Content design expert Sarah Richards speaks with Kristina about how we can use data and evidence to give users exactly what they need in a way they expect. Sarah also reflects on her experience overhauling GOV.UK as an example of content design in action.
Sarah Richards spent 10 years working in digital government, ending as Head of Content Design for the UK’s Government Digital Service. There she created and developed content design as a discipline for GOV.UK. Sarah now runs the Content Design Centre, training and consulting in content strategy and content design for organizations and governments around the world. Follow her on Twitter at @escmum.
Chris Corak has been obsessed with making SEO more helpful since 2001. At his consultancy, Onward, Chris helps people understand search intent to bridge the gap between UX, content, and technical SEO. His human-centered SEO approach has helped clients like Avnet, Olive Garden, and Colonial Life keep up with ever-changing search engine algorithms. He also guest lectures at Arizona State University—go Devils!
Kristina: Hello, and welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. Today’s podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy, and can be found online at ContentStrategy.com.
Hello, and welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. This is about the 18th time Sarah and I have started recording. Sarah, are you there?
Sarah: Yes! I’m definitely here.
Kristina: Yes! Alright. Sarah Richards is the author of Content Design and the founder of Content Design London, and I’m speaking to Sarah from her lovely sunny kitchen in—
Sarah: In London, in the UK.
Kristina: That’s right. Sarah, just before we started recording for the first time, you were saying that you had a little bit of a content rant to go on, and I was like, “Let’s record that!” So why don’t you tell me what’s going on.
Sarah: Do you know what, I’ve just got really frustrated today because people don’t want to pay content people, and it’s just insane, so organizations are quite happy to pay developers cause they know that they can’t code, and begrudgingly, once they’ve had an opinion about color and typeface and whatever, then they’ll pay designers because again, they can’t technically do the skill.
But with content, it’s kind of like anybody who’s been through secondary school education, high schooling in the US, you know they just think that they can write, and they don’t realize that we go to conferences, we read books, we listen to podcasts, we try really hard, and we practice our skill. And without content, you don’t have a website. You don’t have a digital presence, so it’s kind of like, why wouldn’t you pay for that?
Kristina: Well, it’s because they have Microsoft Word, and everybody who’s got Word is a writer.
Sarah: Well, that’s true. [laughs] Yeah but Kristina, ah! There’s just a little bit more to it than that. Just a bit.
Kristina: Well, here’s what’s interesting ... actually, I’m going to ask you to tell me a little bit about your career and how you came to content design, and then we’ll talk about why content design is different from just the writing with Microsoft Word.
Sarah: So, I went to art school. Actually, I studied design, mostly to annoy an art teacher who told me I couldn’t draw. So, I went to two of the best art colleges in the UK with batty printed dungarees and half a shaved head, and I found, at one point, that copywriters earned more money, and so I was totally mercenary at 19 years old, so I switched disciplines really quickly and became a copywriter.
And I worked for places like Ogilvie’s and Saatchi’s and then I fell into quality assurance. I was such a pedant, I was such a pedant, and so ... I know that’s hard to believe ... and so they shoved me into quality assurance, mostly to keep me away from other people, I think.
Kristina: But Sarah, you’re a delight!
Sarah: Thank you. [laughs] Not when you’re on the wrong end of my red pen. I can tell you that much. I’m nice really, I’m nice really.
So I did that, and then I just had a little go at this digital thing, and that was it. I mean, my brain just exploded and I was just like, “This is it! This is where I belong to be! This is where I need to be.” And I started on government websites and kind of got introduced into user-centered design and then GDS, Government Digital Service, happened, and that just kind of began, exploded again, and that’s where content design was born, which is very kind of user-centered way of producing content.
Kristina: Now, not everyone listening will know what GOV.UK means to the content strategy world, so can you talk a little bit about, sort of that process and why it’s important to the discipline of content strategy?
Sarah: Yeah, so in 2010, Martha Lane Fox, who’s the founder of LastMinute.com, she wrote a report for a minister over here and said that basically all government services, transactions were a bit rubbish. She said it very nicely, but she was basically saying, “Stop it! Just stop and do it again.” It’s called Revolution Not Evolution, it’s on the GOV.UK website, and she said that all government services should change, and so this little team, this little alpha team, created a version of what could happen if it was entirely user-centered, that one government website that all government departments, because there’s 26 of the main ones, could publish to.
So, I went down at the beginning of the beta phase and created a content design team, and that idea was that we weren’t just editors because I’d been in government, by then, for years, and generally content people were allowed to correct grammar and correct punctuation. And that was about it. So if we had 4,500 words on “put on a jumper because it’s cold”—and I’m not kidding with that one—we couldn’t say anything. We couldn’t go back to the policy person or the person who commissioned it, and say, “No! This is ridiculous. Why are you publishing this?”
