The principles of content design

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Content design is the principled use of language to help people do things in a user experience. These are the principles I use to structure my work and know which language will lead to the right outcomes.

  1. Start with the story
  2. Respect the user
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Solve the real problem

Start with the story

Do not truncate or wrap text. How strange to make a container that can’t contain the content. It’s not the content that needs to change. Content comes first.” –Jared Meyer, Content Designer

Write for people not boxes

Content-first design is the radical concept in which you consider what you are trying to say before saying it. It’s writing the script before shooting the scenes.

It’s surprising how often content designers are asked to cram content into an already-built set of wireframes or designs. Resist the impulse to fill in the blanks” just because you are asked to. It’s your responsibility, dear content designer, to think in a content-first way.

Write for people not for boxes. Start with the story and work your way out.

Respect the user

Every alert in software might as well be saying Hey, idiot.’” –John Hull, UX Designer

If you already adopt the principle of unconditional positive regard, you can skip this. For the rest of you: respect the user.

The user isn’t stupid

Users don’t want to deal with complexity and they shouldn’t have to. If they can’t use your software, your software is too complex. A content designer tackles complexity, wrestles it to the mat, and breaks it into bite-sized chunks so your users don’t have to.

The user doesn’t want to think

Users shouldn’t have to learn software. It should feel intuitive, easy, and dare I say it, fun”? A content designer teaches without teaching. Like the technicians who light a stage play, you illuminate without being seen yourself. If this sounds hard, it’s because it is.

The user doesn’t want to read

Users don’t want to read your tooltips or play whack-a-mole with endless popups designed to further your marketing goals. A content designer doesn’t get paid by the word. Go easy on exposition and provide instruction only when needed.

The user can do what they want

Your user doesn’t care that much about your business goals. (Sorry!) They are using your software for their own selfish, weird, unpredictable needs. A content designer must let the user be the hero. Regard the user as a whole person with autonomy (not a dollar sign), and your experiences will shine.

Look for patterns

Principles are higher than techniques. Principles produce techniques in an instant.” –Ido Portal

If you are writing an error message from scratch every single time, you’re doing it wrong. Write less and design more. Be on the hunt for patterns and create standards around those patterns.

Patterns > principles

I say pattern instead of principles because we are looking for repeated moments in our user experience that we can codify into standards. It’s nothing too highfalutin.

From the user’s point of view, an error message is an annotation some behavior they do. Your content should reinforce the behaviors that help the user reach their goals.

Patterns ensure the user doesn’t process this information as new every time. That’s why we use specific icons and colors to indicate errors. They are shorthand for you’re not able to proceed this way” and let the user quickly understand that they should try another action.

Patters are cookie cutters. If that sounds pejorative, then I implore you to go eat some cookies. There’s nothing wrong with cookies that all look the same, they’re just as delicious. Cookie cutters enable uniformity at scale.

If you want to ship quality design, quickly, over and over again, then you need to abstract away some thinking. Learn to look for patterns. The hard part of content design isn’t the words. It’s learning how to write patterns that make sense.

Solve the real problem

You can’t have a baby without the birth pains.” –Something my old boss used to say

It’s not standard operating procedure

I’m going to level with you. Much of the time you won’t get to solve the real problem. Why not?

And most difficult of all:

In other words, solving the right problem is not standard operating procedure for most product teams (that I have worked on at least).

Cue training montage

If you want to solve the real problem you might have to fight for the privilege.

You have to learn to uncover the user’s real world desires. You have read between the lines and think beyond the immediate solution space.

You’ll start to question the work on your plate and think about the bigger picture. You’ll learn to gently push back on band-aid solutions. You’ll start to think like the user and feel their pain. It’s hard work solving the real problem, but it’s worth it.

Summary

My four principles of content design are:

  1. Start with the story
  2. Respect the user
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Solve the real problem

Feel free to adopt these as your own, especially if you are someone getting started in content design. If you’re on a mature content design team you probably have your own principles, but it’s useful to continuously ask: are these principles leading to the right outcomes? Are these principles easy to follow? I plan to revise these principles from time to time, as I learn more about content design.