GERRY SCULLION: Hello and welcome to another episode of ‘This is HCD’. My name is Gerry Scullion and I’m a service design principal now based in Dublin, Ireland. Recently I caught up with Sarah Richards in London. Sarah’s a founder of Content Design in London, an organisation focused on delivering content design training courses as well as working with organisations to help build the content design function internally.
Sarah previously held the role of head content design within the GDS, the government digital services team for the gov.uk. And in this conversation we actually go back in time to discuss what that was like, working with people who had no idea what content design was and how Sarah worked around that. Also joining in in this conversation was Joris Beets, international service design director for EY Seren in London.
Now as a disclaimer, myself and Joris actually work together and I was really interested to bring in a different voice to the conversation, about content design and how this sits within the service design world and how the obvious role of content design enables people to better find, better understand and better use services. So let’s jump straight in.
Sarah Richards a very warm welcome to the ‘This is HCD’ podcast.
SARAH RICHARDS: Hello thank you.
GERRY SCULLION: So here we’re coming from London, so we’re also joined by Joris Beets who’s the international service design director for EY Seren. So Joris delighted to be here.
JORIS BEETS: Hi there.
GERRY SCULLION: So today we’re going to chat to Sarah about content design. So Sarah tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today, not in terms of like the tube but also you know in your career, how you managed to be here as a content designer and an author as well of content design.
SARAH RICHARDS: I mostly fell in to most of my careers so I actually started as a designer. I had a batik printed dungarees and the half shaved head and coloured hair and I was all terribly trendy. And at some point I found out that copywriters earn more money, so I switched disciplines in an entirely mercenary way, became a copywriter and I was working for Ogilvy’s and I was far too pedantic so they put me in quality assurance, away from the creative people and more towards the editorial staff. So then I re-trained as an editor, went digital, carried on in that for a while and then ended up head of content design at the Government Digital Service.
GERRY SCULLION: Right when you were at the GDS?
SARAH RICHARDS: At the end of the beta which was kind of 2010ish to 2014.
GERRY SCULLION: Okay great. We’re just going to go to Joris, Joris tell us a little bit about yourself and how you managed to get into design and where you are here today.
JORIS BEETS: So I’m a product designer by background. I’m from Holland in the Netherlands, you might hear from my accents. I am a product designer, industrial designer and I’ve ended up in service design because I’m attracted to the more connected products, the products that have a more complex ecosystem around it, so automatically kind of drifted towards service design and about six years ago, or seven, I joined Seren, which now is EY Seren, it’s part of, it’s a young, you know big organisation but we’re still very much around design agency here in London and yeah so I’m head of service design here for a while and now I’m head of service design international this year across the various offices and very interested in content design and what we’re talking about today.
GERRY SCULLION: Great so let’s kick off. Sarah tell us a little bit about content design. In the lead up to this we were having a little bit of a chat and I didn’t realise but you coined the phrase ‘content design’. So I’m very honoured to have the content design queen sitting opposite me.
SARAH RICHARDS: That’s me. I’m a queen. Sarah means princess in ancient Hebrew you know.
GERRY SCULLION: Princess design.
SARAH RICHARDS: There you go. I am princess content design. I’ve been apologising to designers around the world since that term came up.
GERRY SCULLION: Another term the people are going to like, right. We’ve got UX design and now we’ve got content design.
So what is content design?
SARAH RICHARDS: It’s a way of giving the audience what they need at a time they need it, at a channel that they’re on and in a way that they expect, using the language that the users use. So the backstory was when we were in government at the time, at the beginning of the beta of GOV.UK everyone’s function was in their job title, right? So a writer wrote and a sub-editor sub-edited and then a publisher published and then it was kind of okay because everybody knew what everybody else was doing because it was in their title. And then this project came along, GDS, and suddenly we had designers sitting right next to us, we had developers sitting right next to us, we had researchers. We had, it wasn’t just about words and we as a community across government, we were fed up with being tied into you can correct the grammar, you can correct our punctuation but you have little or no say in anything else to do with our editorial in digital because the policy holders or the legal people or the you know the content owners had complete control of that. And one of the most important questions a content designer can ask is what’s the point of this? Why are we publishing this at all? And we just weren’t even being allowed to do that sort of thing so when Tom Loosemore, who was the deputy director of the GDS, he came up and he said ‘okay what’s editorial? What do you want?’ He just gave me a blank sheet and it was like ‘right then!’
