July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Content Design

Written by Content Design

March 1, 2021


Okay, so today we're gonna talk about content design, where the term came from, what it means and where we are now.

Okay, so I wanna take you back to about 2000. This is when I joined the British civil service. Now I thought it was gonna be like this. I thought it was gonna be all secrets and me possibly brooding, looking over the streets in London.

Turns out it wasn't like that. It was pretty much more like this. White middle class males all sitting around tables, making decisions for people who they've never met, never encountered and never would.

It's a kind of human environment taking a look at the digital environment at that time. When we were going into the Afghanistan conflict, you could reasonably as a UK citizens say, what's the government's policy? Right, well, what does the government think what are we doing there? If you'd had that question and you typed it into Google, you would have got to these websites in this order at that time.

So first of all, you would have gone to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website FCO, then you would have gone to their other website 'cause they needed two websites on the same topic, then the Ministry of Defense, 'cause we will bombing it, then the Department for International Development, 'cause once you bomb it, you've got to build it back up. Then you will go to number 10. 'Cause number 10 have their own website. And then the stabilization unit now.

I worked in government for over a decade. I know a lot of web teams across government. Nobody has ever met anybody ever in the stabilization unit. They don't exist. But they are producing websites. You can see the logos on the top there. One is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So this is the third presence web presence for them on the same topic, then the Ministry of Defense, and then the Department for International Development. So they've all got separate presence about the same topic. Then you get the home office, Theresa May was talking about strong and stable even then, and we weren't. And then the Cabinet Office, 'cause if you spend money then they have, they have an opinion on things.

And the last one I'm gonna show you is the Deputy Prime Minister, because he had a separate website talking about the same thing, now, when you get to the end of that your original question of kind of like, what's the government's policy in Afghanistan, you would go to a number of different websites, different styles, different designs, different architecture, different language, occasionally, the websites would disagree with each other directly. Others, you just wouldn't know when you got to the end of it. Because you just had no idea they were just talking about different things a lot would you blast publishing, so your original question have kind of like what's the policy?

Your answer would be no idea and go play because there was just so much being pumped out. So government obviously had a little brain moment there and they thought, do you know what, what do we need if we've got an estimated three and a half thousand websites because it was estimated nobody knew how many websites the British government actually had. 'Cause each of the departments could just say, do you know what, we've got a presence about a thing and we're just gonna write about it spin up a new website, because that's what's happening at the time. So say you've got three and a half thousand. The way to get over that 'cause people getting confused and then getting the wrong information. So the way to get over that obviously, is to create another website, because that will make it better.

So we ended up with this it was called Directgov. Massive orange behemoth of felt huge. And it was mostly all the government departments publishing all the things that they have published, but on another website in orange, it was just the best idea. Let's take a look at the editorial model then that sat in that particular environment. So the writer would write now the writer, it was usually like, or it could be 10% of their job. And it was 10% that they hated. It was just kind of shoved on somebody's desk, write for websites, thank you. Not always, not always, by the way. So this is a small majority, but it did happen. And then a sub-editor would sub edit, because it was in their title obviously. And it was a very traditional sub edit. So you would muck around with titles and that sort of thing, but couldn't really touch it. And then a publisher will publish and the publishers had no control over anything at all. It was their job to cut, paste, publish. That sat within the publishing model, which was the editorial model, the one that I showed you before, and then legal or policy would just rewrite it. Just rewrite it in the way that they wanted to.

And then nobody was happy, because there will be a lot of compromise. There will be a lot of back and forth from the communications experts, the editorial, and the sub edits. And then legal and policy. Who just like, no, no, it's legal. It's policy, it's my baby, you can't touch it. That model, and those two models then sat in the overall government model of asking permission for something to make it better, right? Talk about accessibility or usability or something and just make it better the answer will be no. We've always done it this way. We will always do it this way. It works, it's fine, leave it alone. And then you would learn to just be completely helpless. Because you're just like, who do I go to? What do I do? And then eventually you just stop talking. You just stop asking for things you would stop trying to make it better. Because what's the point? The answer is gonna be no.

