Content Design Content First Content Strategy remote working Technical Authoring terminology

Content design at Sage

Content design is a relatively new role at Sage, the market leader for integrated accounting, payroll, and payment systems. I’ve been here for over 20 years and seen a lot of change. Not least the work I do on a daily basis.

8:50 – Watercooler

It’s time for a coffee and a chat with the team.

Sage has offices in Newcastle, Manchester, Reading, and London. We’re working from home at the moment (can you guess why?), but I normally work out of the Manchester office. Most of the team is UK-based, though we also have a few remote designers.

Working from home hasn’t stopped us from staying social. Before the pandemic, it was difficult to socialise as a team, but now we have a daily coffee chat scheduled where we talk non-shop for ten minutes.

This was so important in the early weeks of working from home where we were all adjusting, but we enjoy it so much, we keep having them. It’s our daily water-cooler moment and when we find our way to the offices, I’m sure we’re going to continue these.

9:00 – Catch up

Our working hours are typical office hours. I work 7 hours a day, 35 hours a week. Before lockdown, I would start at 8:00 and finish at 4:00. But now that I’m at home and don’t have to worry about school runs or commuting, I stick to 9:00 to 5:00. A slightly later start works better for me as I can get an early morning run in and still have time for a shower and breakfast before starting for the day.

Firstly, a catch up with my manager to share what’s been happening with the team whilst she’s been on holiday. We use a Trello board to share what we’re working on (because it’s nice and visual) but behind that we use JIRA where our tickets are collected with the other designers.

9:30 – Responsibilities

I start my focussed hours. I like to block a couple of hours each day to reduce the chance of people inviting me to meetings. We’re getting much better at avoiding unnecessary meetings now. Microsoft Teams and Slack are where most of the communication happens, and whilst you need to manage your notifications, you can avoid meetings and collaborate quite effectively using just these two tools.

I need to check a Madcap Flare project to make sure that changes I’ve made to some content for our new deployment targets haven’t broken any of the existing targets.

Content designers at Sage have a number of responsibilities including (but not limited to):

  • Topic writing for help systems
  • UX writing for user interfaces
  • Globalising content
  • User engagement through research and monitoring feedback.

I’m likely to hit three of these areas today.

11:30 – UX writing

I’ve a query from a solution designer who’d like me to check some wording on a user interface design that’s going into a developer sprint next week. She’s sent some screenshots in an email. I’ve seen these designs before in the Figma project and the queries are just clarifications that things are making sense.

On the team we use a mixture of ways to record content for UI designs. Sometimes it just takes a quick comment on a figma project, but for this project, I’d already created a copy doc in a powerpoint file. I tweak a couple of sentences for one dialogue and send it over.

Collaboration is crucial for Sage in designing great customer experiences. Content designers are expected to work closely with the solution designers and the UI designers. For this new project, the work has been split into multiple workstreams. I’ve been invited to kick-off meetings and have already designed a lot of the content that we need. We are seen as the authority in word choices and whilst this does result in many queries, it does mean that we’re seen as a key part of the design team.

Content design dashboards help gather thoughts on a project

12:00 – Support during crazy times

Lunch. Quick sandwich with my kids. School’s just broken up but they’ve been at home for the last four months because of the lockdown.

Sage has blown me away by their colleague support through this period. Within a day of lockdown, all 13,000 staff were safely working at home. We were told time and time again that this is not a normal situation and it’s okay to feel not okay.

I was delighted when Sage provided us all with a subscription to Headspace, the meditation app. I’ve been an off-and-on meditator for years so it’s been great to have this cost taken care of.

A particular worry for me was how I was supposed to help homeschool my kids and work. Managers put my mind at rest.

We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.

I did what most of us with children did, and muddled through. It wasn’t always pretty, and my kids sometimes got away with murder, but I didn’t have to stress that my every working moment was being scrutinised. It was normal to see other people’s children in video calls.

My son trying really hard

And now that we’re talking about returning to offices (late September at the earliest), colleagues are being kept in the loop through weekly updates with the reassurance that no colleague is going to be asked to go back into an office until everyone is happy.

1:00 – Video tutorial

I’ve recently been asked to look at Adobe Captivate to re-record some videos I made a few years back. I’ve already dug out the video scripts and checked against the current version of the program (only a few minor tweaks needed, thankfully). But, the old videos were recorded in Camtasia and I want to see if I can get to grips with Captivate to upskill myself and bring our toolset in line across the team.

Sage have provided several learning tools to help us keep our skills up to date including LinkedIn Learning, and Pluralsight. I find a beginners course on Captivate and save it to watch later.

I’m surprised by how much Captivate’s come on since I last worked with it. And to be honest, my heart is probably with Camtasia (I just love their timeline editor) but I think I can grow to like Captivate enough to produce some quality videos.

1:45 – Daily standup

Every day at 1:45, the content team have a 15 minute standup where we share what we’re working on. It’s the first time I get to speak to our North American colleague (due to time difference) and it’s great to hear how things are going over there.

During the standup, we identify some work is going to be needed on one of the projects due to the changes in VAT rates. We make a note of who is best placed to do that work and assign a JIRA ticket to them.

2:00 – Giving something back

I get an email. I was expecting it. It makes me a bit sad.

Sage Foundation is our charitable arm.

Embedded across all 23 Sage markets, Sage Foundation unifies colleagues, Partners and customers in a programme of social change philanthropy. We help tens of thousands of people in our local communities through more than 1,000 charities.

