Content Design below the surface

Linette Voller
Feb 5 · 11 min read

If you’d like to improve user experience, content design can help. But how? We have a few tricks up our sleeve, so I’d like to share with you a reference list of ways we can give users an experience which feels more intuitive and caters better to their needs.

This post is about how content designers work but if you’d like a clear introduction to what content design is have a look at “What is content design?

The first thing to realize is that ‘content’ isn’t just words. It can also be video, infographics, images, data, calculators, wizards, and even working with user created content.

Secondly, content design goes much deeper than a message in a popup or a set of docs.

In UX theory there is Jesse James Garrett’s idea of ‘The Elements of User Experience’. The theory describes different levels where we can shape an experience (more details). Each level impacts all the ones above it, so the lower the level the bigger return it has.

So, for example, at the Surface level, a content designer might tell you that the message “you’re about to delete your database with no recovery possible”, should be in a red box with clearly labelled confirm and cancel options. But at the Strategy level we might tell you that the user research shows that the proposed structure of the database doesn’t fit with the user’s mental model and needs; it will cause frustration and pain and increase the likelihood of deletion and the user going elsewhere.

The earlier in the design process you can bring a content designer in, the more ways we can help.

As you read through you’ll also see areas of overlap with our research, design, and marketing friends. It’s not surprising when you think about how each of these disciplines, while specialized in different ways, all deeply care about understanding who we are helping and why. The techniques we use to get this understanding are often similar.

Surface header
Surface header

Not only aesthetics, the surface layer guides the user experience with clear information.

General copywriting and editing

Often seen as the core skill of a content designer, the actual craft of placing words on a page in the right order, and spotting when there are too many words or the wrong ones. At the surface level this can be deciding if you need an ‘oxford comma’ in your sentence, and adjusting voice and tone. To make sure you are writing the right sentence at the right time, however, we need to use techniques lower down in the model. This is also where we can work with our marketing colleagues to make sure we have a consistent message across the whole time a customer is with us.

Learn more:
Language and grammar guidelines on

Atlassian voice in product

Error messages

A critical part of a users experience can be how a system behave when things go wrong. Ideally error messages should let you know something has happened and what your next step should be. This is often more difficult than it sounds! Do this well and ideally the customer is reassured, and if they do need to contact support they have the information they need for a quick resolution.

Learn more:
How to write a great error message

How to Write Good Error Messages
How to write the perfect error message


Writing long form technical documentation of how a product works. How this is presented applies to the ‘surface’ layer of this model, but to create a meaningful set of documentation which addresses customer needs, is technically correct, and communicated in an appropriate way needs thought at the deeper levels. Also included in this are the less obvious decisions of what not to document. For example, in oven instructions you shouldn’t need to explain how to turn the hob on (unless there is some unintuitive secret mechanism; and if there is this should be fixed in the product not in a document a customer reads in desperation after failing to turn their oven on!)

Learn more:
The eight rules of good documentation

What nobody tells you about documentation

Content accessibility review

As part of the greater effort to make our work accessible to all, content designers can use best practices to make sure any content is accessible as possible. For example what seems straightforward to one person might be awful for someone with English as a second language because of idioms; asking for the same content multiple times or in an odd order will severely impact someone with cognitive load challenges; and images without alt text are useless for someone using a screen reader. The user experience can be dramatically improved with a few key checks in place.

Learn more:
Readability Guidelines project

Tips for Getting Started Writing for Web Accessibility

QA and review

It’s important to review what we are shipping. While developers might be looking at whether a feature is doing what it’s supposed to, content designers will checking that the feature makes sense in the end to end experience, and any last minute changes haven’t had a bad impact. They’ll also usually be the ones to notice if a typo slipped in (all too easy to go numb to when you’ve been staring at the same screens for several weeks). Finally they’ll be checking to see if any last minute changes in this release will alter information we already have published, or are planning to publish.

