Insider tips | What is content design?

Dan Linstead , 21 May 2020

If you want to really improve the effectiveness of your digital content, you need to consider more than words, pictures and distribution. Enter the new discipline of Content Design, where creativity meets UX. Anna-Louise Taylor, content designer within Immediate’s RSPB digital team, explains herself.

How do you define content design?

It’s an emerging skillset, so I’ve been having a little head scratch about that one! Essentially content design is about communicating information in the clearest way possible. It’s not just about copy and images, although they are key. It’s about all the different ways that you can tell a story online or in a digital format – through websites, apps, e-shots, infographics, video, big data – and bringing all those different elements together to tell a clear narrative and meet a need. The key is putting the audience first and creating amazing user journeys for them.

You can’t have good content design without understanding digital strategy and analytics, because you need to understand fundamentally how a user is behaving, what they want to do, and what you want them to do. User testing can be involved. You then take that understanding to propose the best user journey or the best solution.

You mention telling stories – would you say content design is an editorial skillset?

There are editorial skills involved, for sure, but it’s more nuanced than that. Content design is the whole understanding and process of leading a user from their initial intent through to ultimate transaction. Copywriting is involved – often you need to simplify the copy to drive people towards a particular outcome – but it’s broader than that. People come to content design from different backgrounds and bring different things to it: I haven’t really met anyone yet with exactly the same skillset or experience as me.

How does content design relate to UX (User Experience)?

Content design is quite closely related to UX – there’s some debate about whether it’s actually UX Writing, an editorial copywriting part of content design. I’ve read that the use of the terms UX Writing (and people calling themselves UX Writers / Content Designers) came out around the time of some of the big web projects of the past decade, such as the integration of lots of government websites under one “Gov dot UK” domain. (Here’s the government’s official line on content design.)

Content design is really part of user experience. A UX designer is looking at and leading the user experience end-to-end, and a content designer is often one of the people in the team, perhaps alongside a data analyst, a (marketing or editorial) copywriter, a visual designer and a developer to do the coding. UX kind of covers the whole workflow.

What about SEO – is that part of content design?

Yes, SEO is a tool that you would use in content design. It’s one of the things that I would do in my initial research: find out the keywords for a certain page, front load them into the copy and headlines to make a page findable and searchable. Of course, SEO is a discipline in its own right too, but it’s certainly something that would inform content design.

Content Designer is still quite a rare job title. How did you get into it?

I’ve been a writer on digital platforms for about 15 years now. I actually started out working in radio in New Zealand, and then came to the UK and worked for the BBC as a sub-editor and senior broadcast journalist on its online news and feature pages, doing fast-paced journalism, writing and editing. During that time, I did a multimedia storytelling course at the University of California at Berkeley, which taught me about taking broadcast journalism and reworking content to get the very best value from it.online.

I went on to BBC Learning as a producer on the BBC Food and BBC Nature websites – big, factual websites with a clear purpose to develop knowledge and skills for users. As well as creating content, I learned to really analyse data and work out where traffic was coming from and going, what was successful, what wasn’t, what real engagement looked like, comparing our sites to competitors… and working all the time to get our page rankings higher on Google and make sure, you know, that our chocolate cake recipe was higher than the Jamie Oliver website’s chocolate cake!

And then in recent years, I’ve got more into multimedia disciplines like digital video production and bespoke website content and app builds for agency clients and digital project management because in tech and digital there’s always something new and exciting to learn. I like to always keep on learning.

Can we talk about the content design process? What’s the order of things?

First of all we need a brief. With my current client, RSPB, we have a discovery meeting where we investigate the brief and their requirements and then look at their core objectives and their users’ needs. And then it would go into the research phase: gathering data, defining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), working out the best user journey we want to achieve and identifying any limitations.

Then I’ll go back to the client with all the evidence of why I’m suggesting something and what I think they should do. I’ll usually develop a prototype or wireframe of the solution –  it can be hard to visualise new things, so this really helps get stakeholders on board.

Sometimes you need to adjust the proposal a bit to accommodate feedback, but once the proposal has been signed off, it’s on to the actual content build and delivery, review and quality assurance, bug testing and then going live (that’s the best bit!).

Do you actually build new products yourself, or work with a developer?

A mix. I have an understanding of code, and where things live within the framework of a Content Management System. But there are parts of all websites that are hardcoded, and if those need to change I’d work with a developer.

What are the most common tools that you use?

Quite a few! Google Analytics or ComScore analytics for website data and user journeys, and platforms like HotJar for heat maps and user behaviour – tracking clicks, mouse movement and eyeballs. Ahrefs for SEO keyword analysis and search insights. Obviously the relevant CMS for whatever I’m working on – I’m working mainly in Episerver currently, but often it’s a custom CMS or WordPress. And then there are email builders such as Salesforce Marketing Cloud and CACI Email Studio. I also use Adobe Creative Suite to edit imagery and video, and design proposals.

Finally, what would you say is the business case for good content design?

I’d say it’s of huge benefit to anyone with a digital presence, because it’s about driving the actions you want from your users. Whether that’s to boost traffic, increase engagement, receive more donations, or get more membership sign ups through emails. A content designer can help organisations understand their user journeys and decipher how to improve them – and because it’s data-driven and copy-led it helps people really understand the value of great digital content and products.

If you can get more people to click on the right buttons, make a purchase, share content or sign up for a membership, that will make a real difference to your business.

Interested in learning more about content design for your business? Drop us a line.

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