So that was the kind of environment that we sat in government was blast publishing to over three and a half thousand estimated websites. What government didn't understand is what they don't publish is as important as what you do publish. We did some research at that time at the Directgov time with the BBC. We did some research and people found that they we found that people trusted the BBC, more than they trust the government. Because the BBC gave them the edges. They gave them a kind of view on something, they gave background and stats, and then they walked away government didn't. They just panic published.

Not sure if you're seeing it now. During the pandemic, people are doing it again. However, whatever the result was, Is that people looked at government and went yep. Don't trust you, and went to the BBC. So basically the BBC was running all comms that was trusted. So it's been forward then 2010 Martha Lane Fox, now Baroness Martha Lane Fox wrote a report. One of the people that worked on that report was Tom Loosemore. And Martha said, basically stop doing it, just stop doing it. I'm paraphrasing here, but she basically said, do you know what is so bad? Stop, stop just start again. Tom then went on to be the director at the Government Digital Service. And this is one of the founding principles and it's to start with what the user needs, or what the audience needs, and not what government needs. This was a completely different way of looking at things. Bearing in mind that they will blast publishing everything shove it out, shove it out, shove it out. Transparency we're gonna shove everything out so that everybody gets confused and nobody can see anything.

So, my little game, we know or we knew at the time that if people renew an adult passport in the UK they do it in two steps one they find out the current price and two they then go and apply usually on a different device. If you would type in renew adult passport into a search engine at Directgov time, you would have got to this page now massive orange writing of orange. You can see if you can like if you can see me and get your eyes pass this it's who can apply for a first adult passport on when application form fee supporting documents for a first adult passport, passport interviews blah, blah, blah. There is nothing about renewing a possible on this. It was actually under the application form fee and supporting documents for first adult passport And it was kind of like, third paragraph down.

When we went to GDS, and GOV.UK, it looked like this. So you can see much more white not orange, it's not I've got a thing against orange. It's just that that last one was a little bit of an assault on the eyeballs. And you can see it's in the second sentence, it costs 72.55 by post or 81. And it's actually called renew or replace an adult passport. So that's a start, right? That is a start.

We also knew that because people were looking for that price alone. Put it up in Google. You know GOV.UK and GDS don't need traffic. They hit 61 million in the first couple of months of it going up per month. I don't know what the stats are now. But lots the main premise of GOV.UK was to get information to people as quickly as possible. It's not traffic, it's not ranking is ranking, it's not traffic. So you can see that it's right there on the screen. It's a second sentence, you can see it in Google search results. You wouldn't need to go to the site to find the price, because we know that it does it in two steps, right. So the Martha Lane Fox report kicked off GDS and GOV.UK. And we went from alpha to beta to live. In that time, we took 75,000 pages and got them down to 3,000. There were no audience complaints. There were lots of all the complaints but there are no audience complaint.

The 75,000 pages came from two websites, Directgov, that big orange affair. That was all the citizen facing information and business link, which was all the business facing pages We did everything in agile, it was a multidisciplinary team from day one. And we worked on user needs only. So what does the user need from us? And what can we as government reasonably give them? And it wasn't things like how to keep bees. There was a page on Directgov that said, if you're cold put on a jumper, if you need to go to a website to get that, then I would suggest that that's the wrong channel and you need some sort of other intervention 'cause you're not gonna search for that first stop. So there was none of that. There was no advice. It was just government information that only government could do. Zero audience complaints.

So we did have one day we had this huge tranche of compilers. And one of our tech guys went and had a look and then I'm how we got loads and loads of complaints in one day turned out it came one government building 86% increase in positive comments now to be fair benchmark was quite low. So, you know we need to take that into account. But actually 86% is still a huge increase. And users not getting the result they want the first time. Now, this is a metric that we still use a lot when you go looking for something, can you get it first time easily? Or do you get fed up and frustrated leave and have to come back? 'Cause returning visits may not be a positive metric to track if that's happening, Directgov 55% of people didn't get what they wanted the first time around. And on GOV.UK on launch, at least it was 13%. So this is where I added another job title, and I'm really sorry, but it was utterly, utterly necessary at the time.

