My biggest ‘aha’ moments from Content Design by Sarah Richards

Rachael Mullins
4 min readOct 9, 2018


Content design. It’s started making a splash in the digital content world, but what actually is it? Well, the Government Digital Service (GDS) describes it like this:

Good content design allows people to do or find out what they need to […] simply and quickly using the most appropriate content format available.

And they’d know. The GDS is where Sarah Richards, queen of content design, created and developed the discipline. And recently she published a book on the subject.

Yes, I’m mildly obsessed with sticky tabs, what of it

The book’s worth a look for anyone dealing with digital content — it’s packed with tips from Sarah’s extensive experience in how to do this thing called content design well.

Here are the biggest ‘aha’ moments I had while reading it.

We don’t need more content. We need smarter content.

A casual scroll through Twitter quickly alerts you to how much utterly crap content is out there. Often, it’s a case of quantity over quality — gotta stick to that aggressive publishing schedule, right? 🙄

Sarah advocates for a more thoughtful approach to creating content. By thinking smarter, you can ensure your content will stand out from the crowd. How? By making sure your content is what the intended audience wants or needs at the time they see it; by building trust with your audience; and by making your content easy to understand and interact with.

One thing Sarah found in her time at the GDS was that people will knowingly pay more for something if the interaction is easier than the (cheaper) alternatives. You might have the best product or service around, but if your content doesn’t convey the info people need in an easy, intuitive way, they’ll go elsewhere.

Plain language isn’t dumbing down. It’s opening up.

Most people share a common vocabulary of around 15,000 terms. Because people are used to recognising these terms regularly, their eyes are able to easily skip the terms when they encounter them, saving time in the process.

By sticking to ‘plain English’ words when you write, you’re allowing your readers to more quickly consume your content. So by engaging in what many people call ‘dumbing down’, you’re actually empowering your readers to get what they need as fast as possible. You can’t argue with that.

Don’t forget the discovery phase

The discovery (or research) phase of a content project is when you ask questions and get the answers you need to move forward. In addition to helping you understand the problem, there are plenty of other ways your discovery phase can set you up for success.

  • Bring the people with the power along on the journey. Sarah finds that the best way of getting people to sign off on content with minimum fuss is to get them involved during discovery, so they understand what you’re doing and why.
  • Learn from salespeople, support staff, and other experts outside your team. You’ve probably already observed people’s online behaviour, but a cross-section of experts can give you insight into offline behaviour you haven’t seen, and share both anecdotes and hard evidence on the things they’re asked over and over.
  • Get aligned. Everyone can see the same data, so everyone ends up with the same understanding of the problem. You know your discovery is over when all the participants agree on your next steps.

Use discovery to bring people with you — Sarah Richards

Pair writing helps you get the best out of both brains

Sometimes I struggle to write about super-technical topics. In the past, when creating content about, say, an API, I’ve had the most success when working directly with a developer. They bring the subject matter know-how, and I bring the clear communication skills. The outcome is better than either of us could have managed on our own.

That’s called pair writing. It’s when you write content alongside someone else — both of you, at the same time, in front of the same computer or piece of paper.

Sarah suggests that pair writing can help you work faster, get content signed off more easily, and allow your organisation to work more collaboratively. That in turn can result in more trust and better working relationships.

I’ve gotta agree, and I look forward to doing more of it in the future.

Enforce the rules for constructive crits

A ‘crit’ is a content critique. It’s where a group of people get together to comment on a piece of content that’s been drafted by one or more of the people in the group. And sometimes crits can get ugly. It’s not easy sitting there and listening while other people rip your hard work apart.

That’s why Sarah strictly enforces a set of rules at her crits, ensuring a safe environment to get feedback on your work. They are:

  • Be respectful
  • Only discuss the content, not the person who created it
  • Only give constructive criticism
  • No one has to defend a decision

Despite the challenges of hosting constructive crits, Sarah suggests giving them a chance—they’re a highly efficient way of getting feedback from different people at the same time.

There’s heaps more good stuff in Content Design, including a handy checklist for content designers to follow when creating content. You can buy a copy at, and you can follow Sarah on Twitter at @escmum.

In Melbourne? You’re in luck. Sarah Richards will be joining us at the next Content Melbourne meetup on 22 October 2018 to talk all things content design. This is a rare opportunity to hear from her in person, so don’t miss it! You can pick up a copy of Content Design on the night too.