Top 8 skills of a content designer

Empathy for the user

Empathy is being able to recognise, understand and vicariously experience another person’s point of view. This includes thoughts, feelings, and perspectives at the time they are happening. 

“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”

– Dr. Prabhjot Singh, physician and Associate Professor 

Content designers are user-centred. They always think of and advocate for the user. They put themselves in the shoes of their users and take the time to understand their perspectives and needs. 

In content design, the skill of empathy is needed to help content designers solve user pain points and issues. For example, the details and placement of a contact section on a page can be empathetic to a user’s circumstance when they are asking for help. The user may be in a natural disaster situation without Wi-Fi and need immediate support.

Therefore, including a phone number would be more helpful than an email. The natural disaster may be distressing, and the user may also need emotional support. Here is an example of a bushfire support contact section that empathises with its users. 

Example of empathy in design

This contact page uses a softer tone of voice that expresses empathy. Second person language is used to talk to the user, instead of at them. There is accommodation for other languages, with an understanding that Australians are diverse and multicultural. The user is given an option to connect with Lifeline if they’re distressed. 

When we empathise with a user’s circumstance, we can create more inclusive products and experiences.  

UX writing

User experience (UX) writing addresses: 

  • who the content is being written for 
  • what type of component is being written 
  • where in the process or sequence the content sits. 

Content designers write user-focused content. They apply this skill when writing microcopy and editing, rather than using persuasive, creative or stylistic writing.  

User-focused writing ensures that users can navigate their way successfully through digital products like apps and websites. The content is written in plain English and uses the language of the user. By writing in this way, a content designer helps the user to digest information faster. 

While a content designer wants to ensure a user can understand information, they also want to ensure a user can action information quickly. A content designer values both the literacy levels of a user and their time.  

The art of UX writing: 

  • simplifies content
  • minimises doubt
  • guides users naturally
  • tells a cohesive story
  • informs and educates
  • communicates clearly
  • provides clarity
  • aligns to the brand
  • resonates with users.

What UX writing looks like

A content designer could be writing content for call-to-action buttons to help users subscribe to a blog or make a purchase. They could be creating specific page titles with key user search terms so that users can find the page they are looking for. They could even be writing 404 page messages, like the one below. 

This 404 message is an example of UX writing that tells users:  

  • what type of page they have landed on, in terminology users can understand 
  • that there is an alternative, related page they could visit 
  • the information needed, while remaining on brand. 

Understanding the fundamentals of UX writing can provide a solid base for the writing work a content designer will undertake in their role.  

Upskill into content design

Find out how to upskill your writing skills to become a content designer, or how to upskill your team into a content design team.

User research

Without research, content designers can’t create user-centric content. The content would merely run on assumptions, not data. Content designers need to conduct research to align information to user needs and business goals. This is what makes content delightful to the user and valuable to the business.  

A content designer can conduct all forms of research to collect qualitative and quantitative data. This could be anything from desktop research to 1:1 interviews. To conduct effective research, a content designer needs to know how to use the right tools to not only collect data but to evaluate it.  

Robust planning sets up successful research. Content designers must be comfortable with: 

  • designing and planning research 
  • running research and testing 
  • analysing the data that comes out of the research.  

Research is a helpful first step towards user-centric content. Next, content designers must synthesise the data to be able to extract the insights. 

Data analysis could include:

  • pivot tables in Excel spreadsheets 
  • pulling out insights on butchers paper and sticky notes 
  • using a digital whiteboard platform like Miro.  
Example of conducting user research. Post it notes with feedback on a simple design
Example of conducting user research. Post it notes with feedback on branding of Content Design Hub.

From the data emerges actionable insights. These insights can be communicated in a report or presentation and are what content designers apply to improve the content and overall user experience. 

Content management and strategy 

Content designers need to understand how content aligns with the business strategy. To ensure content aligns with the business goals, a content strategy needs to be created. A content strategy helps anyone who’s part of the content process to design content that’s relevant and meaningful to the appropriate audiences, cohesive and on brand.  

A content strategy includes: 

  • tools 
  • processes 
  • people (roles and responsibilities) 
  • style guides 
  • content models, such as governance and maintenance 
  • channel strategy. 

Most content designers have experience working in content management, content strategy or content creation. They make strategic content decisions that enable teams to create content efficiently, prioritise tasks and write using a cohesive voice and style.  

“Quality, relevant content can’t be spotted by an algorithm. You can’t subscribe to it. You need people – actual human beings – to create or curate it.”

– Kristina Halvorson, Content Strategy for the Web

Information architecture 

How will the user find the information on the website 

What content goes where?  

Is it in a logical order to the user and does the user understand this category?  

These questions all relate to the discipline of information architecture (IA). IA focuses on organising, structuring and labelling content so that it is findable, usable, logical and intuitive.  