So we have a lot of job titles. In our industry you can be a content strategist or a content designer or an editor or a copywriter, or UX writer or an editor or just writer or any of those and sometimes your job title can change as you go through the organization, but maybe your job function won't. When I introduced the term to GOV.UK, it was to start a conversation. At the time government was used to content editors, or writers or content writers. And people were very comfortable with that 'cause you're sort of you're the thing that you did was in your job title, but digital doesn't sit in that easily. You take any of those titles, strategist, designer, editor, UX writer, whatever you may find in different organizations, those people do completely different things. A content strategist, which we would term as somebody who controls the strategy may in fact, just be a writer just get to write and they are given their constraints and they are given the environment that those words will say. You may find that they do completely different things.

So at that time for government, we needed to change the conversation. We're not just gonna edit your stuff anymore. We're not just going to proofread and then let policy rewrite it or legal rewrite it. At GOV.UK we stop them getting access to the content management system. So it's actually split into two so mainstream the bit where you do GOV.UK forward slash and then like child benefit, that's actually done by central GDS team and the departments do not have access to that is called fact check. You can fact check it but we control it and if you don't, and you rewrite it 'cause that happened, probably still happening to be honest in some areas. If you rewrite it, I don't need to take that. And there's nothing you can do. Nothing you can do with a code, obviously, they reach out and escalate and all sorts. But it was controlled, and then the government departments actually have access to the other bit. So if you do GOV.UK forward slash a department name, then, that's all their work. So adding another title opened up that conversation.

So just for the purposes of this talk, I would like to spit out two of these titles. So a content strategy and this is just our definition, by the way. So a content strategist sets the strategy itself, which will house the direction and it will define who is doing what a content strategy is not a comms plan or calendar. It's not an editorial calendar. It shows your success, value, what channel mapping you've got going on. It has all of your digital involved. It's got who is doing what? It's much, much wider for us content editors and writers are usually given the constraints in which they'll sit. So I used to be a copywriter and advertising copywriter. And I would be told you've got cheap ad, you've got a website, you've got this, that and the other, whatever it is, but you are normally given your constraints. Most of the time, most of the time, sometimes not.

So this is what I'm talking about the different labels that we have and it is quite ironic that we as content people can't come up with an entire set of industry standard titles, but anyway, generally you are given those content design isn't limited to what content design is simply answering your audience's need in the best way for them to consume it. So I'll give you an example of that. An organization a health organization was going to do an app, a very expensive app, doing discovery and some research, we found that actually, they needed an A4 poster in a doctor's office, because that's the most efficient way to get to their audience. That is more content design. If you are a writer, you will probably be told you've got an app, there you go. Go and write it. Content designers will sit there and go is that the best way of doing it?

So let's have a look at the process then if you are a designer or a UX designer or product, so probably all of you are gonna be very familiar with this process. You may or may not invite your content people to this process. If you do awesome, great keep going, thank you if you don't consider getting them in. So the content design process then always starts with research. Don't move without it can be desk research. It can be in person research, obviously that's a little bit more difficult now. So remote research, but you have a research section, then you create your user needs, we can run an entire organization off of one bank of user needs, you end up with very, very consistent comms doesn't mean that it's boring doesn't mean that it's uniform at all, because your social media team will do something completely different to your web team and they will do something different to your offline team, but it is consistent. Then we do the channel mapping so that we can see who is doing what, where but consistent language of the same user needs. Then we add language and sentiment. What language are they using at what part of the journey, is there also something that is slots just gonna use all the same language all the time on every channel. And you do need to do that for your consistency. But you can move it around can do interesting things because people's language changes. Sometimes on per channel sentiment is always a kind of emotion that is attached to the thing that you're doing. And you can do three things with content.

