18 things we learned about content design

Jeremy Torrance, head of digital comms, reflects on our recent two-day content design workshop.

If you’re producing content for websites and you haven’t heard of content design you really should take a long hard look in the mirror. Content design – creating content that’s focused on what the user needs to know rather than what publishers want to tell them – is a skill every content producer needs to have.

It’s not easy and does require something of a change in mindset. So to get our content folk on the path to enlightenment we brought in Hinrich von Haaren from Content Design London for a content design workshop.

After the session I asked all the attendees to share one or two things they learned from it. Here they are.

User needs

  1. Does your content strictly cover a user need? If not, bin it.
  2. Business needs and user needs do not need to be in conflict with one another. It’s tempting to start a project with the business needs in mind, but you won’t necessarily reach those objectives and targets if you can’t engage and help the user. By putting the user needs at the core of the project you are more likely to meet your business needs as well.
  3. During content planning, explore the acceptance criteria which underpin user needs.
  4. Don’t think about content as pages to begin with. Instead, think first about the user needs you have identified. Group the user needs and prioritise them. Then consider what the best format for the content is, and finally what will be on each page.
  5. It’s important to temper audits of existing content with critical examination of what that content is for, whether it serves user and/or business needs and, as a result, whether it should be kept or binned.
Post it notes
Mapping out a user journey on A levels results day


  1. Use predictable, common words in your content and more people can understand it. Combine this with short sentences and small chunks of information, and you have content which is quick to scan, so users can find what they need really easily.
  2. Front-load your headings with the most important words, to make them quicker and easier to read – minimising cognitive load for users.


  1. Using word clouds of competitor web pages to establish the keywords that might be useful for creating new content in specific areas.
  2. Google Trends is great for understanding the users’ vocabulary and should be incorporated into regular practice.
  3. In-page analytics are useful in prioritising, structuring and designing content.
  4. You can see GDS’s user stories for each page by typing in /info into their url and you can see their acceptance criteria too. For example, here’s the ones for the Child Benefit page.
  5. Keep your eye on the future eg how is voice search going to change the way you design your content?

Creating content

  1. Having gathered your insight, it’s time to start writing. What you delete is as important as what you write. If you don’t know where to start, just start writing. Then you can start deleting.
  2. Pair writing is far more efficient and effective than working alone and sending something off for feedback.
  3. Content crit (reviewing content in a group) is also a very efficient way to help ensure content does what you want it to do.
  4. Content Crits need rules. These are: a) assume everyone did the best job they could with the information they had at the time b) talk about the product, not the person c) be honest, but be kind d) no-one needs to defend their position.
  5. We should foster a culture that encourages pair writing and editing and content crits rather than being defensive and territorial.
  6. Send colleagues PDFs to review. Don’t use MS Word’s track changes/reviewing features. Ever.

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