In this episode, we talk about content design, its origins at GDS and how it’s helped government to better meet user needs.
The transcript for the episode follows:
Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And for this month's episode, we're talking about Content Design. We're going to find out what it is, how it helps government and where you can learn more. And to tell me the answer to these questions are Amanda Diamond and Ben Hazell. So welcome both to the GDS Podcast. Please could you introduce yourselves and your job roles here at GDS. Amanda first.
Yeah, hi, Laura. I'm Amanda Diamond and I'm Head of GDS Content Design and Head of the Cross-government Content Community. I joined GDS in 2016, so August 2016, in fact. So it is 4 years exactly that I've been at GDS. Last year I went on loan to Acas as their Head of Content to help with their digital transformation. And prior to that I have worked in journalism. So I started out as a journalist. Prior to GDS, I worked at Which?, the consumer association, as their Deputy Editor for Which? magazine, Deputy Editor for their travel magazin, and I helped launch and run their consumer rights website as their Consumer Rights Editor.
Hello, I'm Ben Hazell. I'm a Content Product Lead here at GDS on the GOV.UK programme. I currently work on a team dealing with Coronavirus Public Information Campaign. In the recent past, 5 months ago, I was working on the EU Exit Public Information Campaign. And prior to that, I've been working on the means of publishing and production for content on GOV.UK, looking at workflows and providing the tools and data that help people manage the content on GOV.UK. Prior to that, like Amanda, I was actually in journalism. I worked on a big newspaper website for about 9 years.
So thank you both for introducing yourselves. And I want to start with the first of my questions which is, what is content design?
I don't mind starting, and that is a great question, Laura, and one that I love to answer. So basically and I'll tell you for why, people often confuse content design with different things, mainly comms. They also think that content design is just about the words. And of course, words are really important and content design is you know concerned with words. But it's not the only thing when you're talking about content design.
So content design could be a map, it could be text on a button or a sign. It also includes things like charts or graphs. Content design is about packaging up the right information in a way that makes it easy for people to understand at the point that they most need it.
So for me, I often tell people that content design is at its core: problem solving. And what do I mean about that? Well, I mean that it's about asking the right questions to get to the best solution for your audience. So the best solution for your users. So asking questions like, well, what do our users need to know? What do they need to do? And what evidence? - it's all about the evidence - what evidence do we have to support what we think our users need to know or need to do? Because there’s a big difference between what we think our users need, and what they actually need. And that can often confuse things. And we also ask things like, how can we make the overall experience better for our users? So before Content Designers even put like a single word to a page, what they need to do is like dedicate a lot of time, a lot of effort to understanding the problem in the first place so that we can give people what they need.
Yeah, and I definitely, I agree with all of that. There's no doubt that there's a fair chunk of writing in what we do. But it's also about use of evidence, about research and about iteration, about constant improvement. And I think a lot of it comes back to being humble about understanding that it's not about what we want to say, it's about finding out what people actually need from us.
We're trying to make things simple. In my teams, we often talk about making information easy to find and making sure information is easy to understand. And making things simple - that's not dumbing down. That's actually opening up and being able to process complexity and distill it down to what other people actually need to know and can act upon. That is both important and rewarding. And it's often the kind of fun puzzle and it can be as much about what you're getting rid of and pruning down to find the shape. So perhaps I could compare it to sculpting. You know, the thing exists in the centre of the marble and you just keep chipping away to get to the beautiful thing that people need.
I did enjoy the sculpture one as well because Amanda you're coming to us from an artist's studio as well. So clearly there's something in this recording.
And interestingly, my other half, he -it's not my studio, my artist studio, I’ll hasten to add, if only! It’s my partner’s and he is a sculptor by trade. So yeah, full circle.
So now we know what is. Let's go back in time a bit. So GDS is actually the home of content design in the government too as the term and the discipline originated here under GDS’s first Head of Content Design, Sarah Richards. And why do you think it came out of the early days of GDS?
So really good question. And I think it is really useful for us to pause and reflect and look back sometimes upon this, because it's not, you know, content design, as you said, it came from, as a discipline it came from GDS.
So really, it only started to emerge around 2010, so 2010, 2014. So in the grand scheme of things, as a discipline, it is very young. And so it's still evolving and it's still growing. And so back in the early 2000s, before we had GOV.UK, we had DirectGov. And alongside that, we had like hundreds of other government websites. So it was, it was a mess really because users had to really understand and know what government department governed the thing that they were looking for.
So what GOV.UK did was we brought websites together into a single domain that we now know of as GOV.UK. And that was a massive undertaking. And the reason for doing that was was simple. It was, it was to make things easier for users to access and understand, make things clearer and crucially to remove the burden on people to have to navigate and understand all of the structures of government.
So back in the early days, GOV.UK, GDS picked I think it was around, I think it was the top 25 services in what was known as the Exemplar Programme. I think things like that included things that Register to Vote, Lasting Power of Attorney, Carer's Allowance. And so I think through that process, we, we, we discovered that it actually wasn't really about website redesign, it was more about service design.
And that's where content design and service design, interaction design and user research kind of came together under this banner of user centred design because you can't have good services without content design essentially. All services contain words or images or artefacts, content artefacts, workflows, journeys, and so you need a content designer to help build these. So I think that's kind of where it, where it sort of emerged from.
