What is Content Design?

And how does it work at Cancer Research UK?

Cancer Research UK has a lot of content.

Like a lot, a lot.

On the main site alone, there’s an average of 143 million page views per year across over 10,000 pages of content. And that’s not including the 1000s of marketing emails that get sent out to supporters. Or the content that sits within our apps and other digital products.

And that content doesn’t come without its challenges. So how do we tackle those challenges and find out what content our users actually care about?

Introducing, Content Design…

What is Content Design?

Content Design is all about using research to find out what your users actually need. Then figuring out what content will best meet that need.

As a practice, it’s still relatively new. Sarah Richards and her team invented the discipline through their work at the Government Digital Service (2010 — 2014).

We’re adopting Content Design because we care about our users and their needs

As a wider Technology team, we strongly believe that our user’s needs come first. So for us, adopting the principles of Content Design makes sense.

Where Content Strategy focuses on the processes behind your content, thinking about what you’re publishing, when and where. And the workflow and governance behind your content creation. Content Design focuses on the content. It’s about research. And creating smart content that gives your users what they need.

As part of our journey of digital transformation, and embedded within our team design principles, is our role as a technology team of working with people across the charity, encouraging co-creation and empowerment.

Content Design empowers people, by giving them to tools to make their content user-centric. Where a Content Strategy is of course still important, the change in mindset that Content Design encourages, means that just small changes in people’s approach to content can make a big impact.

So how does Content Design work?

Discovery phase

Finding out what your users need through research

When designing your content, you first need to understand your users’ needs. If your content doesn’t answer their needs, then it’s not useful.

In the discovery phase you’re looking to uncover any problems that your users have. And any problems that exist with your current content. At this stage you’re not trying to solve those problems! You’re just trying to find out what they are.

There’s a few different tools and techniques you can use to do this.

  • Run a content audit

A content audit lets you see what content you’ve already got and how it’s currently performing. To perform an audit, make use of the tools and data you have access to.

Use search tools to uncover what language people are using to find your content.

Use metrics and data to define how engaged people are with your content e.g. does a high Bounce Rate indicate that users can’t find what they’re looking for?
 
 When combined together, you can start to answer a few questions like:

Are we answering our user’s needs?
 Are we answering that need in the best way?
Are there any gaps in our content?

  • Complete a competitor analysis

A competitor analysis gives you the chance to see what content is already out there. And to see how other companies are already tackling the problems you face. It could be a direct competitor. Or someone in a completely different industry with problems similar to your own.

Remember, it’s not about stealing ideas. But about looking for inspiration and adapting solutions to suit your own users’ needs.

  • Existing assets

It’s time to think outside the box. What assets do you have access to?

At Cancer Research UK, we’ve got lots of different ways to hear from our users in an environment they interact with us in naturally. For example our:

  • Cancer Chat forum where people speak honestly about their experiences with cancer
  • Call centres that deal with users’ queries every day
  • Shops on the high street run by volunteers who speak to our supporters on a day to day basis

Using the tools and assets you’ve got access to can really help you to understand what your users are asking. This valuable insight can help you uncover what your users really need.

Design phase

To communicate with your users effectively, you need great copy that’s clear and impactful

Once you know what your user needs, it’s time to start putting your content together.

And when it comes to your copy, to make it as clear and impactful as possible, it’s important to write in Plain English.

Plain English means that you’re making your content as accessible to as many people as possible. Your sentences are short. Your language is clear and concise. And it doesn’t use overly complicated language making it easier to read.

A quick and easy way to keep track of whether your content is written in Plain English is to use an online readability tool. Our favourite is the Hemmingway app.

Hint — try and aim for a reading age of around 6–8

Remember, Content Design isn’t just about the words

The words you use are really important. But Content Design isn’t just about copy. It’s about content, and that’s not always the same thing.

Sometimes, our users might need copy to explain something. And that’s fine. But sometimes a video might do better job. Or an audio clip. Or an image.

When we were working on re-designing our Gift Aid page, we found that (unsurprisingly), the original hero image on the page wasn’t helping anyone.

Original hero image

(Yes…this really was the image on the page)

There was already lots of copy on the page explaining the nitty gritty details about Gift Aid. But through research, we realised that people just needed a quick, visual explanation on what it actually was. And why it was worth considering.

So, after testing a few different formats and versions, we found that in this case an infographic did a much better job of quickly explaining what Gift Aid was.

New and improved hero image

Basically, it’s all about finding what content, no matter what format, works best to meet your users’ needs.

The iteration stage

People change. So your content needs to change with them.

The iteration stage shouldn’t just come at the end. You should be testing your content as you go.

But when you’ve created your content and it’s gone live, it’s all too easy to think, ‘well, that’s done!’

In reality, you need to revisit your content several times and test it in different contexts. From multiple angles. And with different users to make sure it’s clear in all scenarios.

And before you get to this point, make sure you’ve got measurements of success in place. This is so you can check your performance and ensure you’re meeting your goals

If content is failing to convert, look at all the content on the page. Would different content meet your users’ needs better?

Start the process of interrogating, editing and testing your content all over again.

People are always changing, and so are their needs. So your content needs to change with them.

In a nutshell, that’s how we approach Content Design here at Cancer Research UK. Often, a change in approach can require a big cultural shift. And that’s no small task.

But implementing some of these techniques doesn’t need to be a big deal. And making just some of these changes really can have a big impact.