Basically, you can robot, you can re-educate, or you can reflect it, you can only do three things. So you need to put whichever bucket you're gonna put it into your content into. Then you create your content, and you share it with your policy with your stakeholders, but with users, and then you iterate, which is the same as everybody else. So what we would recommend, if you don't already is get your content people in it discovery. Reason for that is that we do exactly the same way as all the designers do. So we would have the journey and we would have all the yellow bonds that you can see on the screen. That's the kind of journey that you will go through each decision point is a potential content point, doesn't mean you have to have content there. But is the point that you should be thinking about what channel are we on? What are we telling them? What is the perception? What is the belief? How are we gonna get to them? And how far back do we have to go? So I'll give you an example of that.

Our web Citizens Advice, and we found that people in debt, you have to pick backwards. A guy came in to Bureau and he said, I'm gonna be homeless. On Friday, I'm gonna be homeless, I'm gonna be sleeping all over . When the advisor unpicked his life, he found that two years previously, the person had been made illegally redundant. Now at the time, if you had gone into search results, it was all about being made redundant then spruce up your CV and do something to make yourself confident and all these sorts of things, which are very valid, but there was nothing that just said, check your redundancy notice is legal. Now in the past two years that guy had lost his family, lost his wife lost access to his children 'cause he was traveling around the country finding places to stay with friends and family. So he lost access to his children had mental health problems because of that, who wouldn't? And it lost everything. Because nobody had stepped back in their digital journey. And see how have people got here? What is their perception? What are their beliefs? And what language are they using? How are we gonna get to them?

Pain points are often misinformation, or it's on the wrong channel or is the wrong information on the wrong channel? You need to step back not backfire and like, you know or I was foreign and I got yoga in my hair and then I went to school... No I fall back, that city. But step back far enough to understand the language and the sentiment and all of those things and get some of that stress off the pages that you've got on that website. Because content will only work if it is where your audience is when they want it. Otherwise too much stress too much pain.

Give you some examples of this, then on GOV.UK, you can put all your press releases. Now this particular press release is on a road is about a road, it's the A14 if you don't work somewhere, and you need to use the A14 or if you don't live near the A14, you're not gonna be remotely interested in the A14, okay, you're just not. However, this was put up, you can spin GOV.UK pages. So you can put GOV.UK forward slash info forward slash and then the rest of the URL, and the page will spin and it will give you the metrics. Just wanna draw your attention to the bit that says all metrics are recorded over the past six weeks. So if you all go into this page now that number's gonna change. I took this at the time and at the time zero, no user need probably best to put it somewhere else right? Like Twitter. The A14 has his own Twitter account why not. In local papers, that sort of thing will be far better than just pumping out press releases. This is one this speech, if you want to know what British ministers are talking about at any one time, so that, I don't know, you could go back and check what they actually said and now what they're saying in the media, just say for example, if you wanted to do that, then you can.

This one's very important. It's about travel. So if you are a disabled passenger, you can call a train station in advance, tell them that you're coming where you're going and then there needs to be somebody there to help you. Spin the page zero, this was at the time. That speech was up. This one is a really important speech actually, it says 71% of those eligible to use passenger assist don't know anything about the screen. So I looked to see at the time where this was 'cause this is really important. There was nowhere I can't find anywhere. I went on to forums for disabled people, I went into the press, I went into Google to look for it. Nothing because it wasn't picked up because it was possibly on the wrong platform buried on the thousands of pages.

