Why great content needs to be at the beating heart of the design process
Zone content director Laura Goss explains how great content can elevate and simplify the most complex of online services…
Every think piece should have a punchy opening. Here’s mine. In the past 18 months, the team at Zone have worked across multiple government programmes delivering nationally significant services. That’s right, kids — nationally significant. It’s been my privilege (and sometimes curse) to have spent time in the hot and sticky heart of it, helping to chip away at the marble of ambiguity to reveal the thing of beauty (or rather, function) underneath.
So what’s my skin in the game? I’m a content person. Content done right is the shortest route you can take to ensuring someone understands what they need to do to fulfil any outcome. It’s the human voice of what can be a series of bewildering, isolating online systems. It should be at the core of anything intended for a user — which I’m here to tell you is everything. I’m invested in ensuring that content is at the beating heart of the design process. Arguably, nowhere is this more important than when we’re creating services, or suites of services, that exist to give citizens access to the arms of government that serve their essential needs — across health, education, business and so on.
If you’ve encountered any government service, something you probably won’t have noticed is that they are entirely content driven. The reason you won’t have noticed is that if the content designers have done their work properly, you can’t tell. It’ll feel quick and seamless. There’s no secret to this. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has a well-established design system with comprehensive guidance about how to apply it. It also has some of the best people in the business to ask about the nuance/edge cases.
Luckily we have our own experts to call on, too. I recently had the pleasure of listening to our lead content designer, Turi Henderson-Palmer, talking about the benefits of having content embedded in a design system. She cited her experience of working on a time-pressured EU Exit service that required new content to be translated into eight languages. First, she figured out the content components that were set, and those which were likely to flex. She was able to devise a process that ensured efficient translation of the first group, ensuring there would be no duplication as content for the second was shored up. Some complexity is inevitable when content exists in multiple languages, but establishing a robust process meant life was made much easier for our esteemed development partners.
Content design as a practice exists to ensure that products and service stay focused on the human — their job is to ensure that content is the substance of how the service is delivered. Each content designer I’ve worked with has taught me a lot. They’re detailed, thoughtful and highly empathic — often as experienced in UX or UR as in content design. The origin story of content design in the UK can be found nestled in public service design practice. I’m not here to retell it, but if it’s something that piques your interest, please read Sarah Winters’ history of content design in the UK government https://contentdesign.london/digital-transformation/history-of-content-design-in-the-uk-government/.
But guess what? There is so much more a content person can add to a complex programme of delivery. Here’s my ten cents.
It’s widely understood and acknowledged in public sector design that content design is intrinsic to successful implementation. I’m more interested in the zoomed-out view. How do we join up what the user encounters using the service with the journey they made to get there? What information are users finding before they reach the service? How are they finding it? What language are they using? What’s the context or national conversation that surrounds some of this behaviour? How should this be influencing (or not) our approach?
The first effort goes into figuring out the lie of the land and building a picture of the content landscape. What exists already? Who’s responsible for it? What’s the mechanism in place to manage change? What artefacts are already in place? Who’s looking after those? Typically you’ll be looking at an ecosystem made up of multiple channels, with potentially different teams and levels of governance. From a content perspective, the first task is to quickly understand who across the government landscape has a responsibility for creating or publishing content related to your product/service/programme — and to bring them together.
Once you have a regular cadence for sharing knowledge and artefacts you instantly have an effective unit for driving change and influence. Documenting is key — mapping out the content landscape and bringing together all the relevant resources that exist to support it. It’s crucial to look outwards too. On a recent Covid-19 response service we worked on, we spent time understanding how the service was being talked about by outlets that may have been outside of our control — publishers, broadcasters, social media commenters — but which were highly influential to our users. Operating in an environment where there is already confusion, fear and misinformation adds an even greater responsibility to ensure that content is clear, quick to find and easy to understand.
Stepping away from public sector, what can we pull out and apply to private business operations? Firstly, a much more holistic and service oriented approach to how your content output and model. Sketching out the as-is content ecosystem, and mapping each touchpoint: sometimes visualising for the first time just how fragmented and unordered an operation is. Bringing it back to basics, looking at the collected estate and figuring out which content is serving your customers and your business goals and which…isn’t.
There’s an organisational as well as an executional layer to how you need to think about your content. The latter cannot exist sustainable without the former. In government, you’ll find subject matter experts across all areas who work hand in glove with content designers to ensure accuracy and usability needs are met concurrently. Content governance is typically clearly pre-defined and ordered. Few organisations will require the breadth and depth as GOV.UK of course, but the principle remains true regardless of the scale of your operation: without the foundational structure, support and leadership in place organisationally, content output is likely to be tactical and short-lived, rather than strategic — working hard to fulfil its purpose.
All too often, think pieces end with a bit of a whimper. So tricky to nail an insightful final thought. So let’s finish with one last thing that content can offer on complex projects. We’re storytellers. We’re great writers. We can translate the dry and complex into something that’s quick and enjoyable to read. On a highly complex, ever-changing programme of work with multiple workstreams/priorities, we can summarise and broadcast information for teams that’s reliable, concise and easy to read. We can even write long, thoughtful pieces that ramble slightly but with a few gems in for good measure.