GERRY SCULLION: So had the GDS actually kicked off at this point? It was, you were in part of it, a new initiative, was it Francis Maude?
SARAH RICHARDS: Maude, Francis Maude, yeah.
GERRY SCULLION: Francis Maude, was the kingpin wasn’t it for the initiation to kick off in government, am I right?
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah he was the MP that kicked it off in government. He commissioned a report by Martha Lane Fox in 2010 and she, it’s on gov.uk now. You can read it. It’s called ‘Revolution, not evolution’ because it’s saying that all government services should just be scrapped. Just start again.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah I remember reading that. But for people, we’ve got a large listenership in America and in Australia; what is gov.uk?
SARAH RICHARDS: Gov.uk is a single website holding all government information. So previously when I was working in government there was a site called directgov and at that time there were three and a half thousand government websites, most of them with their own teams.
GERRY SCULLION: Only three and a half thousand?
SARAH RICHARDS: Just the three and a half thousand. Hardly anything. There was one called Beefy and Lamby which was about how to cook beef and lamb.
GERRY SCULLION: Right, be popular in New Zealand.
SARAH RICHARDS: Because government needs to tell you how to cook. So anyway, so yeah there were a lot and GOV.UK pulled in all of them. If it’s government information, it’s on GOV.UK.
GERRY SCULLION: So what kind of things were you doing back then as it was kicking off and tactically how were you working with the old school workers who were kind of like on the fringes of this GDS piece, because I’m just thinking of people who are listening or are in organisations and I imagine if you did create your own eternal GDS system, what would that look like? What would it look like in the early days of the GDS being implemented?
SARAH RICHARDS: There was only I think it was 24 of us in total. So there were developers, designers, there was delivery managers, there was us, there were 8 content people to start off with. And then you had the product owner, some of the developers were also tech arcs because…
GERRY SCULLION: What’s tech arcs?
SARAH RICHARDS: Technical architects, so they could run around and understand what the government legacy systems were and how we would integrate into that, or not, as the case may be. We ended up creating our own content management system from scratch because we knew that it would be big. It would be on unwieldy. At one point there were 6,000 log-ins to the content management system around the world because FCO, foreign commonwealth office have satellite offices around the world and they need to publish to GOV.UK. So it’s quite a big beast. So they had to understand everything about it before we even created the beta.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah so what was your role on that team at that stage?
SARAH RICHARDS: So I created the team.
GERRY SCULLION: You built the team out?
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah.
GERRY SCULLION: And I guess Joris being here as well, it’s a great opportunity to get the understanding of how content design sits within the service design framework, I guess. Because I know Louise Downe is now doing great work over at the GDS. And I’m keen to understand how content design sits within that world or how you think it sits within that world.
SARAH RICHARDS: I’ll give you a story which will give you a good example of this. So this is later, we’d already gone live so it was maybe 2012/2013 and I had a service manager call me and say ‘oh we need one of your content people because one of our services needs to go live soon’. And like ‘how soon?’ ‘Couple of weeks’. And I was like ‘what content people have you had?’ ‘None’ was the answer. And I was like ‘okay, I’ll send one of the guys over’. And the way that he was asking, basically he wanted it to be proof read, he wanted us to correct typos. Well one of my lot went over, came back a couple of hours later with a funny little grin on his face and I was like ‘alright, what have you done?’ And he said, ‘Oh I tweaked it a bit’. And as he said that my phone went and this guy, the product owner, went absolutely screaming at me; ‘he’s cut my service by 30%, he’s changed all the language, he’s moved the tool out and put it somewhere else.’ He’s telling us that it won’t work because the mental models aren’t correct. And I was like ‘mm hm, was he right?’ And he was because the guy who I had sent had done all the copy, had done all the user needs for that particular benefit, that was what this was, to apply for a benefit. He’d done it all and what he realised was that the stuff in the application process itself was too late, they should have done it two months before they even get to that process. It was on the wrong channel on the wrong time using the wrong language. It was the wrong thing. So he had essentially cut thousands out of their service because it had taken them months to build and he said you don’t need it. Somebody else is doing that over there and people get to it from social media; why did you put that in there? That’s content design in services.
