When and why did you start Content Design London?
I went freelance after leaving the Government Digital Service in 2014. I had another company but changed the name to Content Design London in May 2017.
It was time to take responsibility for the term I had coined. I was publishing a book of the same name so might as well go the whole hog.
I started it because I am now at an age where I just can’t deal with bad jobs. I want to do work I enjoy (who doesn’t?!). I love the discipline, I love the industry and I wanted to get people together and just do fun stuff.
What do you wish you’d known back then that you know now?
‘Winging it’ is another term for learning. Everyone is winging it to a degree. Learning is ok as an adult. Even learning to run a business. If you haven’t done something before, you need to learn how to do it.
I felt like an imposter a lot because I had no experience running a business and wondered how everyone else just seemed to ‘know’. I always had my head in a book or I was learning from someone. Then I realised most other people do that too, you just don’t see it.
How would you describe your team?
Generous, kind, caring, supportive, creative, brilliant… they are just the best team on the planet. They all care about content and care about what we are trying to do. We’re not here to make the most cash by tromping on people and taking advantage.
We’re here because we care about usability, accessibility, good content creation and the content community.
What does your average day look like?
Mostly, it’s trying not to run after every shiny new idea that comes into my head. It’s hard. But I am a single mum and I also have to be structured.
After taking the kids to school, I come back and go through Slack for team messages and anything that has come up overnight. We are all remote, flexible workers so I need to keep up.
After Slack, it’s going through all the admin with Claire. What needs doing, who needs responding to etc. Then it’s my time to get my head down: I might be writing presentations, talking to clients, mentoring, running workshops and training or writing.
I try to get to social media each day (but Ruth generally takes care of it). We work around the world so there’s a lot of travelling involved. At that time I read research and try to get to as many new ideas as I can while on the move. It keeps me sane (and awake).
What kind of clients do you work with – and how do you help them?
We run courses and consultancy for organisations on content strategy and content design. We either come to your office and teach a bespoke course so you get to your content goals or we’ll do short-term work with you.
We run sprints (more detail on this ‘content sprints’ blog post), so you define a section of a site, task or new service and we’ll do journey, language and channel mapping, user needs, crits and produce content with you.
We’ll help anyone with a conscience. We won’t work with arms dealers or the tobacco industry etc. Our techniques cover all industries. We work with academics, travel companies, lawyers, governments, tech companies, startups – anyone who is trying for good reasons.
We also recruit and build teams, and offer coaching and mentoring. One of the best parts of my work is mentoring new content designers or content design leads. Running a new team, in a new discipline in an old organisation can be tricky. Helping there is very rewarding.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Balancing creativity with usability, accessibility and research.
Content design is problem-solving. We look at a task, then how to get that across to the audience in a way that makes the most sense to them. Sometimes we are trying to compete in very crowded markets and we just need to stand out.
Other times, we have the monopoly but people don’t want to interact with us or we have to change the way they think. With many services, the audience thinks it works one way, and it doesn’t.
Changing behaviour and re-educating when people don’t even know that their perception is wrong is a challenge. But a brilliant one.
What do you enjoy least?
Arrogance. People who think accessibility isn’t important or that using clear, structured language is ‘dumbing down’. Check your privilege, people.
Most people learn when they want to learn and when they want to complete a task, that’s all they want to do. They don’t want to wade through your language skills when they have better things to do.
There was a hilarious thread on LinkedIn about the language used in a sign that was meant to stop people taking a particular path. The language wasn’t clear English.
Some were saying the audience should ‘learn language’. At that point?! Ridiculous. No one wants to learn language as they are about to fall down a hole. That’s just not knowing, or caring, about your audience. I really don’t enjoy arrogance.
What project are you most proud of?
Think it is the readability guidelines. It’s a global crowdsourcing project looking at the usability and accessibility of style decisions. I started it because I saw people creating style guide after style guide. Then arguing with colleagues about the things in the style guide.
Most of the terms and considerations in a style guide are (or should be) steeped in usability. Why all-caps a bad idea. The reason jargon will exclude people etc. These are not really style decisions (I am not talking tone here, that’s a different thing).
There’s a stack of evidence out there about these tiny decisions, so with our amazing volunteer contributors, we have listed top-line summaries and all the evidence we could find.
Next step will be to publish a style guide that is entirely based on evidence. That way, content people can concentrate on more important things: tone, engagement, creativity, strategy, the usefulness of content. Not whether to cap every other word.
I’ve heard time and time again that content people are bored of arguing with colleagues about stupid little style nuances.
This project was to see if we are all seeing similar challenges (we are), what evidence would work with our colleagues and if it would work. We have just finished beta and there is still so much to do.
What advice would you give people moving from working alone to starting an agency?
Value yourself and your team. People panic and take any low-rate work. I think you just set yourself on a path that can be hard to get off. People will come to expect cheap from you.
Be realistic. People are paying for all the expertise you bring with you, not the hour you spend on something. It’s the 10 years before that hour that counts.
Oh, and have short, plain English contracts drawn up. They are worth the time and money.
Do you hire freelancers? If you do, describe your ideal freelance content designer
We do! And we don’t have enough people right now. We need people who can run user journeys, channel mapping, language mapping, write user/job stories, create or commission the content and be able to crit well.
We need people who can share their skills with organisations who don’t work in a user-centred way, while working to a deadline. (Please, please get in touch if you can do this kind of work.)
Why do you find ProCopywriters membership useful?
As a business owner, I am now steeped in meetings and human behaviour. ProCopywriters links me to the creative side of our work. I love the craft, creativity and generosity of knowledge sharing the community has. I’m also finding people to work on our projects so I am very happy!