What is content design?

Drawing of webpage layouts

Flip those two words around and you’ll see that we design content. That means taking difficult language in text and making it simpler so more people can understand it. It’s also deciding what order information should appear and how to find it on a website or app so more people can see it. Plus, it’s not just about looking at words – we look at images, videos, buttons, icons and layouts, so more people can interact with content and have a good experience.

As a content design team, we’re an empathetic bunch. We know how to put ourselves in the minds of our customers so we can be their voice and share their needs, to make sure our content is the best it can be.

So, in short, great content design empowers people to find, understand and act on information quickly and easily. Here’s some more key things to know about content design…👇

How people read

Person looking at a laptop

When you search for something online, you don’t read every single word on every single page (you only read about 20% of the content). You look for a specific word or phrase (scanning the text) to find an answer to your question, such as, when is the next bus coming? Or how do I buy an Oyster card? This has an impact on how we design content.

We know a lot about our customers – how they look for information (most use a mobile device), the words they use when searching and the tasks they’re trying to complete. That means we can design clear, simple content that they understand so they can act on information quickly and easily. We don’t provide information that’s not relevant, complicated or duplicated, which stops people from doing what they came to our website or app to do.

So how do we know what words to use? Research and data are key tools for us, including Adobe Analytics, Google Keyword Planner and Google Trends. These help us to use quantitative data to inform our content decisions rather than just guessing.

If we follow best practice in content design, search engines such as Google will put us higher in their organic (natural) search results when customers are searching for our content (known as Search Engine Optimisation or SEO).

What people need

When we’re designing content, we need to know a lot about who we’re writing for, so we can ensure we’re providing the information they need (known as user needs). If we don’t know this, we can’t write good content.

A user need is something that a person wants to get out of using our website or apps:

“As someone who travels to work everyday by bus, I need to easily find bus times for my route, so I can get to work on time.”

One way we meet user needs is by using the Inverted Pyramid Style when we create content:

  • Put only the most important information that users need to know at the top of the page
  • Then add the key details
  • Finally have the ‘nice to know’ information at the end

By creating content around user needs, people are more likely to read and act on the content. We also carry out user research so we can understand our users and get feedback directly from them to improve our content.

All digital content we create is underpinned by our digital channel strategy. This helps us to identify what we want to say, who we want to say it to and why, plus how we use our digital channels in the most effective way. Content design applies to content across all digital channels, including email, social and blog. It guides us on how to create and promote travel information or the best way to influence customer behaviours.

Writing in plain English

We're open sign

Research shows that the more complicated an issue, the more people prefer to read simpler language – even people with specialist knowledge prefer plain English.

Using clear and simple language is not dumbing down content, it’s opening it up so more people can understand it. All our content uses plain English, we avoid jargon and talk to our customers as if we were in a conversation – we try to write how they would speak.

We use several tools to help us write in plain English:

So, when we’re working with others to design content, we’ll always make changes to ensure it’s as simple and clear as it can be. We need to sign off all content, so we work closely with people who are experts in their area to pair-write content together. That means we can follow content design best practice and ensure content is factually correct, whilst building good relationships with key teams.

Our content skills are varied – one minute we could be writing microcopy (really short content) for a button in an app, the next we’ll be changing complex language into a new website for a transport project, writing a blog post for new walking routes, or watching user research and identifying content changes for a new product.

Making content accessible

Person using a screenreader keyboard

We make sure our stations are step-free and our buses are accessible, but we also need to make sure our content is accessible.

There’s around 13.9 million people living with a disability in the UK. We want everyone to be able to access and understand our content, so we need to write and design in certain ways.

It’s also the law! We follow the internationally recognised Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 which tells us how to make our content accessible for those with impairments to their vision, hearing, mobility, thinking and understanding. Some of our customers may need to use a screen reader (which reads out all the content), others may not be able to use a mouse or keyboard, and some customers may have learning difficulties.

We follow the SCULPT rules for creating accessible content:

  • Structure: use different heading styles to structure content
  • Colour contrast: use strong colour contrast between any text and background colours
  • Use of images: use alternative (ALT) text on images to explain what’s in the image
  • Links: use link text that describes your link and never use ‘click here’
  • Plain English: use clear, uncomplicated language with no jargon
  • Table structure: use simple tables without merged or split cells

Let’s talk about content design

Find out more about content design. Has plain English benefitted you and your customers? How have you made content more accessible? How do you work with content designers?

Post your thoughts in the comments. 👇

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