The past few months may not have seemed like a great time for design in general. Though many businesses have shown ingenuity in serving customers in new ways, it’s perhaps easier to recall the government’s beleaguered test-and-trace efforts, ambiguous messaging and a chancellor with his own brand complete with strange kerning.
But there are businesses out there demonstrating great content design.
‘Seamlessly’ helping consumers
If you go back to tech investor Mary Meeker’s coronavirus trends report, published in April, Meeker suggested that when we were to look back on spring, we would see successful businesses as those that had:
- Cloud-based business functions
- Products always in demand, but especially so in uncertain times (food, water, shelter – and also entertainment)
- An easily discoverable online presence that seamlessly helps consumers
- Efficient ways to distribute products to consumers in limited-contact ways
- Products that make businesses more digitally efficient
- Broad (or emerging) social media presence
Points three and four in particular bring to mind Amazon – one company that has been a big beneficiary of lockdown. But there are many companies large and small that are trying to help consumers as ‘seamlessly’ as possible, and here content design plays its part.
Content design comes in when businesses are designing new products or services, or need to provide information to users. The aim is to communicate clearly and meet user needs, and it’s a discipline that is synonymous with the Government Digital Service (GDS), where it was defined in the early 2010s and which has since published its content design guidance.
In June, GDS published an enlightening blog post detailing how it designed the Gov.uk coronavirus page (working remotely) in under five days. As dictated in GDS style guidelines, the page is accessible and mobile-first (with strict prioritisation of content). It uses elements such as an ‘accordion’ pattern, particularly useful when incorporating lots of information as it lets users show and hide information as they wish.
So what about content design for the average business?
Though lots of businesses may have had to design new services in the pandemic, or at least some sort of coronavirus help page or amendments to existing pages, it’s important to point out that content design doesn’t mean businesses should go mad and start publishing to try to take advantage of continued interest in coronavirus.
As Sarah Richards, founder of Content Design London and leader of the Gov.uk content team from 2010 to 2014, explained in a blog post in March: “The first question is always: ‘do we need this at all’? If you are selling trainers, you do not need to publish what the symptoms are. It is much better to link to authoritative sources.”
Richards highlights that there are ethical reasons to avoid publishing this sort of content, as well as practical ones, given that authoritative sources are more likely to keep information up to date. “Only publish if you can add value for your audience,” she opines.
There is a fine line to be walked here for some businesses. At the beginning of the year, disinfectant brands Clorox and Lysol both published coronavirus pages on their respective websites, with information about Covid-19, as well as a list of which products the US Environmental Protection Agency has listed as meeting the criteria for use against the virus. Writing for Econsultancy, Patricio Robles suggests these pages are designed with SEO in mind and, though this sort of rapid-response marketing made sense in the context of search trends, there are risks involved, too.
For most businesses, content design would have come into play in routine ways, such as updating contact or customer service pages, or communicating plans for reopening. And just as when GDPR came into force in 2018, I’ve been surprised by the number of businesses that haven’t done as well as they could when communicating with customers.
For example, the coronavirus pages on the websites of the big four UK banks were not the most elegant in their early iterations. The word ‘iteration’ is key, of course. These companies have improved these pages over time, which is inevitable when marketers and digital professionals have been under such time pressure.
I’ve also written about ‘we are reopening’ emails, in particular how nicely the Natural History Museum designed their own, but also contrasting with some examples that didn’t follow some important tenets of content design.
At the root of meeting user needs is often the ‘don’t make me think’ idea written about by computer programmer and author Steve Krug. Whilst I would advise any marketer to read up on the GDS content design guidelines, the discipline of communicating clearly is summed up by Richards, who writes: “We have a 20-second rule. If I can’t listen [with a screen reader] or see and work out what I am going to get from a page in that time, the page could be improved.”
This is just as much about language as it is formatting. There’s a tenuous link to be drawn with the recent success of direct-to-consumer brands, which have been successful in part because of their focus and their ability to communicate key benefits or USPs very quickly, with design and copy.
Why now for content design?
With many users likely to be in a state of stress at the moment, content design is more important than ever. There are also new users – those exploring online services they haven’t used before. Perhaps older users, too, some of whom may not have built up an ‘intuition’ for digital services (intuition is indeed learned over time online, as a consequence of consistency in design).
Content design is also a discipline that can be helpful to the development of other roles. Kathryn Baxendale is a business analyst at DWP Digital and earlier this year wrote about how content design has made her more effective in her job. hEmployers should snap up those out of work with content design experience and who understand its ethos. Communicating clearly has never been more important.