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8 November 2022

10 songs to remind me of what I’ve learnt as a content designer

Jonathan Lorrimer

Despite it now being the 9th fastest growing job title, content design still feels like a new profession.

I started as a content designer in 2017 after 10 years in the public sector, editing and designing websites. When friends and family asked about my new job, they didn’t have a clue what a content designer was. Many of my colleagues didn’t. There were times I wasn’t sure either.

It took me a while to work out where I fit in and what I should be doing. The only other content designers in my department were in a different office, 80 miles away. I felt isolated and had little support.

Working at Hippo is very different. We have a large community of content designers that work on projects across many diverse organisations.

We meet regularly to share any content challenges we have or how we can improve our ways of working.  

Aside from content design, my other love is the bass guitar. I’ve played in groups since the age of 13, and I still enjoy discovering new music.

At Hippo, every Friday is SpotiFriday, where many of us contribute songs to a playlist. This is always based on a topical theme, such as the weather or current events.

My playlist theme for this blog is: 10 songs to remind me of what I’ve learnt as a content designer

1: More than Words – Extreme

You might need to tell people what you do.

Bill Gates once said, “Content is King”, but content designers are often the most underrated role in service teams. People assume we just write words.

We are responsible for helping people get the information they need in the way they need it.

This involves: 

  • looking at the entire user journey
  • translating difficult concepts into easy-to-understand content
  • planning the design of how, where and when it appears.

2: Wordy Rappinghood – Tom Tom Club

Learn which words to use or avoid.

You need to learn the tone of voice of any organisation you work with, but GOV.UK’s style guide is widely considered to be the benchmark. You must read it if you’re serious about becoming a content designer.

The section on words to avoid is an excellent lesson in Plain English.

For example:  Instead of saying ‘going/moving forward’, say ‘from now on’ or ‘in the future’ (it’s unlikely we are giving travel directions).

3: It’s all wrong – Korn

Be pedantic.

Don’t be afraid to call out something that doesn’t look right. You’re not being annoying (as long as you do it politely). It’s your job.

Take time to learn and understand how the service you’re working on fits together. You need to think about what happens when something goes wrong. We’ve all used websites that have left us feeling confused, angry and frustrated.Elephant in a room

There might be a good reason something isn’t done as you’d expect but always ask. Everyone else might have missed the obvious error you can see. Be the person that points out the elephant in the room.

Talking of which…

4: Jive Talking – Bee Gees

Don’t use metaphors, jargon, slang or colloquial language.

Keep your message simple. It will make it easy to translate into other languages.

If you can, test your content on someone whose first language isn’t English. Cultural context means they might spot something you’ve overlooked.

Avoid business jargon.

It sounds important and professional, but it’s hard to understand and doesn’t impress anyone.

This is from a public sector intranet I worked on. 

This approach utilises robust information combined with appropriate business capabilities to optimise the investment choices we make to ensure we maximise the performance return we achieve from each pound we spend.”

I’ve read this sentence hundreds of times. I still struggle to understand it or why someone would write it. It uses complex words where simpler ones will do.

Why do we use this kind of language at work? Outside of work, do we talk about “utilising robust information”? 

People prefer plain English because it allows them to understand information as quickly as possible.

Read your content back to yourself. What looks okay on a screen can often sound very bad when you say it aloud. 

5: Too many words – The Suicide Machines

Keep your content concise.

If you can remove a word and your content still makes sense – do it.

Often, you can cut 25% and not lose one iota of meaning. Users want to digest content and quickly complete tasks.

Lay out your content in bite size chunks. It should be a snack, not a buffet.

Imagine different scenarios where users are reading your content. They might be at an airport departure gate, the top deck of a bus or in a crowd queuing to get into a football match. Users don’t have time to read through reams of unnecessary detail.

On the average web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

And never ask for any information you don’t need. If it’s not clear why you’re asking for it, explain why you need it and how it helps the user.

On one service I worked on, the response rate to a question improved by 95% when we explained the benefits of answering it. 

6: Does your Mother Know – Abba

Would my mum understand this?

People’s functional abilities to use services vary. Sight, hearing, physical ability, literacy levels and memory range considerably. When I write, I sometimes imagine if my parents would understand it. They have visual impairments and, like many people their age, have a high level of digital resistance. 

It’s always useful to have these kinds of personas in mind.

And don’t think about the obvious disabilities. An autistic person may have difficulties with understanding and processing your content. They often find it easier to understand clear, consistent language rather than abstract turns of phrases.

Defra has an excellent list of accessibility testing tools that can help you understand how accessible your content is. 

7: A Design for Life – Manic Street Preachers

Would this pass a Government Digital Service (GDS) assessment?

If you’re working on a GOV.UK service, GDS will assess your service at some point. This can be quite a scary prospect, a bit like taking a driving test, but they are essential to getting your content live. It’s important you are aware of their standards and that your team is too.

Get to know the GOV.UK Design System. There are patterns, components and styles you should always try to use with your content.

Dancing catsIf anyone insists that you put dancing cats across the top of the page, refer them to the Government Design Principles. Make it clear their service will fail any assessment.

It’s easier than telling them dancing cats is a terrible idea.

If your service passes the assessment and goes live, it can be very satisfying, especially if your content is still there many years later. Something to show your kids!

8: We Can Work It Out – The Beatles

Get to know everyone in your team.

You’ll need to build strong relationships with everyone in your team, especially with user researchers and interaction designers. You’ll be spending a lot of time with them.

It also pays to be friendly with the developer team. They’ll be trying to build in your content fixes and will often query last-minute amendments before they go live.

Get to as many social or in-person events as possible when you first start. Virtual meetings are fine, but it’s nice to actually meet the people you’ll be working with.

9: One Way or Another – Blondie

There are many ways of saying the same thing.

Don’t be precious about your work. When you play back your content to your team, someone from a different profession might suggest another way of saying something. It might be better. It might be worse. Someone has probably suggested to me a better way of writing this blog!

Stay humble. Don’t grumble. If it’s better, accept it. If you disagree, explain why. No one expects you to be right about everything. Ultimately, real users will test your content.

If it doesn’t test well, you’ll just have to find another way to make it work. It’s what keeps the job interesting.

10: This Monkey’s gone to Heaven – Pixies

Look out for monkeys!

What is the passive voice, and why do we try to use the active voice instead?

Passive voice often creates unclear, less direct, wordy sentences.

Active voice creates clearer, more concise sentences. It’s easier to read and understand, especially for web pages. It also makes it clear who is doing what.

To change a sentence from passive to active voice, determine who or what performs the action, and use that person or thing as the subject of the sentence.

Use writing apps like Hemingway Editor to highlight passive content, or follow this great advice I got from a colleague.

Add “by monkeys” to the end of a sentence. If it still makes sense, there’s a good chance it’s passive. 

For example:

Passive – This bug will be fixed (by monkeys)
Active – We’ll fix this bug

I hope this blog helps you understand the role of a content designer, and if not, enjoy the playlist!

Find out more about how Hippo does

Experience, content and service design