You have heard the buzzword ‘content design’ – but what is it and why is it important for your online content?
Angela is a sub-editor and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She loves puns, poetry, travelling and comedy.
Content design for a digital world
Content design is a relatively new buzzword in the digital world, but what is a content designer and what do they do?
The term ‘content design’ was first coined by a woman called Sarah Richards, who led a team of strategists and designers to revamp the UK’s government website (gov.uk) between 2010 and 2014. Her book, simply called Content Design, is an excellent introduction to the subject.
Content designers are writers – but they do not just write words, they design experiences with them.
These days, people are time poor with short attention spans. Badly designed, cluttered content makes the user’s brain and eyes work overtime as they struggle to find the information they need. A bad experience on a website or app will have a user quickly turning away and clicking on the easier-to-use website of a competitor.
Content design is not just another term for graphic design, nor is it simply copywriting. Content design is finding out what information the user needs and delivering that content to them in the quickest and simplest way possible.
The focus is on the user
First, a content designer must understand what their product or service users wants. This requires a little detective work, so user research comes first – for example, competitor analysis, customer interviews and surveys. Once the content designer understands the goals and motivations of their users, they can then create content which meets the user’s needs.
As Sarah Richards says, a copywriter thinks ‘how shall I write this?,’ while a content designer thinks ‘what content will meet the users’ need?’
What do content designers do?
Content designers are responsible for the words on many interface elements – the words on an app’s buttons, customer onboarding text, subscription forms, or even error messages on a website.
They could be the brains behind push content – a pop-up notification that states: “Get 10 per cent off if you book today”. Or they could create pull content – content hidden away from immediate view that the user must look a little harder for – for example, the privacy settings on your LinkedIn profile.
What are the principles of good content design?
Keep it clear
The most effective content uses simple language with short, digestible sentences and scannable ‘chunks’ of text. A study by Nielsen Norman Group showed that only 16 per cent of people read a newly opened webpage word for word – the majority just scan it for the information they want.
Using simple words and sentence structures is important – for example, write ‘use’ not ‘utilise’, or ‘help’ instead of ‘facilitate’.
Keep it cohesive and consistent
The user experience should flow and feel seamless, and the language should be consistent in tone and style – as if one person is talking to them. The information and elements should be grouped logically together.
Keep it accurate and precise
The information must be current, specific and error-free, as typos and mistakes will cause the user to lose trust in your product.
Keep it transparent and actionable
The content needs to get straight to the point, with a clear purpose with no deceptive patterns. A customer in a hurry to book a train seat does not want to read a lengthy paragraph on the beauty of rail travel – they just want to find a seat, and fast.
Keep it inclusive and context sensitive
Using inclusive language is more important than ever. Being inclusive means the content can be accessed by people with disabilities, users who are non-native speakers, users who are not as tech-savvy or users on different types of devices.
A content designer considers the product’s voice, tone and style
A content designer must always keep the product’s voice, tone and style in mind. At a basic level, voice is the personality of your product, tone is how you adapt your voice and style is the building blocks of language.
Creative writers are often told to ‘find their voice’. Content designers must find the product’s voice – the personality of the product or service. If your product were a person, what would they be like? Dress-down Friday, cheerful and friendly, or formal booted-and-suited business-like?
A family-friendly hotel might want to convey a warm and empathetic personality on their online booking form: “We are here to make your family trip hassle-free. Book now and enjoy 50 per cent off a spa treatment while the kids have fun in our Children’s Club.”
Using personal pronouns, instead of the company name, is a great way to convey personality. “We can’t wait to welcome you” is more inviting than: “Finnegan’s Hotel can’t wait to meet their customers”.
Tone is how you adapt your voice for different situations, and contexts. A hotel website’s Covid-19 Safety message will have a more serious tone than the Spa treatments section.
Style is how you use the mechanics of language to present a uniform brand and voice across different channels. A style guide is the ‘rule book’ for how ambiguous words are written. Do you use the word ‘Guest’ or ‘Customer’? Will you capitalise Call to Action buttons like ‘Sign Me Up’, or leave them lower case?
To sum up….
Sounds like a content designer is pretty busy, right? This is just a brief overview of the emerging role that sits alongside UX designers, web developers and marketing teams to help ensure a seamless user experience. It is a role we are going to be seeing a lot more of as companies realise how valuable a good content designer is.