JORIS BEETS: I think the example you give is very exemplary for any type of lack of design that you might encounter in services or products. So this sounds so recognisable this thing like you know if you speak to a product manager or service manager, an organisation and they bring in service design at the last point to finesse it, you know you need to go back and say ‘look, the proposition is completely you know wrong because you have designed the service, you’ve created the service, you’ve built the service without designing it and without asking yourself the question whether you actually need it that way’. So that’s right and I think the analogies you’re describing how content design became a thing and I coined it and other kinds of things is quite interesting how it seems to almost be a repeating pattern over history. So in my original discipline, which is product design, it’s also, I guess back in the ’50s of the previous century, you would have people designing machines to fulfil a certain function and there was no design really involved from a user, an end user perspective. And there must have been loads of people trying to convince factory owners, for instance, to, or mechanical engineers that you need to think a little bit about the actual people using it and you know you’ll get much better products, you will sell much more, you will get, you might reduce the amount of accidents that happen etc. with the car that you designing for instance. And the pattern has repeated itself as technology enters a certain area of things that people use like you know when people started to use the internet more and it became a big thing and suddenly you know from just a functional tech thing it morphed into something that was so prominent in people’s lives, it was, you know it turned into a matter of life and death almost. So people really need to think about how it’s best applied and put designers on it and put a proper customer centred or user centred process against it. And as contents now, you know there’s an explosion of content at the moment, there needs to be design, someone needs to think about that and it’s like an evolving craft, I imagine, stumbling over this same, the same stumbling blocks that the previous design disciplines have evolved in that way, you know in a complex, evolving, growing exploding amount of users that that you know you stumble over the same things, people not getting it or there’s a whole debate probably around the semantics around what is content design, you’ve coined it but you know I think the other side of the world there’s a different word for it, you know what would you call it? UX writing? Yeah exactly and people might understand you know what good design is in different ways and give it different labels around the world. So yeah it’s an interesting thing. It’s a repeating pattern as a field of technology, of a field that’s being used by users becomes more of a discipline.
GERRY SCULLION: So I guess just to follow on from what Joris was saying like how do we create a culture of content design champions? Because there’s going to be people listening to this and they could be from semi-mature organisations where design is there, you’ve got a service design discipline, you’ve got a UX discipline and they have to go and they have to start having a conversation, a difficult conversation with the people who are going to buy design from the community. And I’ve definitely seen the gap between interface design and people using the system and that being words. And I’ve seen xxx13.24xxx and been using user testing sessions so what advice would you give to people that they could then take back to the business and say content design is a thing, we need to start thinking about this and the dangers that occur from what Joris was saying about putting it in too late.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah there are enough case studies out there now to show but I guess it depends on what your organisation cares about. So there’s a case study that Netlife Research did on the Norwegian cancer care project.
GERRY SCULLION: We’ll put a link to that in the show notes, yeah.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah and that shows how culling vast quantities of pages and having a user centred approach to their content lifted all their donations and their monthly donations and their one-off donations through the roof. GOV.UK is also very open about its successes. So it’s saved, I think it was 46 million in the first year and then 62 million in the second year or something; stupid big numbers.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah big money.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah through using this approach and then you’ve got damage limitation and that you can just pick one of your favourite massive organisations and see when they’ve done stuff wrong.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah like I actually did an interview last night on the Service Design show and I was speaking about the democratisation of design and I see a parallel between the democratisation of design and the prevalence of Microsoft Word and I see a parallel between the two of it where businesses assume that they’ve got the tool, that they’ve also got the expertise. So what advice do you give to people who are currently doing, if they’re shipping products, they’re shipping services and they’re assuming that kind of mindset? How do they shift the mindset is I guess what I’m trying to ask?
