What is content design?


Content design is the intentional use of words to help people complete a task or solve a problem. Content designers don’t just write words; they design them. A content designer will carefully consider the words they choose to align content to a user’s experience, expectation and understanding.

Content design combines the elements of content and design. Words, user interface (UI) components, images and other visuals are all considered as outputs of the content design process.

“Content design focuses on what content best serves the users’ needs, whether it be the written word, infographics, visuals, videos, or charts. At the core of content design are the needs of the users — and this means determining what your users want.”

– Sarah Winters, Content Design London.

Content design is part of the wider design practice. It’s a design discipline that sits within a group of other specialisations like:

  • product design
  • service design
  • user research
  • UI and UX design
  • communications design
  • conversational design
  • learning design.

A brief history of content design

In 2014, Sarah Winters, Founder of Content Design London, coined the term ‘content design’.

In 2010, Sarah led the website migration project for the UK Government. Over 500 websites needed to be removed. To achieve this, Sarah and her team had to use data and evidence to define and prioritise user needs. Without it, decisions on what content was migrated and what content got the boot were too difficult to make. By anchoring the writing approach to research and testing, the role of a digital writer has evolved.

“This iterative way of working was more like a design process than the content process government was used to. The way the content was set out, the way content and design worked together on callouts and action elements etc, we were changing the whole way we worked, from top to bottom.”

– Sarah Winters, Founder of Content Design London.

What content design looks like

The best way to show what content design looks like is to remove it.

Here’s a digital screen without content:

A digital screen with only user interface components to show what a digital product looks like with no content.

Without content, there’s no flow, no meaning, no use. It’s like an empty room before you add furniture: 4 walls and a floor create the foundation for a room, but that room is somewhat meaningless without its contents.

Like an empty room, this digital screen is just a framework: a stack of UI components. Without the text, there’s nothing for the user to be guided by. The text fills the empty space with meaning. Text gives more than just context and flow; it can breathe life into digital products.

Here’s the same digital screen but with content:

A digital login screen showing both user interface components and text to demonstrate what content design looks like.

Now we can interact with this screen and make an informed choice on what to do next. We can even tell that the white boxes are form fields and the purple rectangles are buttons.

There is meaning to this screen; it’s part of a login pattern.

The login screen is one of the most used screens within a digital product. If you’ve ever signed up for a digital service like Zip, Uber or Amazon, you’ve interacted with a login pattern. Even though login patterns are pretty standard, it’s impossible to know what to do without the text component.

What content designers do

The role of ‘content designer’ is a shift in thinking and working. The ‘design’ element of content design is paramount. It showcases the difference between someone who writes to a business objective and someone who thinks about and writes to a user need. At the end of the day, it’s all about the user.

Content designers work from data, not assumptions. A content designer conducts user research to empathise with the user’s world. User research informs the choice of each word and its placement within a digital product.

User research can include:

  • desktop research
  • interviews
  • surveys
  • data analytics.

The content design process

In the ideal workflow, both content and product designers work through the double-diamond framework. Together, they would collaborate on solving a user problem.

Here are some activities a content designer can conduct in each stage of the double-diamond framework.

The first half of the double-diamond framework (empathise, define and ideate), showing content design activities under each phase.

The second half of the double-diamond framework (prototype, test and implement), showing content design activities under each phase.

Designing content and UI

What comes first, the content or UI? The answer is neither; they come together.

Text cannot be created in isolation. To choose the right words, you need to know:

  • who you’re writing for
  • the type of UI component you’re writing in (error message, button, information page, etc.)
  • where in the user flow the content will sit.

“Words are no good when form and function don’t consider them.”

– Becky Houlding, UX Writer at Spotify.

Content design goes beyond words and language. The content designer advocates for the user, creating a full content experience through words, images, structure and design.

Think of how you order food through an app – every part of that experience is designed to make ordering food easy. The content (text and images) and the UI components must work cohesively to create a usable and desirable product.

The core skills of a content designer

Content designers come from different backgrounds, such as journalism, content marketing, content strategy, content production, copywriting, and social media. No matter what type of writing role a content designer has come from, they all have the same passion for knowing and writing for their audience, the user.

In content design, hard skills are just as important as soft skills. Someone who comes from a traditional writing background (like copywriting) can build upon their skills by taking short courses in areas like UX writing, research and design thinking.

Hard skills:

  • UX writing
  • editing
  • digital literacy and inclusion
  • user research and testing
  • stakeholder management
  • content management
  • content strategy
  • Agile methodology
  • search engine optimisation (SEO)
  • web accessibility
  • data analysis
  • information architecture.

Soft skills:

  • communication
  • empathy
  • critical thinking
  • creativity
  • strategy
  • collaboration
  • storytelling
  • imagination and vision.

The difference between content and product design

These 2 design disciplines apply similar methods to understand a user problem. However, when it comes to solving a user problem, they differ.

The output of a product designer is the UI, and the output of a content designer is the content.

A product designer might ask, ‘How does a user interact with this screen?’

A content designer might ask, ‘Does the user understand all the information on this screen?’

Like a product designer, a content designer collaborates with all members of a multidisciplinary team. A content designer also works closely with subject matter experts (SMEs). They will liaise with the SME to gain in-depth knowledge of the subject so they can distil technical information into plain English. If there’s a clearer option for a word, the content designer will use it.

Post it notes with the words 'implement', 'apply', 'employ', 'execute', 'administer' and 'use'. The word 'use' is circled to show a content designer selecting the simplest word.

The importance of words

In Australia, 44% of adults read at an average literacy level of a 12-to 14-year-old. A person’s ability to read can be a barrier to entry for a lot of digital products and services. This is why words matter, and it’s important to write in plain English to allow everyone to access and use your products.

“An education doesn’t guarantee a reading level that matches the qualification. For example, about 30% of Australians have a diploma or higher, but only 1.2% of Australians can read at that level.”

– Australian Style Manual.

Words are powerful tools. They can connect, isolate, inspire and discourage people. In digital products, they can also guide or confuse the user.

One word can make all the difference and can stand between a user engaging and disengaging with your product.

For example, the question ‘How do you identify?’ could have many responses. For years, we’ve mostly given users 2 options: ‘male’ or ‘female’. Now, we recognise that people are diverse, and how they identify is important to them.

A form titled 'How do you identify?' with multiple choice options of 'male', 'female', and 'other'. Demonstrates a non-inclusive way of asking someone to identify themselves.
A form titled 'To which gender identity do you most identify?' with multiple choice options of 'female', 'male', 'non-binary', 'transgender', 'intersex', 'not-listed', and 'prefer not to answer'. Demonstrates an inclusive way of asking someone to identify themselves.

By lumping all gender orientations (except ‘male’ and ‘female’) into the ‘other’ category, we disallow users from properly identifying themselves. The word ‘other’ implies being or feeling different. It identifies a binary opposite and separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’

“The concept of ‘The Other’ highlights how many societies create a sense of belonging, identity and social status by constructing social categories as binary opposites. These social categories shape our ideas about who we think we are, how we want to be seen by others, and the groups to which we belong.”

– Zuleyka Zevallos, applied sociologist.

‘Other’ is only one word, but it has significant meaning and impact. Content designers research the meaning behind words (the study of morphology) so that the words used in products are appropriate for all users.

Content designers value the importance of words. They take the time to find the ones that resonate with their audience.

If you want your audience to easily understand, use and access your products, then having a content designer in your team is just as essential as a product designer or engineer.

Become a content designer

If you’d like to learn more about how to flex your writing skills and become a content designer, or if you’d like to scale a content design team, reach out to us.

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