From teaching to content design
How I moved into digital from a non-digital background
I started my new career as a content designer nearly a year ago and often get quizzical looks when I tell colleagues that I used to be an English teacher. It’s a challenge to move into a digital environment when you come from a non-digital background so I thought it would be useful to share how I did it.
1. I identified the transferrable experience that I already had
I started by identifying the similarities between the two roles. I might not have had the confidence to change career without being clear about the value that I could bring to a digital environment.
- students were our users
- academic data, verbal responses and marking were our user research
- differentiation was our accessibility
- resources and lesson plans were our services
- OFSTED were our GDS assessments
Having an agile approach
The best teachers work in an agile way. This means that they respond quickly to meet their students’ needs and constantly evaluate if those needs are being met. At a high level, students’ user needs are:
- to gain knowledge
- learn a new skill
- or to improve at a skill that they already have
I had to check that my students had understood something or could do a skill to the desired standard before I moved on. The only way to make sure that students make progress is by adapting your approach based on their responses. The approach in digital also requires the same flexibility. You have to iterate as you learn more about what has worked for your users and what hasn’t.
Knowing your users
The most successful teachers know their classes: what motivates them, what will keep them engaged and what will ensure that they make progress. You have to go through the same process of getting to know your users in digital services. The more you know about them, the better you’ll meet their needs.
Knowing the importance of getting it right for your user
The consequences of planning that doesn’t meet the needs of your students can be far-reaching. The grade students achieved in my subject at GCSE and A-level would impact their future, I had to keep this in mind at all times. The stakes are often as high when designing online services for government, you have a responsibility to get it right. Your users can’t just go elsewhere to access the service that you’re providing. They’re reliant upon getting the information that they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.
Designing accessible content
A teacher’s job is to create lesson content and resources that can be accessed by all students regardless of their academic ability, special educational needs, reading age and social background. It’s the same when you’re designing content for a digital service.
I’ve taught in a variety of contexts but mainly in schools where the average household incomes were below the national average. Unfortunately, this often has a negative impact on literacy levels. I had to teach novels, plays and poetry that were beyond the reading ages of many of my students. They had to analyse texts from the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare and Conan Doyle, a task which was completely overwhelming to them.
To meet their needs, I created simplified versions, converting 2 Shakespeare plays and a Dickens’ novel into colourful cue cards. I whittled down 12 chapters of Conan Doyle into a 2-page summary. I designed storyboards, worksheets and A3 posters for poetry comparison. This work was crucial to their progress.
My passion for creating accessible content is what led me to content design. I had seen how complex content caused anxiety and frustration. I believed that I had something to bring to digital services that were trying to simplify complex information and processes for their users.
2. I got as much experience as I could
I started my career transition by writing blog content for an e-learning website and then got a job writing the content for an educational consultancy’s website. I added to this experience by shadowing a lead content designer and then completed a content design course.
This work experience helped me to understand what a content designer does and how they approach writing for online services. It also taught me that content design was so much more than just writing some words after an interaction designer had designed the service. Content design and interaction design are intertwined and inseparable.
3. I took the right opportunity for my level of experience
After applying for various content roles, Hippo Digital offered me a permanent job. My advice to anyone trying to get into digital for the first time is to go with a permanent, junior role first. There’s plenty of lucrative contract work available but in order to develop, you need access to other designers’ knowledge and expertise.
Being employed by Hippo means being part of a community of digital specialists that I can ask for advice and support whenever I need it. By taking a permanent role I have also guaranteed investment in my future. Hippo Digital have provided me with equipment and have offered to pay for courses, books and subscriptions that will support my development.
4. I’ve approached my new role with resilience, humility and enthusiasm
As much as I’ve drawn on the similarities between teaching and content design here I don’t want to understate what a challenge it’s been to change careers. At times it’s felt like an impossibly steep learning curve. It’s taken resilience, humility and enthusiasm to overcome the self-doubt that I felt when I first started.
I’ve tried to be resilient and humble in equal measure
In my first weeks in this unfamiliar environment, I was daunted by simple stuff like getting used to what acronyms meant and the jargon associated with my new project. It took me a while to understand what we were trying to achieve with our service. I also found it hard to express my opinions with confidence in meetings with my new team because I felt inexperienced. It took resilience to fight against feelings of imposter syndrome and humility to learn from every challenge, mistake or failure.
Having resilience has also been crucial during reviews and critiques with my design colleagues. It’s hard to find the right balance between having the humility to take criticism with the resilience and confidence to fight back when the needs of the user are being lost. I’ve tackled this by attending all user research sessions. The more knowledge I gain about my service and its users, the better I can support my content decisions with evidence.
Humility is also crucial when designing a service because you can’t get attached to your ideas. You start out with assumptions about what you think is right and most of the time, you’re wrong. Users opinions are what matter, not your precious content.
I’ve approached the role with enthusiasm
Finally, I have approached this role with enthusiasm because I feel privileged to be where I am. This enthusiasm motivates me to read around the subject, listen to podcasts and attend events that will broaden my knowledge and develop my skills. It is this enthusiasm that has helped me to develop good working relationships with my team. They appreciate that I am passionate and committed to what we are trying to achieve, regardless of how long I’ve been in the role.
I have found the digital environment I work in to be varied, collaborative and challenging. To succeed in this environment requires a range of skills and experience, some of which you can gain from non-digital roles. The digital sector is expanding and I encourage those from non-digital backgrounds to see the value of what they’ve done before and know that it is possible to make the move into digital. It’s not been easy, but I’m so glad I did.