The 8 hallmarks of great content design
It is fair to say that without good content your digital product will not be as successful as you may hope or want it to be. The words that surround and permeate your product are what conveys meaning to its users, guides them through a journey and convinces others to become users in the first place. But how do you ensure that your written communication will help your product to be a success?
What are the things that you need to think about to create content that is useful to the people in your audience? What does good content design consist of, and how can you improve what you write for the people who use your online product or service?
Accessible and understandable
One of the key elements of content design that I have learned whilst working on digital services under the GOV.UK domain is how to make your content accessible and understandable by as many people as possible.
To do this you should be writing for the comprehension and reading level of a 9-year-old. Initially, I was surprised by that, but understanding the thinking behind it made more sense. By age 9, children have developed a primary vocabulary of 5,000 words which they use the most, and stop reading the words and recognise them by shape, allowing them to read much faster.
People also tend to read online by bouncing around the page, and not taking in everything that is written. Thankfully your brain can drop up to 30% of the text you are reading, and still understand what it is communicating to you. Although your vocabulary may expand throughout adulthood, your baseline reading skill stays with you, and this approach allows a wider audience to understand what you are writing about.
Clear, concise, and consistent
Clear communication is what helps your readers to understand your content, and although this may seem fairly obvious, in practice it can be far more difficult to execute effectively. If it is your job to help the people reading your content to understand it, it must be concise and cut straight to the point.
In the past, I have struggled to communicate a single concept clearly and concisely, and as a result end up going round in circles, attempting to explain the same thing in different ways hoping to stumble upon the correct way to communicate. This only leads to further confusion and is not the way to help others understand what you are trying to communicate.
To communicate something clearly, I like to apply the "Steve McQueen technique" of halving the number of words you use to communicate a particular thing and keep halving it until you find the optimal way to deliver your message (it may be apocryphal, but Steve would reduce the words he had to read from the script again and again until he could communicate the line just by giving a look).
Consistency in the words you use in your product and its surrounding communication is also a key factor in better content design. Using the same words to describe the same things or actions build a better understanding for the user regarding the content. For example, if you were to use the words 'location' and 'venue' interchangeably, in some instances you may be referring to something specific, say by using the word 'venue' for a specific physical place and then switch to the word 'location', which may have been used elsewhere for a more vague physical place such as a town or county. Avoiding using terms interchangeably will help your readers to understand specific meanings across all of your content.
Purposeful and contextual
Why are you writing what you're writing? What is it that the readers of this content will get from it? Will they be able to complete the task they set out to do, or reach the end goal that they are aiming for? These are the kinds of questions you'll need to ask yourself whilst writing your content for your users. You must guide them to the actions they wish to take, and help them to feel confident in understanding what will happen when they take that action. To do this, you will need to understand your reader's motivations and goals. What brought them to this page? What are they looking to do to complete their task or reach their goal?
This leads us on to understanding the context of the user concerning the content they are reading. We should understand the journey that they have taken from their first action all the way along until they have reached a particular screen. What are the different ways they could have reached this point? Does the content cater to the needs of the users that have taken different paths to get here?
Understanding how a user arrived and where they are trying to get to will help shape the content you deliver at any given point. You must meet the user where they are to take them to where they want to be.
Everything you write as part of your content should be written for your reader. We should no longer be in the business of trying to game search engine algorithms to try to have them ranking our pages more highly for specific search terms.
You should work to understand your audience, how they search, what terms they are looking for, and what they want to do as a result of these actions. If you can understand the way they communicate, you can leverage that to your advantage, and speak to them in the same way they would speak on the same subject.
Essentially, being relevant is about being able to communicate through the written word as you would in conversation with another human being. You need to communicate in a common language, provide the right information to them at the right time, and keep everything pertinent to the situation and context you find them in.
The ability to write great content for your users is part of the design process. These hallmarks are only developed through research and iteration, combined with the knowledge of how you want your content to be received by your audience. By keeping all of this in mind, you’ll find yourself on the path to creating great content that your users understand and that helps them to reach their goals.