So, when we were at the beta, Tom Loosemore, who was the director then, said kind of, “What do you want? What does content look like?” And I was just raging, bouncing up and down, going, “No, we can do so much more. We know how to structure content. We know what they should have at what points and on what channels.” We knew what pages should look like and when to use images and when not to, and we could just do so much more. And that’s when it was born, right there.
Kristina: And how was the new GOV.UK different? Why was it revolutionary?
Sarah: Because we had a central content management system that the designers designed with us, the content people. The whole of government didn’t have access to it. It was only me and my little team to start off with at the beta. Everything was user-centered. All the content was designed with designers, so if it needed to be a tool, a calculator, a calendar, a video, whatever, we felt the user would best consume that information, we could create it. Within time and budget, but we could create it.
Whereas previously, across government, content was words and then maybe a comms team would do a video for a campaign, but they were very ... structured, and we were very hemmed in by our technology, and suddenly it was open. And it was a tiny little team, tiny little team of designers, user researchers, delivery managers, and content people just working together on what users needed from government, not what government wanted to say, so that was the biggest shift.
Kristina: So, this is literally like every content strategist or content designer’s dream come true, right? That they would be handed the keys to the kingdom. How did that happen?
Sarah: With a lot of pizza, one o’clock in the morning. The thing is that the project happened at all sorts of levels, so you had Mike Bracken, for example, he was CEO of it, of GDS, he went in at ministerial level. I mean, we have video of Francis Maude, who was an MP here, standing up in the House of Commons saying, “Everything should be done to a user need.” Can you imagine just at the highest levels of politics saying that things should happen to a user need, not what government just wants to publish?
So, we had it at that level, and then we had the frozen middle, which I’m going to ignore for a second, and then a project level. There were people across government who just couldn’t wait for this. There were some departments who hated it, just hated it, and they would shout at me and scream and just refuse to work with me. I had some managers threaten contractor’s jobs if they spoke to me.
So, yeah that was at project level, but others across government just couldn’t wait. They were just like, “We need to get rid of all this stupid information! We need to get rid of that content!” So there was so much enthusiasm actually across government, and then there’s this kind of frozen middle, which is the kind of middle tier of managers. A lot of them were threatened by this, and they were not happy, but then again, there were more who were just more than happy to push it through, so to be honest, it was a lot of bulldozing.
We went straight through, and when I went into a meeting, there used to be a meeting of all the heads of editorial across government, and there was just me and Tom Loosemore, and Tom said, “Okay, so Sarah’s gonna explain the new editorial process to you, you know, workflow and governance.” And I said, “Yeah, we’re gonna write it and create it. You can fact check it, so you don’t sign it off. I don’t need you to sign it off. I just need you to make sure it’s accurate, and we’re gonna hold complete control of it.”
Well, you can imagine, the room was not a happy room. But we did it anyway, so there was a lot of pushing to be honest. And it is literally the dream. You can just be perfectionist as you like to get it through for the users. But not easy, not easy at all.
Kristina: Well, one of the biggest questions, or I guess most regular questions I’m asked is, “How do you convince leadership that content strategy is important,” and implicit in that is, “How do you convince leadership that our user needs are more important than what we think it is that we have to say that’s going to change everybody’s minds or drive specific user behavior?”
What did that education process look like at those higher levels?
Sarah: For a number of departments it was down to money. To be brutal, GOV.UK, I think it saved 62 million in the first year. I kinda wanna say ... those are big numbers. You can’t ignore that kind of number.
Kristina: And when you say 62 million, you mean, just in terms of processing or phone calls and time, and how was that measured?
Sarah: There were two websites before. One was called DirectGov, which I worked on, and then there was another one called BusinessLink, we just shut them down. There was 75,000 pieces of information on those two websites, and we got them down to 3,000 to go onto GOV.UK. Getting rid of the duplication, the overworking, the constant fighting between people about what should and shouldn’t go on. I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never added it up, but I’m fairly certain there’s at least 4 million just in arguments.
Kristina: So how was the minister educated or brought along who finally stood up on the floor and said, “Enough is enough, we’ve got to center this on our users”? Who drove that conversation? How did that go?
Sarah: So, he actually commissioned it with Martha Lane Fox and Tom Loosemore, who was one of the two who wrote it, so he understood that something was going wrong or that this digital estate was just costing a fortune. I mean, at that time, I did a project before GOV.UK, which was called convergence, and we would take 185 sites down into one, so I kind of did a pre-GDS before GDS, and at that time, there were over 3,000 government websites here in the UK. One was called Beefy and Lamby—
Sarah: And it was how to cook meat.
