8 common content design myths that content designers want you to stop believing

November 12, 2019 by No Comments | Category Content Design, Digital Public Services

There are lots of assumptions, misconceptions and myths about content design that just won’t die. Here are just a few and why they’re not true.

1. Content design is about words

This is a popular one.

Words are one way to present complicated content, but they’re not the only way. Examples of other types of content are:

  • calendars of events
  • maps of buildings
  • pensions or benefits calculators
  • podcast interviews
  • training webinars
  • images of a parking permit that show users how it should be displayed
  • charts showing an organisation’s structure

Content designers research what’s going to be most helpful for users, then decide what type of content (or combination of types) are going to meet users’ needs most effectively. It might be words, but it might not be.

2. Anyone can write content if they know about a subject

I’m not sure they can. Here’s why.

Knowing a lot about a subject doesn’t always mean you’re the best person to write about it. Why? Three reasons.

Firstly, knowing the history, detail and nuance of a subject, is important. But so is knowing how best to present content so it meets users’ needs.

Secondly, there’s the ‘curse of knowledge’. It’s when someone with a brain full of procedure, legislation and facts about a topic, doesn’t realise that it’s hard for a non-expert to understand.

For Steven Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the curse of knowledge means:

…it simply doesn’t occur to writers that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualise a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye.

Thirdly, as Gerry McGovern, a digital customer experience expert, says, “we can’t resist telling people about things they’re not remotely interested in.”

This is another symptom of the curse of knowledge. It means users are routinely overloaded with detail they don’t need, or forced to wade through information that’s only important to the people who produced it.

All this means that, content-wise, the more you know, the less clearly you write.

We’re all subject matter experts (SMEs). It’s just content designers are experts in writing accessible, user-centred content. Policy and operational SMEs:

  • bring a wealth of valuable knowledge of their subject area
  • make sure that what’s published is accurate, up to date and not misleading

3. Once you have your design then you add your content

How to create a website. 1. Create a design 2. Add content to it. Right? Well, no actually.

As Jeffrey Zeldman, Creative Director (Special Projects) at Automattic, the company that owns, says, “content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

Harsh but true.

Users don’t go to websites for the stunning design. They go because they’ve got something they need to do – book flights, buy groceries or find out if they can get help paying for childcare. They can’t do that without content.

This isn’t to say that graphic design and interaction design don’t matter. They do. No-one wants to live in a world where the font Hellvetica (Helvetica’s evil cousin) is king. Or where it’s never clear how to log out of an online account.

But this shouldn’t be a production line scenario. Design and content have to work together to find the solution that best meets user needs and business objectives.

Using a content first approach can help. It’s a way of working that uses content to shape the layout and elements in a design, instead of the other way around.

The problem with designs that use Lorem Ipsum and other kinds of placeholder text, is they don’t reflect what their combination of design and text needs to do. And they don’t take into account headings or subheadings, or the volume of content needed.

Being content-first helps us create and organise services in a way that’s going to help users do what they need to effectively.

4. User needs and business needs are the same thing

No, they’re not.

An example that Jiaona Zhang, Director of Product at We Work, gives in her blog post about minimum loveable products illustrates this perfectly.

Airbnb had to increase the supply of homes available for people to stay in. (A business need.)

But their customers weren’t fussed about more homes in places they didn’t want to visit. What they wanted was more specific – places to stay in extraordinary locations like: a 15th century castle in Ireland, a lakeside cabin in Iceland or a treehouse in Cornwall.

So Airbnb needed to give its users more options by increasing its supply of homes in desirable locations. That’s a user need. Because it focuses on a genuine benefit for users.

Putting effort upfront by prioritising user needs will save you time and energy in the long run. It means it’s more likely that your users will:

  • use your content instead of going to less reliable sources of information
  • find your content, get what they need from it and so reduce the emails, calls and complaints you get

5. Making content as detailed as possible saves everyone time in the end

This seems pretty sensible. You write up everything you think users need to know about a subject then put it in one place. Job done.

But as P Diddy almost said: more detail, more problems. The ‘everything including the kitchen sink, dishwasher and fridge’ approach means users have to trawl through a heap of content that has nothing to do with what they want to know, or do, to get to what they actually want.

That’s not a good use of their time and doesn’t foster goodwill or trust.

An example of this is a certain type of cookie notice. You know the one. It pops up, hides the content you want, then confronts you with a wall of impenetrable text about:

  • privacy settings
  • required cookies and technologies
  • site customisation
  • personalised advertising

Are you after specifics about cookies written in a way that’s hard to understand, and interrupts the task at hand? No. All you want are clear, easy options to choose from and for the stuff you’re not interested in to disappear.

Users shouldn’t have to forage for information. You should give them what they need (and no more), when they need it and in the way that makes most sense to them.

6. Content design is the same as copywriting

Content design and copywriting have different focuses.

Copywriting’s about selling an idea, approach or point of view and persuading people to take action. For example to:

  • buy a product
  • sign up to a service
  • join a campaign
  • support an organisation

Content design isn’t about what you want users to do. It’s about finding the best way to help them do what they need to do.

As Ben Clancy rightly says in his blog post about content design in Defra, you’re a content designer if you, “create [user-centred] content that users can:

  • find – using the same words in content that users do in their search terms
  • understand – by writing in plain English
  • act on – by making the actions clear and easy to use”

7. Subject matter experts are close enough to users to know what they want

Because subject matter experts (SMEs) work closely with users, they have a good sense of what users are looking for, and their pain points and concerns.

Although SMEs’ insights are a valuable and helpful starting point, they’re a byproduct of their interactions with users, not the focus.

That’s why specific research needs to be done that produces data that supports, challenges or builds on what SMEs already know. This includes:

  • keyword research
  • face-to-face interviews with users
  • seeing what users are saying in online forums

All these things help us fully understand exactly who users are and what they need to do. They also help us to avoid making design decisions that aren’t based on the whole picture.

8. One person on their own can create good content

No, they can’t.

At the very least, you need a kind soul who’s going to:

  • sense check your content
  • make sure there are no typos or glaring errors
  • see if it meets your content standards

Before you even get to that stage, a user researcher should be involved to help you find out who your users are and what they need.

Then you need to get a subject matter expert involved to do some pair writing (a process where subject matter experts and content designers get together to create content).

After that, your user researchers should get back on board to do usability testing (where you put what you’ve designed in front of users so you can see if/how it works in reality).

This tells you anything about users’ behaviour and way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered (and there’s always something that you haven’t already considered).

Depending on the kind of content you’re producing, you may also need input from:

One person doesn’t have all the content answers. You can’t create genuinely useful content, without the skills, knowledge and expertise of colleagues from a range of professions.

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