Content design — fact or fiction?

Content design.

One of those buzz-phrases that infiltrate the digital industry every so often.

But what is this mystical skill that has arisen, surely content is just a question of writing some words isn’t it? Maybe.

Or perhaps, having seen the focus that gets put on design, content experts have decided they need that word in their job title to be taken more seriously and instigate a content-first process. I could sympathise with that — as sadly content is still an after-thought in many organisations.

Whatever your view, let’s take a logical step back for a moment.

The process of design is about creating something which combines function with form. It’s about the aesthetics, sure, but it’s also about structure, flow and purpose.

Every piece of content is an interaction with a user, and how we create that connection will be different for each piece of work.

Designing with purpose

What we want to say, and how we want to say it, will rely heavily on context and purpose. And I believe where the real ‘design’ comes in is where we have purely functional content.

I’m not talking about long-form content articles that require a reader to stop for a moment, read, digest and move on (although of course flow and structure will indeed be a part of the content creation process).

I’m talking about the content that is so well crafted it becomes almost inconspicuous to the user.

Ben Barone-Nugent said ‘I dream of interfaces where all my words can cascade away during the journey’, making the point that a user shouldn’t even have to think or pause on the words, a concept that’s also been echoed by Jared Spool.

To design interfaces with a content flow this simple, we must start with understanding our user, and our objectives.

I work closely with UX and Design at sketch stage to agree the necessary content hierarchy and information architecture, even before I even start to write any words.

In my opinion even wireframes need content input — to avoid the dreaded ‘placeholder’ copy where it may not even be needed.

Whether the purpose of the page is to capture data, or to lead the user to their next task, I will need to have a clear understanding of where we are in a user journey, and how the content will be tested.

Content designed to evolve

Functional content (or micro-copy, as it’s sometimes referred to) forms an important part of navigation, sign-posting, and instruction, so good content design should take into account plenty of iteration (based on user testing) and scope for continuous improvement.

Unlike a long form article that gets published and largely remains as is, functional content is there to be optimised as and when it needs to be throughout its life. So it requires a slightly different mind-set. A mind-set that can be user-centred, flexible, and pragmatic.

Only after I’ve collaborated with UX and UI experts to make sure we’re on the same page (literally and metaphorically) would I start to put pen to paper (or keys to keyboard) and write some actual words.

For functional content the thought process is almost as important as the output; I may not want the user to remember my words, but I want to know that I did my very best to make them forgettable.

And whilst ‘content designer’ might not be a perfect description, it certainly gives more of a nod to the skill that lies in crafting functional copy than ‘content manager’ does. So maybe we shouldn’t knock it, because I believe that content-led design needs its chance to shine.