Kristina: Your tax dollars at work, my friend.
Sarah: Yeah, there was some really — [laughs]
Exactly, we had pages on how to keep bees. Why does government need to tell you that?
Kristina: Because the bees are important, the bees are people too!
Sarah: The bees are massively important, but I don’t think government should be telling you about it.
Kristina: So talk to me about the content design process itself. If I came to you (I’m coming to you right now Sarah!), if I came to you and said, “What is content design, and why is it important? How do I do it?”
Sarah: So, I normally say content design is a way of thinking. It’s about using data and evidence to give an audience what they need at the time they need it and in a way that they expect. Now, having been an ex-copywriter and an ex-editor, copyrighting you draw people in, and you show them something, you teach something, you sell something, you create a world for people and you pull them in.
Content design is very reflective, so you kind of don’t move without any data and evidence. So the first thing you do is you go and get your user vocabulary, you go get their mental models, you need to understand what channel they’re on and at what point do they need what information, and then you normally reflect that and give it back to them.
So we do do teaching, we do do education, we do do disruption journeys, so when you might be on a different channel but we need to get to you for whatever reason. But generally, we take in loads of information before we start pushing it back out again. Whereas copywriting and editorial, it’s very much down to the person’s skill in turning a good phrase, whereas content people have to have that data first before they can move.
Kristina: Tell me what some of that data is and how it’s procured?
Sarah: So, there’s language for a start, so most people will do it for SEO, for search engine optimization, as a kind of tick box exercise that you kind of slap on the end, which I hate. If you don’t know their language that your users are using, how are they supposed to find you? So, that’s kind of point one.
Then, we would take in search times, on page search times, and lots of site analytics if we’ve got them. We can look at usual analytics that you would look at in how long you would spend on a page or what the drop off points are and those sorts of things.
But we also work with user researchers to get their mental models. So what I mean is when people think about something, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s sparked by something, usually things that had been happening in the past few weeks or the past few months, so they’ve already got an idea. They’ve already got a perception of whatever it is that they’re thinking about before they search for it, and so content designers will often understand what that journey is so that they can then decide what to give to them, and usually, we would do that with a qualified user researcher. And if we don’t have that, then we might use forums, go and look at forums to kind of get some mental models, or other kind of online behavior.
Kristina: So, I think that in the U.S., the term that is really catching on to describe content design is “UX content strategist,” but it’s been really cool to see people jump on this term “content designer.” The role of content designer has been firmly established in the UK, hasn't it?
Sarah: Yes, I think so, and it is being used around the world now. I get lots of little messages and people getting in touch on Twitter in India and in Europe and really cool places with hot beaches. It’s also picking up over there.
Kristina: That is so great. And tell me about your work today. You’ve cranked out this extraordinary little book called Content Design that every content strategist of every stripe should absolutely own. Tell me about the work that Content Design London is doing.
Sarah: So, we go into organizations and do training and consultancy, so we’ll often go in and do a two-day content design course, which is kind of taking anybody who has done some writing before, so it’s for kind of journalists, copywriters, editors, who want to take that next step, so they really want to go full digital and using a lot of the agile techniques that we use, like user stories and job stories, and those are two different ways of writing your content so that your peers can see really what they’re going to get out of the end of it. And how to do the data modeling and the analysis and structuring a page really well, so we’ll go in and we’ll do that, and then generally we end up staying. And we’ll do content strategy sessions, which I don’t know if you know, but there’s a rather nice book called Content Strategy for the Web, and we use that model—
Kristina: Go on … [laughs]
Sarah: And we take that ... It’s really quite nice, Kristina, we use it all the time! We’ll go through and we’ll write them a content strategy, but it will not be ... do you know what? We haven’t seen any good ones. I haven’t seen any good ones in the past ... oh, I don’t know, 18 months, two years really.
Kristina: Why do you think that is?
Sarah: Do you know what, I just don’t think people value it. I don’t think they value it enough.
Kristina: Oh, so we come full circle.
Sarah: Back on my rant! Back on my rant! [laughs]
Kristina: How do we get people to value it? This is the ... again, back to the “how do I sell this in.” So more and more organizations are beginning to slowly mature where they recognize, “Huh, content. It’s more complicated than Microsoft Word.” How do we begin to sell that? Because, you know, to have this mandate come down from the very highest levels that everything needs to be user centric, again, content strategists’ dream, but what I often will propose to people, “I think you need to go find a sponsor like who’s in leadership who really understands what a mess that content is.”
