As a concept, content design has turned the UK Government digital team on its head over the last few years—leading them to create one of the world’s best websites for content and user experience. And yet government websites are hardly the first to come to mind when asked for great content examples. What is it that makes gov.uk so different?
The answer is user centricity. Creating content for content’s sake is still a massive problem, and many content creators will just chuck content on a website and hope for the best, simply because they’ve been told they need to produce content. But true user centricity is not about whizzy graphics and leading-edge design; it’s about making sure users can easily find the information they’re looking for.
“People won’t find your website because your design is funky,” says Sarah Richards, mother of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS) approach. “They’ll use words they are thinking about and pick you from a swarm of other results offered by search engines. You need to stand out on that results page. That’s why content design is important: It helps you stand out in a world where everyone wants to stand out.”
Content design was spawned as a discipline by the GDS a few years back, ultimately as a way to keep the user in mind while dealing with the complexity and tangled web that was the UK government digital ecosystem. At one point early in the noughties, it was estimated the UK government maintained over 3,500 websites. (Alas, your humble correspondent contributed to that number as an NHS website manager in an earlier life. My apologies.)
The work to begin consolidating this tangled ecosystem began with the launch of Directgov in 2004, intended as a site for all citizen-facing information. Departments worked with the Directgov central team to (mostly) duplicate the information that was already on their own sites, says Richards. But Directgov’s infancy was not enough; Richards was soon leading a team in central publishing to shut down more than 500 sites in the first major digital cull for the UK government. She was working with dodgy tech, long lead times, and departments who just didn’t want to deal.
Image attribution: Patrick Perkins
That was the beginning. Through various iterations and lots of negotiations, Richards ended up involved in a project for a single domain for the UK government—the next step beyond Directgov. Looking at the task ahead, the GDS settled on the term “content design” for their needs—because, as Richards says, “content should mean content, not just words.” They were tasked with telling the story of how the UK government could help its citizens and ensuring those citizens got the information they needed in the easiest and most intuitive way. Just writing content and hoping Google liked it was not going to be enough.
Richards goes into great depth about the journey from Directgov’s shopfront to the fully user-centric gov.uk, so we won’t repeat it here—you can read about it on her blog if you’re interested. But the end results speak for themselves. Widely heralded as the beacon in user-centricity, gov.uk has made the UK government more transparent and more accessible. It’s also saved a ton of money; in 2014 the Cabinet Office helped the UK government save £1.7 billion through digital and technology transformation, largely driven by Richards’ content design approach.
And now it’s spreading across UK businesses, each and every one wanting to duplicate the success of the UK government and get some of that magic for their own content and user experience. While it’s often referred to as the “UX of content,” that’s a lazy comparison. Nor is it just a rewrite project. Richards told us: “Rewriting content in this way isn’t a ‘site refresh.’ It’s transformation—culture transformation, tech transformation and organization transformation.”
“UX is a weird word in this sphere now,” says Richards. “Content people know that if you use all caps or slang when 40 percent of the audience has English as a second language, the experience will be crap. UX is all disciplines’ responsibility.
“Anyone and any project can benefit from a content design approach. My book is now going around service design and design circles. It’s an approach for user-centered work. It helps other teams understand why content needs to be up front and center at inception stage.
“Here’s a story for you: I had one of my guys cut a service that was about to go live by 30 percent. Thousands in wasted money—because they didn’t have a content designer on the team at the start.”
And yes, that means content design can help your brand storytelling. Richards now works with private companies, and also runs courses. There’s even a one-day course specifically for journalists, social media managers, copywriters, marketers, and PR professionals. She says, “Understanding what your audience wants, where they are and how to communicate to them is useful whatever job you are in. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is necessary if you don’t want to waste a lot of time and money.”
Image attribution: Jose Aljovin
Richards says it’s about “making the internet more useful and enjoyable.” The stories we tell are a big part of that, but she urges content creators to not be limited to words. Think about the audience and the best way to fulfill their needs—that could be with words, but it could also be a video, a map, a calculator, a tool, a contact button, a live chat. The possibilities are as endless as the stories we tell. This is why it’s important for developers, designers, and experts to be involved in the process, too.
There’s so much to say on this that Richards has written an entire book, but suffice it to say there are a few steps involved:
The final step should be measurement and iterations. “When you publish content, it is there forever,” she says. “You might delete it, but that won’t stop others screen-grabbing it and keeping it. That won’t stop the Internet Archive taking digital copies. However, most organizations have a ‘publish and forget about it’ mindset—yours shouldn’t.”
You’ll see that this content design approach follows alongside content strategy in many ways. In fact, Richards laments the fact there is no universal common vocabulary when it comes to what we as content people do. The difference here is the data and science behind the strategy; where content strategy is about understanding the audience and the message and communicating that, its design is about really using data and teamwork to get the best results for the users. It focuses on content and user experience, first and foremost. “There’s a lot of technical skill in content design,” says Richards. “You have to know how to look at analytics and make it give you a plan for your content. You have to be aware of all forms of communication and you have to know a lot about your audience to know what is right for them.”
As she concludes in her book: “Content design isn’t just a technique, it’s a way of thinking. You’ll question everything, gather data and make informed decisions. You’ll put your audience first. So having done your research, designed your content and put it online—that’s the end, isn’t it?
“Of course not. Go and start all over again with another piece of content. And remember, if your content now isn’t perfect because you had to compromise with a stakeholder, you are still further ahead than you were. One step at a time. Because of you, the internet is getting better.
“Stick with it. Be persistent, be flexible, be bold. Be confident that over time, content design will prove itself a valuable tool for you, your team, and for the whole organization. Content design will help you achieve the most important goal: putting users first.”
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Featured image attribution: Aziz Acharki