Content design principles

If you’re new to content design, or feel like you might be stuck in a rut with your design thinking, check out Scroll content designer Pete Kowalczyk’s go-to principles.

Speak directly, cut out superfluous text

I think it’s a good idea to constantly interrogate your content. Ask yourself, “What can I remove?” And keep asking yourself this. Over and over again.

The prevailing forces of digital content are always punting for more and more content. Content designers are the rebel insurgency fighting for less.

Use plain English

Try to find the simplest terms you possibly can — this obviously makes things easier to understand for everyone.

This also makes your life easier when trying to refer to things consistently across different platforms and different devices in different scenarios. Localising to other languages becomes that bit easier, too.

Use data

Use Analytics, Google trends, SEMrush, support centre data. Join social media groups, find online message boards and communities, call people, speak to people on the street!

Do whatever you can to make sure your users are being represented in the content you produce.

Make things simple

Sounds easy? It isn’t.

But one way to make complicated things easier for users is to ‘chunk’ content up into manageable steps.

Have a look at your user journeys: if you’re giving users more than a couple of things to decide at any given time, you probably want to split things up into steps.

Keep things human

Your files are readyOK, got it.

What next?Im done. Take me to my homepage.

Aim to create a dialogue with your users. If you keep things in the first person, it tends to sound more natural.

Think mobile first, create scalable content

Always make sure your interfaces scale properly and feel right on mobile.

You can use fancy mobile browser emulators to replicate the user experience on a whole bunch of different devices. Or just drag your browser window into different shapes and see how your content reacts. Easy.

Give feedback and closure

Aim to give your users a sense of closure and satisfaction by creating clear feedback messages.

And never leave your users hanging. Make sure you tell them what’s happening next — or tell them the implications of what they’ve done.

For example:

You’ve submitted your appealWell get back to you by email within 14 working days

Settings updatedYou can now make payments using PayPal

Make complex things beautiful

It takes a lot of work to unpack complex back-end processes and create a more elegant interface on the front.

If you’re presenting lots of data points across various parts of an interface at different times to different users, things can get pretty messy!

But you can take a little bit of the pain away from users by keeping the syntax of your messaging consistent across the site or app. Users will learn the pattern and then only need to look out for the variables they’re interested in.

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}

Just-in-time content

Try to give instructions to users at the very point they need them.

Don’t force your users to retain any information. One way of avoiding this is to put in-line instructions at the point they’re needed, for example:

Enter the organisation’s name
Only needed for national organisationsthe letters theyve sent you will say if theyre national or not.

Need-to-know content

It’s always good to try to shield users from any words that they don’t need to read.

But it’s much easier for you just to show them everything! Here are a couple of things you can do to avoid that.

You can use the data you know about your users in order to personalise the messages they see. Or, if you need to do something a bit cheaper and easier, you can use progressive disclosure to hide certain content behind a link. Then only the users that want that content will read it.

[Tweet “Principles of #contentdesign – shield users from content they don’t need.”

Blog post by Pete Kowalczyk