How did you get into this field?
I studied design. But, at the time, copywriters earned more money. I was a mercenary 19-year-old so I switched disciplines. I spent time in ad agencies then went to work on a digital government project. I was hooked and stayed.
Congrats on speaking and leading a workshop at Confab this year! On two very different topics, accessibility and measuring content ROI. Is there a connection?
For me there is. Scope says there are 13.9 million people in the UK with a disability. That’s a lot of audience organizations will miss if they don’t provide accessible solutions.
We say measure the intention of the content. Not the format or the delivery. Just the intention. We also measure success and value differently. To do this, you need to have defined what each piece of content is meant to do. Example: if your content is meant to help a prospective chemistry student apply to a university, success might be to make the 'top 10 universities to study chemistry' of a well-respected source but it’s not valuable. Value is to have the student visit the campus open day and apply. We advise looking at traffic as a single metric to be taken with other metrics. Alone, it's meaningless. Clickbait may get a million likes but if you are instantly forgettable, is that valuable? I don’t think so. So we take the intention of the content (eg: show chemistry students what they can achieve with us) and measure it appropriately. It does mean that the intention needs to be clearly defined. Putting up content because someone in the organization thinks it is a good idea is not going to cut it. Each piece needs to be set to a user need. I’ve blogged about the different ways to do that.
What were some of the challenges of working with content for the UK government? What did you enjoy most about it?
This made me laugh. Some of the challenges? I could go on for weeks just on one of them: the main one was people. We work all over the world and the challenge is always the same: some hate change, some organizations impose change on their staff badly and most organizations still work in silos.
Change can be hard and we didn’t always get it right at GOV.UK. For my part, I saw a goal and just kept my eyes on the prize. There were points where I didn’t act kindly. I was more like a human bulldozer. But I learned from it and we now have some great results bringing people together during organizational change. We have a much kinder, better approach that works very well.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about content design?
There’s two: one is that it is front-end design. We get a lot of designers not reading job descriptions and sending off standard letters and CVs to our jobs. We always put the content part of the position in the first sentence so it’s unnecessary to get it wrong. The other is that it’s just another term for copywriting. The thing is, some copywriters do all that we do in content design. They get evidence, work to a user need, can influence the format the communication is to be displayed in etc. But most don’t. They are still given the format (”you have a tube ad, just write some words to go with this art direction”) and have no insight to audience (“your audience is everyone”). Content designers know that their audience is never everyone, there will be different ways to get to them and will be able to completely fulfill that user need.
It’s changing though, which is great to see.
I feel like a lot of US organizations don’t understand what content strategy—let alone content design—is, and why it’s worthwhile. Do you face similar challenges in the UK and if so, how have you addressed them?
Oh yes. I haven’t been in an organization yet that has a strong content strategy. One with metrics and deliverables. We published an example strategy a while ago just to show what ours looks like.
I think we are at a very exciting time. The organizations that are working to content strategy and design are having success. This is growing and organizations will see they are going to be left behind if they don’t get their butts in gear.
We run two-day courses and sprint work all over the world. A sprint is where we come in for two weeks and work on whatever project you have. We will take the org through the whole process: research, journey mapping, channel mapping, user stories, sketching, writing, crits, the lot. At the end of it, we have a ’show and tell’ for anyone in the org to see how user-centered and targeted their information can be in a very short space of time. This can lead to longer projects, where we do more. We always work in the open, inviting anyone interested in the organization to come and see the work. It’s the number one rule: show, don’t tell. Show everything you are doing.
We haven’t had an instance yet where people remain disengaged. Once staff see the outcome, they usually start moving to a more content-led position.
What changes do you see coming in content design in the next few years and how can we get ready for them?
I think more will pick it up and want to push it. We are focusing on accessibility and measuring the intention of content this year. I think we can go a lot farther than our current state. We are running a global project called the Readability guidelines if you would like to see what we are up to.
The other thing on everyone’s radar seems to be voice search. We may see organizations realizing that concise content that answers a user need is the only way to go. I hope so.
The one thing I would like to see on everyone’s radar is concerted effort to break down silos. I see content and design people starting this but at organizational level, this change is still slow. Some marketing departments see digital as an add-on to their current, established job. Legal still thinks it’s their job to make content legally compliant, not to have someone understand the law that applies. With more organizations blogging about their digital successes, I think this will change too. To be honest, if orgs don’t change, they will be left behind.