SARAH RICHARDS: So it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, right? So if you are an expert in design or I don’t know product management you are probably going to love the thing that you do and you’re going to put 10,000 hours in that. Content people don’t just have GCS English and write. They listen to podcasts, they read books, they go to seminars, they go on training courses. They learn how to do this well. And it’s a discipline that is, I don’t know maybe I’m very biased but I feel it is very beleaguered. It is kind of like the poor cousins. They’re normally the cheapest people on the team but they’re the ones that make the impact. People don’t come to most websites for the design or the code. They come for the content.
GERRY SCULLION: Who is the most likely champion of content design?
SARAH RICHARDS: It’ll be like the product managers and the service designers.
GERRY SCULLION: Okay.
SARAH RICHARDS: Because they’re the ones actually with the kudos and the kind of gravitas to do that. We often find, if you have a designer who’s never worked with a content person, then they do and then you ask them to go back to working without a content person they’ll go no because I don’t know enough now.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah. So if you had say, and this is for Joris as well, which Joris does because he’s the international service design director, if you had full control of the design process from end to end, I’m keen to hear both your perspectives on where this process should sit. Where should content design sit if you get to co-design it together in real time?
JORIS BEETS: Well if I look back at the projects that we’ve been doing for the last year at Seren, I think the more successful ones where we had the brief because you’re saying you’ve got full control over the end to end process which is you know there’s often a brief from a client and you try and stretch it but you don’t have, you don’t always have the remit to do the full end to end as in you know you start with a proposition, with a completely open slate and you end with detailed design of every single channel within the service that you’re designing. Of course you know these kinds of projects don’t happen every time. We get more and more of them because we’re quite a sizeable company now which helps. But where we had this kind of end to end approach and the remit and the budget and the timelines and we put together a team that had the equivalent of a content designer. So, you know, semantics again, but I think in our case that would be designers with either a copywriter or a visual design background and ideally both on the team from the very beginning next to the service designers and the guys who are going to be building the service and the information architects etc., then you get a much more iterative and eventually more successful approach with much less having to go back to the drawing board. You kind of de-risk a lot of iterations that you would otherwise need to go through at the end which are more costly when you’re already you know developing quite advanced prototypes etc.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah we generally say if you put content people in at discovery what they’ll be doing, so while you’re designers might be looking for patterns and for interactions, the content people will be looking at that but they’ll also be looking at the vocabulary that triggers those and how they use that, and they’ll also be tracking back. So nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks I know I’m going to do a brand new thing that I’d never thought about before. Takes 7-9 or 7-12 unconscious points to make a conscious decision and so your content people will understand, or should understand, through the kind of research process what those trigger points are, what are the previous information that they’ve already been given before they hit the thing that they’re looking at from you. Then you can take that language through and then you can either disrupt the journey or you can reflect over those models and then get them through that. So your content people, I would say should be from discovery all the way to the other end because also once you’ve made that decision and you’ve ended whatever it is that you’re doing, there will be other things. Are they then your brand champions?
GERRY SCULLION: So what kind of shared learnings can be obtained from that slither of a project from discovery all the way through to finishing the project that you were doing? What kind of shared learnings can be taken and then be reapplied from a larger ecosystem perspective. So in terms, something that can be re-purposed into like guidelines of some sort or a, I don’t like using the word pattern library, or a component or a system; what kind of things should be taken from those learnings that can then be re-applied? What does that look like?
SARAH RICHARDS: So generally you’ll have a style guide, so an editorial so I know that designers have style guides as well. A lot of big organisations are now popping them together so GDS is, the Co-op is, all of their design and content stuff is together because they hit on each other, right? I mean it’s just such a massive impact, one to the other. So if you’ve got somebody in discovery and all the way through then you have loads of language patterns coming out of that. So you should be able to apply that to the rest of your service and the rest of your kind of digital ecosystem. Also if you’ve run the whole project after user or job stories, then suddenly your entire team can run their content off a good bank of stories. So your press team can do that, you social media team can do that. It’s not just doing it once for the one digital service that you’re looking at. Your whole organisation, and it’s far more efficient, you get far more cohesive content journeys and information journeys and you save a whole load of time and money.
