Content design is an essential element of any product or service. Here, Senior Content Designer Iso Roberts shares her advice in applying content design principles to your project. 

What’s one thing you’re guaranteed to find in any digital service or product? You’re reading them right now – words.  

Words form language, and they’re the backbone of how we communicate. You can’t create much online without them. 

They’re also the bulk of what we call content, and this content can make or break a user’s experience. Badly written content leaves people confused and uncertain. Clear, concise content lets them claim disability allowance, pay a parking fine or book a doctor’s appointment with ease. It also helps them build trust in your brand. 

An illustration of a pencil with a target ripping around the tip accompanied by the quote "words are the bulk of what we call content. This content can make or break a user's experience"

Why content design matters

Almost every time I’ve seen a user struggle during the testing of a new product or service, it’s because the words didn’t make sense to them. Sure, there might be other design tweaks to make. But most of the confusion lies in what users are reading or listening to.   

That’s where content designers come in. We learn what users need and then create the simplest, shortest amount of content we can for them to achieve their goal. No fluff or distractions – just what they need to get the job done. This is particularly important when one in six adults in England – 7.1 million people – have very low literacy skills.  

But what if you don’t have a content designer? You’ll be pleased to know that all is far from lost! Because although we’ll always need content design specialists, anyone can apply the principles to make their service or product more successful. 

You’re a designer or researcher who is new to content 

A project team might only have researchers and service or interaction designers – but someone still needs to write the content. 

The good news is you should already understand your users’ needs, and so have some insight into what content they need. It’s then about making your content easy to understand and accessible. 

Consider these steps as a starting point: 

You don’t need a big budget for any of those, and often it’s about finding the right subject matter experts to work with. In our projects with the Home Office I’ve worked with lawyers to break down their legal jargonit’s amazing what simpler language comes out when you just ask them to explain it to you in person. 

You write content and are new to user-centred design 

What sets content design apart from other types of writing or editorial is you never start from a blank page. Instead, you begin with your users.  

Content designers use research and evidence to find out who their users are, what their context is and what they need. From this, they then work out what content to create and what format it should be.  

For example, a long page of eligibility criteria for a benefit might provide the relevant information but also leave people feeling overwhelmed and unsure. Instead, we could ask them a series of questions about themselves so we can then tell them if they’re eligible or not. This means they don’t have to do the hard work deciphering the criteria and potentially get it wrong.  

Use these tips as a starting point: 

  • See what research you can find. Look at your analytics to understand where users are having problems, or get in touch with other organisations who’ve tackled something similar. 
  • Fail fast, learn quick. It’s better to test your content early and uncover any issues rather than wait until to test something polished – only to find out it doesn’t work. A highlighter test is one simple way to do this. 

An example of the NHS's 'Do and Don't lists' categorised into a list of 'Do's' and 'Don'ts' when treating a blister.
Image: A content design example from the NHS design system

Still curious about content design? 

We’ve just scratched the surface here, there are many more tips and tricks for improving your content.

If you want to learn more from Snook’s content design team, come and join our half-day training course ‘A practical introduction to content design’ on September 28th. The course covers ways to improve your services by creating inclusive and accessible content that meets your users’ needs. Follow the link above to find out more and book your space.