In Conversation: Content Design with Sarah Richards

In Conversation: Content Design with Sarah Richards

British native, Sarah Richards is widely regarded as the leading voice in the practice of Content Design. After writing and publishing her book of the same name, she recently found her way to Australia where she championed this emergent practice across many days of industry presentations and Q & A’s.

I was fortunate to be able to steal some of Sarah’s time while she was in Melbourne. I wanted to get a broader insight into her book and how Content Design differentiates itself from other specialised fields within User Experience.

Q: How does UX Writing differ from Content Design?

(Laughs) There’s a whole blog post in this! There are two parts to this. One is the UX thing.

At Government Digital Services in Britain where I worked for 10 years, we actually took UX out of people’s titles because User Experience is everybody’s responsibility, right? I mean, what are you doing if you’re not doing UX?

A lot of people will see UX writing as Microcopy in transactions. They don’t do long-form copy. So, they won’t do information pages, they won’t do selling pages, they won’t do landing pages, they don’t do any of that. They just do microcopy in transactions. And for some people, that’s what a UX Writer is.

This is where the confusion comes.

Content Design, as a term was used for the British Government at the time as I wanted to change the conversation around what we were doing. UX writing wasn’t prevalent then and it wasn’t relevant for us because we were doing more than microcopy.  More than tools and transactions. I wanted Content Designers to understand the whole journey. Do all the data, do all the evidence, be present in the research process. Understand all of that information and then pull it across to wherever it needs to be in the user’s journey.

Again, some UX writers do that. But some won’t then go on to write letters, which is very important because for government, the letters that they send out to people are often the first interaction people have with the organisation. That letter then sends them to a website. If those two communications don’t match, then there’s discombobulation going on in the experience.

Q: It’s true that in different work environments, terms and titles can mean different things. Is this a problem for the legitimacy of the practice?

There are in fact different titles we can call ourselves right?

Content Strategist, Content Designers, Content Writers, Editors, Technical Writers, UX Writers. And often we all have mix of the skills. But they won’t be the same. They’ll be a mix of them. Some people are just picking up a title so that they can get paid more money.

That’s a nightmare. It’s a total nightmare! I walked into a new project once, and I had been told prior to that, “Oh, we’ve got a team of established Content Designers.” I was delighted!

So I walked in on the Monday and said to the team, “Right, we’ve got three days of discovery, and then we’re going to do this and we’re going to Critique on Thursday and then we’re going to sketch words on Friday and then we’ll have the best version out by next week…”

They all looked at me horrified. They had no idea what I meant.

I was mortified because I looked like a twat.

It’s all because I just figured that they all knew what I was talking about because they called themselves Content Designers. They were copywriters and they’d just changed their titles. It was literally mortifying. I think I blushed for three days straight.

Q: How does the term fit? Are you a Content Designer or are you a UX Writer, and what does it depend on?

It depends on what you do before you put any fingers to a keyboard. That’s the main difference between any of these titles. A copywriter, for example, would generally be given a brief and say, “There you go. We’re going to do a tube ad in the summer. This is the subject.” And they will create an environment and they will sell and they will inspire and they will make you love the thing. They may be given some language. They may be given some insight. But in a lot of advertising places around the world, you’ll get none of that because you are expected to inspire.

With UX, again, it maybe that you have a lot of insight from your research, but you have edges to your digital sphere that you’re working in. Whereas Content Design needs to understand a lot. For me, it’s not Content Strategy. A lot of people call Content Designers Content Strategists as well. But I think Content Strategy is more about holding the strategy itself. Who’s doing what, when they’re doing it, who’s got governmental control. All of those things. And Content Design delivers that strategy. There’s this blog post on my site explaining the difference and there’s a little tool that you can go through and answer five questions. It will tell you what sort of writer you are.

Q: In your book there is a big chapter on facilitation and collaboration. If you take that out of the practice of Content Design, what does it become?

