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15 December 2021

What have I learned in my first month as a Hippo content designer?

Nick Johnstone-Waddell

by Nick Johnstone-Waddell

I’ve worked in content design for a long time (though I’m not as old as my children like to make out!). Officially, it’s been since 2013, when I joined Public Health England (PHE). But I’ve been designing content for a lot longer than that without using the term. If you cut me open, you’d see the principles of user-centred design etched on my heart!

When I knew that PHE was closing, it seemed like the perfect time to think about my career and look for an opportunity to extend my content design skills into new areas.

I found Hippo quite by chance, but I immediately liked what I heard about them. Not only with great serendipity had they just opened a satellite office in Manchester (a short tram ride rather than the 3 ½ hour commute I used to have) but their work is predominantly in the public sector. Having spent almost my entire career in the NHS and government, this was important to me, though I looked forward to working on a greater variety of projects.

I hadn’t been interviewed for a brand new job for 20 years so it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I went into my interview with the principal content designer. I was really pleased that my background as a government content designer made me a good fit with Hippo and was thrilled to be offered the job.

I’m now into my second month. But rather than feeling like a newbie it already seems like I’ve been here for years. I think that’s a good sign!

So what have I learned so far?

Supporting the public sector

I’ve definitely learned that the public and private sectors both have a vital and complementary part to play in the development of high-quality public services. I’ve sometimes seen people being quite dismissive about the role of the private sector, perhaps due to examples of companies either unable to provide the value they’d promised in their sales pitches, or else just using the public sector as a cash cow.

But companies like Hippo can provide both the skills and capacity that the public sector just doesn’t have. I’ve already seen what a perfect match it is when government policy experts and Hippo user-centred designers join up to collaboratively design a great service.

I can think of so many projects in my last job where a company like Hippo could have delivered in a short space of time something that we grappled with for years — or put to one side because we didn’t have the expertise. In Hippo, the constant focus on delivery is really energising.

Content design for services

From a content design perspective, I’ve learned about the similarities and differences between content design for guidance, which is what I mainly used to do, and content design for government services, which is what I do now. I really enjoy both but it’s great to now be working on services that millions of people will use rather than guidance which, while important, might only be relevant to a relatively small group of people.

Working on services, I might be thinking about a couple of sentences on a page or the wording of a button. But it’s no less challenging than a long piece of guidance. I can spend hours obsessing about individual words. But when you realise just how many people can make use of a service on GOV.UK, it’s obviously right that we do the hard work to make it simple for users. A confusing, clunky or badly thought out service can waste people’s time, lead to a negative perception of government and put pressure on other support channels such as contact centres.

While my Bible used to be the GOV.UK style guide, it’s now the Design System. I’m sure I’ve been dreaming about components and patterns! I’ve also had the opportunity to develop my prototyping skills and was delighted to be able to share some early page designs with the team. The work is more technical than in my last job but I really enjoy that.

Multidisciplinary working

In the civil service, I often had to wear multiple hats — content designer, user researcher, public health expert, communications lead and so on — and often felt I wasn’t doing any of them quite as well as I’d like. Now I’m working with dedicated — and massively experienced — user researchers, user experience designers, service designers and business analysts, all supported by a brilliant delivery manager and under the watchful and supportive eye of a principal consultant.

It really feels as if between us we can accomplish (almost) anything!


Despite agile being promoted across the whole of government as a way of working, we never really did it whole-heartedly. Waterfall working is still incredibly embedded in many parts of the civil service. Working in a fully agile way now is really exciting, though I’ve had to give myself a quick refresher of the principles and terminology!

I love my early morning stand-ups. The retros at the end of each 2-week sprint also mean that we’re constantly learning, improving and adapting to better meet the needs of the client.

The right tools

Finally, I’ve learned the importance of having the right collaborative tools. Government is still very much based around email but apps like Slack have transformed how I keep in touch with the team, especially while we’re more home-based and less able to collaborate in person.

So huge thanks to all my brilliant new colleagues for making me feel so welcome at Hippo. While I miss my lovely ex-colleagues very much, I know I’ve made the right move.