What is Content Design?
The growing interest in content design is a welcome development. Such interest recognizes that content decisions can’t be separated from the context in which the content will be used. Consideration of content design corrects two common misperceptions: the notion that content presentation is simply visual styling, and the belief that because content may need to exist in many contexts, the context in which content is displayed becomes irrelevant. Direct collaboration between writers and UI designers is now encouraged. Content must fit the design where it appears — and conversely, UI designs must support the content displayed. Content has no impact independently of a container or interaction platform for which it has been designed, and is being relied upon by users. Content depends on context. And context frames the content experience.
Yet content design is more than a collaborative attitude. What content design actually entails is still not well understood. Content design requires all involved to consider how different elements should work together as a system.
“Content and Design Are Inseparable Work Partners” —Jared Spool
Current Definitions of Content Design
There is no single accepted definition of content design. Two meanings are in use, both of which are incomplete.
The first emphasizes layout and UI decisions relating to the presentation of content. It looks at such questions as will the text fit on the screen, or how to show and hide information. The layout perspective of content design is sometimes referred to as the application of content patterns.
The second, popularized by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in Britain, focuses on whether the words being presented in an article support the tasks that users are trying to accomplish. The GDS instructs: “know your users’ needs and design your content around them” and talks about “designing by writing great content.” The GDS’ emphasis on words reflects the fixed character of their content types —a stock of 40 formats. These structures provide ready templates for inserting content, but don’t give content creators a voice in how or what to present apart from wording.
Content design encompasses much more than wording and layout.
The design of content, including printed media, has always involved layout and wording, and the interaction between the two. Comprehensive content design today goes further by considering behavior: the behavior of the content, and the behavior of users interacting with the content. It designs content as a dynamic resource. It evaluates and positions content within a stream of continuous interaction.
Most discussion of content design approaches content from a “one size fits all” perspective. What’s missing in current discussions is how to design content that can serve multiple needs. User needs are neither fixed, nor uniform. Designs must be able to accommodate diverse needs. Formulaic templates generally fall short of doing this. Content must be supported by structures that are sophisticated enough to accommodate different scenarios of use.
Breaking Free from the Static Content Paradigm
Content creators typically think about content in terms of topics. Topics are monolithic. They are meant to be solid: to provide the answers to questions the audience has. In an ideal scenario, the content presented on the topic perfectly matches the goals of the audience.
The problem with topics is that they too often reflect a publisher-centric view of the world. Publishers know people are seeking information about certain topics — their web logs tell them this. They know the key information they need to provide on the topic. They strive to provide succinct answers relating to the topic. But they don’t consider the wide variation of user needs relating to the topic. They can’t imagine that numerous people all reading the same content might want slightly different things.
Consider the many factors that can influence what people want and expect from content:
- Their path of arrival — where they have come from and what they’ve seen already
- Their prior knowledge of the topic
- Their goals or motivations that brought them to the content
- The potential actions they might want to take after they’ve seen the content
Some people are viewing the content to metaphorically “kick the tires,” while others approach the content motivated to take action. Some people will choose to take action after seeing the content, but others will defer action. People may visit the content with one goal, and after viewing the content have a different goal. Regardless of the intended purpose of the content, people are prone to redefine their goals, because their decisions always involve more than what is presented on the screen.
In the future, content might be able to adjust automatically to accommodate differences in user familiarity and intent. Until that day arrives (if it ever does), creators of content need to produce content that addresses a multitude of users with slightly varying needs. This marks the essence of content design: to create units of content that can address diverse needs successfully.
A common example of content involving diverse needs relates to product comparison. Many people share a common task of comparing similar products. But they may differ in what precisely they are most interested in:
- What’s available?
- What’s best?
- What are the tradeoffs between products?
- What options are available?
- How to configure product options and prices?
- How to save options for use later?
- How to buy a specific configuration?
A single item of content providing a product comparison may need to support many different purposes, and accommodate people with different knowledge and interests. That is the challenge of content design.
Aspects of Content Design
How does one create content structures that respond to the diverse needs of users in different scenarios? Content design needs to think beyond words and static informational elements. When designs include features and dynamic information, content can accomplish more. The goal is to build choice into the content, so that different people can take away different information from the same item of content.
Design of Content Features
A feature in content is any structural element of the content that is generated by code. Much template-driven content, in contrast, renders the structure fixed, and makes the representation static. Content features can make content more “app-like” — exhibiting behaviors such as updating automatically, and offering interactivity. Designing content features involves asking how functionality can change the representation of content to deliver additional value to audiences and the business. Features can provide for different views of content, with different levels of detail or different perspectives.
Consider a simple content design decision: should certain information be presented as a list, in a table, or as a graph? Each of these options are structures. The same content can be presented in all three structures. Each structure has benefits. Graphs are easy to scan, tables allow more exact information, while lists are better for screen readers. The “right” choice may depend on the expected context of use — assuming only one exists. But it is also possible that the same content could be delivered in all three structures, which could be used by different users in different contexts.
Design of Data-driven Information
Many content features depend on data-driven information. Instead of considering content as static — only reflecting what was known at the time it was published — content can be designed to incorporate information about activities related to the content that have happened after publication of the article.
Algorithmically-generated information is increasingly common. A major goal is to harvest behavioral data that might be informative to audiences, and use that data to manage and prioritize the display of information. Doing this successfully requires the designer to think in terms of a system of inter-relationships between activities, needs, and behavioral scenarios.
Features and data can be tools to solve problems that words and layout alone can’t address. Both these aspects involve loosening the control over what the audience sees and notices. Features and data can enrich the content experience. They can provide different points of interest, so that different people can choose to focus on what elements of information interest them the most. Features and data can make the content more flexible in supporting various goals by offering users more choice.
Content Design in the Wild
Real-world examples provide the best way to see the possibilities of content design, and the challenges involved.
Amazon is famous for both the depth of its product information, and its use of data. Product reviews on Amazon are sometimes vital to the success of a product. Many people read Amazon product reviews, even if they’ve no intention of buying the product from Amazon. And people who have not bought the product are allowed to leave reviews, and often do.
Amazon’s product reviews illustrate different aspects of content design. The reviews are enriched with various features and data that let people scan and filter the content according to their priorities. But simply adding features and data does not automatically result in a good design.
Below is a recent screenshot of reviews for a book on Amazon. It illustrates some of the many layers of information available. There are ratings of books, comments on the books, identification of the reviewers, and reactions to the ratings. Seemingly, everything that might be useful has been included.
Original Article at http://storyneedle.com/what-is-content-design/