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Last updated on 2/10/23

Create user-centered content

When designing experiences, it's essential to consider the words on the screen, not just the design elements. A website or product may look beautiful, but if the user doesn't know what to do, it's not effective, and you won't have customers that keep coming back. The goal of most products is to get customers and keep them, which is retention. (That's also how you get them to pay for your offering and services.)

There is content everywhere—from the home page of a website, to FAQs, blogs, notifications, error messages, interface copy, email messaging, or terms of service. It's just as essential as design when it comes to guiding users through a flow. We'll start by looking at the big picture.

Who reads websites anyway?

When talking about content on the web, you can never assume people will read every word. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, people only read 20% of the words on screen during an average visit. While this data is from 2008, if you watch anyone use a digital device around you, you'll probably agree this number hasn't improved since then.

There's a tendency to want to save the best content for last. However, as attention spans are short and every product is vying for your attention, it's essential to get information in front of users right away.

More content doesn't make something better. You want to think about content critically, so you create less work, not more. Ultimately, the user should be the hero of the journey.

Content is king

Content, or the written information on the page, is what helps guide the user through a particular flow or path. Strong content anticipates the users' needs and desires, giving them exactly what they want to know when they want to know it. Timing is essential to effective content.

In his 1996 essay Content is King, Bill Gates predicted that content will drive the internet. While paid advertising and "click bait" titles like 10 Easy Ways to Become a Millionaire in 5 Minutes have changed the game, ultimately, quality content can take you far.

The internet allows anyone to be a publisher now and share ideas. Depending on the situation most effective content should be:

  • Clear rather than confusing

  • Concise rather than verbose

  • Easy to understand (avoid jargon) and not unnecessarily complex

  • Relevant, engaging, and useful 

  • Compelling and motivating

It's not until you start critically examining content and asking questions that you realize this is not always as easy as it looks. To achieve these goals, it often takes a bit of chipping away to get to what is actually needed.

Too often content is an afterthought and saved for the end of the design process. This course will take a different, content-first perspective, and will make a case for considering content from the start of a project, as well as throughout the design process.

Content guides the way

We've all had frustrating experiences using apps and websites. Often these experiences could have been improved by adding a few words. There's a subtly between "click here," "buy now," and "make a purchase" that can motivate users to complete different actions. Words in products can help guide the user through an experience. It's also important to consider how words can guide users to find a way back when they're stuck. You want happy, not frustrated users, so they should never arrive at a dead end.

Under the umbrella of UX design, UX writing, content strategy, and content design are sub-fields that have emerged and are bringing new attention to the value of content. Each focuses on considering content early in the design process, so it's not an afterthought. This is thinking content first.

Content strategy

Content Strategy on the Web by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rauch, was one of the first books addressing the subject. In the book, they define content strategy as what guides your plans for the creation, delivery, and governance of content. While the title addresses content strategy "for the web," the concepts reach much wider and can be applied to anything digital or design.

Circle with 4 quadrants to represent the need for substance and structure (on the left, content side) and workflow and governance (on the right, people side). Content strategy is in the middle of this diagram.
Brain Traffic's approach to content strategy.

Kristina Halvorson runs the content agency Brain Traffic, which breaks down content strategy into components: substance (what the content says) and structure (how it is organized), and people components: workflow (how work gets done) and governance (how it is maintained long term). The work that goes into creating quality content is often underestimated. This approach examines the core strategy along with long-term goals for creating and managing content.

Clinton Forry uses another definition for content strategy that states: "Content strategy helps align an organization's goals with audience expectations via sustainable online content. " This definition goes beyond just considering user needs, to what they expect to happen throughout an experience.  Sustainable online content addresses the upkeep and maintenance required of quality content. (Ever visited a website's event page and all the "upcoming events" happened six months ago? Whoever is managing that site didn't consider the maintenance side of content.)

What you want / what the audience wants / what you can create
Venn diagram representing the intersections of content strategy by Clinton Forry.

UX writing

Content strategy focuses on the overall messaging, while UX writing focuses on the copy users encounter when interacting with a product. The true value of UX writing comes from considering the context of the user in a user-centered approach.

Confusing pop-up. In bold at the top it says
An example of confusing content on the web. In order to cancel the action, the user must click "OK," not "cancel." This message should be rewritten for clarity.
A bad example of confirmation text from a shipping company.
When examining the copy of this shipping confirmation, the difference between "arrived at destination" and "delivered" is confusing. It should be rewritten for clarity.

Consider the last time you made a purchase online. The text used to guide you through the experience helps give you confidence that you're actually going to receive the product you're buying. If the text on the site was off-putting, you'd probably think the site was a bit sketchy and want to take your business elsewhere. However, UX writing can help give the user confidence. This can occur when the user encounters copy that reveals what to expect on the next screen (information they may want to know, but isn't always obvious), a confirmation screen that indicates a purchase is complete (which assures the user that their credit card worked), or a confirmation or thank you email (a simple gesture that shows the customer that the company cares about them).

The button says
Amazon.com puts users at ease through a small line of text telling them they'll still have time to review the order. Simple text can do a lot to enhance the user experience.

UX writing is deeply integrated into the visual design elements. They work together to communicate what is happening, or what the user needs to do while interacting with the product.

The first screen says
The onboarding screens for the meditation app Headspace help manage expectations and work to help users build habits. The graphic elements such as a toothbrush compliment the text which says "After brushing your teeth."

Content design

Content design is yet another sub-field which reminds you to focus on the user. It's a term that first emerged in the UK, but can be found throughout the world now. The term became popular with Sarah Richard's work spearheading (or one could say, overhauling) the government site GOV.UK. (You can listen to her discuss the project on the Content Strategy podcast.)

Traditionally, government websites aren't the most exciting place on the web. Governments have lots to say but don't always tell the story in a way that appeals to or engages with the constituents it governs. GOV.UK turned how they talk to people upside down. After extensive user research, the content team considered what it's target audience really wanted to know. Rather than focusing on expressing the government's goals, it put user needs first. They have an entire section of their website devoted to answering "What is content design?"

Designing content, not creating copy Good content design allows people to do or find out what they need to from government simply and quickly using the most appropriate content format available. It is based on research into GOV.UK user behaviour, analytic
Screenshot from GOV.UK provides an introduction to content design.

When considering content design, it's important to realize that more isn't always better. You may want to consider how videos, charts, or diagrams can be used to communicate your message. Consider how two long paragraphs could be expressed through a simple diagram. Content can take different forms, so always ask yourself what will benefit the user in each situation.

Mini challenge

Content is all around us. We'll explore more specific types in part two of this course, but for the next week, keep your notebook handy, and look at different ways and places content can appear. As you use different products, visit various websites, and go through different experiences (like using a machine at the post office or grocery store), consider what kind of content had to be created for the experience.

Look specifically at the language and word choice. Consider which experiences felt like a human, and which ones made you feel like you were interacting with a machine. Examine how the content choices give you the confidence to continue, welcome you, assure you, make you feel at ease, provide information, give you a sense of progress, help manage expectations, or make you smile.

Like many experiences, you've likely not paused to break down exactly what goes into the experience flow and how content feels seamless. Use this exercise as an excuse to dig deeper into how content works. Look at products you use all the time, but also try something new for comparison. Write down notes and observations, take screenshots or photos. This is a good reference as you build your own resource library of tools to help you in the future.

Let's recap!

  • Content should be considered throughout the design process in order to have a "user first mentality."

  • Effective content should be clear, concise, useful, and compelling.

  • Content strategy, UX writing, and content design consider content from the user perspective in a way that is sustainable overtime.

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