The similarities and differences between content design and other content disciplines 

Before we became part of the Co-op Content Design community, Marianne worked in marketing and communications, and Mary was a copywriter. Like most content designers and content strategists at Co-op, we moved into this discipline from roles that also demanded strong writing skills. At Co-op, we work alongside many disciplines that also depend on well-crafted written words, for example, the Brand, Marketing, Communications, and the PR teams.  

We’re writing this post to unpick some of the similarities and differences between content design at Co-op, and our experience of other content disciplines. We hope that by sharing this we can improve understanding of how these disciplines can relate and even overlap, but also highlight the things that are specific to content design within multi-disciplinary teams. 

photograph of marianne and mary looking at post-it notes on a white board
Marianne and Mary in a workshop.

What content design means at Co-op 

Content design is about putting the right thing, in the right place, at the right time and in the right format. 

That’s how our Content community defines what we do. 

For us, good content design:  

  • meets a user need (this means it has a well-defined purpose and fulfils it) 
  • is accessible to everyone 
  • can be understood by everyone  

Content designers zoom in and look at the details. For example, we choose the words that create long or short-form content. But we also look at a wider context. We decide whether we need to create content at all. If we conclude that we do, we ask where it should live, and in which order and format it should be presented so that it clearly conveys meaning to the reader.  

If it’s not accessible, it’s not good content design 

Accessibility underpins everything we do in the Co-op Experience team. It means we build products and services that everyone can use, including people: 

  • who have a disability or condition 
  • with English as their second language 
  • with low literacy 
  • who are not confident using digital technology 

This means designing content that everyone understands, and navigation that everyone can use. Co-op has an accessibility policy and accessibility guidelines

As content designers, we choose words that are clear not clever. 

That can take some getting used to when you’ve worked as a copywriter. We had some bad habits to unlearn from previous roles. For example, we would often plaster over complex processes with words and phrases like: 

  • quick and simple 
  • this only takes 2 minutes 
  • you’ll need your NHS number handy 

We were assuming a certain level of speed or ability. In reality, what’s easy for one user might be difficult for another. User research told us that putting your phone down, climbing upstairs and rifling through old letters to find your NHS number was not ‘handy’. Some people might struggle to do this at all. Deleting one word can make all the difference and, in this example, it makes more sense to more people if we leave ‘handy’ out.  

Joanne Schofield digs deeper into this idea in her post We are not our users: we should not tell them how to feel

You’re the expert, you own it 

Before becoming content designers, we worked in teams according to our specialism at the time. For example, a communications team is usually made up of several comms specialists and there’s usually a hierarchy within it. It’s the same for digital marketing experts, PR people, or editorial teams. 

At Co-op, it’s different. Here, our expertise sits alongside other sets of expertise and we’re part of multi-disciplinary teams that include service designers, interaction designers, researchers, delivery managers, front end developers, engineers, business analysts. We also work with subject matter experts like store managers in the Co-op Food business and leaders of community projects. 

We each bring our different but complementary skill sets to the team, and we work together to deliver a cohesive customer (or colleague) experience. Often, there will only be one expert in a certain discipline per team. This means we’re empowered to make decisions on the things that fall under our remit.  

Support from the content design community of practice 

As content designers, sense-checking and support comes from our community of practice (CoP). This is a safe space for others in similar roles across different product or service teams. 

At Co-op, the Content CoP gets together twice a month. We learn by sharing, seeing or discussing content in different contexts. This often involves content designers asking for feedback on presentations or prototypes through a ‘content crit’ (group critiques), or we talk through case studies to share what has been successful. CoPs provide the kind of support that content creators might experience from their team in a traditional editorial or writing role.  

“Meeting twice a month with likeminded content people is brilliant, and taking part in content crits has helped me become less protective of my work.” 

Sophie Newbery, content designer, Funeralcare 

All good content is grounded in good research 

Whether it’s content marketing, PR, video journalism, or magazine feature writing, successful content depends on thorough research and a good understanding of your audience. We work alongside dedicated user researchers whose role is to help the team learn about our users so we can design the right thing for them. 

Together we: 

  • facilitate usability and accessibility testing 
  • observe and take notes in research interviews 
  • go through all the research findings together 
  • build service maps to understand the customer experience 

Content designers at Co-op gather data and evidence from many sources. We do quantitative research with tools like Google Analytics and qualitative research by listening to and observing our users. We combine this with desk research, market research and insights from focus groups – methods that we learnt from our marketing and communications roles. 

“The Co-op’s Experience Library is a collection of guidelines, tools and resources to help us create better customer experiences at Co-op. Everything in it has been researched and iterated based on research findings. This means we can be confident that the advice, templates and patterns that the library provides can be used as foundations for teams to meet their colleagues’ and customers’ needs.”  

Jo Schofield, lead content designer 

If content doesn’t succeed at first, we iterate 

‘Iterating’ means improving content in-line with regular feedback from users. 

The beauty of digital content is that you can track, monitor and improve it. This is an example of iterative design and it’s a luxury that other disciplines do not have, for example, any mass-produced printed material.   

Small changes can make a big difference to the reach or the impact. 

In 2021, for example, we were challenged with how Co-op can support grassroots community groups beyond funding. We identified an opportunity to join up 2 different services that already exist: 

  • Co-op Local Community Fund, which meets the need for funding 
  • Co-operate, an online community centre, which meets the need for finding volunteers and raising awareness of their group 

When applying for funding, users now promote their group on Co-operate at the same time. 

One risk with joining up 2 forms was that users would promote their group on Co-operate and exit the journey – without continuing to apply for funding, which was their main goal. 

To help the user, we added content at crucial points to explain where they were in the journey: 

Thanks for adding your group to Co-operate 

Next, apply for funding 

To apply for the Co-op Local Community Fund, complete the next 8 steps. 

We guided around 10,000 applicants through the form and achieved our target of onboarding all applicants to Co-operate. In this year’s iteration, we’re exploring whether using a visual to demonstrate progress helps support the content: 

The fund happens every year. We’ll continue to iterate and improve on the journey each time, based on what we learn from data and evidence. 

There’s still so much to learn 

We’re always developing our craft as content designers and we’re still learning every day. We’re both glad we made the change to work in an environment that puts people and accessibility first. 

Our Content community of practice (CoP) meets online every fortnight. If you’re a Co-op colleague and would like to join us, contact us for an invitation.   

Mary Sanigar, content designer and former copywriter  

Marianne Knowles, lead content designer and former marketing and communications writer 


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