Content and the design of content on a webpage or app is important. Get that content wrong and it could break a digital experience. Get it right, and it could do an infinite number of things: give you new customers, make you money, and even save a life.

What is content design?

Content design is about more than writing words. It’s designing experiences with them. Words alone are meaningless without form and function. Words are part of design. Not just an after-thought. To figure out where to place those words and give them meaning we first need to do some research.

  • Work out who we’re talking to
  • Understand what words they use
  • Define exactly what they need from us. 

Sarah Richards (now Winters) coined the content design discipline while she was working at the Government Digital Service. She quite rightly says “Making your site easy to understand and interact with is the fastest way to a happy audience...If you publish push content and care more about your organization’s internal workings than what your audience needs, you are going to be left behind.”

Content design is a way of thinking. It’s about making strategic, evidence-based decisions about the useability, accessibility, and readability of a webpage. Content design is a framework that considers the behavior of users interacting with your content. It encompasses research, prototyping, and content creation. The practical outputs of content design can range from making microcopy changes, to blog content design, and even huge overhauls of website information architecture. 

We can split the process into a few main phases:

Discover

To understand users and their needs, this involves:

  • user research
  • stakeholder interviews
  • keyword research
  • competitor research
  • analytics analysis
  • social listening
  • user journey mapping 

Collaborate

Work together with a uniformed objective of serving user needs. Collaborate with: SEOs, SMEs, designers, UX, UI, developers, product managers, analytics teams, user researchers, brand managers, and marketers.

Create

  • Write user-centred copy
  • Create a webpage, an interactive tool, an infographic, a PDF, marketing collateral, a product description, a blog, a buying guide. Whatever format meets the user needs.
  • Use techniques such as pair writing and content critiques to minimise sign off and publishing time.

Test and iterate

Continue to gain feedback on the content in the ever-evolving marketplace. Iterate content design based on user research and data.

Read more on the value of content design and its process in our guide here.

Why is content design important?

All content is important, in pretty much every context. For example, when speaking to my two-year-old, the simplest change in a phrase can make all the difference. “Don’t jump on the sofa”... she only hears “jump on the sofa”, but if I tell her to “put your feet on the ground” she (sometimes) listens.

Phrasing and the way we design content can even save lives. An Australian study from a St John Ambulance call center found that a tiny change in phrasing to the script their staff used for emergency callers by staff gave them relevant answers, faster.

When responding to emergency cardiac arrest calls, ambulance dispatchers found that saying “Tell me exactly what’s happened” instead of “Tell me exactly what happened” saved an average of 9 seconds per call. Those extra seconds could save a life. The first phrase hyper-focused callers on relevant detail instantly, rather than narrating longer, more time-consuming stories with irrelevant information.

This relates to microcopy changes, but content design spans through to many other areas of content. Next, we discuss some examples.

Content design examples

Photograph of a park with pathway through the grass as example of 'desire paths'

Desire paths, or “free-will ways”, as shown in the photograph above, illustrate the shortcuts in parks and across fields where there is no designated path, so pedestrians cut across, flatten the grass and make their own.

Shortcuts like this can be frustrating to landscape gardeners and designers, but some urban planners refer to them when planning new pathways, letting users lead the way.

Ohio State university and their pedestrian pathways

Some universities such as Ohio State and the University of California, Berkeley allegedly even waited to pave the pedestrian pathways in their campuses until they saw which desire paths their staff and students naturally take.

These desire paths are a metaphor for content design or user experience. They present evidence about where users actually want to go and the true user journey. 

Content design is: understanding the user

The most important thing is understanding the user and their needs. It’s not all about sparkling them with jazzy design or funny, entertaining content. Sometimes it’s the simple things that count. Like wanting to find out when the next bank holiday is.

screenshot of Directgov website bank holiday webpage

This image shows what the Government website used to look like. Is it quick and easy for you to find when the next bank holiday is? No. Are your user needs met? No. That’s bad content design. The words are on the page, but it’s where and how you display them that makes the difference.

Current gov.uk website for bank holidays

This screenshot shows the current Government website. It includes a bold green box and large font to clearly display the bank holiday date at the top of the page. The user need is met within a few seconds. No more scrolling or searching for the information. This is an example of good content design.

John Lewis best fit tool as an example of good content design

This example I came across on Twitter highlights how good content design can make your digital experience easier. The user need in this instance is to buy clothing that fits. The page shows a handy size guide tool that includes a clear heading, simplistic design, and reassuring copy that’s backed by data. It answers the user need quickly, and in a way that’s convenient to them. No more faffing about sending things back, or digging out the tape measure before you purchase. 

Content design is: simple content

Users don’t read content, they scan. Part of content design is understanding how users consume content and creating content to best suit their needs. 

Nielsen Norman Group eye-tracking study showed that “on the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” There are many factors that influence how a user scans that page depending on their intent:

  • Are they doing research, or are they ready to purchase?
  • Their situation, time and level of interest and focus
  • Personality traits 

Keep your headings clear and scannable to avoid drop-off, and ensure your content design fits with what they’re looking for.

Use plain English

It’s also about the copy you use. Use plain English. This doesn’t mean dumbed-down, or boring. It means writing copy that matches the target audience's readability level. Use the active voice and don’t overcomplicate things.

Sentences should be short and jargon-free. The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends 15-20 words per sentence. It also says ‘If you regularly excess 40 words, you’ll certainly weary and deter your readers.’ 

Here’s an example. Which is easier to read?

“Should you have any concerns or questions regarding this information, please do not hesitate to contact the aforementioned author.” (Readability grade 11)

“If you have any questions, please call 0800 111111.” (Readability grade 4) 

Language, vocabulary, and keywords are also important. Think about your audience, how they speak, and what they type into Google. People sometimes even search for the opposite e.g. I might want eco-friendly cleaning products, but when researching this I might want to understand what cleaning products are bad for the environment. 

Content design is: creating accessible content

Accessible content opens your information up to anyone interested in consuming it. That’s accessible content. Content design uses data and evidence to give the audience the content they need, at the time they need it, in a way they expect.

Don’t exclude your audience. Include captions and transcripts. Use alt text, follow a clear structure, and incorporate other elements that make a webpage accessible. Read more in our guide to accessible content here.

The role of a content designer

As Shopify said when they changed the job titles in their content team from content strategists to content designers: “We don’t just think or write. We design with content.” Content designers are natural problem solvers and advocate for the user, so you can ensure your content does what it's supposed to do.

Content designers have to understand:

  • what the essential information is to complete a task or solve a problem. Not what a brand want to project at them, but what they need to know
  • How to give users information in the right order
  • The vocabulary that will get information across to the user quickly, without confusion

To summarise

“In every line of copy we write, we’re either serving the customers’ story or descending into confusion; we’re either making music or making noise.” Says Donald Miller in his book Building a Story Brand.

Content design helps you make music. Once you identify who your customer or user is, you can then match their needs so they feel invited to the story you’re telling. 

  • Content design is at its core, problem solving. It weights time and effort to user research, to find the best solution for users needs
  • It increases the value behind that content by aiding user experience, conversion and saving money on customer support
  • Through collaboration, it avoids wasted time, resource and money on lengthy, unvalidated content publishing processes

Contact us to find out more about content design and how our team can help you.

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