What is content design: the art of context and the science of usability

2022-09 Content Design
Published
September 29, 2022
Category

Strategy

Content design is the practice of creating content experiences that meet a user's intent, contextual expectations, and usability needs.

Content design was not even a role just 10 years ago. Today it’s the ninth-fastest growing job role in the UK, according to LinkedIn. As an emerging practice, content design is pulling professionals from nearby functions, creating a cohort of content strategists, copywriters, UX writers, and web designers.

In this post, we’ll explore how together, these writers, designers, and technologists are establishing what is to be one of the most critical roles in the digitization of commerce, educational, and entertainment experiences.

How content design works

Would you like to see an example of content design in action? Scroll back to the first sentence of this post. It attempts to deliver on intent, context, and usability. 

Intent: The majority of you reading this article came from a Google search. Your intent is to get a quick definition of content design. To best deliver on that intent, the definition of content design is the very first thing you see rather than having to dig for it. 

Context: This article is written in a blog format because the majority of page-one search results for “content design” on Google are blogs. This means people searching the query have traditionally preferred getting their answers in a blog format.

Usability: This is less applicable to the first sentence, but I’ll be doing my best to make this blog:

  1. Scannable so you can quickly determine if you want to keep reading. 

  2. Appropriately illustrated to help you contextualize new information within your existing knowledge. 

  3. Properly linked so that you can take intuitive next steps if you so please. 

These examples are not all-inclusive of content design by any means, but they illustrate a key concept of the discipline: content can’t just exist; it needs to be presented in a way that is useful and usable by people. 

The emergence of content design

Sarah Richards (formerly Sarah Winters) coined and popularized the term in 2017 with her book, Content Design. This was after her team at the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service took over 400 disparate government websites and transformed them into a single site designed to optimize the user experience. Richards has since created and runs Content Design London, the leading consultancy in content design. 

In September of 2020, Clay Delk, the then content strategy lead at Shopify, announced Shopify would be changing the name of their content strategy discipline to content design. “Content design clearly describes our work and our output, and it reinforces our role as partners in crafting Shopify experiences,” Delk said. 

Just a month later in October 2020, Elizabeth Carr, the then head of content strategy at Facebook, announced Facebook would be renaming their content strategy team the content design team. “We proceed as content designers,” Carr said, “people who design in words, concepts, systems and terminology, voice and tone, and who know how much these things matter in solving problems for the people who use our products around the world.” 

Today, there are over 7,000 content design-related job listings on LinkedIn. While quickly growing in popularity, the discipline is still maturing and formalizing the exact parameters of its function. Doing a spot search across the many job descriptions, you’ll find a variety of familiar competencies like user experience (UX), content strategy, information architecture, and web content writing. 

Since its inception, the foundation of content design has been an obsession with using language as effectively as possible within digital experiences to help people best achieve their goals. 

The “Design” in Content Design

Like many emerging disciplines, content design combines content with an adjacent practice. In this case, design – and more specifically, user-centered design

User-centered design approaches every problem, product, experience or piece of content from the user’s perspective. It aims at fully understanding the user journey through techniques like user research, user testing, and ongoing product/design iteration that force creators to develop functional empathy for their users that inform what and how they create. 

At its core, user-centered design investigates several questions:

  1. What is the user journey? (i.e., What is the context in which a user is engaging with your thing?)

  2. What are the requirements a user needs to achieve their goal? (e.g., Are there accessibility needs, technology constraints, or device considerations?)

  3. How well is your thing delivering on context and requirements and how can it do so better? (This is where testing and iteration happens to continually improve upon the content experience.) 

We’ll get deeper into how design thinking and the design process manifest in content in a later section, “Common elements of content design,” but first a quick digression to emphasize the importance of user-first thinking. 

Music theory offers a helpful analogy here. You are probably familiar with the concept of pitch. What you might not be familiar with is that pitch consists of two things: notes and tones. A note is something a musician plays whereas a tone is what a listener hears. Both, notes and tones, refer to the same thing but to a different experience of it. Pitch is an agreement between the musician and listener. If you are off pitch, what is played is not accurately heard. The musician needs to tune their instrument. 

Similarly, if a user’s needs are not fully accommodated in a design, that content may exist but will not work in harmony with the user. 