Research activities content designers undertake that help define an IA are: 

  • card sorting 
  • Treejack testing. 

Content designers use card sorting to help evaluate and design the IA of a website. They ensure the IA is aligned to user knowledge and expectations. It’s the ‘blank slate’ conception approach, when there aren’t many defined parameters, or there’s the flexibility to revamp the IA.  

During card sorting, participants organise topics into categories that make the most sense to them and can also help to label these groups. Card sorting gives content designers insights into the user’s perspective, language and logic. 

Treejack testing is a usability technique that helps content designers understand if users can find topics. Participants are given a range of scenarios and questions that evaluate where users go to find the information. This helps content designers understand if the website information has logically ordered, grouped and named information.  

Example of a treejack test

In order to optimise an IA, a content designer needs to know how their website is performing. They can do this through generating a sitemap and reviewing Google Analytics.  

Because a content designer understands how to effectively use words, designing an IA comes naturally. Understanding key aspects of IA also helps them collaborate across and communicate with design, product and technology teams. 

Digital accessibility and inclusion

In Australia, 81.7% of adults read at the expected level of a year 12 high schooler or lower.  

Content designers ensure users can read, access, and comprehend content no matter their literacy level. Writing in plain English allows content designers to write content that’s inclusive and accessible to all users.  

Content designers also need to keep up with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) requirements. They have a willingness to understand inclusion and accessibility needs of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) audiences.  

40% of WCAG guidelines refer to content.

– Candi Williams, Head of Content Design, Bumble

To ensure content is accessible, content designers stay relevant with best practices in: 

  • digital literacy 
  • digital accessibility 
  • usability 
  • readability 
  • digital inclusion.  

Because the digital landscape is always changing, it helps to have an appetite for lifelong learning. As new technology is created and evolves, the way a user behaves online adapts and evolves as well. Products continue to evolve for accessibility, voice and emerging user needs. Content designers continuously ask what the audience really needs (not what the business wants).

Stakeholder management 

A content designer works with many disciplines and subject matter experts to create content that meets user expectations. Collaboration is key to quality, user-driven content. 

Building trust with stakeholders is crucial – content designers need to understand their needs and make sure they’re along for the journey. Content designers keep checking in with their stakeholders. This is because they need: 

  • buy-in from key stakeholders to make progress 
  • the expertise from other teams to create content that is the best outcome for the user.  

Content designers work closely with subject matter experts in order to distil technical knowledge, legalese or industry jargon into plain English. This is so users can understand the content more clearly and easily. 

“A true architect is not an artist but an optimistic realist. They take a diverse number of stakeholders, extract needs, concerns, and dreams, then create a beautiful yet tangible solution that is loved by the users and the community at large. We create vessels in which life happens.”

– Cameron Sinclair, Architecture for Humanity

Understanding how stakeholders like to work, collaborate, and communicate is also important – they are usually consumers of the content too. Communicating responsibility and accountability are essential for achieving agreed milestones.  

Managing and collaborating with stakeholders successfully includes: 

  • inviting them to user research 
  • facilitating recurring collaboration meetings throughout the project 
  • involving them in content reviews 
  • leading business goals and user needs mapping exercises. 

Respect is earned, especially when a content design team is new to an organisation. A content designer’s role can fluctuate between stakeholder management and change management at times. Educating and informing is how to keep everyone working towards the same, improved user outcomes.  

Agile and Lean skills 

A content designer works with many teams. Therefore, it’s important that they can: 

  • work in Agile and Lean methodologies 
  • pivot quickly and flexibly when required 
  • think fast to develop the best possible user solution – especially when there are limitations on time, resources, or functionality.  

Agile methodology is a project management process that chunks the project into deliverable phases. It focuses on continuous collaboration and improvement. In order to improve, teams plan, execute and evaluate the work. Content designers work with multidisciplinary teams in Agile so that they can inform the design process in all phases of the project.  

The double-diamond framework is an Agile framework content designers can use to find the best solution for their users by approaching a user pain point with data and research. They can bring these user insights to various teams at different points of product development to ensure an optimal user experience.  

Startups, small teams or limited budgets can see content designers working in a Lean framework. This methodology aims to create efficiencies by bringing products and services to market quickly to test in real-time with customer feedback. The process also helps to iterate and improve faster. 

There are often challenges, blockers and pivots that arise quickly when working in Agile or Lean methodologies.  

Creativity abounds when met by limitations.  

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” 

– Albert Einstein, former refugee

In content design, hard skills are just as important as soft skills. A content designer needs a varied skillset in order to succeed in their role.  It’s also what makes the profession as interesting and colourful as the projects undertaken and the audiences to which they are delivered. 

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