“Why do you need a Content Designer? The words just appear, right?”

“Why do you need a Content Designer? The words just appear, right?”

I remember describing my job to people I met socially 16 years ago. It was web content editor for local online services. Trying to keep it simple, I called it copywriting for websites. People’s brains went straight to legal copyrights.

When I explained, no, I write what people read on websites, they looked at me blankly.

No one thought about websites having words. Or that someone actually wrote the words; certainly not that someone could have a job writing and editing those words.

Just like the music from this self-playing piano, the right words just magically appear on websites!

People I spoke to nodded, and later introduced me as a web designer.

If we kept in touch they proceeded to refer to my job, when talking to me, as web designer. Some of them still do, over a decade later. If I demur, they smile winningly and say, “oh, yeah, but you know what I mean.”

Websites have no words

For some reason many people today still seem to have a mental model that websites:

  • have no words, or;

  • have words and other content elements, but they just magically appear, or;

  • do not really need words, but a few are okay, as long as they are not getting in the way too much

Today’s party conversation

Even now in 2019 I have the same conversation with people, who might not work in digital, but certainly use websites.

Them, with furrowed brow: “What do you mean by web content?”

Me: “The information you interact with when you visit a website.”

Them: “ .”

Me: “You’re usually trying to do something when you visit a website.”
“You read and follow what’s on the site, to know what to do.”
“It’s not all pictures.”

Them: “The marketing copy?”

Me: “No, everything you absorb, and interact with.”

Them: “Oh right, you do coding! In the back end.”

Me: “Ah, my friend’s arrived, I’ll just be a moment.”

It’s easier when I just say now that I make websites more user-friendly to help people can find what they’re looking for, without trying to explain it any further. Often that leads to a nice conversation about usability testing.

Sometimes they still think it’s ‘technical back end’ stuff though.

Well. This is what a web page looks like without content. This is a screenshot of GOV UK page minus content that Rachel McConnell shared on Twitter:

“That” screenshot of a GOV UK page with no content.

“That” screenshot of a GOV UK page with no content.

“Lorem ipsum would work just as well.”

I recently chewed all this over with Rachel, who’s written a book on ‘Why you need a content team’.

We think it’s because when the internet began, a lot of companies, obviously, didn’t have websites. Their customers were happily getting information other ways.

So the first 100,000s of sites were designed with a focus on making a shiny new thing. And nothing else really. Bit of branding.

Then UX Design became a thing, when well meaning designers who cared about users’ experiences came to tidy up the mess. Their focus was to make it easier for folk to get about and find things.

Nowadays, the picture’s very different from when the internet started. 
People rely on websites as the default channel to get information. Content is that information. They need it fast and they want it scannable.

All this means content really needs to come first now. We need to start the design process with content. And we need content designers to do it.

I recently wrote for GatherContent about how involving content early can boost your digital project.

Skills good content designers have

Aimee Heywood from Hippo Digital recently listed some content design skills, in her blog post about a day in the life of a content designer:

  • Written and verbal communication

  • Listening to the perspectives of others

  • Delivering and accepting feedback and criticism

  • Attention to detail

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving

  • Organisation

  • Inclusive and open-minded

  • A team player

At the same time, I was writing my own list of skills a good content designer needs, which covered everything from spatial awareness to ability to make informed decisions and iterate based on user research findings.

Plus being able to sketch a content product based on an abstract concept, basic HTML skills, experience of agile processes, and working knowledge of Google trends and other tools.

And of course, ability to write concisely, using clear language.

“I’ve got chills (skills) they’re multiplying”: video of ‘The One That I Want’ song from Grease for a weak pun.

Not everyone can write clearly for users

Let’s take the writing element, since it’s often the most obvious output of content design.

Everyone’s a writer. Or thinks they can write. Until they sit down to write. Or until the service they wrote content for continues to befuddle users, iteration after iteration.

Everyone can write, in the same way that everyone can pick up electrical wires, connect them and switch something on without electrocuting themselves or short-circuiting the building.

Not everyone can do it accurately, not everyone is a content designer. Or an electrician.

Content designers are like electricians

Electricians are highly skilled and trained. So are content designers. You need all the skills mentioned in this post to do the job well. As you become more experienced, you’ll have performed most of the roles I splintered it into in this tweet about content design being 9 jobs in 1:

“But you have to have a qualified electrician because it’s dangerous not to.” Well, high quality content design can save lives too: emergency and other medical information needs to be presented in a way that is very easy and quick to understand.

Good quality content, to extend the metaphor, can make the users (electricity) flow through an organisation’s website, get to the point they need to and booking, buying or requesting something (making a light, a kettle, or radio turn on).

Content designers are like silver service waiters

Perhaps it’s because we don’t come in with a big tool belt and switch the website off while we adjust the content.

When content design is done well, you just do not notice it. That’s the whole point. The content is:

  • readable

  • scannable

  • accessible

  • inclusive

  • instantly absorbable

  • iteratively updated

We’re silver service waiters, taking away your empty plate and topping up your glass without you noticing. I‘ve used this analogy before.

Or stewards, ushering you to the right place. That one’s from Tori Street. We discussed job role analogies on Twitter a few of months ago, trying to challenge the misconception that everybody can write.

Waiter in dinner jacket deftly carrying large silver tray of drinks. Photo by  Kate Townsend  on  Unsplash

Waiter in dinner jacket deftly carrying large silver tray of drinks. Photo by Kate Townsend on Unsplash

Content designers are like detectives

Great online content comes when the content creator’s the detective, not the user.

Content designers make great detectives. They:

  • find the words your users are looking for

  • dig deep into analytics

  • observe usability interviews or interrogate transcripts from them

  • always rely on evidence, for everything from user needs to content style

Again, good detectives are light of foot and generally do not go out of their way to be spotted. They just quietly get on with it.

Similarly, content designers can go unnoticed in an organisation. There was even talk of a Content Hat Day, where content designers would wear a hat in the office to increase their visibility!

Without them, The Case of the Impossible Digital Task will never be solved.

Content design: a professional skill set

I hope we’ve established that content design is a professional skill set now. If you’re not convinced, please read this again, more slowly.

The good news is you can train to become a content designer and a content strategist. And you can call in the content professionals to help your organisation! Content strategists and experienced content designers can work with your digital content team for 2 week content sprints, supporting them to create high quality content using Agile methods in short time spans. Even if your organisation has never worked like that before.

I recommend Content Design London services and courses, because Sarah Richards, whose company it is, founded the content design discipline.

You can even get content help if you’re a charity with very little funding. An Academy is starting this September, to produce excellent user-focused and business goal oriented content, 100% free, while enabling trainee content designers to build a portfolio.

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