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What is content design?

Content design done well answers two questions for users: What does this product do?” and How does it work?” Content design done really well answers another question too: Why should I use it?”

Content design is part of product design. It improves usability in software products through the use of clear and conversational language. The discipline of content design includes information architecture, principles and standards, conversation design, product narratives, taxonomies, tone frameworks, and more.

Content designers partner with visual and interaction designers, product managers, technical writers, localization engineers, product marketing managers, and brand teams to shape the look and feel of a user experience.

What’s the point of content design?

If you have a job at a technology company, you’re probably adding to an ever-growing pile of web pages, videos, ads, tweets, and documents that collectively describe the software you sell. (Unless you work in facilities, in which case, thank you.) And the software your company builds is itself loaded with screens, components, interactions, symbols, icons, and of course, words.

It’s a mountain of concepts that millions of humans use every single day. But without meaning, a mountain of concepts is impossible to climb.

The branch of knowledge concerning the meaning of individual concepts is called semantics. Providing meaning to clusters of complex and related concepts, however, requires narrative.

Narrative is the momentum propelling the words you are reading right now. It’s not enough to know what a word means. What you really want to know is: what’s the point?

Without an underlying narrative, user experiences are disjointed. They are frustrating to use and impossible to navigate. (Give this one a try.) Establishing the narrative flow doesn’t happen by accident. It must be designed. This is the point of content design.

How to content design”?

You need three things to design content.

People Standards Patterns
For content design to make sense, you need to know who the user is and what they’re thinking. For content design to be consistent, you needs guiding principles and conventions. For design to happen quickly, you need to identify repeated problems and solve them.

Maybe you’re not convinced.

Do I really need people?

Yeah. They use and pay for your software. And they generally have a choice about the matter so you need to design with them in mind. Your users are part of the content design process.

Do I really need standards?

Double yeah. Without standards you’ll taste two flavors of confusion:

Internal confusion
No company ever sets out to work in silos”. It’s a communication problem. It’s solved when everyone agrees on how to communicate. When folks talk about the same thing in different ways, it makes effective knowledge transfer impossible.

Here’s a question: What does your product do? Can you describe it in a sentence using plain language? Here’s a less simple question: Would everyone on your team give the same answer? Would everyone in your company give the same answer?

In music, a harmony is achieved when two notes with the same wavelength are played simultaneously and the resulting chord is louder than the sum of its parts. The opposite of harmony is dissonance. Standards are like sheet music: they keep everyone in sync.

External confusion
Users feel the pain too. Inconsistency in terminology makes a system challenging to learn and frustrating to use. Ever navigate a neighborhood with multiple streets with the same name?

Consistent voice and tone is important too. It might seem like a nice to have,” but remember, some folks will use your software all day, every day. A disjointed semantic model and clumsy product narrative can slowly wear a groove in your users’ brains.

These are real humans with lives outside our software. Build a product that treats them with respect.

Do I really need patterns?

Not necessarily. Go ahead and build things from scratch every single time. You might be good at it. But it’s a pain in the ass. And every time you approach a design problem without considering what’s happened before, you risk introducing inconsistencies and making mistakes.

For users, repetition is a part of learning; conventions make a product easier to learn. Patterns are how you do this. So while, you could design content without patterns, it’s not recommended.

In summary

Content designers are the folks responsible for the narrative flow of a user experience. While we certainly tinker with words, that’s like saying an interaction designer tinkers with boxes. We use language to create conversational experience with real people, develop and maintain standards to ensure a quality experience, and leverage patterns to do all of it consistently and at scale.