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Content Design

Playing nicely with the wider team

As a content designer, I wasn’t prepared to continue being forgotten like I was as a technical author. The director of our Experience Design department told us all that content designers were part of the core team bringing designs together and our work was to be valued.

Our work had value. We just had to demonstrate it.

Team structure

I work for Sage UK, a FTSE 100 organisation with over 15,000 employees worldwide, and we develop software to help small businesses thrive. The team I work on is focussed on creating software for accountants to help them run their businesses and work with their clients. This includes accounting and payroll software (for businesses) , and compliance and practice management software for accountants.

When a piece of functionality is to be developed, a core team forms.

Solution Designers, UX Designers, Compliance Analysts, User Researchers, and Content Designers come together to create the designs.

What’s the process?

Our process can be summarised in these stages:

1 & 2 – Roadmap and committing 

Content designers should be familiar with what’s on the roadmap. Content designers can help Product Managers tell the story of these features to sell them to stakeholders.

At this point, we likely haven’t allocated a Content Designer to the work but it’s important to be visible.

3 – Exploring the problem

The core team should have formed by this stage.

This is a great time to work with the User Researcher to understand the feature from the customer’s point of view. We will go on customer site visits and ask questions alongside the researcher, some of which will be related to content. The objective should be to empathise with the customer as well as nail down any specific terminology in use.

As soon as colleagues work on a new project, they’ll be creating their own terminology and often this isn’t a pretty sight. Casual terms used as placeholders, when used often enough, stick and find their way into the end designs. As Content Designers, we steer the terminology towards what we know our customers will understand and then share the agreed terminology with the wider team and stakeholders, all the way to the marketing folk.

We should already have established good relationships with Support, but here’s another chance to reach out and show we care. By listening to Support’s concerns as customer proxies, we can pre-empt those concerns in the designs and get a picture of where the pain points are likely to be.

4 – Creating detailed designs

UX writing becomes the main focus for us at this stage, and this is where it pays to take time to build a relationship with the UX Designer. Before Content Designers, UX Designers created the user interface and added words to the screen. During reviews, changes would likely be suggested and the UX Designer, may or may not implement those changes.

This way of working is changing.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect the UX designer to create designs without any content before passing them over to the Content Designer. The way I work is my UX Designer designs the screens, adding in first draft text then passes it to me to revise. The finished content can look very different to the original. It’s difficult to get this right.

One method might be to get the UX Designer to write the intent of the content in its place and that serves as a requirement for me to deal with. For example, they might write in an error dialog:

“We need to tell the user that the HMRC server isn’t responding and they’re going to have to try again. The devs don’t think it’s very likely and there’s not much Support can do if the customer calls them.”

I might then write:

“We’re not able to contact HMRC right now. Try again in a few minutes.”

This approach can help in a couple of ways:

  • It helps the UX Designer get it clear in their own head what the point of the dialog is.
  • It takes away the pressure from the UX Designer to get content right leaving them to focus on the flow of dialogs and interaction.

It takes trust to get this right, and the UX Designer needs to see that there is value in building this relationship. After all, previously, they’ve been able to work in relative isolation, presenting something as a fait accompli. We’re now expecting them to collaborate with the ‘word people’. And to some, that might seem insulting, after all, everyone can write can’t they?

5 – Implementing designs with development teams

With the designs complete, the devs should be able to implement the designs. Development work is never that neat though.

What I see on a regular basis, will be devs finding situations we haven’t considered and thus needing solutions and wording we haven’t prepared for. As work is in flight and devs are likely waiting for us, we typically have to drop what we’re doing to help.

Often, this is providing wording for error messages, but because we’ve worked closely with the UX and Solution Designers we’re able to do more. We understand the problem and the customer journey and can work as a peer in solving customer journey problems.

In our case, at this stage we’re also writing help articles and supporting other stakeholders who are producing content. That may mean reaching out to digital marketing teams and offering our assets to see if they can be reused, or working with Support in anticipating the types of calls they may get.

6 – Release and post release support

After the release of a feature, hopefully, there’ll be a breathing space to reflect and refine our process. If there are wider project post-mortems, it’s worth getting included to let people know how content design can work better as a function.

Overcoming hurdles with the process

No projects are the same and no company organises their people in quite the same way. There are problems with our process. Likely there are problems with yours.

Make a note of these as they come up, and have a retrospective to review the process.

No project is frictionless but with an agreed process and buy in from the right people before work begins, Content Designers can help make a better product that benefits the stakeholders and the customers.

What are these roles?

Solution Designers – Take the high level requirements from our product manager and break these down into detailed requirements. This forms a solution design that is passed to the UX Designer.

UX Designers – Take the solution design and explore different UX design avenues by creating wireframes and prototypes.They are skilled UI professionals.

User Researchers – Take the different visual designs from the UX Designer and explore these with users to understand which avenues need to be continued.

Content Designers – Work closely with UX Designers and User Researchers to get the best language choices in the designs. We’ll be aiming for putting the right words in front of customers at the right time.

Compliance Analysts – Akin to Solution Designers but focused on the legislative requirements for the product. For example, when HMRC introduce new legislation like Making Tax Digital, our software has to support it.