Last one I'm gonna show you then, this is where the government you know I was telling you that the departments have access to one side of GOV.UK and GDS central team has access to another part of the GOV.UK. This page is for lorry drivers, you know truck drivers, they have this little thing on their dashboards. That tell them how much they've been driving because if they drive for too long, over 40 hours a week or whatever it is, then it's illegal. They're not allowed to, for safety reasons. So they've got a little thing called a tachometer. And it sits on their dashboard. The government department published this, I mean, you don't need to read it. It's just a wall of text that is not a lot. At the time, then I took these 'cause I took these together, it was 28.6 views a day. Now, you could say, how many lorry drivers are there in the UK, right? Maybe 28 is great, maybe 28 is normal. This is the UK page, the central team page for the same user need. Now the user need is to understand the law around that little tachometer thing. For that 476 this actually went up to one and a half thousand a day. A couple of hundred you would say what's the difference? Upto one and a half thousand. That's a lot of difference. Because the one that looks like this is not shareable. If you're a boss, do you want the people to wade through that? Or do you want them to understand through that? That's content design, with accessibility and usability in mind, not blast, panic, publish.

Take a look at some real world impacts of proper content design. Then this one's from Gerry McGovern. In New Zealand, they did a test for ambulance drivers. You know that people when you call in the UK, it's 999 and you get the emergency services. When you get through to the ambulance people then they were gonna say what's happened. So apostrophe s versus what happened. What's happened, saved nine seconds of a call. Now, if you're selling trainers, nine seconds, probably not a big deal to be honest. If you're trying to save someone's life. Nine seconds is huge. Now you may be thinking, what, I work in a university, I work in a government department. I don't save people's lives, in that way. I would argue about that. But still, I don't save people's lives. So it's not important to me. What I would say to you is how many of those nine seconds are you adding? And are you thinking about accessibility? Are thinking about people who have low cognitive function? People who have reading challenges, people with ADHD, autism, all sorts all those nine seconds they add up the way that you do things. Even the minute tiny things can derail a service or product.

Give you another example. This is my favorite one. Service error protocol 20225. We know that this error is very important 'cause it's in red. So, no worries about if you've taken all the color off your screen, but still, it's obviously terribly important. On this, you notice visa, so it's got something to do with money. But this was all that was on the page. This error actually means that your identity has been nicked. And there is one telephone number in the UK that you can ring to unblock everything. Your bank accounts and everything you've been a victim of fraud.

Single words, ladies and gentlemen can derail everything. There are some organizations doing some amazing things. This is a quite an old page now, but it is still very relevant and a very good read. It's by Hannah Horton at Citizens Advice. They had a page about basic rights at work. And it got 70,000 visits a month. There were loads of queries on that page and there was loads from Google. What they found is that people were looking for the pages underneath this one. So they deleted them 70,000 it was one of their top pages. And they just deleted it. And what they found obviously it tanked for a while their traffic tanked. And then very, very quickly, it shot up for the pages that were most useful for people. And basic rights at work is something that you can't muck about with. Think about the guy that I was telling you about who was made illegally redundant. Now, just changing the words from editorial to content design is not really it. But it can have an... It can have an impact. If you change all of these things, being able to delete everything 'cause it's not working, being able to change the language and the punctuation purely purely to make things better for everyone, not just those with disabilities.

So we have seen some changes around the world. We asked people a while ago about content design, are they using the term? What difference is it making to what they're doing? John Paz then said at Atlassian that they are full-fledged members of the design org. And it's a first in their 13 year career. Spencer said it changed the way they think about criticism. So we do crits we do crits in the same way that design do crits, I went to a design school. I studied design originally. So I pull crits along with me, and it is very good way of getting to good content a lot faster. And Spencer was saying how previously criticism was slightly negative connotations. Now it's integral, it's highly welcome. And it's done with empathy. Few rules around it in a content design process have a huge difference. And then there's Beth Dunn. She works at HubSpot, and she said shifting to a content design lens help move away from just putting the frosting on the cake to baking the whole cake from scratch. Now we even ask if our users want cake.

