Sarah Richards created the field of content design as she revamped GOV.UK‘s web presence. From a messy amalgam of hundreds of government websites, she created a user-focused “storefront” where UK citizens could get their most common questions answered.
Always focused on her users’ needs, Sarah developed an approach and methodologies that can help anyone design, create, and manage better content.
Sarah and I talked about:
- the origin story behind the field of content design
- the importance of people (80%) over tech (20%) in digital transformation
- Sarah’s diabolical scheme to wrest control of government content from department heads
- her commitment to a user-focused approach to content design
- how to get high-level buy-in for a big project
- balancing business goals with user needs
- the folly of “push” publishing
- using pair writing and crits to improve content
Sarah is the author of the edifying and amazingly designed book, Content Design.
Sarah spent 10 years working in digital government, ending as Head of Content Design for the UK Government Digital Service. There she created and developed content design as a discipline for the GOV.UK. Sarah now runs the Content Design Centre, training and consulting in content strategy and content design for organisations and governments around the world.
Here’s the video version of our conversation:
[Not an actual transcript – just my quick notes on first listen-through]
0:00 – intro
1:15 – Sarah intro – actually started in design – had the dungarees and half-shaved head, and “terribly arty-farty” – heard that copywriters made more money – “massively mercenary” at age 19 – better now 🙂 – then on to editorial and checking grammar and then on to “what is content?”, where should it go? – then user-centered at GDS
2:15 – when did you articulate the field of “content design”?
2:35 – conversation with boss at GDS, late 2010/early 2011 – outside in freezing cold – Tom Loosemore, GDS director and founder – he said, “Tell me about editorial in government. What do you want? If you had anything, what would it be? Blank sheet. Go.” – and she went off – years of frustration with infrastructure, leadership, etc. – “Content people should not be stuck with just words because we have developers on this project. We have designers sitting right next to us.”
– if audience needs a calculator, or calendar or other tools, give it to them – need to change the way government thinks about content team; spent a lot of time thinking about how to speak to audience but not to each other – and that’s where content design came from – they were designing with designers, developers, user researchers – across the government, folks were laughing, “Oh, that’s what you call yourselves now.” – editors, copywriters were doing their best but had had trouble pulling it all together – now, idea that they were just proofreaders and grammar checkers stops now – now we design content for user need –
5:35 – great origin story
6:00 – percentage of her work is people stuff vs. word stuff?
6:05 – 80% people – “digital transformation is very little about the tech. It’s mostly about the people.” – you can just analyze tech and decide – content is all about who does what, what we’ll say, consistency across channels – “It’s all people based.”
7:10 – how did you come to have control over the gov.uk content?
7:15 – “we created a content management system, and didn’t give anybody access.” – it was very difficult – big meeting with Tom Loosemore and franchise [department] heads – Tom rolled out new workflow and process – had her charter in place, top 100 user needs – said that her team would write them and come to their folks for fact checking – and they said “Sign-off?” and she said, “No, fact checking. You don’t need to sign things off. I’m not asking for your approval. I’m asking you to check the facts. And then we’re going to publish it.” – jaws dropped – it was horrible – most uncomfortable meeting of her life, but best one too – “We’re working for the user. We need the facts. We need it to be right.
We need the accuracy. We need to know what the edges are, so that we don’t give people a bad steer.” – we’re taking care of the user-centered side of it – dept. heads freaked out, said they couldn’t do it, that her team couldn’t do it – but they had designed the CMS and controlled access – didn’t give anyone access – can’t control without access
10:15 – where did her user focus arise?
10:25 – actually started in alpha, before she got there – a small team, 12 or so, created the whole idea of what it could be and sold it to ministers and others high in government – and there was already user research happening – but was seen as tick-box exercise to that point – e.g. – one team reported research to agency, and agency didn’t like the results and browbeat them until the research agreed with them – but the truth was still there on the last page of the report – that was the environment – many wanted it, but there were more people who were blocking it
12:10 – what stories did you tell to get that high-level buy-in?
12:25 – the alpha project had done that work for her – back then she was on convergence team 185 sites to 1, and there were about 3,500 gov’t sites in all -most with team attached – e.g. Beefie and Lambie site – how to cook beef and lamb – each site had funding from somewhere – not hard to see the savings – convincing people that quality and user focus matter much harder
13:30 – Kristina Halvorson SXSW talk on content marketing – similar, right?
13:50 – yes, there were many examples – Afghanistan conflict, e.g., 9 different gov’t sites vying for traffic, while BBC had best coverage – they/govt should have been doing the best job, govt has a position after all, but they weren’t – it wasn’t user focused; it was department focused – it was push publishing – digital is by its nature pull publishing
15:20 – change in writing/editing/publishing from linear and solitary to iterative and collaborative process of getting the right content out there
15:50 – yes, based on user need and that may not always be words – depends on where they are on journey – content design looks at it broadly – which format/channel will best serve their needs
16:25 – user wants vs needs?
16:50 – two ways – if a content strategy session with org, she’ll look at both what business wants and what users need – how to make that work – if you don’t consider user need, it’s just more push publishing – Dave Trott estimates that something like $89 billion of ad spending is ignored because it’s pushed – “I would definitely check that number.” [so I did – not sure if this is the quote Sarah was referring to – nevertheless, gets the point across, “The problem with advertising is that every year in the UK, £20.3 billion is spent on all forms of advertising. Of that, 4% is remembered positively, 7% is remembered negatively and 89% of ads are not remembered at all.”]
– looks at business needs and user needs – e.g. Citizens Advice, advice charity in UK, what they *want* is to be out of debt but they *need* step-by-step help – so give them the information they need – manage expectations and understand their thinking all the way through
19:30 – ongoing story, lessons learned from gov.uk
19:50 – still going on, in a massive, massive way – when she started they had 14 people, when beta launched 46, plus 200 in GDS, now 600 or so – have their own academy for UCD, research, service design, etc. – still going on – can be a little disheartening, because they slide – original focus now diluted by department sites and there are thousands of pages now, overwhelming search engines, not a search problem, a publishing too much problem –
22:15 – [shifting gears/circling back] paired writing and crits – origin and development?
22:35 – crits came from her design background – in art school, they would tear your work to shreds – borrowed a rule from agile, everyone is doing their best, and adopted as core rule – do early, after discovery and some basic work – run by crit team – create skeleton and draft – done with developers and designers – multi-disciplinary approach is amazing – also uses to teach rest of the org – e.g. if people are blocking, sit down together and look at the product together – can only talk about the product, not the people, one of her rules – no more us-vs-them, working toward common goal
24:55 – pair writing came from developers – saw developers pair writing and said, yes – much of this just finding write labels for the activity – amazing to her that we, as word people, can’t figure this out
26:20 – bugs her that content design is not valued as a skill – seeing a change this year, more demand for training, etc. – folks tend to think that any basic training will prepare you for web writing – not true and she’s seeing change –
27:15 – resources? events? etc.?
27:40 – Confab – your head will explode – Twitter: Brain Traffic, Gather Content –
28:30 – speaking at Confab: Content Design 101 workshop and talk about KPIs