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Want to improve the discovery and alpha process? Get a content designer

By Louis Pattison - 01st July 2021

Content isn’t just something you inject into design at a late stage. Here’s how Zaizi’s been working to embed content design in projects from the discovery and alpha phase - and why loren ipsum is the enemy of good design. 

If you’ve worked in any kind of a design environment, you’ll be familiar with loren ipsum. A screed of nonsense words reputedly based on a 1st century BC Latin text by the Roman philosopher Cicero, it’s been used since the 1960s as a way of filling space in a design. 

Think of it this way: your team is creating something visual, you know you need some words somewhere, so you drop in a box, flow in 400 words of loren ipsum, and everyone agrees to think about it later. Job done. 

Loren ipsum made a certain sense way back in the days of manual typesetting, when design was complicated, arduous, and often by necessity, solo work. But in a digital age – when there are 101 tools out there to help teams collaborate in real time - it’s a retro approach that undervalues the importance of words. If your approach to content is that words are just there to fill a space, that’s exactly what your words will end up doing. 

At Zaizi, we know that words - what they say, and how they say it - are integral to the creation of good services. That’s why we have content designers in our multidisciplinary delivery team, working alongside researchers, UX designers, developers and delivery managers to ensure that what we make communicates clearly, consistently and inclusively. As the influential UX consultant Jared Spool put it: “Our users don’t separate our design from our content - they think of it the same - so why don’t we?”
 

What is content design? 

The ‘content designer’ role is in fact relatively new. It was devised by Sarah Winters (then Richards)  when she led a content team to redesign GOV.UK back around 2010. 

In some ways, the role of a content designer is similar to familiar categories like copywriter, or technical writer. Content designers are primarily concerned with words, and they’re often writing for or about a product, with a target audience in mind. But in other ways a content designer is closer to a discipline like UX design, an iterative process in which a design is shaped by user testing and feedback.

Content design is about: 

  • designing content with useability and user experience in mind
  • using user research findings and useability testing as part of the design process
  • being transparent and taking stakeholders on the journey
  • writing in a way that is consistent, accessible, inclusive and free of jargon
  • making content compliant and aligned to regulatory requirements
  • tracking design debt - a way to track cut corners, untested assumptions, or factors in a design that may not stand the test of time
     

Content design isn’t about:

  • filling up a box with some words - any words
  • the hard sell - persuading your audience to buy something, whether they want it or not
     

Content more than just the words - it can take in forms, diagrams, illustrations, graphs or a million other things. Whatever it takes to meet the needs of your audience.
 

How content design can help your project

Here are 5 ways that content design can enhance a project at the discovery and alpha phase. 
 

1. Content designers are user researchers

Many of the same skills that make a good content designer are the same that make a good user researcher. That is: 

  • the ability to listen to and empathise with interview subjects
  • the ability to write a strong discussion guide
  • a knack for asking questions
  • an interest in drilling down into and understanding complex ideas

Before they even start writing anything like a finished sentence, a content designer will immerse themselves in the research and use early findings to start discussing and thinking around the problem. This is a great time to start trying out techniques such as affinity mapping, which I wrote about in an earlier blog. 

2. Content design helps you speak the language of your audience

User research doesn’t just give you a sense of how your users think - it gives you a sense of how they speak, too. 

While writing with clarity and accessibility in mind is always important, the content design process also helps you get a sense for the sort of language your users will use - the terminology they understand, the tone of voice they will appreciate, and (importantly) what they will type into a search engine.

3. Content design can help you make mistakes early — then move on

An alpha phase is the part of the Government Digital Service process in which you build prototypes of your service and test them with your users. This can be as simple or complex as it needs to be – and there’s no quicker way to capture and test an idea than by writing it down and showing it to people for feedback. 

As Giles Turnbull, a former member of the Government Digital Service’s creative team puts it, “first drafts are a playground for ideas”. Write, rewrite, refine, trash if necessary - it can be a long road but this mixture of playfulness and ruthlessness is the key to finding a solution that sticks with users. 

4. Content design can help you identify and navigate client requirements

Sometimes, clients know exactly what they want. Other times, they’re not sure what they want but they know it when they see it. You might even find there are serious disagreements between stakeholders that need to be ironed out. 

A great way to navigate these sorts of complex requirements is through a content crit. It’s pretty simple. Invite stakeholders to a space, real life or virtual. Put some content in front of them, explain what you’re trying to do with it, and ask for feedback. Then guide the discussion, and take careful notes. With content as a point of focus, you can quickly solve knotty problems and get everyone on the same page in the process. 

5. Content designers are collaborative

The days of heavily siloed teams are over – the future is in collaborative design. Pair writing is an extremely effective and efficient technique of harnessing the knowledge of a subject matter expert, while ensuring the language used is clear, accessible and inclusive. 

Meanwhile, modern design tools such as Figma allow several people to work in a single design simultaneously. This kind of workspace is where a content designer can really shine, working alongside a UX designer to build designs in real-time and at pace. 
 

About the author: Louis Pattison
Louis Pattison is a content designer at Zaizi. A former journalist, editor and copywriter, he got the user-centred design bug in 2019 and decided to take the leap full-time. He has worked on many commercial and government projects and is particularly interested in the point where user research and content meet.