And last but not least, the National Archives, calling what we did content design helped us to shift from internal expectations about our work. Remember writers write editors edit. To editors who tidy up your words to collaborators who help you create effective user-centered content. Content design can make or break your service. I'm not sure if any of what NIN is is not Nine Inch Nails, which obviously what this looks like. I worked on a service at direct Gulf Sage which we did some research worked really well. And then a policy person came in and said we need to call your National Insurance Number a NIN because we want people to learn this because the back office staff use it all the staff use it. And we want people to learn this language. So we're gonna call it NIN. This multi million pound service had 100% failure rate on page one, there was only three questions on page one. This was one of them, what is your NIN? And obviously, it failed. And all we did was changing NIN to National Insurance Number and it went to an 86% completion rate.

Content design isn't just finding a new word. That's not what it is. There is a lot of context around this you can already see the kind of research you have to have the right channel at the right time. And the right format, digital may not be it. You can change your sentence length and your punctuation, to manipulate people's experience. So remember, if you add over 24 words to a sentence, You increase cognitive load for a lot of people. So we don't use bold and all that sort of thing that makes the eye run around the page, we can use a long sentence, a shorter sentence, and then a long sentence, it can stop people dead. So you can change the length and punctuation but do it carefully, 'cause you're gonna stop people dead. And it kind of ruins the usual reading rhythm, the natural rhythm that we're looking for. We also use space content designers know how to use space, they know how to use bullet points to pull the eye down the page or to stop people or to Pete May people going on it's okay to let people think, in the same way that designers do. We also know that things like negative contractions, they're also much harder to read in microcopy. So Joe Scofield did a medium post it's still up about how negative contractions can just stop people that particularly if English is a second language, for example, it's a lot better to have it out in full.

We know that behavior on the internet is shorter. We know this. There used to be an old advertising adage saying you've got five seconds to get my attention and 11 to keep it. Anecdotally, I will tell you that you've got about three seconds to get my attention and five to keep it. I suggest that you value that time. Now there was a creative director called Dave Trott, and he says 89% of all advertising is ignored. It's roughly $17 billion a year is kind of thrown down the drain.

Don't have to be boring, though, right? To be clear, you can be clear and accessible and usable. And still interesting. If I was to say three words to you, just do it. Do you know what brand I'm talking about? It's three words in your primary vocabulary say three words. And you can be very creative of it. In the 50s, there was this campaign think small. It is arguably and people do argue, the most successful campaign in history in the world. It was VW Golf to get american people who used to driving huge cars at that time to drive smaller cars. And it hung off to words, think small. Again, senior primary vocabulary say you would have picked up the words think in small in your first few years of life.

So you don't have to be boring. You don't have to be uniform across the board just need to be consistent and creative and interesting. Generally, people want to understand whether it's because they are watching funny cat videos, and that cat are better be funny. Or it's because they are applying for a service. Something that has money or to get them out of poverty, something important they wanna understand what you're talking about. They don't wanna marvel at your language skills, or how clever you are.

Top five things to remember then for content design. Without content, you have a perfectly coded beautifully designed shell. Without content, what have you got, really? Content design is more than words on a page is about understanding your users and getting them to the information or the thing that they need at the time that they need it. It's about that stepping back. It's about having your content people in the research stage. So they can say you see this. Needs to be further back needs to be further forward needs to be poster needs to be or whatever. It's also only useful when it's usable and relevant.

We see a lot of people with that 10% of their job. They're not communications experts. They don't wanna be they just don't wanna be it's not their passion. They don't practice it every day. Content people practice their skills. And they understand where it is usable, accessible, where it's relevant. And this is just person work content people charge more, you're so worth it. And without a website, you really do without content, websites or just shells. Tweets are just shells.

And last but not least, there is a global community of content designers sharing their thinking. So we have something called the readability guidelines. It's the bottom link on this page that has a stack of usability evidence around content things, contractions and whether to use acronyms or not. All sorts of things, sentence case title case a lot. Most of these things are steeped in usability and accessibility and the evidence is all there and there's also the content design club.

So that's all I have for you. I hope it's given you an overview. Do you have any questions?

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