The content designer role: a definition and ideal way of working

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Conversations last week led me to share the basic fundamentals of the content design role, as intended when it was created in 2012: a content designer is a designer on a multi-disciplinary team.

Worth noting which words the organisation who created the discipline included, and excluded, from the role name:

1. They included the word ‘designer‘, to highlight that the role involved design skill and is a design role.

2. They excluded ‘user experience‘, as one of their organisational mantras was that user experience is everyone on the team’s responsibility.

An extended definition

This intends to offer flexibility, while also providing a baseline of the fundamentals needed for a content designer to work effectively.

”A content designer is a designer who is part of a user-centred, multi-disciplinary team on a project, product, service or programme.

They are responsible for conveying information to users.

Their focus is presenting information that users need clearly, inclusively and accessibly for all, so that it can be absorbed and understood quickly, and thoroughly. To do this they research user needs and language, then use, adapt, and design with:

  • words
  • format
  • layout
  • structure
  • governance
  • strategy

They test their designs, and iterate them based on analysis of user research insights.

They are an integral part of the design and development team attached to a product or service, from the beginning, ideally from the very beginning, to the end, and need to be involved in all product-relevant discussions and meetings.

They should be able to continue iterating content elements, based on user feedback, after the product or service is live.”

– Lizzie Bruce, 2020

This is a baseline description, and the role flexes.

My content design background

I feel in a position to put forward a full definition of the content designer role as I:

• worked in content at the original organisation before and after content design was introduced
• took one of the first ever courses in it
• worked in, introduced and promoted it in 9 other external, cross-sector organisations, including: law, retail, transport, education and charity
• am a consultant for Content Design London, founded by the person who was head of content at the originating organisation when the term was created
• have trained and mentored content designers
• co-researched a paper on the value of content design to business
• keep up to date with peer discussion of content design and role of content designer across industry

Non-ideal and ideal ways for a content designer to work

The skills of a content designer are not always understood by the organisation that employs them. It’s best for a content designer to be embedded on a project from very early on. I’ve written about the benefits and insights gained from involving a content designer from the discovery phase.

The one and only

Sometimes a content designer will work unsupported by a multi-disciplinary team, for example in an organisation new to user-centred design. That means they take on all the responsibilities of all the roles in an ideal multi-disciplinary service or product team: carrying out the user research and service design by themself, as well as the interaction design and web page development, or they may work with an external development company, who, though then working on the same product could not be said to be on the same team.

They may even be the product owner and delivery manager, too, as well as having to translate technical language into plain English and create visual design elements. This is not the ideal way for a content designer to work.

No ”i“ in team

Sometimes a content designer will work as part of a core product or service design team, which will also have a dedicated user researcher, product owner and delivery manager, and may have various of the following: service or product designer, interaction designer, technical writer, graphic designer, accessibility assessor.

All roles in a multi-disciplinary team enrich the product or service’s design and development with their unique expertise. They find out what is right for the user, based on usability evidence (rather than who is right, based on hierarchy or voice volume). This is the ideal way for a content designer to work.

Pulled in too many directions

Sometimes a content designer will work in more than one multi-disciplinary team on more that one product or service at a time. The higher the number of different, disparate projects a content designer is working on, the less they will be able to delve deeply into any one product or service’s complexities and user needs, and the greater the amount of context switch they will be subjected to which can carry a high cognitive load and reduce effectiveness and efficiency.

Working on more than a couple of or a very few products at the same time is not an ideal way for a content designer to work. The only exception is where the products are directly co-related and knowledge of one brings greater context to another.

Further reading

Why editors need to design, Content Design London
What we mean when we talk about content design, GOV.UK
Content designer, GOV.UK
Content design, GOV.UK
What is content design? GOV.UK
Why multidisciplinary teams are good, Medium
“Why do you need a content designer? The words just appear, right?”, Digital Drum
Get a head start on digital projects include content from the discovery phase, GatherContent