Why teams need to think about content design from the discovery phase

Content is the main thing people will interact with in your service. The right content, in the right place, at the right time, will mean your service is likely to work well for your users.

Too often, content is an afterthought when teams are developing a new digital product or service – something to drop in when the design and flow of a service are ready.

This is a mistake.

Digital teams need to think about content from the very beginning. Here’s why.

1.Understanding your audience’s language will help you understand the problem

Before you even know what you’re going to create, you need to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. In digital teams we often call this phase ‘discovery’.

A vital element of discovery is understanding how people talk and think about their problems and frustrations, where they’re already going for help, and what they actually need.

You can start finding this out early without having to organise detailed user research interviews – internet forums, social media and tools like analytics and Google Trends can be a goldmine of content for uncovering your audience’s natural vocabulary. You can also find out what other channels people are using to solve their problems (remembering that they might not always be digital), and where they expect to find the information they need – all this will help you later when you need to make decisions about when you should create content, who it should be for and what channels you should use. It’ll also give you a focus for in-depth user research.

2.Using your audience’s natural language builds understanding and trust

Understanding your audience’s vocabulary in discovery will mean you can prototype more confidently when you move into the next phase (often called ‘alpha’).

Even early prototypes need considered, researched content. A developer or designer might be able to drop content into a prototype that feels OK and follows the Co-op tone of voice, but research with these prototypes will only show you how the design works, not the content. By finding out about your audience’s natural vocabulary as early as possible, your team will avoid making assumptions about language that you need to revisit later.

People are more likely to understand and trust content when it mirrors the language they naturally use and recognise. This often means your product might not use ‘proper’ names for something.

When we built How do I, a service that helps colleagues find out how to do things in food stores, we discovered they consistently referred to Co-op’s national facilities operations centre simply as ‘facilities’. So we called it ‘facilities’ in the service. That’s not the official title of the department but it’s what our colleagues instantly recognise and understand. The old content also expected colleagues to be familiar with the term ‘hotworks’, but we found that ‘welding and soldering’ was much more easily understood.

3.Name your service so that users know what they can use it for

It’s very tempting to come up with a clever and catchy name for a service. However, based on what we know about how people read and understand the world, it’s rarely a good idea to give your product a name that doesn’t give people any idea about what it does or what it’s for.

The best names for services and products are descriptive, action-focused and leave the user in no doubt about what they will accomplish. For example, ‘Start your will online’ is absolutely clear about what the user can do with the service. ‘CITRUS’ (now defunct), on the other hand, could literally be anything.

4.Structure content to reflect how your users understand things working

People’s language also tells us a great deal about how they see and understand things working. The discipline of content design uses that information to understand the best way to communicate with the user – not just in the words used on a screen, but in the way the whole flow through a product is structured and presented.

When we were creating How do I, there was an assumption that we’d organise content according to the names of departments in our retail support centre. It didn’t take many interviews with colleagues to find out very few people knew these names or understood what they meant. Using department names to organise content wouldn’t have been helpful to our store colleagues, because they are often not (and shouldn’t have to be) concerned about the intricacies of our internal structures.

To find a more appropriate, user-centred way of organising the content (often called ‘information architecture’), the content designers ran card sorting exercises to find out how store colleagues naturally grouped different tasks. Unsurprisingly, the results didn’t reflect our organisational structures, but were consistent with how they understood things working. For example, previously procedures for asking a customer for ID or dealing with lost property had been grouped under a department named ‘Safe and secure’. Now they sat in categories that made sense to colleagues, and we could make the website easier to use and navigate from the earliest stage of development, directly contributing to its commercial success.

Exercises like card sorting can be powerful methods to help you organise content into a structure that stands the test of time – organisational structures and department names might change (as Safe and secure did a few months later), but mental models are less likely to.

5.Design content that works for the way people behave online

Writing for digital services is different to writing for print. Online, people don’t read – they scavenge, jumping around a page, ready to zone in on the words or terms they’re looking for. This means it’s really important to structure content and use words in a way that takes this behaviour into account – from plain language and short sentences, through to easily-navigable pages with clear and descriptive sub-headers for different sections.

Our content designer Matt Edwards transformed the way this content about colleague purchasing is presented. He changed it from this: 

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 15.30.14

To this:

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 15.35.23

Even in the absence of research about how people are using content in your service, a content designer can create content that’s optimised for the web. This means in your early testing and research, your content might not be quite right yet, but you won’t waste time on iterating it to reflect the way people read.

So what?

By considering all this up front, you won’t just end up with better content. Your design process will be quicker, beginning with a better understanding of the problem. If you’re going to jump to putting content into prototypes without thinking about the language people use or how they interact with content online, you may as well use Lorem Ipsum – either way you’d need to replace it with the real thing eventually, which could potentially mean undoing earlier decisions. So it’s much better to approach the content properly first and start learning faster.

Your team will also be able to talk more clearly and confidently about the service you’re creating, and it’ll have a name that makes sense to everyone.

The Content community can help

If you don’t have a content designer on your team and need help working through some of these issues, contact the Content community of practice. We’re a digital-led community of content designers, strategists and creators, who set the standards for clear, inclusive and user-focused content across Co-op. We’re always happy to help teams solve their content problems.

Hannah Horton
Principal content designer

We’re hiring a content designer to join our team. If you can take a user needs approach to content and have experience of making complex things easy to understand, we’d love to hear from you. See the job description.

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