Why we made a content design playbook

You might not always think of it this way, but any experience you design will be a story.

It’ll be a sequence of connected events with their own cadence, logic and meaning — a series of emotional moments of varying value to your users. And as a designer, you’ll want some moments to be seamless and forgettable, others more beautiful and memorable.

But to create good stories, it helps to get away from wireframes and pick up a pen — think more like a writer.

You can uncover interactions that you might not have considered if you think less about screens and more about narrative: What’s the overall goal here, how would you start the story, what are the key moments, how do you want users to feel, what might they want to do next?

So we’ve made something to help anyone creating user experiences (product designers, content designers, researchers) think more like writers. To think more about what, why, where, when and how we communicate with our users.

It’s our content design playbook.

Okay, but what’s a playbook?

It’s not fancy. It’s essentially a set of questions to prompt systematic and strategic content design thinking for work of any size, at any stage — even when time is tight.

It’s strategic in that it helps us keep in mind the overall aims of the experience whilst designing it, and it’s systematic in that it allows us to do this in a consistent, organised and well-arranged way.

Here’s how it looks right now.

Isn’t it beautiful?

We’ve pulled together prompts to help us in 5 areas of content design:

  • Framing the problem — to focus on the correct problem and what we want to learn
  • Structuring information — to create a narrative flow
  • Expressing information — to find the right language to use
  • Speccing out work — to identify and document any patterns
  • Sharing work — to get feedback and show how this work was created

Alright, how do you use it?

It’s pretty flexible. At any point in a project we can check it to inform certain aspects of an experience.

For example, at the beginning of a project we can check ‘framing the problem’ questions so we can properly set the scene before starting any design work — or at any stage ask ourselves what we should and shouldn’t be trying to do.

Or if we’re starting to flesh out some flows we can refer to ‘speccing out’ questions to help articulate any rules and logic we’ve created, or identify any repeatable patterns and content formats.

We keep it where we do our design work, in Figma. It’s scannable so we can find the area we’re interested in. And it’s modular, so we can pull the bits we need into our designs to keep these prompts in mind while designing.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Journey mapping

Picture this.

You’ve just finished a kickoff meeting for a project, you have a problem to solve, you don’t have much time, and you want to start mocking up design ideas.

But wait.

You can use ‘structuring information’ prompts to help find:

  • The most logical flow
  • Key messages at each stage
  • Information hierarchy
  • Edge cases and stress cases

Then, you can figure out what touch points you can use to tell this story.

That could look like this.

So, here’s what we’ve done:

  1. Gone to the content design playbook.
  2. Copied the prompts for structuring information.
  3. Pulled these prompts into Figma to help us question how we’ll structure our flows.
  4. Used these prompts to trigger a conversational exercise — to uncover the natural dialogue that might happen throughout the experience.
  5. Used these prompts to map out the user’s objectives and emotions at each stage — to find the kind of language we want to use at each moment.
  6. Used notes from these exercises to answer the prompts in Figma — then referred to this whilst sequencing and designing each touch point of the experience.

This approach can help you to:

  • Save time — starting out with a natural flow that makes sense to the user means you’re less likely to revise things or create workarounds later
  • Clarify the main things you want to say at a few key stages
  • Identify use cases that weren’t immediately obvious — like, the ability to check certain info before committing to an action, or the ability to undo something
  • Identify moments that might be sensitive and moments where you can celebrate

Why work this way?

Let’s break it down.

It helps prompt our thinking

Each prompt can be considered briefly or in depth — the point is to ask the question.

And we can use these prompts at any given stage of a project. They’re deliberately not ‘staged’, so each question can be useful if asked proactively or retroactively.

For example, using structuring prompts before starting to create a flow is a good use case. But equally, retroactively asking these questions about a flow that’s already been created can be helpful to inform future iterations — or to make the case for bringing these considerations earlier into the design process next time.

It ensures we solve the right problems

We can keep the right problems in mind by including prompts in our designs about what the project is trying to achieve (or what it isn’t) and what we’re trying to learn from this piece of work.

The aim is to help us focus on the overall aims of the project and not lose sight of that whilst designing. It can help us avoid solving problems that don’t exist by asking questions at every step of the design process.

It’s not a formula, but it’s systematic

We like to hire people from all kinds of different backgrounds and different people work differently — we want to encourage that. So, this isn’t a checklist and these aren’t mechanistic rules to follow.

And we have plenty of quality assurance things in place (product crits, content crits, content reviews, a content design system, a style guide, a tone guide, a brand guide), and this is not that.

The aim is to constantly ask questions about the narrative we’re creating and look beyond the designs in front of us.

It helps make our work more visible

Answering these prompts within our designs helps make the unseen considerations we’ve made about sequencing and message choice more tangible.

And it helps make our work easier to pick up when someone’s away.

It also helps other colleagues see what goes into our content design thinking, and this is important for such a young specialism.

Finally, it can prompt us to share our work to instil this type of user-centred thinking to other parts of the business, like communications, operations, and legal. We can do this by making our playbook processes visible and shareable via blog posts, presentations, workshops and talks.

What’s next?

Next, we’re going to add examples to the playbook to help visualise the different ways we can implement this thinking.

If you’re trying out anything similar, it’d be great to hear about it. For us it’s new, and we’re going to iterate as we go.

This sounds cool, are you hiring?

So glad you asked! Yes, we’re looking for content designers, right now.

If you love to bring storytelling principles into product design, we’d love to talk to you. Get in touch 👋