How content design fits with other content disciplines

To further understand what content design is, it’s helpful to understand where it sits within the evolving landscape of content. 

There are four (+ one) content disciplines worth discussing. They are content strategy, content engineering, content operations, and content design. Content marketing is the plus one that has often sat outside of traditional strategy conversations but needs to be included as it drives and shapes the user journey. 

Very smart people have done very smart work defining these categories. My definitions below are just a riff on their great work. 

See: 

To further understand what content design is, it’s helpful to understand where it sits within the evolving landscape of content.

Content strategy: Content strategy takes a holistic view at the full body of content a company produces, including the systems and technology that manage it. This end-to-end oversight informs what content is created and how it is organized, delivered, governed and measured. Content strategy sets the frameworks for other content disciplines. 

Content engineering: I’ll quote John Collins here: “Content engineering is the practice of organizing the shape, structure, and application of content.” This gets at how content is organized in backend systems, how it is structured so that it can be ingested by technologies, and how it is labeled with metadata so that it can be found and used by systems and people. 

Content operations: Content operations is the engine that moves content through its end-to-end lifecycle. This includes orchestrating the people and processes that create and deliver content as well as ensuring content is properly governed and maintained. You can learn more about content ops in this video, “Content operations explained.” 

Content design: As defined above, content design is the practice of creating content experiences that meet a user's intent, contextual expectations, and usability needs. 

Content marketing: Content marketing uses editorial experiences to introduce a product’s value within the context of a user’s pain points, needs or interests. It is often the first interaction people have with a brand and initiates their experience with its content and products. 

Common elements of content design

To create content that delivers on user intent, context, and usability needs, content design employs a portfolio of elements that surface user needs and prioritize their experiences. 

User research 

User research gets firsthand qualitative and quantitative data from users. This can be in the form of user studies, interviews, and surveys. The goal is to get a deep understanding of the behavioral and mental models users have and then design content that accommodates them. 

User stories 

User stories document user goals and motivations uncovered in user research, creating referenceable guidance content designers use to inform the content they create. 

Sarah Richards created simple user story templates like the one below to make these tools as useful as possible for content designers. 

“As a [person in a particular role] I want to [perform an action or find something out] so that [I can achieve my goal of…]”

Journey map 

A journey map plots the key milestones a specific user (persona) takes to complete a specific goal. Journey maps take user research and user stories and contextualizes them within each step a person takes. This helps content designs know why a goal is important to someone as well as how each content interaction is supporting their progress toward that goal.  

Atlassian’s Customer journey mapping playbook is a great resource for learning more. 

Behavioral data

Once content is live, behavioral data captures how a user engages with the words, videos, graphics, calls-to-action (CTAs), etc., that comprise that content. Behavioral data like page views, button clicks, page-scroll depth, video plays and dropoffs, cart abandonments, and other engagement metrics offer content designers information that can be used to test and improve users’ experience with content. 

Content hierarchies 

Content hierarchies identify how information is consumed. This allows content designers to organize information for users in order of importance. The gif below, which you may have seen around content Twitter, is a great example of a content hierarchy. 

Content Hierarchy

Content patterns 

Similar to design patterns, content patterns codify repeatable language strings, stylings, and presentation. This includes names and spelling used in body text, microcopy used in interface design, as well as the page-placement of these things. The goal is to identify repeating content patterns and standardize them so that users have an intuitive, consistent experience with your content. 

Writing style guide

Finally, the writing style guide is often the backbone of content design. With the popularity of content design, many writing style guides are now being called content design guides or content design systems. These guides define the editorial standards a company subscribes to, the tone and voice of their content, and often words lists, inclusive language guidance, content patterns and UX formatting standards. 

One of the most impressive style guides I’ve seen is part of Intuit’s content design system

What’s next for content design?

With its emphasis on both user experience and content usability, content design as a discipline is only going to grow in importance. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how the content ecosystem evolves it and is evolved by it. 

For some additional info on related topics, check out these other reads:

As I said throughout this blog, content design is still very much emerging and taking shape. You might have a different opinion on its definition and scope. Tag us on Twitter, @Contentful, and share your thoughts.

Take a tour!

See Contentful in action with a personalized walkthrough.

About the author

Don't miss the latest

Get updates in your inbox
Discover how to build better digital experiences with Contentful.
add-circle arrow-right remove style-two-pin-marker subtract-circle