This isn’t another “here’s why content design matters” article.
Even the best writer can’t improve an error message, or an empty state, or a call to action if the logic that determines when the message appears is broken. Likewise, the slickest visual design utterly fails if the words don’t make sense to the user
When I see job ads for content designers, I squirm when the ‘what you’ll be doing’ section isolates copy from the design and build of a user experience.
Gone are the days when a copywriter would write, a designer would design, and a developer would build. We’re more fluid than that now, folks.
The reality is far less rigid. Think of it as words and function. You need both to be well-positioned and user-focused. It’s all or nothing.
Writers can’t write around poorly thought-out designs, product ideas, or user journeys. Users are smart. And, they’re getting smarter; they notice when we’re giving them bad experiences.
Giving justice to our impact as content designers
If you’ve already read my other articles on this subject, you’ll know that ‘content design’ is a term coined by Sarah Richards who is the leader of this discipline in the UK. To simplify it, she sought a name that conveyed that we don’t just write words, we design experiences with them.
The discipline is relatively new. The name of the role changes depending on who’s hiring you. You might be a content designer at Netflix or a content strategist at Instagram or a UX writer at Google. The fundamental role should stay the same—function over form.
Just as an architect needs to understand the purpose of the building they are designing, a content designer needs to understand the purpose of the brand, website, application, or piece of communication that they create. Time spent understanding, researching, and testing a solution empowers us to create successful user experiences.
Apple has been employing UX designers since the 1990s. So, while the discipline isn’t as new as you might think, its importance is more crucial than ever.
Users have little patience for poorly laid out websites, applications, etc. They need tried and tested platforms that are more than just fancy designs with ill-informed user journeys.
Usability doesn’t need to get in the way of creativity and vice versa. If you can please the user with a good colour palette and well-thought-out fonts, you empower their experience further. A content designer’s role is to be immersed in the user experience, making sure the user has the knowledge and tools they need for a winning experience.
Content designers have foundational skills, like writing. We tend to have a large arsenal of UX-based skills. We’re not all amazing at all of the things, nor do we need to be. We’re good at:
Design thinking: we know how to turn user research and business goals into problem statements for the user/business to guide the work we’re doing.
Ideation workshops: we know how to think about problems beyond the surface of the product/website/application. We work to make sure our approach is impactful and can scale.
Words: we’re better at communicating ideas, processes, and project updates with words than designs or illustrations, but that’s why we work in multi-disciplinary teams, right?
But we’re specialists, too
As content designers, we can get a little hung up on how we’re the same as designers that we forget to talk about the ways we’re different. Some content designers get stuck when they’re asked “what are you uniquely contributing to the design process?”.
Designers, researchers, product managers, and people you meet in Sainsbury’s can be amazing at this stuff, too. The difference is, we need to be.
As specialists, we uniquely specialise in:
Information: we figure out the information users need to solve a problem and complete a task—what the user needs to know.
Research: coming up with research questions, writing mock-ups, scripting interactions, benchmarking other products, mapping user objectives, considering real-world interactions.
User journeys: what order the user needs to see information; creating relevant, meaningful, and useful content; information architecture.
Turning simple key messages into user journeys, wireframes, scripts, etc.
Investigating the existing product and iterating.
At this point, we haven’t even started writing.
When we start writing, we decide which words will convey the information most succinctly (both for the user and the product). Users only want to know what they need to know and why they need to know it.
Gone are the days of filling in blank spaces of pre-designed concepts. Remember, mobile displays might be the only way your user views your product, and they don’t have all day.
We bring contribute words by:
Writing, rewriting, benchmarking, researching, and editing.
Living and breathing the tone of voice, readability guidelines, and style guide.
Giving rationale, receiving user feedback, and identifying places where creative liberties can be taken.
Content designers help the rest of the business talk about the product on a micro and macro level. We write the materials that explain the product outside the business; help developers come up with naming conventions for the code that are consistent with the frontend experience; name products; create readability and content guides; empower accessibility through content; feedback on design system libraries; patiently explain why we can’t wordsmith that for you; give each other constant feedback; running crits; running retros; attend stand-ups… and so on.
Why do we need to be good at this stuff?
Why can’t we just be writers?
Words are no good when form and function aren’t in play. Building good user experiences requires people to be good at a lot of things and we all need to be really good at a few things.