JORIS BEETS: Yeah I mean I think that makes sense. And also the, so having gone through your book, content design, some of the research methods described in there, they are directly applicable in the very early stages even if you’re thinking about a, just a business plan, you know before you even start designing a service altogether, you know just to see what people are looking for. That’s already a bit of market research almost. And then how are they looking for it? Through which channels and you know once you get to more detail I guess content design becomes more and more important but that’s not to say that it’s not, you know it should be forgotten in the beginning, right.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah that’s it. That’s it. It’s mumbling along in the bottom with everything else really.
GERRY SCULLION: So there’s another part of the conversation that I just want to try and include and I was thinking about this on the way over when I was coming from Dublin and it’s how SEO plays yeah with content design because I know there’s going to be organisations out there that a team looks after the website and a team looks after the product and the marketing team tends to work with the website that sits up front. So I’m keen to understand how content design and SEO can work together.
SARAH RICHARDS: Okay so content designers will use all the SEO tools but to design for the human on the other side. So I’m quite vocal about these. You have quite a lot of SEO agencies who say ‘use us and you will end up number one of Google. And you can have pages on everything so long as it’s trending because then it will push traffic to your website’. My conversation around this is you can have useless traffic, you still have to maintain that page. That is still costing you something and that page can be very successful but it’s not valuable. I mean how many people have clicked on click bait, right? And then you get to ‘you’ll never guess what happened next’ and then you get to the site and you look at it and then you just disappear, you don’t even know what site you’re on.
GERRY SCULLION: I know yeah. What websites are you looking at?
SARAH RICHARDS: I don’t do that.
GERRY SCULLION: I know absolutely. I interviewed Gerry McGovern and I know you did a talk with him in Minneapolis I think it was recently, he mentioned to me, and you know good content is more findable and it’s kind of the argument of SEO versus findability. Have you anything to add to that?
SARAH RICHARDS: That’s it. You can find it, if your content’s crap, it’s crap. If you make your content really good, SEOs sort of comes for free. There’s a certain bunch of stuff that you can do that you can make life a bit easier, you can add schema code and all this sort of thing, that’s fine. But generally what I say to people is, especially if they have limited time and resources, focus on the content, your SEO will just come with it and then you won’t have to spend that extra on it.
GERRY SCULLION: Okay. One more question in this whole kind of episode before we move into the final part of the podcast and it’s copywriting versus content designers. I’m really throwing them all at you here today. What are your thoughts on the differences in terms of mindset between copywriting and content designers?
SARAH RICHARDS: So I think the first thing to say is that a lot of copywriters do exactly what content designers do and a lot of content designers are in fact copywriters now. So it is quite ironic that as an industry of word people, we can’t actually come up with titles that work across the board. But copywriters, and I am an ex-copywriter, so I feel quite confident in saying this, but copywriters spin a story, they inspire, they tell, they sell a story. Content designers take data and evidence and usually either reflect or disrupt a mental model to get something else across. So it’s a slightly different process because a lot of copywriters have to just sell a dream.
GERRY SCULLION: So I’m hearing the word ‘sale’ in there and I’m keen to understand is that really the mindset that designing for sale versus designing for comprehension? Is that…?
SARAH RICHARDS: See I think all copywriters can use all the content design techniques. It’s just a bunch of techniques that have been put together to create user-centred content. So you know you can use, there seems to be this huge elitism which I really hate at the moment. We have different skills and we all use them for different reasons.
GERRY SCULLION: Well absolutely. It’s, the whole industry at the moment is we’re giving ourselves labels and names and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for people on the client side to kind of go I’m buying what? Content designer? Like is that considered the marketing team? What content are they designing? Do they use Photoshop for this? The word ‘design’ is in there.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah exactly so I don’t need my designer, right? Because I have a content designer. Yes you do.
GERRY SCULLION: Who should we fire? Should we get rid of the interaction designer? What interactions are they designing?
SARAH RICHARDS: Exactly.
GERRY SCULLION: Alright, well look we’re going to come on to the last part of the episode and we’ll ask Sarah the first question and we’ll get Joris’s feedback as well on it.
It is what is the one thing in the industry that you wish you were able to banish?
