person holding pencil near laptop computer
Photo by Scott Graham.

Why you need a content designer on your UX team

Helen Gaskell explains the reasons why every team needs a content designer and shouldn't be overlooked.
Words by
5 July, 2024
4 mins read

Content is so often overlooked, and it’s a crying shame. As a lead content designer, I know I’m another mouth to feed, another body on an already-packed team – an expensive one, at that. And in the rush to develop eye-catching graphics and attention-grabbing interfaces which steal away the competition, who really cares whether that button says “start” or “continue”?

Every laptop has a keyboard, and the vast majority of us can manage to type out either option. So why on earth pay someone to agonise over it when surely what matters far more is whether the back end works, whether the stakeholders are happy, whether the flow is channelling everyone through that funnel? There aren’t any typos, the whole team has Grammarly installed, and ChatGPT will do the rest, right?

I’m the content design lead on the UK government’s first live AI project, and I’m here to tell you that no, ChatGPT can’t do my job – and I’m not scared of it, not one bit. In fact, I think it’ll need more content designers before it even has a chance of working, but that’s another story.

The fact is, like the nail in the proverbial horseshoe, a typo can bring your kingdom crashing down. Where you place your link in a sentence can send hundreds of users rushing to your phone lines instead of your shiny new contact form, and leaving your product descriptions to a large language model can end in a rush of returned items. Having been doing this for nearly two decades I can assure you that I have seen it all.

The book Content Design by Sarah Richards was printed in 2017, and her definition of content design still stands: it’s “about using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it and in a way they expect”. What does that mean? Often, it means taking things back to basics.

A content designer uses evidence – user research, scientific methodology, stats – to champion your users. We ask annoying questions, look at the journey you’re asking your users to take, and then we smooth it all out. We write words in the hope that users won’t stop to think about them at all – they’ll just be left with the general impression that something positive has happened to them. Our work is ultimately invisible.

Often, the work of a content designer is actually to delete content instead of creating it. For decades, data has been king – the tech industry has been hanging on to archives, multiple versions of documents, huge repositories of help documents and FAQs. Content designers generally hold the view that if your designs are good enough, nobody will need any of that stuff: the information you need to fill in that form will all be in one place; the questions they have about that product will be answered before they even think to ask them; the button they need to click will be so obvious that they don’t realise they’ve clicked on it.

And here is where I mention accessibility. You might not have accessibility needs – perhaps, as far as you’re aware, nobody at your entire company does. But how many of your users struggle with their vision (77%)? How many struggle with numbers (49%)? How many have low literacy (17-27%)? Big numbers in the brackets there, right? You might not think these people work in tech, but they’re definitely using your website, software, service, mobile app. Sure, your visual/UX designer might be able to pick out a good font, look at colour contrast, but have you checked your users can understand the words you’re writing?

Another thing content designers can help you with is authority – authenticity. This is the reason why we don’t just stick to websites. When a user receives an email or letter from the government, for example, it has to be just right. Too informal, and it looks unimportant or even spammy. Too formal, and it can terrify the recipient into inaction – or again, look spammy. 

We can even look at call centre scripts as part of our work: are your call centre agents au fait with your website, email comms, and chatbot? Are they giving the same message that the rest of your company is?

The latest forays content designers have made have been into audio visual content (a welcome move to me, since I spent over a decade creating exactly that at the BBC). How are your training materials coming across? Are your infographics working for people with visual impairments, dyslexia, or dyscalculia? Could you give that advice in one minute, instead of ten? Think of how much time that might cost your animator – how much time you’d save in the edit room, and you can begin to put a figure to the value of having a content designer on your team.

There are many things I adore about content design, and most of them are the moments of realisation I see. It could be a business analyst realising I really did put that 256 page document onto two sides of A4 without losing anything, or a stakeholder signing off a project on the basis of a one-pager with all the information they needed to make the right decision. It’s often a user clicking through a few pages mindlessly before realising, for example, that goodness, they really did just receive a National Insurance number in five minutes instead of 13 weeks. Right now I’m watching users type in a complicated, lengthy query and immediately receive an authoritative, carefully hand-crafted response that gives them exactly the information they need without having to sift through hundreds of pages of search results or wrestle with a chatbot.

Content design is glorious. It saves time, money and effort. Hire a content designer for your next project, and see for yourself.

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Helen Gaskell

Helen Gaskell is a lead content designer based in the UK. She spent a decade producing online content at the BBC before working on GOV.UK projects for various government departments. She is currently working on the first AI project to be published on GOV.UK.

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