The role of ‘content designer’ is in its infancy in the marketing world. But, it’s an important one.
What is content design?
Why does content design matter?
I’m Lauren: a writer, photographer, and content designer based in Scotland. I’ve spent the past 12 years working in the marketing and editorial industries. As a freelancer, I’m regularly asked about content design and whether it’s something businesses should adopt (the answer is yes), so I wanted to put this article together to help educate you, your colleagues, your clients, and my clients on the benefits of adopting content design as a way of thinking in your creative world.
In a nutshell
You can download a PDF presentation here.
Content design isn’t:
- Just words
- Just design
- Content strategy
Content design is:
- A way to find the best solutions for user needs
- An approach that allows us to be user-focused
- A research-backed method that looks at user psychology
What’s the common denominator? The user.
Of course, every business has goals, KPIs, measurements, and targets. Profit is a big end-goal for most businesses, but content design helps to change our thought process on how we meet those goals. The end goal with content design is always great user experiences. Once you create great user experiences, things like KPIs, profit, and targets organically take care of themselves — so-to-speak.
Content design uses user testing, user research, and user journeys to reach data-backed creative decisions.
There’s a misconception that content should speak to the brand, and be about what the brand wants. Take that misconception, scrunch it up into a little ball, and throw it in the trash.
Great content, that is user-focused, creates great user experiences.
Before any content is created or published live, the question content design forces us to ask is: “What content is the best solution for this need?”
What is content design?
Content design is about implementing various elements — it’s not just about writing.
It’s more about research and discovery than it is about mere taking guesses. We look at how users interact with content, how they navigate it, how they engage with it. We don’t assume we know what the user wants, we don’t assume they want what we want.
By using research and data, we can make informed decisions.
A while ago, creative agencies operated in factions: the writer would write, the designer would design, the publisher would publish.
As the digital world moves forward, so should we. Content design opens up a more collaborative and fluid environment. This collaborative process works across research, design, copy, UX, and even non-creative departments, such as finance and engineering.
Content design is about how people interact with content. Therefore, it’s wise to use people as a prime research tool. This can be friends, family, colleagues. Watch how they interact with demo content — there ain’t no research like real-world user-research.
We want to present every user with the best solutions for their needs, in the best way possible.
Why does content design matter?
In the digital world, it’s impossible to give great user-experiences without great content design.
Content design is changing the internet for the better. Let’s not treat our users like fools, people are wise to things like keyword-stuffing and click-bait nowadays.
If your content strategy is to create keyword-stuffed webpages, your trust factor will dramatically fall, and users will likely abandon your content. My advice: change your strategy.
Users want easy access to the content they need when they need it.
If you can’t explain a valid user reason for a piece of content, then it shouldn’t be published.
That might all sound a bit black and white. “What about the grey area?” I hear you cry. When it comes to user-focused content, there is no grey area. It’s either user-focused, or it’s not.
Nobody really knows how Google’s algorithm works. At least not us folks outside of Google’s NDA forms. But, what we are starting to see is that Google likes engaging, relevant content. Things like headers should be relevant to the content that falls underneath. Be smart with your content. Smart content doesn’t always mean more content.
A major element of content design is to use psychology to make better content decisions.
I know this can be tough to hear, but those brand guidelines you spent so long creating might not actually resonate with your target audience. I know, it’s hard.
Sometimes you might be targeting a specific user by using brand language because that’s what you want. The result is often that your user needs have been forgotten about in favour of your brand wants.
That’s not to say you should ditch your brand personality. The happy-medium is finding that balance between speaking to both the user and the brand.
Brand language might be jargon to your user, so be mindful when it comes to building your content. It’s all about being mindful. Don’t be too hasty, sit and think “Does this work for my user?”.
If content is easy to navigate, engaging, and helpful, I can pinky-promise you that it will work better than anything that’s information-overload.
Humour is great, but it’s a tough thing to execute naturally. If I see one more company trying to imitate innocent drinks, I might combust. If you have funny copywriters and your brand personality is to be funny, then go for it — but stay consistent with this stuff.
Oh, and the over-use of adjectives and the fluffy language? Re-think them. Don’t tell me you’re the best, show me.
Put user needs above user wants. Put user needs above brand wants.
What does this mean?
Well, a user sometimes thinks they want a funky website, but their interaction says differently.
This is where user research and testing is powerful.
I came across a designer’s website not so long ago. He created this site where you manoeuvred a little car around with the keys on your keyboard. It was fun for five minutes, but I soon realised I didn’t know how to actually navigate the site. How do I see his portfolio? How do I contact him? Plus, I’m doubtful on its accessibility compliance.
If you ask a user: “Would you like to drive a little car around a web-page with some cool graphics? Or would you rather a standard web-page with a navigation bar?”
They will likely reply: “Oh, the car would be cool”.
It is cool. But, is it functional?
The best way to test your content is to monitor users using it. Always learn about the people who will use your content. How do they interact with it? How do they engage with it? Do they follow-through on the call-to-action?
Understanding user needs
If there’s one take-away from this article, let it be this: Always create content that’s authentic for the user.
Keyword-stuffed content is losing its appeal — plus, the evidence is starting to show it’s bad for SEO.
Your purpose should always be to inform, engage, and captivate your user.
