INTERVIEW WITH SARAH RICHARDS, FOUNDER OF CONTENT DESIGN LONDON
In this interview, I speak to Sarah Richards, founder of Content Design London (CDL).
The former Head of Content Design for the Government Digital Service talks to me about why she started CDL, why she's so passionate about content, and her advice for content design newbies...
What does your role as a content strategist and digital consultant involve, in terms of responsibility and the day-to-day?
I split my time between working in content strategy and content design. For me, it falls into two main areas:
Content strategy - this reflects internal workings: governance, workflow, the vision, the proposition of the content. It’s how an organisation decides what they want to publish, where, when, and how. We run workshops with organisations to get to the detail of this, and then work with them to produce a content strategy, like this one. Then we work with them to embed it into the organisation. We present to directors, introduce agile content techniques; whatever it takes to make that content strategy something that is useful for the organisation, and not just a document that gets lost in a shared drive somewhere.
Content design - this is where we get to producing the content itself. It’s attending research sessions, getting audience language and mental models, understanding channel behaviour, reading psychology, structure of content. It’s the nitty-gritty of finding out what users need, and then producing relevant content, in a relevant format and getting it to the audience at the right time, and in the right place. My favourite part of the week is a crit. Crit is short for 'critique' - it’s where we sit around and improve the product (I’ve written more on that if you are unfamiliar with the term).
You’ve worked in both the public sector and private sector – what made you want to take the leap to working for yourself?
I left government because I had had enough. The pay gap is huge for permanent civil servants in and those coming into the civil service. We regularly had leads and ‘heads of’ being paid much, much less than those they were managing. I certainly was, and it was humiliating.
On top of that, I was still spending two hours a week (I tracked it for a couple of weeks, just to see) answering emails about why we weren’t capping the word government on GOV.UK, and I was tired. GOV.UK was a hard project. The most amazing fun I have ever had, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hard. So I left.
I love government and miss it massively, but I wanted to have a more control over what I was doing and have fewer arguments. When I had people who were screaming in my face, I wanted to be able to walk away from them, not be told I needed to ‘collaborate’.
I’d learned so much, and was - and still am - so excited about content that I wanted to share that wider. Going out on my own seemed like the best way to do that.
Tell me a little bit about Content Design London – how and why did you start it?
After GOV.UK, I started doing online coaching for content designers and strategists around the world. I would have an hour with them on Google Hangouts - we would talk about all their content woes, I would talk to them about similar experiences and help them find a solution. I find, no matter what country or the size of your organisation, many content problems around the world are exactly the same.
At the same time, I created a course in content design; teaching all the techniques I learned at GOV.UK, and after, I wrote a book and created a content strategy course too.
That was when Content Design London really started. Now I have a couple of trainers, and we provide training for organisations in content strategy and content design around the world.
We have open, public courses (Editor - I'm going to one of these in May!), but we also have a lot of bespoke, in-house training sessions. I am really pleased to see an increase in organisations taking their content development seriously. It’s about time!
People are always asking me if I know people who are looking for work, so I started the recruitment side reasonably recently - but it’s a tiny side. We find teams for organisations, but there is a caveat: we only take on some organisations. I have to be comfortable putting team members into an organisation.
I am doing this to improve content and really push content’s worth. That sometimes means turning down clients. I believe you have to stay with your principles, or you end up not sleeping for weeks. It’s the same for the consultancy work we do with organisations. It can be tricky. There are lots of interesting projects out there, and it’s easy to fall into a trap of ‘must work!’, but I find it makes us unhappy. So again, we only take on certain clients and certain projects. The projects need to have a strong steer (but not micromanagement), a total commitment to user-centred content and an understanding of the value of content.
Many content designers and strategists are not paid enough. Organisations need to see that without content, they don’t have a service. With poor or mediocre content, it’s more expensive in the long run.
If there’s any brand damage because of poor or misleading content, the costs can be astronomical. You can have a beautifully designed, perfectly coded site, but if you don’t have the content, you pretty much have nothing.
I’m ranting now. I do that from time to time. Sorry.
I shall get back on track: we at Content Design London recruit for organisations, set up multi-disciplinary teams, coach and consult. If it’s content-y, we probably do it (is that better? ;)).
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who’s looking to move from working as a content writer to a content designer / or straight off – become a content designer?
JUMP RIGHT IN.
You are probably doing some or most of it already. It’s a bunch of techniques that form a user-centred way of communicating. It’s also malleable. Some think you have to do everything in agile and content design to be a content designer. I’d say: try it all and use what works for you. Mostly.
There are a few things you can’t get away with not doing. These are:
#1. Always start with: "what is the point of this content?" This is always the first question. You need to find the user need. Some say to me: that might work well with government or non-profits, but it doesn’t work with selling things. I completely disagree. If you need trainers for the gym, you need trainers. No point wearing shoes that will cripple you. There is always a balance between business needs and user needs, but without the audience wanting / needing something, the business is going nowhere.
#2. How is this content best fulfilled? Find out what users need from you, how they are talking about it, on what channels, what’s the online and offline journey - the lot. This research will tell you how you can best sort that audience need.
#3. Go to the user, don’t wait for them to come to you. This carries on from your initial research. You need to be in the right place at the right time if you want your information to be effective.
#4. Add your own value. There’s no point building a massive website that duplicates everything else - you’ll just clog up the search results. Instead, add your own value and stand out.
Lastly, there’s a stack of amazing people in this industry who generously share their wisdom. Try this lot: