What is content design? And why does it matter?

Let’s start by putting this into some context. Content Design is not copywriting. Content Design is a part of User Experience Design (UX).

And for those who don’t know, User Experience is how someone feels about the product they are interacting with. Does it meet my needs? Is it a pleasure to use? If not, what do I find frustrating about it?

UX design is ‘user-centred’. This means, as designers, we consider our design choices through the eyes of the person using the product. There are clear advantages to this. The speed of technological advancement means businesses now compete on the smallest of margins. What is popular today may well be replaced by something more appealing next year. A good user experience is often the business advantage. For example, the reason why someone on a mobile phone might prefer using Citymapper over Apple Maps, or even Google Maps.

Businesses can no longer rely on being one of the few out there making the product you’re using. They have to make products that are easy, and a pleasure to use. This is not to mention the huge costs saved by businesses who improve the usability of their products and consequently reduce the need for customer support calls.

Content + UX

Online, people behave differently. Nielson Norman Group, a world leading user research organisation, has been telling us since 1997 that on the web people do not read. — Sarah Richards

Content can often be more focused on what businesses want to say rather than what you need to hear. This can be frustrating, distracting, or stop you from reading altogether. Content is also written to maximise results in search engines which tends to be the way people find the right part of your site for the need they have.

Good Content Design allows people to do or find out what they need. It also allows them to do it easily using the most appropriate content format. Formats could be text but could also be videos, charts, a calculator, a map or even a postcode look-up tool. Is a map better for your users than a postcode look-up?

Content is also the ‘microcopy’. Microcopy is the batches of words that includes what you see on button labels, success and error messages.

Content is as much a part of the user experience as any other. This includes the visual design or how easy the process is to understand. In fact many would argue that it is the most important of all. Without content all you have is a bunch of buttons without labels. Have you ever visited a website with too much to read? Used an app with inconsistent and confusing terminology? What about a pop-up message telling you: ‘Error 404’ with no way to proceed? Think also of content that is out of date. Do online forms ask you for information which feels redundant?

These are all issues that good content design can solve…

Content, like all good UX, starts with ‘user needs’. You will need to research these like by speaking to people who will use your site. These needs are then converted into ‘user stories’.

The design team at UK Gov write user stories using this format:

As a… [who is the user?]

I need to… [what does the user want to do?]

So that… [why does the user want to do this?]

For example:

As a Homeowner

I need to get financial help

So that I can carry on Living in the house I live in

There’s more to using user stories. But what’s most important is that a user story focuses the content writer on solving a specific need of the reader. This keeps your content functional.


Content design for readability means reducing your content. Try halving the word count… then halve it again. You should remove complex words or sentence structures. You will avoid jargon and will always explain acronyms on every page.

Good content designers know that you should write assuming the reading age of a 9 year old. And no, you will not insult those with higher reading ages by making your language easy to understand.

People get distracted, people get tired, people have better things to do with their time than reread complex sentences. Readability is a partner with inclusive design. This means you reach a wider audience by making your content clearer. Writing simple text helps not only those in a hurry. It also helps stressed people, tired people, people with cognitive, visual, or motor impairments. If in doubt use online tools like Hemingway Editor or Google Docs to check your spelling, grammar, and to make your text less fancy.

All this change means you’re going to have to explain why it is necessary to stakeholders in your organisation. The marketing, HR., and legal teams will all have strong opinions on why it can’t change. You can do this with hard facts and by demonstrating how your old content failed in usability tests. Luckily there is plenty of clear evidence for a lot of this.


Testing your content with real users as early and often as possible is the key. This doesn’t have to mean huge research budgets. You will find most issues from testing your content with 5 users. More tips on content usability testing can be found from Nielsen Norman Group. Content ages over time so you need to have a plan for keeping it up to date. By whom, how, and when this happens are all part of good content strategy.Content Design is vital for anyone interested in improving the user experience of any digital product as it takes a human perspective. If you’re lucky, your organisation has already started to think along these lines but it’s more likely that you are the first. And more than likely that as the UX person, you’re expected to pick this work up. More and more job postings are appearing with titles like ‘UX Writer’, ‘Content Strategist’, and ‘Content Designer’ etc.The UK’s Government Digital Service has been a leader in this area, so is a good place to read more. Sarah Richards lead this team between 2010 and 2014 and invented the discipline of Content Design. Her book is essential reading.

Good luck and let me know how you get on.

Further reading:Content Design by Sarah RichardsReadability Guidelines Project

Sputnik Ltd