SARAH RICHARDS: Frequently asked questions.
GERRY SCULLION: In terms of interface design?
SARAH RICHARDS: Just awful, just awful.
GERRY SCULLION: Really?
SARAH RICHARDS: One,…
GERRY SCULLION: You and Gerry McGovern should write another book.
SARAH RICHARDS: We agree on this.
GERRY SCULLION: I think that might have been the same one as him.
Alright frequently asked questions.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah they’re badly designed. Normally people say ‘oh but you know they’re so clear and succinct’ and it’s like well why is the rest of your website not like that?
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah it’s like ‘quick links’, where the ‘slow links’, that’s what Gerry says to me.
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah exactly.
GERRY SCULLION: Joris, what is the one thing from the industry you wish you were able to banish? And don’t say Irish people.
JORIS BEETS: So I think, so it’s a bit of an introspective answer, it’s like us as designers constantly having to soul search.
GERRY SCULLION: Okay so tell us a little bit about what you mean by…
JORIS BEETS: So for instance whenever I go to a service design conference about 80% of the chatter is about but what is service design? And you know if you get stuck at that stage, you’re worrying too much about semantics of what it is you’re doing and too little on the outcomes and the you know what it is that you’re doing for people and just go and do your job.
GERRY SCULLION: That’s excellent. That’s going to be one of my favourite ones. I can already feel that.
So what’s the one professional skill, Sarah, that you wish you were better at?
You’re not allowed to say content design.
SARAH RICHARDS: It’s probably a little bit more outward patience, I think. When I go into a room and people say oh but anybody can write, it pretty much shows on my face how I feel about that. So if I could control my facial muscles, I would definitely be happier.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah I imagine that must be very frustrating. What about you, Joris? So what is the one professional skill that you wish you were better at?
JORIS BEETS: I can be a bit impatient, especially now working for a larger, you know being part of a very large organisation, as opposed to the independent design agency that we were, you need a bit more patience, a bit more political skills.
GERRY SCULLION: Nice. Political answer. And the final question before we wrap this up is what advice would you give to emerging design talent for the future?
SARAH RICHARDS: One, value your content people, two, value your content people.
GERRY SCULLION: Yeah.
SARAH RICHARDS: That’s a bit biased.
GERRY SCULLION: Anything else you want to add maybe?
SARAH RICHARDS: I think it’s the same as everybody has said but it is really important, it’s okay to ask the question ‘why?’. Why is the most important question you can ask because if you are emerging and you’re going into an organisation and you’re new to it, remember everybody else has been trudged in this stuff for five years and so they’ve stopped asking that question why. So if you go in and just go ‘why are we doing that, like that?’ it can be the most important question that’s asked.
GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely, absolutely. Joris to wrap this one up?
JORIS BEETS: You need to be really passionate about what you do so kind of jumping to where there is money, for instance, in design is not a good move because design is not going to make you rich you know to begin with. It needs to be something that you do because you really believe that this is you know your mission in life and then everything you do in your life will steer you towards that particular field of design. You might even invent a new field of design like Sarah has done.
GERRY SCULLION: We can only wish. So guys thank you so much for your time today. Sarah, if anyone wants to find you online, how might they do that?
SARAH RICHARDS: contentdesign.london.
GERRY SCULLION: Okay I do have, found that one. Are you on Twitter?
SARAH RICHARDS: Yeah. It’s e-s-c-m-u-m, escmum.
GERRY SCULLION: I’ll put both links into the show notes. And Joris, you’re on Twitter or LinkedIn in anyone wants to get in touch with you?
JORIS BEETS: Yeah I’m on Twitter – so it’s J-O-R-I-S-B-E-E-T-S, difficult foreign name with an @ before that. And one of my passion designs is actually a delta harp which you can also find on Twitter which is crazy musical instrument that I’ve designed.
GERRY SCULLION: Absolutely you should actually check that one out. It’s really cool. It’s a standalone electric harp and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes as well.
Guys thanks so much.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed this episode and if you’d like to be part of the conversation or community, hop on over to thisishcd.com where you can request to join the slack channel and help shape future episodes and connect with other designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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