I am a content designer

Last month I had the chance to attend training from Content Design London. Since reading Sarah Richard’s Content Design book, I’ve been fascinated with the approach taken for content design and wanted to get the training to help us implement more content design processes within the council.

Over the course of the training I learnt that a lot of what we already do is based on the principles within content design.

It’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up

One of the things we already work hard on is making sure our web content is written in a way that is easy for our customers to understand. Even if we are writing about a technical issue, we try to use simple language and short sentences to make it easier for people to follow the content.

This includes using:

  • plain English
  • short sentences
  • bullet point lists
  • simple structures
  • predictable words

To check that our content does this, we will often use the Hemingway Editor to check for sentence length and complicated words. We don’t always get it right, and we’re trying to decide how to approach web content converted from PDFs, but we do try to keep to a reading level of grade 9 and lower.

I recently did some work on our complaints content, and whilst it’s still not perfect, using content design principles we managed to simplify the existing text from a booklet. Here is the before and after within Hemingway.

Grade 12 readability of content within the Hemingway Editor.
Grade 7 readability of content within the Hemingway Editor.

Even without reading the text you can immediately see how using headings and splitting up large paragraphs makes the text easier to follow.

Finding and understanding our customers

There is a lot more we can do to make sure we are designing content with customers in mind. For example, we need spend more time finding out about our customers before we start writing. One key thought I took away from the training was that we need to find our audiences mental models and language. Ways we could do this include:

  • spending time with front line staff in call centres
  • using google trends
  • using search on social media
  • looking at forums around topics we are working on

We also need to investigate using user stories and/or job stories and creating acceptance criteria for them. This is particularly important when we are working on completely new content. Writing user stories will help to make it clear what needs to be written about and can act as a content ‘to-do’ list when acceptance criteria are also introduced. You can find out more about these on the Content Design London blog.

During the training we had the chance to practice doing this by writing out a user journey alongside the user needs that needed to be met by that journey. We also highlighted where pain points might occur.

Mapping a journey with the relevant user needs really helped to focus my mind on exactly what was needed within the context of my journey. It had the added benefit of looking pretty on the wall!

During the course we also looked at how to talk to subject matter experts about data, how to quickly iterate using sketches and how to work with partners to review content. It would be a very long blog post to go into all of this, so if you are interested in the topic, I strongly suggest reading Sarah Richard’s book. I’m also sure that I’ll write more about these topics as we start to try implement more content design principles in our work. Check back over the coming months for our progress on this work!.

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