This just becomes how to write for the web! Very much choosing the format. Is it a tool, a calculator, a calendar, a video, what is it? Then it’s just a bunch of techniques on how to produce content that is most usable to the audience who is using it at the time.

Q: OK, so what does facilitation give it then?

I find that with most content people, actually producing content is like 30 to 50% of the job. The rest of it is talking to people to get their ideas through. Talking to the organisation about why they can’t have four and a half thousand words on how to put on a jumper. Talking to the organisation is actually a huge part of the content person’s job. That’s why the facilitation is in there, because you can have all the best training in the world, you can have all the content techniques, you can do all the discovery and research. If you can’t communicate that to the person who’s blocking you it’s null and void. Which is a shame. It shouldn’t be but it’s just reality at the moment.

Q: Do you think that content on a site should be frictionless and smooth, or should it be enjoyable too, should it be obvious, should it be loud?

I think it depends on the audience. If you are buying Viagra for example, no. You just need to do the thing. As quick as you can. If you want to be entertained, if an author is launching a new book, you need prose and language because you’re pulling people in and you’re selling something and you’re inspiring them.

If it’s entirely transactional, you can still have your tone.

Some people are saying that Content Design is functional and Content Marketing can’t use Content Design techniques. I really hate that and I disagree. As a person who coined the term, I think I get to say that’s utter bollocks. Because it’s a bunch of techniques that you use to find your user, where they are and what channel they’re on and what language they’re using and what they care about.

How can you not use that in marketing?

How can you not use that in advertising and sales?

It’s exactly the same thing. I think it entirely depends on your audience. Where they are in the journey of whatever it is that they’re doing, and you should manage that appropriately.

Q: What was your motivation to write the book?

The book actually came out because I was running courses and I wanted to give something to people to remember the course afterwards. We hammer through a lot. You get very tired because of a lot of it is new techniques, but based on stuff that they’ve already done.

So that can sometimes be a bit harder, because the people you are teaching are in an industry and they understand what they’re doing. They think, “Oh, this is just a bit of a little something on top.” Then they realise that we’re going to take away that foundation they know and then build up.

So it can get quite confusing. It’s really intense. It’s a very intense course. So I wanted to give them something to go away with afterwards, and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. At one point, I was like, “This is just ridiculous. It’s now a small book.”

It actually took six days to write. Six weeks to muck about with and then two years to publish! I spoke with two publishers and they wouldn’t let me get away with the layout I wanted. They wanted it to look like any other textbook.

So I decided to self-publish because and I’m like, “It’s a book about Content Design. About how content AND design work together. I don’t want it to look like every other textbook.” People are not interested in reading an academic textbook. As a reader you have to be totally absorbed with your subject.

Q: What was the process like for you as an editor and content person, having your work dissected and combed through and critiqued?

I think actually going through a process like that gives you a better understanding of what it’s like to be on the other end of a Content Designer. When they’re saying, “Why are we saying that? Why have we got four and a half thousand words on how to put on a jumper. That’s ridiculous.”

Q: What difference do you hope this book makes for the world of Design

Funnily enough, when I first wrote it, content people picked it up. We do get a lot of Journalists and Copywriters and Technical Writers picking it up to see how different it is from the thing they’re already doing. But now what I’ve found is that content people are buying it and giving it to Designers, Product Managers and Service Designers. They’re like, “This is what we do. Stop telling me to proofread your work. I don’t do that. This is what I do.” It’s a small book. It takes like two hours to read and it’s designed in a funky way that makes people kind of stop and sit back.

I hope people are finding it easier to just say, this is a thing now, because there’s a book about it. Rather than justifying their position all the time. That’s humans talking to each other and they bring all their baggage with them. Whereas, this is an independent thing that sits outside of all that and it can articulate what they do that other people in the organisation wont see because the Content Designers are doing their jobs… Also it if just sways a couple of Product Managers and Service Designers and Designers to talk to their content people, I would be happy!

You can learn more about Sarah’s work and Content Design at

https://contentdesign.london/

Richard Buck
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Richard Buck
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