It’s the data, I guess, that we need to bring to them. It’s the dollar signs, right? Because I do tell the story often of a content strategist who says, you know, “I’ve given all these presentations, and leadership just don't care that it’s the right thing to do,” and my response of course is, “Of course they don’t care! Nobody wants to make a change or make an investment on principle. They want to see that bottom line.”
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. I think GOV.UK, that’s why that was a dream, because it was on principle, and we’d sold it on the money, whereas it wasn’t the other way around. But generally, I find that the upper echelons really only work on money or damage limitation.
So there was an example here in the UK. There’s a site called the Health Regulatory Authority, and a pharmaceutical company took them to court, so it’s a government organization, they took government to court because the site was so badly written that a high court judge went through every word and deemed it unlawful.
Sarah: Yeah, so this is a precedent in the UK. You can now take a website to court. So the site was signed off by legal, it was legally compliant. There were legal caveats all over that website, but the fact was it was so confusing, it was still deemed unlawful.
Kristina: Unfortunately, we’ve got other things happening in the US right now that I’m not so sure that taking a website to court is going to be the sort of focus that anyone’s going to take, but regardless that’s amazing. I mean, here we do see lawsuits around accessibility in particular, but these were just for bad content.
Sarah: Yeah, so I think ... you know, when I’m talking to people I will always say, “Find out what your upper echelons, find out what they care about, and then you’re going to have to push that, so if it’s cash, fine, if they’re scared of the legal system, fine.”
Kristina: But that’s what you bring to the table.
Kristina: Okay, so let’s take copywriters, people who have been writing for marketing or technical communications, and they’re interested in really taking this next step into the career of a content designer. What are the primary changes or skill sets that you find people need to gain in order to really embrace content design as a way of doing work.
Sarah: I think with copywriters, the main difference is just not having that internal out thing. It’s a lot less pressure, to be brutally honest, on copywriters and journalists because you’re taking in so much and then pushing it back out. And I think also, if you’re moving into digital, having an understanding of the agile content techniques can really put you in a good position because if you walk into an organization and they’re using user stories and job stories and everybody’s going to user research sessions and there’s a thing called a standup, where everybody stands around for 15 minutes talking about what they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, and what their blockers are, having an understanding of that before you walk into that environment can be better, it can make you more comfortable.
Kristina: Sarah, I’ve been relatively outspoken about what a mess I’ve seen agile make of content in website redesigns. Can you talk to me a little bit about how agile has worked in content design, how you’ve made that work? Is it something that can exist alongside a waterfall process? And from what you see, where do things go wrong for content folks?
Sarah: [laughs] There is much giggling in London. They can go wrong when everybody kind of tries to force, “This is agile, and it’s really shiny, and we’re gonna slap it on the top of usual processes.” That never works. It just doesn’t work. And people feel like we have to do a standup, and we have to do a retro, and we have to write user stories, and we have to do this, that, and the other. And that’s not the spirit of agile. You take the bits that work for you and do it. I see a lot of content teams standing in standups every day, and they’re literally useless, so my opinion is just stop doing it.
Do the bits that work. Agile works best when you have a team of designers, researchers, developers, and content people working together on a common goal, a single goal, they’re moving forward as a team, so they need to know what everybody is doing because it should impact everybody else. That’s when it works best.
When you have a content team that is perhaps sitting with a certain templated content management system, if they’ve got thousands of pages of information to go through and it’s just the content team, then yes, writing user stories and things I think will be better because you can talk to the whole of your organization about what they’re going to get, and you can run a whole organization off user stories if you want to.
It makes very, very consistent messaging across all the channels, but I just find that people will often use agile as a kind of hip, trendy, cool term, and then force their organization into a way that is not gonna work for them. You need a proper agile coach or an agile delivery manager who will be able to pick up the bits that work and drop the bits that don’t, and then make it work for the organization itself.
Kristina: A-greed! I am going to share that rant with several clients.
Sarah: We can send it to them.
Kristina: Yes, exactly. Thank you, transcripts.
Sarah, where can our listeners find you online?
Kristina: Excellent! And what is the URL for your company?
Kristina: Oh, fancy pants! Where can people get your book?
Kristina: Fantastic. Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today. You are, as always, a delight. I look forward to seeing to you at Confab, the content strategy conference here in Minneapolis in May!
Sarah: Thank you, very much!
Kristina: That does it for this week’s episode of The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. You can listen to more episodes of The Content Strategy Podcast online at ContentStrategy.com. Thanks a lot for joining us! We’ll see you again soon.
The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.