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 terminology

Designing with the right terminology

Using the right words is a crucial part of any customer journey. Whilst this shouldn’t be the total responsibility of content designers, we’re well placed to help nudge the rest of the design team toward the best choices. At Sage, I work within a close knit team of designers who are quite happy for me to explore word choice in the design process.

Licence versus subscription

A large part of our business is now in software as a service and this means a shift away from one-off purchases for software towards a pay-monthly option. As part of redesigns in this area, I was asked to review some screens from a content design perspective.

The screen I was asked to review contained the words ‘licence’ and ‘subscription’ in the same sentence which struck me as odd. I’d seen these words used interchangeably in our designs before and I wanted to ensure we weren’t being lazy with word choice.

The UX designer had included both words at the behest of the solution designer, who had included them because they existed in a previous iteration of the software.

Digged deeper, I asked both the UX designer and the solution designer to explain the difference between a licence and a subscription in the context of the screen I was reviewing. Neither had a compelling answer. One admitted to using both terms interchangeably depending on whom she was speaking with.

There was a can of worms here and I’ll admit to thinking twice before opening it.

Confirming the problem

My initial reaction was that if we weren’t sure of the difference between the words, then we were at risk of confusing customers. Many of these customers were transitioning from our desktop software, where licences were indeed bought for perpetual use, and moving to a subscription service. I wanted us to get this right to avoid any confusion as to what they were paying for. My gut instinct was we should be using the word subscription and could probably drop licence from our vernacular altogether.

But, maybe we were in too much of a bubble in Experience Design. Perhaps outside our department there really wasn’t an issue at all.

I spoke to a long time colleague in the Sales team.

‘I only ever use the word licence,’ she told me.

‘Never subscription?’ I pushed.

“Nope. Only licence. It’s what we’re used to.’


Researching options

I turned to online definitions:

Subscription – An arrangement by which access is granted to an online service.

Licence – A permit from an authority to own or use something, do a particular thing.

This led me to the example sentence:

When a client subscribes to product X, they have a licence to use that software.

So, we could still use both words but I didn’t think we needed to. In the context of many popular software as a service providers, they go out of their way to avoid even the word subscription.

  • Netflix talks about signing up for an account and cancelling that account rather than subscribing and cancelling the subscription.
  • Spotify mentions subscriptions in their help files, but not at the front end.
  • On the Microsoft Office 365 product page, the word subscription is only included as a footnote.

Do our customers care about this?

What do our customers think of our licence / subscription terminology? Was there any evidence that customers struggled with the terms?

I’ll admit to not following up this aspect of research at this stage. My advice to you would be to contact your Support and Sales teams and ask them this question directly.

Also look to any feedback mechanisms you have within the product to see whether customers have demonstrated any confusion.

My approach was to handle this in the testing phase once I’d firmed up my thinking and we had something to show customers.

Terminology expands

It wasn’t just a choice between the words licence and subscription. Within our product, we have a feature where one customer can purchase product units for their clients. Where a customer has bought multiple product units (aka subscriptions) for their clients, what should we call the ‘thing’ where these units are stored prior to being assigned to a client?

I dumped a lot of initial thoughts on a Miro board along with examples of how each word might be used in the type of sentences we were likely to need in help topics and the user interface. This gave my thoughts some shape and helped me understand what might be feasible.

Narrowing down the options

Language and emotion play a huge part in the customer journey. I needed to decide on a word to use for this collection of subscriptions. When a customer buys a unit for one of their clients but doesn’t assign it to them straight away, it gets ‘stored’ for them, ready to be assigned.

But, what to call it? Pot? Store? Pool? Bench? Archive?

I quickly dismissed Pot. It seemed too homely for the business scenario. Store was next to go because of its obvious commerce connotations. I seriously considered ‘bucket’, but I associate buckets with soil, and ‘building’, and dirt. Yeah, I didn’t like the dirt association. ‘Bench’ could have worked. I was thinking of the American phrase around benching players, but thought the phrase wouldn’t be obvious to most. That left me with ‘pool’. It’s not perfect, but subscription pool had a certain ring to it.

(I also invited others to suggest words, but no one came up with anything that wasn’t already on my list.)

Bringing stakeholders on board

As I was about to propose dropping one commonly used word from our development team’s vocabulary, it was necessary to start building up support. I work in a fairly small team of content designers in a much larger department of developers, solution designers, and product managers. Whilst I feel my work is respected, it can sometimes feel like shouting in the wind. I needed to amplify my message by finding supporters.

I’ve found visuals and examples the best way to bring people over so I created some before and after screenshots of designs impacted by the change. I use PowerPoint to create these fairly crude designs. I deliberately haven’t asked for access to more designery tools as I don’t want it to ever look like I’m trying to do the UX designers job for them. Instead, I want people to be able to focus on the word differences I’d introduced.

I met with the key stakeholders and outlined what I saw as the problem with my proposed solutions. It was rewarding to hear that stakeholders had recognised there was a problem but hadn’t been able to make moves to addressing it. I was given the blessing to carry on down my preferred route of simplifying by dropping licence from our designs.

With stakeholders on board, it was simple to work with the UX designers and arrange for my changes to make it into the latest round of designs. The UX designers were happy that the stakeholders weren’t going to be surprised at the next design review.

What do customers think?

We’re lucky that we have two dedicated user researchers who will put designs and questions in front of real customers. I’ve arranged for the latest designs to be shown along with some guidance that the researchers should ascertain whether the customers are clear on the subscription terminology.

This has been scheduled into the next round of testing (due after this article’s submission date).

We get good feedback through the user research programme and I’m optimistic that my recommendations will stand.

What I’ve learnt from this process

  • As a word ‘expert’ it’s always worth scratching those itches to see if word choice can be improved.
  • It’s difficult for people to object to evidence so user research is important.
  • A good relationship with stakeholders, especially UX designers, oils the wheels, making the content designer’s job easier.
  • Acting as early as possible in the design process will reduce friction.
  • Opinions matter but if you can provide evidence and demonstrate the value your recommendation will make, you’ll find supporters.

Why is this good content design?

I didn’t set out for this change because it irritated me. I did it because I was focusing on the user journey and how this particular word choice shaped many aspects of it. The most important of these relating to how much the customer would have to pay each month.

Working with other experience design professionals, particularly UX designers and researchers demonstrates how content design is a collaborative process and can’t work in isolation. As word ‘experts’ our teams are looking to us to solve these word problems for them, and expect us to help improve the customer journey.

Never be afraid to open the can of worms