say that it’s similar to the confusion between the various roles within UX: UX designer vs interaction designer vs user researcher, etc, – keeping in mind that UX has a longer history as a profession to sort these things out. Content strategy is still working through this stuff.


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