Every colleague gets 5 days a year to use at Sage Foundation projects. I’ve already spent 3 of my days at Care UK in Northwich where they have a donation sorting centre. The email advises that due to Covid-19, we’re not able to attend.

Volunteering at Care UK

This has affected a lot of our organised events but the Sage Foundation haven’t let us down. Instead, they’ve worked hard to provide us with remote charitable activities and have encouraged us to work with our families. Our most recent Foundation at home day ended with a virtual party!

3:00 – Design huddle

My new colleague is a little aloof for my liking

Our design huddles are an optional weekly opportunity for experience designers at Sage to ask for feedback on work in progress.

When I first started attending these, I doubted whether I would have anything to contribute beyond pointing out any typos, but my confidence has grown.

As a content designer you need to be a customer proxy sometimes. That means you need to understand what the customer journey is. Not just what steps a customer is physically taking through the software, but what they’re feeling during that time. What pain points are they likely to be feeling? How can the designs be tweaked to take away those pain points? Can content be tweaked to remove ambiguity?

4:00 – The last stretch

I’ve a few points I want to finish on before the working day ends.

  • I’ve recommended that a piece of design goes to our user researcher to put in front of customers and that reminds me to book in with her so I can listen in on the call.
  • I’ve had a reminder to complete a piece of security training. I login to the training website and double-check that I’ve actually done it.
  • We’ve a help release pencilled in for tomorrow. I add my help project to the JIRA ticket to make sure it will get included.
  • I book my birthday as holiday. It’s not until October, but seriously, who wants to work on their birthday?


If this working day sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in (apart from the homeschooling, no one wants to do that), please check our content design vacancies.

Content Design Content First Content Strategy

Does content first matter?

Content First is the practice of designing a product or service with content being a primary concern ahead of things like the functionality a website offers.

Typically, designers may mock up designs and include placeholders for product text. They may even take a stab at writing their own content to fill these spaces.

An example of this might be when designing a travel website. If consideration hasn’t been given to the content we want to display on the first page, we might end up with an unsuitable layout. If boxes are saved for content using lorem ipsem text, the wrong amount of space might be allocated for the actual content that will end up there, resulting in awkward spaces.

Interest is increasing

I first heard the phrase two years ago when our new Experience Design director joined the company. Content First was how we were going to design going forward. Only, no indication was given as to how this was going to change things.

I’ve most recently heard UX Design colleagues returning from general UX conferences explaining that Content First is what attendees are talking about. It has become a buzzword in design circles.

My initial reaction to hearing about Content First, despite not fully understanding what it meant, was that us content folk were going to get listened to. No longer were we going to be thrown the designs just before hitting the development team. Instead, we were going to become an intrinsic part of the process; our involvement perhaps even more valuable than the UI Designers.

What are the common problems in designing without content first?

These are some common issues where content isn’t considered in the initial stages of design:

  • If we accept that content is a fundamental part of the customer experience, then throwing dummy content into a design and presenting that to a customer is going to result in questionable feedback. How can they give us feedback on a design where a fundamental part is missing?
  • Content can unify different parts of the experience. Where large design teams are creating a single experience the tone and messaging can become inconsistent leading to customer confusion.
  • Bringing a content team in late, can unnecessarily constrain their ability to shape the experience resulting in content being used to fudge through the experience rather than be the thread that pulls customers along.

How can Content First improve the situation?

Beyond obviating the problems outlined above, there are some other ways Content First can improve the design process.

  • By thinking more like content strategists, UX Designers can design without surprises. If they know in advance how many pieces of information their navigation designs will need to handle, they will design accordingly. If the titles of each page are going to be a certain length, they should be prepared and provide enough room.
  • Content teams can feed terminology preferences into the designs. As part of our work, we’re researching with customers and taking a wider view across products to make sure we’re presenting the appropriate words to customers.
  • By thinking of the wider customer journey, including key marketing and business goals, content designers can ensure products are designed with the appropriate messaging built in from the start.
  • By paying as much attention to the words on the screen as to the buttons to press, designers are becoming more aware of the emotional impact their designs are having on customers. If we can teach them why we’re using humour or not in a given scenario, we are helping to bring the customer back to the centre of the design process.

What are we doing at Sage?

Two months ago, a meeting was called to discuss how to implement a content first approach to our design process. It was the first time since our Experience Design director had mentioned Content First that the rest of the Experience Design team were ready to make changes.

I spent a lot of time researching Content First. There are different opinions on the importance of the approach and I needed to see where my views lay. As ever, it’s complicated.

I quickly realised that in none of the examples in Content First articles I could find, was anyone talking about complex web applications like we were building at Sage, where tables, charts, and dialogs were important.

I suggested that actually, what we needed wasn’t a Content First approach. It was a collaborative approach where content was included from the get go and where content concerns were raised as soon as possible. The UX Designers had enough constraints from the solution designers and as long as we were understanding workflow and seeing designs as soon as possible, we could shape content appropriately.

It didn’t stop us owning the terminology part of the design, or working with user research to ensure we were truly understanding the customer.

Finding balance

Whatever you want to call it in your organisation, it’s more important than ever that content is considered as early as possible. That might mean you need to find a way to work more closely with the design team.

At Sage, we’ve discovered that a close collaboration between UX Design and Content Design is the sweet spot for us. It needn’t be a tug of war between content and design. Better results can be had by remembering we’re on the same side.