What is content design?
People are still asking.
Most articles explaining content design and its “value” bug me. They focus on how important it is to have someone around to fix your poorly written error messages and your uninspiring empty states. Table stakes, I say. Articles like these underestimate not only content designers, but also their readers.
Okay. Yes. We write error messages and empty states. But these examples (appear to) isolate copy from the design and engineering of an experience. They can be tucked into a comfortable corner of understanding. You do this thing and it doesn’t touch my thing and we all live in harmony. Namaste. I’ve even seen these examples used in job descriptions under the “What you’ll be responsible for” section. Redflag.com.
The reality is far less convenient — and says a lot more about what we do. No tenured writer can improve an error message if the logic that determines when that message is displayed is broken. No great rhetorician can create an empty state that directs someone to a successful first use if they can’t get engineering to build in a purposeful action.
Because words are no good when form and function don’t consider them. You can’t write around illformed product ideas or design that doesn’t do most of the job explaining itself. People are smart. They’ll notice.
So let’s put down the bread and butter and push our chairs back from the table for a moment. I’ll endeavour to explain what Content Designers do at Deliveroo in a way that does justice to our impact, without going into a dizzying level of detail.
Hello, we are Content Design at Deliveroo
We’re a chunk of the Experience Team, embedded in product teams made up of engineers, researchers, product managers, data scientists and product designers.
At Deliveroo, we’re called Content Designers, a term coined by Sarah Richards who is the leader of this discipline in the UK. To drastically oversimplify it, she sought a name that conveyed that we don’t just write words, we design experiences with them.
The discipline is relatively new — and it’s not done the same everywhere. Sometimes the name indicates a different way of doing it, sometimes it’s just a different name. Content Design at GDS isn’t the same as it is here. Content Strategy at Facebook seems a bit closer. UX Writing at Google or Dropbox? From what I’ve read, bears a striking resemblance.
I stopped caring a long time ago what we were called. In fact, we’re finding it easier to recruit with a job title of UX Writer at the moment. And I’m not seeing a bunch of different skill sets depending on a candidate’s current title. So that’s where that is.
Lydia, our Head of Research, all but insisted I point out the irony in a Content Designer not caring about the name of something. I shouted “function over form!” in her face, then scurried away mumbling that she was making a good point.
Nice to meet you, here is what we do well
We generalists, yo.
First, a caveat. Like any other discipline, Content Designers have the same foundational skills, but excel in some areas more than others. We’re not all amazing at all of these things, nor should we have to be. I am generalising. Here we go.
We’re really good at design thinking. We know how to turn user research and business goals into problem statements for our users and for our businesses to guide the work we’re doing.
We know how to design and run ideation workshops and workshops to facilitate cross-team collaboration.
We know how to think about problems beyond the product surface we’re looking at to make sure our approach will scale (and that it’s the most impactful one).
We’re better at communicating ideas, processes and project updates with words than designs or illustrations, but that’s why we work on a multi-disciplinary team, right?
If you want to know what other general skills we have, see also user experience professionals.
But we also be specialists.
Great, so I’ve covered the foundation of our skillset. Most people I interview can at least talk about these things, but when I dig in and say — what are you uniquely contributing to the design process? What artefacts do you create along the way? Some people get stuck.
Sometimes I worry we talk so much about how we’re the same as designers, that we forget to talk about why we’re different. What makes us special. I should say, designers, researchers, product managers and people you meet on the train can be amazing at this stuff, too. The difference is, we have to be.
So what is it we specialise in?
Figuring out the information people need to solve a problem and complete a task. The essential information. Not what we (in this case, Deliveroo) want them to know, but what they need to know.
How? Doing desk research, coming up with new research questions, writing mock press releases, scripting interactions as conversations, benchmarking other products, mapping user objectives, drawing on past experience, considering adjacent real world interactions and more.
Determining what order they need to see information in so that it is contextual, relevant, meaningful and useful — on several levels. On a product level (systems thinking), on flow level (journey mapping) or a page level (information architecture).
How? Taking those simple key messages and mapping user journeys, wireframing (sometimes with words, sometimes with wires), scripting sub-conversations for the interaction, card sorting, investigating the existing product surface and iterating and iterating and iterating and iterating…
In case you didn’t notice, we haven’t even started copywriting at this point…
“I love telling people I spend less than 5% of my time on a project writing.”
-Rhiannon Jones, Senior Content Designer
Deciding what words will convey that information most succinctly (i.e. writing), both for the user and for the product surface we’re working with. Users only want to know what they need to know (The What) and sometimes to know why they need to know it (The Why). Even if we’re not filling in the blanks of a pre-designed page (thank heavens), mobile screens are mobile screens and users don’t have all day.
How? Writing, rewriting, benchmarking, considering the existing lexicon, research the most commonly used terms, running Flesch-Kincaid tests, doing whatever research we can. Rewriting s’more.
Living and breathing the tone of voice. There are about six or seven of us writing this stuff every day, so as much as I’d like to write in my own voice all the time, we also have to speak Deliveroo! That means making sure the product is in line with our brand tone of voice and complies with the style guide.
How? Getting a lot of feedback from other writers, talking to marketing and comms and legal and…you guessed it, rewriting again.
Trying very hard to localise our products. Last but not least, alongside our brilliant localisation coordinator Annesophie Delafosse (who honestly does most of this for us), we have to make sure it localises. You won’t catch these Content Designers adding emoji that are offensive in 4 of our markets!
How? Including screenshots in our briefs, giving context, sharing word counts, explaining legal constraints and identifying places where creative liberties can be taken.
I said it wouldn’t go into a dizzying level of detail about what we do and I don’t think I have, but this is my craft after all so here’s a list of some other stuff we do: telling the rest of the business (comms, product marketing, brand) how to talk about the product on a micro and macro level, writing the materials that explain the product outside the product, helping engineers come up with naming conventions for the code that are consistent with the frontend experience, naming products (okay, yes, names), managing project timelines, keeping vocabulary lists, briefing new illustrations, feeding back on design system components, patiently explaining why the hell we can’t wordsmith that for you, giving each other constant feedback, running crits, running retros, attending standups….You get the idea.
So why do we have to be good at all this sh*t? Why can’t we just be writers? Wouldn’t we and our collaborative partners be a lot happier if we could just pick a lane and stick with it? It’s like I said. Words are no good when form and function aren’t in play. Anyone building experiences has to be good at a lot of things and we all need to be really good at a few things. I hope this shed some light on what those things are for Content Designers at Deliveroo.
What have I missed? What do you do that we don’t? I want to know! More importantly, we want those skills at Deliveroo. We’re almost always hiring Senior Content Designers, don’t hesitate.
Thanks to Rhiannon Jones, Lydia Howland and Chris Linnett for reading my manuscript.