Book cover art for Content Design
Content Design
Sarah Richards

Short, sweet and endlessly valuable. Written by the woman who completely transformed from a messy tangle of websites into an incredibly useful and usable resource that millions rely on to make their lives easier. Covers fundamental concepts and practical actions to take without any of the cruft or filler text you might otherwise expect in books like this. Definitely worth reading if you publish anything to the internet, or even if you just write reports at work.

It's About What the User Needs, Not What They Want

Deciding what will best meet the user's need is the cornerstone of content design. It's not just about the words you use, but whether or not you meet a need.

There's a lot of content out there and you have competitors whether you realise it or not.

Your content needs to be smarter, not longer. Having large amounts of content and huge swathes of text will likely work against you, not in your favour.

'The 'write, SEO, sub, publish' type of publishing doesn't necessarily take into account what users actually need. Sometimes, users don't need to read anything. What a user wants and what they need might be two different things.'

Two Types of Content

Push Content: these are things that are 'pushed at' users: ads on the sides of buses or before podcasts, for example.

Pull Content: this is stuff that you actively want to look at and will go and find or click through to while browsing.

We want to turn push into pull and, if we can, avoid push altogether.

To make this work, the audience has to trust you. No trust, no interaction:

  • Design
  • Brand awareness
  • Content quality

Your content also has to be easy to use, which means being easy to read.

The Science of Reading

There are three spots that we look at or are aware of while reading. They're called 'fixation zones':

  1. Direct: the 2-3 letters we are looking directly at
  2. Proximity: the words either side (usually to the right) to give context
  3. Peripheral: the surrounding text

We don't read in a linear fashion. Instead we jump back and forth, often to re-scan something to make sure we got it. We do this, all the time, without really realising it.

Our eyes jumping back and forth while we read are called 'saccades'.

Other key facts about reading:

  • We can skip about 30% of the text we read and still get it
  • People only read about 20-28% of any given webpage
  • Every +100 words on a webpage increases cognitive load by 11%
  • People tend to read and cover hotspots on a site in an 'F' shape
  • Low-frequency words take 100ms longer to read than common words

You're competing against people's text messages, emails, news websites, phone calls, coworkers and so on... for their attention. You've only got so much time.

Discovery and Research

AKA 'what should we even be creating content about?'

In any organisation, the first thing to do is make sure that you bring everyone along on the journey. Key people or a whole team, making sure that you warm anyone up in advance who doesn't know what it is that you're trying to achieve.

Key questions to consider:

  • Who is your audience really?
  • What do they actually want?
  • How should we be speaking to them?

Use search data to make sure you will be using the same vocabulary as your users. (Attention, Bias, Vernacular - Seth Godin.)

Use analytics to understand your visitors, bounce rate and other behaviour.

Sometimes a high bounce rate might be a good thing, sometimes it might be a bad thing. Decide what the metrics mean for you.

What words do people actually use when they go searching? It's not like ordinary English, not by a long way.

User Stories and Job Stories

User stories are better when you have many users, job stories are better when you have one type of user in particular.

A user story looks like this:As a [person in a particular role]I want to [perform an action or find something out]So that [I can achieve my goal of...]

Job stories are for specific tasks and usually when you have one audience. They are good for targeted actions. Job stories always start with:When [there's a particular situation]I want to [perform an action or find something out]So I can [achieve my goal of...]

You need to make sure that you have 'acceptance criteria' for the stories that you run with are set as well. That is, 'this story is complete when...'. This needs to be outcome based, not solution based.

E.g. 'this story is complete when the user knows/has/submits x,' not 'this story is complete when we show them x'. There's a big difference.

Bringing Your Organisation With You

This usually involves holding a workshop. If you're holding one of these, make sure it sounds important to attendees. Because it is. Make it clear that decisions will be taken, with or without them there.

Warm people up beforehand if they need it, have a clear purpose and plan and make sure the session stick to the plan and doesn't veer off on tangents.

Designing Content

Think format first. Video? Articles? White papers? eBooks? Podcasts? Videos?

What is the user need? Work back from there, first, to understand what the format needs to be. Once we have those stories developed, we can turn them into content.

Writing - Headings and Sub-Headings

Headings are the most important things to get right and are more important than paragraph text because they are read more often and more quickly.

'Headings are the first thing your audience will see in search results, so make them targeted and relevant. Your headings are what will pull your audience to your site from search or, if your audience is already on your site, it will tell them they are in the right place.'

Avoid humour and aim to front-load your keywords so that the user immediately understands. The earlier you show the more important words, the better.

Writing - The First Paragraph

'You probably have 3 seconds to get my attention, and 5 to keep it. So the first paragraph on a page is very, very important. Make those 3 seconds count.'

The first paragraph on the page needs to orient the user and hold their attention. Basically, it should tell them why they should give a shit about reading everything else on the rest of the page.

Writing - Subheadings

Subheadings are there to tell the story and break up the text. You should be able to get the gist and understand the story through the subheadings alone.

Word counts are not that important overall, your user just needs to read what they need to read. (Not what they want.) Keep your sentences short, ideally less than 20 words and closer to ten if you can manage it.

'When the average sentence length in a piece was fewer than 8 words long, readers understood 100% of the story. At 14 words, they could comprehend more than 90% of the information. But move up to 43-word sentences and comprehension dropped below 10 percent.'

Avoid jargon at all costs, no matter how technical the field you are writing for. Don't forget that you are still competing against people's colleagues, phones, emails and everything else on their computer for attention.

'People who are well read (aka not dumb) read a lot. They don't have time to wade through jargon. They want the information quickly and easily - just like everyone else. Wanting to understand quickly has little to do with intelligence. It has a lot to do with time and respect.'

Keep your punctuation simple. Nobody cares about semi-colons and em-dashes; but that doesn't mean you can never use them, of course.

'Being clear in your language is the fastest route to making someone else understand what you are trying to communicate. Nothing else.'

Pair Writing and 'Crits'

Pair writing is writing with the expert or the lawyer by your side. This can be trickier but faster. It means that once you've got a first draft of your copy, it's already been through the toughest wringer available.

Crits (short for 'critiques', not criticisms) are short, sharp sessions that get the 2-3 key people in the room to review and give constructive criticism about the copy that's been created.

You'll all gather round the piece and take notes as you go through, making changes live if you can, and this helps get to the end product faster.

Caring for Content

Once your content is published, it's not the end of the story. You need to keep an eye on the following:

  • What the success criteria is (Visits per month? Bounce rate? Leads generated?)
  • How often it will be reviewed
  • Proposed 'archive' (read: deletion)

This means that content isn't left to wither on the vine and become irrelevant—it's kept alive and kicking and refreshed and improved wherever it needs to be.

More of this, but in your inbox.

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