Padma Gillen

Photo courtesy of PADMA GILLEN

Photo courtesy of PADMA GILLEN


Digital content consultant and trainer

"Digital transformation…involves a shift from telling people what you want them to hear to meeting the needs that they actually have. The whole organization must work together effectively to give one voice and one version of the truth across multiple channels at all times.“

Brighton, United Kingdom

Lead with Content




Does “digital transformation” mean just going digital with all your content or do you see it meaning something more?   

I think it means much more. "Just going digital with all your content" sounds easy doesn't it. But when you try to make that happen in any meaningful way you realize the entire organization is going to have to think differently, act differently and work together differently. The pace of production and pace of innovation will speed up significantly. You'll also need a different approach to risk and a different way of measuring it. 

All of this a big deal for a large organization that's been around since way before digital came along. 

One small example: Years ago I was working in a central government department in the UK when they decided they ought to start using Twitter. It's amazing, you can talk directly with citizens! 

The trouble was, they used the same sign-off process for a tweet that they used for a press release. So someone would get in touch with them on Twitter, and before they could respond, someone needed to write the tweet, then it got checked by a bunch of different people, including the legal team (and amended several times) before they could put it live. By this time the conversation on Twitter had moved onto other things, the tweet sounded like a government robot wrote it, and the person who tweeted them in the first place felt utterly ignored and unimportant.

Being a digital organization means being able to function effectively in a digital world. The digital world has a different tone of voice (more conversational, less stuffy), doesn't expect you to know all the answers straight away but does expect you to be honest about that, wants a quick response, wants a high quality user experience, and most importantly wants to be able to trust you and your content.

Digital transformation is about making all that possible. It involves a shift from telling people what you want them to hear to meeting the needs that they actually have. The whole organization must work together effectively to give one voice and one version of the truth across multiple channels at all times. It doesn't just happen. You need changes to governance, changes to workflow, content specialists writing content, cooperation from the rest of the organization, support from the top, and a commitment from the digital specialists to bring the organization along with them. You can't do digital transformation to an organization. The organization must understand what it means and commit to going in that direction together. 

At that point someone like me can help make the changes required. Before then my work is generally about helping the people in an organization who get the need for this make the case to everyone else.

Could you explain the difference between content strategy and content design? I’ve heard the latter term mostly coming from the UK but can’t believe that’s the only difference.

Different people mean different things when they say 'content strategy'. When some people say it, it's quite similar to what we mean by content design. But the way I see it content design sits within content strategy.

For me, content strategy is more about looking at the big picture whereas content design is about creating and maintaining content within that big picture.

For example, a content strategist will seek to answer questions like:

  • what's the current situation, what needs to change and why?

  • what content is needed?

  • who requests it and how?

  • who creates it and maintains it?

  • what kinds of content formats do you need?

  • how does content go from request to published?

  • how might content be reused, or personalized, or automated?

  • how will users find the right content for them?

  • when it comes to making content decisions, who can say no to whom, and when?

  • how do all the channels work together to achieve the business goals and meet the needs of the users?

  • what kind of team do you need and how should they be organized?

  • what style and tone is appropriate and in which circumstances?

  • etc

The content strategist will then create a strategy that contains processes, systems and structures to enable the right content to get to the right user through the right channel at the right time. But they don't actually create the content.

A content designer creates the content. Their aim is to meet user needs. This involves:

  • working with other UX professionals, such as user researchers and interaction designers

  • analyzing data and making content decisions based on it

  • structuring and writing content that matches the user's mental model so they can consume it and act on it easily and quickly

  • using plain language

  • creating user journeys that work for users, not creating websites that reflect the structure of the organization

  • using agile approaches to iterate content

That's a little overly simplistic. A senior content designer may well get involved in content strategy work and a content strategist may well get involved in content creation. So there's often overlap but they're not the same thing. 

Your book, Lead with Content, was interesting and fun to read, expressing a lot of complex content strategy ideas in a way that’s easy to understand. What was your purpose in writing it?

Over the years it's become clear to me that getting some content designers into an organization is a good start, but it's only a start. In itself it doesn't result in any significant improvement in content quality. This is not because the content designers aren't any good. It's because the structures, systems and processes in the organization actually prevent quality content from going live.

The result is a poor experience for users, a frustrating experience for the content designer and a waste of time and money all round.

My book is for the people in the organization who know things aren't working and want to know how to put it right. I'm hoping that content designers will show it to their bosses. I'm then hoping the bosses will read it, have an aha moment, and commit some energy to putting these strategies into practice.

When you worked in content design for the UK government, what was the most frustrating aspect of the work and how did you deal with it?

The most difficult thing was the culture clash aspect. We had pretty lofty goals with GOV.UK but we were the new kids on the block when it came to working in government. We really believed in what we were doing but it was considered radical at the time. In 2011, blogging about your work, admitting you don't have all the answers yet, writing in plain English and not publishing anything that didn't have a user need was quite shocking to many people in the civil service. We had to argue - A LOT - to get good quality content live.

We were fortunate at that time in that we had the backing of our bosses and they had the backing of certain ministers. So we were often able to win those arguments.

How did I deal with it? Making government content understandable for the people they serve is a good thing to do with your life I think, so I had a strong sense of purpose. We had a great team, so that helped a lot when things got tough. And finally I think you have to take a long view when you're trying to change things. It doesn't happen in two minutes. 

What do you like most about what you do?

I get to go into organizations and help managers and teams do things differently. I see them go from spending all their time and energy just trying to keep a poor website from getting worse to seeing them empowered, knowing what they're going to do and knowing how they're going to do it. And then I watch them (and sometimes help them) deliver. For me that's a great buzz.

Where do you see content design going in the next few years? 

I think we'll do a lot more writing for voice. It won't be too long before we stop thinking about web 'pages' (a convention carried over from the print era) and think about how to have effective digital conversations with users (which is more like the pre-print era and will demand a different approach to content creation). I also think we'll be increasingly thinking about content for IoT - so user journeys will be about moving through physical spaces as well as digital spaces. And I think content design will become increasingly recognized as a discipline internationally.