Content design principles in 4 real-life examples

Content design is part of the wider field of user experience design. Its focus falls on the needs of the users, analysing their behaviour and the relevant data to best present the information — at the right time, place and form. While its main visual representation is the written word, there’s much more to that. Above all “content design is a way of thinking”, as Sarah Richards, leader of this discipline in the UK, once wrote. It’s both your users’ way of thinking in combination with your own as a content designer.

Тhis made me realise that I often catch myself comparing real-life situations (and my way of thinking) to the digital user experience. So I thought to give it a try and explain the main principles of content design with a few tangible examples from day-to-day life.

1. Content design is knowing when not to write copy

You’re sitting in a restaurant, waiting for your soup. Here comes the waiter, they put the plate on the table along with a fork and a knife. Naturally, you make a comment on the cutlery, as in your case, these two are useless. They apologize very politely and rush to get you a spoon. Only for you to discover that they brought back a teaspoon. Your patience is wearing thin (we know what it’s like to be hangry) and you make a second comment on the cutlery. Just like the first time, the waiter showers you with apologies and excuses. Finally, they bring you what you need.

My point here? It doesn’t matter what you say (or write) unless you’re doing the right thing. I’ve been asked to “write the copy for this error message” and this is one of the best examples I can give to explain how content design is so much more than writing. Sometimes it’s absolutely about not writing and improving the experience instead.

In one of the cases I’ve worked on, the experience involved input from the consumer, which could lead to more than 60% chance of error state. My contribution as a content designer? I refused to write these error messages. Instead, I worked my way into finding better solution together with the UX designer and the developer. We changed the input fields so they had co-dependency and pre-set limitations: if you put X in the first field, you get values from X to Z in the second. We left the control in our users, but we also offered them guidance, avoiding cases where the input won’t correspond and result in an error message.

Content design is not only about the content being present, but the content being absent if it’s standing in your consumer’s way. Why should I care for all the forks and knives in the world, if all I need is a spoon?

2. Content design is never a dead-end

I ordered jeans online once and when they came in, they were the wrong size. To make an exchange, I had the option to go to the store and pick the right one myself. I thought it will be a lot easier trying them on rather than ordering another 3 pairs. I got there, I asked the staff member where can I find them, and they scanned the code on the label, simply adding “You can find them on the second floor on the left”. “Great”, I thought and headed to the second floor. What do you think I found there? Clothes rails after clothes rails there stood all the jeans in the store.

What I’m picturing here is that content design is not only stating the “obvious” or writing what you’re presented with on a certain stage during the flow. As a content designer, you guide consumers through an experience you’re surely more well-informed about, and the more specific you get about it, the better. Always be one step ahead of them. Go the extra mile and make it easier and more delightful for the person who’s using your services to continue doing so. Do you have an error state? Suggest a way out of it. Do you have a product out of stock? Give the second-best recommendation. You don’t have enough space to explain complex technology? Add a tooltip (perhaps with a link to more info).

Content design can be powerful — sometimes words can be much more straightforward in indicating what comes next than a visual pointer.

What I’m referring to here is not to implement (yet another) one of those selling or converting triggers but to create meaningful relationships with your consumer — as if you were reading their mind, managing to surprise them with something they already know.

3. Content design is designing with words

Drizzle. Spitting. Raining cats and dogs. Pouring. Nice weather for ducks. The English language has a lot of words and phrases to describe the intensity of one occurrence. Each of them conveys a different meaning and creates a different association in your brain (have a jacket with a hoodie; get an umbrella; put on your rain pants, etc.).

No matter how trivial it may sound, part of being a content designer really is about designing with words. Isn’t it fascinating how a negative thing can turn into a positive by just using the right words? Or how you PUT THINGS IN CAPS LOCK and make them appear important. This is one of the core principals of design — and as a content designer, you evoke emotions with your word choice, pull out subconscious associations, create melody, balance and rhythm with length or arrangement. Visual designers have colours, lines, shapes, compositions. We have verbs, nouns, adjectives. Active and passive voice. Inversions, metaphors, rhyme, style, tone. We have long sentences that require some sort of momentum to read until the end. And short ones too. The richness of the language is your toolbox and it’s ever-growing. Find your way to write plainly, clearly and directly so everybody can easily understand, but don’t ever be doubtful that you have numerous options to actually design with words.

4. Content design is using the context (and data)

Here’s a heart-warming situation from the other day: every morning I go to a nearby café and order cappuccino. I like to sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on it. One morning, my cup was waiting for me on the counter with cinnamon already sprinkled on top. Since the barista saw me every day and noticed a pattern of the same type of order, she’s decided to start doing that for me. A little gesture that changed the whole experience, an informed act of context.

Context is crucial for best-in-class content design and user-centric experience. Get into your consumer’s mind — how are they feeling on each step of the journey? Where are they mentally? Where are they physically? Are they using your service mostly when they’re outside in a hectic and noisy environment, or when they’re lying on the couch? Is this the first time they’re on this page? Or the 10th? I bet you won’t have the same attitude towards someone who’s entered your store 10 times for a day vs. someone who’s just entered and left to return a few weeks later. To be better informed at this, use all the data that you can get.

In the digital world, context is a concept that you can’t convey only with visuals. When you want to explain how the content design is different from other design disciplines, you really have to show it to good advantage. No colourful box or flashy button can ever acknowledge that you know your consumer, that you see him for the first time or that you’ve known their preferences and habits. You need words to convey context.

As experience designers, our main goal is to see the digital world from a human angle; to create an experience that senses thoughts and emotions and understands people. What’s better inspiration than observing interactions in our daily lives?

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If you have, any other real-life examples you can think, illustrating how content design works, put them in the comment section. I’ll be happy to hear them. Thanks for reading and stay safe. ❤

Words create worlds. I go by many names — Copywriter, UX writer, Content Designer.