Content that genuinely fills a user-need is more likely to be found and helps people get the right outcome.
Users hate spam.
Users hate having to hunt for what they’re looking for.
If you make your content too confusing, you risk your user abandoning it.
Building trust with users should be a priority with your content decisions. A lot of the time, users engage with a brand based on what it will say about them using it — let it say something good.
Research and discovery
Research and discovery is the most important part of all content building — and is essential for large-scale projects.
By researching, you can find out: who your users are, what their problems are, and what they need from you to achieve their goal.
Discover a user need
There are various research and testing methods to use. A good basis for discovering user needs is to create a user journey. This can look like this:
As a… [person in a particular role]
I want to… [perform an action or find something out]
So that… [I can achieve my goal of…]
As a content writer new to SEO
I want to find out which tool can improve my writing
So that I can attract more organic traffic
The discovery process
This is the fun part where you get to collaborate with your fellow creatives.
Think out loud, write notes, draw sketches.
Build user journeys. Decipher user needs.
You’ll end up with wacky ideas and serious ideas. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find a little sweet spot. A foundation to build upon. That’s where content creation begins.
Don’t assume that smarter content means more content.
Understanding the psychology of reading is an important part of content design. We live in a world of scan-readers. We want information fast.
Use clear, concise, and distinct content.
Using things like heat maps allows us to figure out what areas of our content get the most attention. Armed with this level of research visually shows us what’s working and helps us to make better-informed decisions.
It used to be that users scanned web-pages in a sort of Z shape. That’s not always the case anymore. This was true when most people were viewing websites on desktops and laptops. But, now we use our phones and tablets more than ever. We’re a society of scrollers, we quickly scroll to sections that appear beneficial to us.
Users are wise to irrelevant content. They will scroll past copy-heavy sections, look for imagery, and look for headings that appear useful to them.
This changes the way our content is viewed, and it’s important for all content designers to understand this.
The hierarchy and architecture of your content depend on user interaction. Having a call-to-action way at the bottom of a lengthy web-page will serve no purpose.
We have around three seconds to interest a user — let’s use them wisely.
Accessibility is a major factor in all content. It’s vital that you make your content accessible for all users. There’s no excuse for exclusion.
People who are blind will rely on a screen-reader to navigate your content. Is your content going to make sense when a screen-reader reads it out? Do you have a title, subtitle, header and subheader before the main point of your content? Most of the time, a title and header will suffice.
Download a screen-reader and try it out. Does your content make sense?
People who have dyslexia might feel overwhelmed by web-pages that use a stupendous amount of words. Can you say it better with photography? A chart? An icon? A logo? If so, use them.
Most people have a primary language set of around 15,000 terms. Why say sagacious when you can just say wise? Why say laborious when you can just say boring? Think about your language and avoid terms that might disengage or confuse your users.
The average reading age in the UK is 9. Interests may be different, but the reading age is 9. Think of that every time you think you’re being clever.
Regressive reading plays a major role in users abandoning content. This is where information is convoluted, complicated, and long. The person reading this type of content will likely get halfway through, then try to start again before giving up entirely.
Using simpler terms allows your users to scan your content easier, and take in more information at a quicker pace.
I’m a stickler for sentence case. There’s no hard rule here, but be mindful of how a user will read your content.
Always, always, always remember that your language is for the user, not the search engine.
Use clear, distinct language to create relevant content that fills a user need.
A user-focused tone is a necessity.
Creating useless pages designed for mere SEO purposes will lose your trust and users will likely abandon your content.
Use the right tone to inform, connect, and help the user.
Content design isn’t just about writing. It’s about using collaborative methods to create great user experiences.
Simple doesn’t mean boring.
Help your user by giving your content a clear structure.
Good to know
- Use headings and subheadings (SEO, relevant to the content underneath, better for scan reading)
- Use bullet points to break things up (a list of three to five bullet points is a great way to break up a page)
- Keep sentences short to reduce regressive reading
- Avoid jargon (use clear language)
- Use images, logos, and icons if they tell the story quicker than words
- People: Speak to people in other departments, friends, family (get a feel for how they navigate content)
- Google Trends, Google AdWords, Google Analytics
- Answer the Public
A way of thinking
Content design isn’t a mere technique, it’s a way of thinking.
Your goal is to work towards content that is user-focused and not stakeholder compromised.
Gather data, question, make informed decisions.
Put your audience first.
- Is this content clear for the audience?
- Is this content in the best format for the user?
- Is this content what the user actually needs?
- Is this content designed with data? A checklist
Answered yes to all of the above? Great, hit publish.
Answered no? Then question whether this content is the best solution.
Things worth mentioning
- Good content design is making the internet a better place
- Having a funky website is great, but does it fill your users’ needs?
- Content design can still be difficult to ‘sell’ to stakeholders: stick with it, be persistent, be flexible, be bold
- Content design will help you achieve the most important goal for any business: putting your user first
You can find a few examples of real-world redesigns here.
It’s not always wise to publicly use client examples, so I decided against using my own work in this article. If you’d like to work with me on establishing content design in your business, reach out to email@example.com. Consultations, workshops, and advice are available.
I recommend reading this book by the founder of content design, Sarah Richards.