And the Goddess Sarah sent her Weave angels – Susan, Angus and Lorien – down to Sydney and they appeared before the Content Design Virgin Cat and said: ‘you shall bear and give birth to a radical idea: that less is more. Omit those needless words. Forget those FAQs. And focus on the user. You are the bringer of content clarity. Go out into the world and spread the news that good Content Design is here to serve the needs of the user'. And thus spake the Weavers unto Cat and in so doing unleashed a mighty force upon the world of cognitive overload and rambling wordage. And so came into being Cat, the Content Design Evangelist.
Okay, well, perhaps it wasn’t exactly like that, but the outcome was just the same.
But first, let’s set the scene.
I work at a Group of 8 university library as the executive assistant to the university librarian who oversees 6 academic libraries and 250 staff. When I’m not EAing, I’m linguisting (as a linguistics student and a speaker of foreign languages) and wordsmithing. Words take centre stage in my life, and I’m known for being verbose. Why say it in 25 words when you can say it in 250? Not precisely content designer material, eh? But that was BCD (before content design).
In my role I contribute content to our library’s website, which has a wide range of users with diverse needs: students, academics, the general public, professional university staff, and librarians. As one of those users, my needs were not being met. And I knew that other users’ needs weren’t being met either, because I frequently fielded telephone queries from them. How do I borrow a book? How can I search for a journal article? How can I access an online newspaper? The answers to these questions were on our website but imprisoned behind an iron curtain of inaccessibility.
Enter: Sarah Richards and Content Design London.
I had read Sarah’s book, listened to her many podcast interviews and pored over the brilliantly redesigned GOV.UK website. When I heard that she was bringing her course to Australia, I signed up immediately. And, so, in November 2019, after two days of intensive workshopping, I entered the era of PCD (post content design).
Sarah’s selection of Susan Cowan’s content agency Weave to deliver the course was an excellent choice – the two agencies are philosophically and technically aligned. Weave’s two highly experienced content designers – Angus Gordon and Lorien Kaye – facilitated the workshop. We were also fortunate that Susan and Sarah were present to share their wisdom and insight (and I admit that I was a bit starstruck by these doyennes of CD).
Angus and Lorien explained the concept of content design, emphasising that it is not just about words on a screen. The old mantra of “write, SEO, sub, publish” is obsolete. Instead, content design asks the question: what is the best way to support the needs of my users. The answer may be in the form of an infographic or an interactive tool, not just words.
The course was very well structured and paced. It was delivered to suit all levels of experience and skill. Participants came from a wide range of industries and professions: government, not-for-profit, higher education, and research institutes. The difference in perspective from our peers was an invaluable resource during the peer writing and reviewing sessions. It informed our decision making, and we learned from each other.
My key takeaways
The user comes first: I realised we were ‘pushing’ information onto users and they were suffering from cognitive overload.
Less is more: You don't need that big banner taking up your prime real estate on your home page. Your users can't find what they need from a banner – get rid of it.
Content is not just about words: Sometimes, an infographic does paint a thousand words. And a tool might be a better way of helping your user to get what they want.
Omit needless words: Yes, really, 25 words is better than 250.
Forget about FAQs: They are so passé. The presence of FAQs indicates your content is not doing its job. I’m now a proud anti-FAQster.
Create user journeys and user stories: They'll help you to put yourself in the shoes of your audience and give them what they need.
Search engine optimisation comes out of good content design: SEO isn’t as scary as it looks or sounds.
Armed with this new knowledge, I graduated as a Content Design Evangelist and returned to the library to proselytise and convert the masses to the cult of good content design. I’ve even signed up our director of excellence and engagement to February’s CDL course in Melbourne.
Finally, one month after participating in the course, the Library launched its 2020–2025 Strategic Plan. And the focus of the plan? The user.