Like many copywriters, I love how the Government Digital Service (GDS) has quietly revolutionised digital.
Between 2010 and 2014, while others banged on about Bitcoin and AR, Sarah Richards and her team transformed how people interacted with the government online.
They did this by doing what copy people love: cutting the waffle and making content super-clear. And now, having left GDS, she’s helping other organisations improve their content with training courses and her book, Content Design.
As comms pros will appreciate, inspiration came out of everyday frustration.
“When developing the principles I had ten years of arguing with people about things like capital letters and structure,” she says.
“Content Design is about getting through all that and trying to create something better for everyone.”
Sarah explained to me five key points from her book.
1. Start with the users’ needs
Sarah is passionate that good content is about what users need (which isn’t always the same as what they think they want).
So instead of “How will I write this?” the question should be: “What content [which could be copy, video, calendars and more] will best meet this need?”
“It’s not about the words your CEO wants you to publish,” she says.
“It’s whether you need to publish anything at all. It’s asking: why is this bit of copy not a calculator? And would a video work well here instead?”
Talking point: Visitors to the government’s Bank Holiday page are just after the dates and don’t want to wade through loads of extra info to get them. So the page is simply a calendar.
2. Change the content conversation
“At GDS we spent a lot of time thinking about our audience, but not necessarily about how we should talk about what we did,” says Sarah.
This is where creating the role of ‘content designer’ comes in. A content designer isn’t just a writer, or content strategist, but a professional whose role is harnessing data to create or commission content that meets the users’ needs.
“Having that title helps change the conversation about how content works in your organisation,” says Sarah.
“You have some people who immediately get it. They say ‘OK, that makes sense, because you sit with designers and developers.’
“I really want people to recognise that content is a skill,” she continues.
“People think that if you’ve got GCSE English you can write for the internet as well as the next person. They don’t appreciate the learning that goes into making it a skill.”
Talking point: Charities like Scope are already talking in terms of content designers and sharing what they’ve learned on social media, and Medium.
3. Plan a discovery phase in each project
Sarah advises thinking of comms projects as problems to be solved, then bringing in experts from relevant parts of the organisation to better understand them.
“So you bring in different decision-makers,” she says.
“Obviously, a lot of people then come to a meeting thinking about the needs of the team they’ve come from rather than the user. But we need to stop that. It’s saying: ‘OK, you’re temporarily part of this team trying to sort out this problem.’”
Meanwhile, many comms people who struggle to get a sit-down with the product team, let alone the CEO, might find this wishful thinking. But Sarah says it’s essential, as a way to get decisions made and help other people understand what content designers do.
“I’ve had content designers in big organisations request meetings and people say ‘Hang on, you’re just a junior, why do you need to speak to us?’”
“This can definitely feel uncomfortable. But the answer is: ‘because we need to solve these problems and make decisions together’. And sometimes, people really want to do something different, they just need permission to change.”
Talking point: Discovery sessions can also be an opportunity to tutor the rest of the organisation about what content designers do.
4. Get control of your content
Sarah says that in the early days of GDS it was a struggle to wrest control of the CMS away from individual departments. This can damage consistency.
“The skill of knowing your subject inside out can (but not always) be to the detriment of communicating that subject,” she says.
“I do get it. You know so much and you want to tell people about everything, because it’s important to you. But the user probably doesn’t need to know half that stuff.”
Talking point: Ensure that the workflow is manageable and sort out a process to avoid the “we need to post this now – have you got five minutes?” moments.
5. Change can be slow, so celebrate your victories
You’re all fired up about the possibilities of digital. Yet your CEO doesn’t tweet and your content is more Ceefax than Facebook.
This can be deeply disheartening. But Sarah acknowledges that change will happen, even if it seems slow.
“Just take it one step at a time,” she says.
“In digital we don’t seem to mind change too much. We all like the shiny new thing! However, if you do a journey map and get 30% further then you’re still 30% further. Take that as a win, and then do it again next time.”
Talking point: GDS went on a journey with content design – and so might you. Try and be open with your organisation what’s working, what’s not, and why.