Learn more:

The Case for Design QA

Skeleton header
Skeleton header

Making sure content is in the right place and usable.

UX writing

Writing the words inside a website, product, or app. From the explanations on a page to the text on a button. The goal is to make the experience as smooth and easy to use as possible, in limited space. It involves understanding how a person might be feeling, and what words are appropriate. For example, if you were asked to confirm that you want to cancel a subscription, seeing “Ok” and “Cancel” buttons could be very confusing; Does “Ok” cancel or does “Cancel” cancel?

Learn more:
16 Rules of effective UX writing

What is UX writing

Words used by customer (market terminology analysis)

If know what terms your customers use, you can use these words to build on existing understanding. Using the wrong terms will be confusing, and the content will be hard to find on Google (as people will type in terms you don’t use). As an example, on TV, if someone says “I’ll Google it” you know what they mean and understand it as ‘search for’, but even during the height of TV sponsorship, when someone said “I’’ll Bing it!”, it sounded wrong and like a noun not a verb.

Learn more:
Cloze Testing – The Leading UX Test for Content Comprehension

Keyword Research

Create glossaries (terminology lists)

A glossary defines a word; both what it means and the context it’s used in. This helps translation teams, new users, and product teams know what specific words mean in context. For example if you are translating an sentence into German, ‘pasture’ might seem like a fine word to substitute for ‘field’, but if you are talking about databases it will make very little sense.

Learn more:
Write a glossary

The Glossary: A Gateway to Clear Requirements and Communication

Content audits

Where do we communicate with customers? What do we say? Do we have exactly what we need to help people? Is it in an appropriate voice and tone? Is there duplication? Anything missing? Is the content ROT (Redundant, Outdated, Trivial)? Content audits often bring up a lot of questions! Content audits can span error messages and onboarding modals, in-app help, documentation, marketing info, and training resources.

Learn more:
6 steps to product content audit perfection

A Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting a Content Audit

Analysis and measurement

Gathering data and looking for insights on what our users are doing, and how our content influences their behavior. This could be what’s popular and what’s not; what is considered helpful or not; how long it takes for task completion comparing those who’ve seen in-app help or not. What people are searching for and what they are finding, or not! If we can measure it, we can then see if our changes improve things.

Learn more:
Measure success

Get specific with your success: Using KPIs to measure content

Technical distillation

A fundamental content design skill is working out how to explain a concept or process to someone else as clearly as possible. This means content designers are good at helping people quickly understand complex systems. This skill can be used outside product content, and in situations like bringing new people into a project, or explaining product fundamentals in a presentation.

Learn more:
The Best Way to Break Down Complex Ideas So Anyone Can Understand Them
Simple ideas for explaining complex concepts (part 1)

Structure heading
Structure heading

Defining the way various features and functions of fit together for a user to experience.

Information architecture

How information is categorized, organized, and/or presented to someone. You can see examples of this in the Skeleton level with how product or website menus are organized, but working out what those labels or categories should be is the deeper Structure level. Done well, and it’s easy to find what you are looking for. Done badly and you end up with users getting lost, frustrated, and confused.

Learn more:
Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture

Information Architecture. Basics for Designers.

Journey mapping

Documenting the steps a user takes while using a product or service. Often this also describes how they are feeling each step of the way. This is great for highlighting unexpected pain points and ways that things designed in isolation are not connecting together well.

Learn more:
Customer Journey Mapping – Atlassian play

A Beginner’s Guide To User Journey Mapping

Mental model mapping

Mental model mapping is finding out what a user understands or believes about a concept or task. You then use this to make your design understandable to its audience. For example, you might know the images on google maps don’t all come from satellites and are sourced in different ways, but a user just wants to see images from a sky view, rather than a line drawing, and the term satellite conveys ‘from the sky’ well.

Learn more:
Mental models

A collection of mental model resources

Scope header
Scope header

Working out what features or functions you include, and which you leave out.

Priority frameworks

This involves putting users needs, and the content that supports them, in priority order and then designing the experience with that in mind. It sound simple, but I bet you can think of a time that you went to a website that made you hunt around for the really obvious thing you wanted to do, all the while bombarding you with information you didn’t need. Putting the priority needs first helps us find what we need, fast.

Learn more:
Using Prioritization Matrices to Inform UX Decisions

Priority Guides: A Content-First Alternative to Wireframes

Conversational prototyping

A method of designing interactions by imagining they are a conversation between user and product. “How do I move this card?”, “how can I tell if the work is getting done or not?” Does the product answer the users questions quickly and easily? Does it reassure when needed, or remember important details about you, like a friend would? Does it use words that are familiar or does it suddenly spring out jargon which would be hard to say, let alone understand. This method doesn’t only have to be for chat or voice activated system, general product and documentation both benefit from the user focused lens this approach gives.

Learn more:
Prototyping the conversation: a simple way to design content-first

What is conversation design?

Narrative PRDs

Product Requirement Documents (PRDs) list what a product or feature should do (but not how), it’s scope, and known constraints. A narrative PRD approaches this information in a more story like way, sometimes like a conversation between friends, explaining the concept to an alien, or writing up a future news story about it. The advantage of approaching it this way, is that it focuses on the user experience and the user’s needs. This highlights when something that is technically achievable doesn’t actually make sense to do, or areas that might need more clarification, or could be concerning for customers.

Learn more:
Write First: The Craft of Content-first Design

Why Obsessive Documentation is Key to Being a Great Product Manager

Competitor and market investigation

Investigating the context any product or service is released into. Are there industry standard mental models, terms, or processes? How are we the same and what are our differences compared to the market? Are there any expectations we have to manage?

Learn more:
How to Analyze Your Competitors’ Content Strategy

Competitive Analysis

Previous decision and discussion

Content designers can be helpful for finding out what the history of product or service decisions. It’s not a rule, but often our passion for content extends beyond the boundaries of our product or service, and we’ll often have good stores of information or know where to find them.

Strategy header
Strategy header

What is the aim of doing any of this? What’s in it for me, the user or the business.

User needs analysis

Discovering what the core needs of the user are and making sure the content and experience addresses that, as opposed to showcasing a feature we want them to need. This often takes the form of user stories and/or job stories. For example, “When I publish my confidential work, I want to know who is able to see it, so I am confident only the right people have access”.

Learn more:
Concise explanation of user vs job stories

User and job stories
Learning about users and their needs

Surveys and customer interviews

Hearing the voice of the customer in their words. Sometimes in realtime, sometimes asynchronously. Also writing questions to try and avoid biasing or leading the answers. Many of the techniques on this page use interviews as their source, but if you do them at the strategic level you might find surprising needs and solutions.

Learn more:
User Interviews: How, When, and Why to Conduct Them

How to Conduct User Interviews

Connections across silos

Content designers spar (critique) with their peers across product and platform. We’ll chat with each other about the best way to explain a particular concept. This has many benefits, but two big ones are 1) testing ideas with people not as intimately familiar with a particular product and 2) we have an idea of things happening in other products. This both encourages consistency across the company, but can also highlight when different groups should chat to each other “Hey…did you know team awesome are working on something very similar? You should chat!”

Learn more:
The Content Strategy Podcast 19 // Karen Cross, Atlassian // Building a Content Design Team

So there you have it! Hopefully this has sparked some ideas for you, and you are keen to have a chat with your local friendly content designer. Is there anything I’ve not covered here? Let me know. Or do you have an example where working ‘below the surface’ really paid off? I’d love to hear it!

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Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

Linette Voller

Written by

Questing to make the technical understandable and to engage in delighted capering as much as possible in this marvellous world we live in. Writer @Atlassian.

Designing Atlassian

Tales from the Atlassian design team

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