But really, fundamentally, with a relentless focus on putting the user at the heart, heart of everything, rather than always relying on what government wants to tell people and what government wants to, to push out to folks. It was a sort of like a reversal of that and a relentless focus on what folks needed of government and what folks needed to, to understand and learn to do the things they need to do as a citizen.
I felt what I could add to that is perhaps my journey into content design and how I came to understand what GDS was doing, because in the late 2000s, kind of 2008, 2009, a lot of my work in newspapers was around search optimisation. And that was quite a big change for that industry, because instead of everything being based upon some kind of monthly reports of sales figures and editors who had a kind of supernatural knowledge of their reader base, suddenly you actually were presented with almost real time data about what people were looking for and interested in.
And sure, there were all the criticisms about tons of stories about Britney Spears all of a sudden, but what it actually came back to was you could see what people wanted to find out from us and we could start to model our online content around what people's expectations were. And it opened up a really interesting era of kind of experimenting with formats, experimenting with the ways in which news content was produced.
And from there, I started to kind of get quite interested in what I could see GDS was doing and they were winning awards at that time for user centred design because it was taking that evidence base about what people actually need for a variety of digital mechanisms and applying it to create not just pieces of content, but structures of content that better serve people. And of course, it was wonderful to move from the media over to somewhere like GOV.UK, which is not beholden to advertising.
So it was that combination of the availability of digital data and being able to more effectively get to what government wanted to happen, because this is also all about not just about making things simpler for users, but making things simpler for users has great benefits for government. If you make things easy for people to do, you reduce any burden on support services, you increase the level of compliance, they're happier. It's more cost effective for government.
I don't have exact figures, but I, I do know that savings in the millions have been made because of, as Ben rightly describes, our reduce on support services, calls to contact centres and enabling people to do the things they need to do more easily and to self-serve. And so, I mean, that's a huge, that's a huge benefit not just to government, but to the taxpayer, to the public purse.
And I think one example of content design that has also got a bit of attention recently was the Sara Wilcox NHS blog on the language of health and why they need to be searched and found using pee and poo, people understood that and that is a huge benefit that people will search that and that will help their health. So I think as well as saving time or money, it's also directly making sure people get the information they need when they need it at those urgent points.
Exactly. If you think about the history of language and the history, sort of professional or sort of authoritative language - it’s, it's lofty and it is full of jargon and it is full of often if you think of legal, the legal profession is full of Latin terms and even science as well it’s full of, you know, the medical profession is full of Latin phrases.
Now, that doesn't do anybody any justice because it is just putting up barriers for people to be able to understand and act on. And so what we do as content designers is we and, and that blog that you talked about, Laura, is about reducing those barriers and really sort of democratising language - like language is for everyone. And we shouldn't be, we shouldn't be sort of putting those barriers in place. We should be trying to break them down.
Yes. And I'd say we have to also we do think about the audience for any given piece of content. So it's not that there's a general fight against technical language. Sometimes something has a precise term and a precise name, and that is the efficient way of communicating it that's right for the audience in question.
But on the other hand, what we also know and we have evidence to show this, is that there's this assumption that as people pick up more professional skill, they like more and more verbose language, which seems exclusive. Whereas actually the opposite is true. People in high skilled professions, highly qualified professions, often want things to be simple because they don't want to have to spend their time unpicking complex documents. They need to get on with their job. So, yes, we use technical language where it's appropriate to do so. But we're also always looking to make things simple whilst also keeping them precise.
Picking up on what you’re both just saying, and I just want to talk about the link between content design and accessibility. We should always think about accessibility with everything GDS does because people don’t have a choice when they interact with government, they have to use our services. They can't shop around. So would you would you talk about how the language being used helps with making sure that we don't create any barriers unnecessarily to services?
Yeah, absolutely, Laura. I mean, like accessibility is, I think really is at the heart of content design as a discipline. If you make things clear and simple, that means writing things clearly and simply in plain language and in language that users use themselves.
Also, I think people, people make a mistake and often kind of confuse what we mean by accessibility. Accessibility is not something that is just for a certain group or subset of people. Accessibility is about catering to everyone and all of the time. So there is a difference between, you know, there might be people who have permanent accessibility needs, there might be people who have some temporary accessibility needs and there might be people who have situational accessibility needs.
And the great example that I can point to is, you know, somebody who has got - who’s had an arm amputated. That is one that that is a permanent, that is a person with a permanent need, accessibility need. Somebody that might have sprained their wrist or broken their wrist. And so their need is temporary, but they still need, they might still need to access and access our services. And then there's a sort of a situational need as well. So, you know, if you're a parent and you have to hold a child, well, you have to do something quickly, then you are impaired because you are holding a child and that’s situational, that's not going to last, but you still may need to you know, do something in that time.
And the same thing goes, I think, for sort of cognitive access needs as well. If we are, you know, if, if we are writing in language that is convoluted and verbose and lofty, we are unintentionally creating barriers to people who might have cognitive challenges or who might have dyslexia or people who who are just reading at speed and need to do something really, really quickly and access and sort of comprehend something really, really quickly.
So, yeah, I think like accessibility for me, beyond the legal requirements that we have, we know that there are new accessibility requirements coming into force on the 23 September this year. It's beyond for me, beyond a legal duty and it's also a moral duty as well. And I think that should be at the heart of everything that we're that we're doing as government.
As you said, Laura, people don't have a choice other than to interact with government. People are not looking at the GOV.UK website and hanging out in their lunch break and just browsing and having a good old read. People are coming to our site because they need to do something because government has mandated that it's a legal requirement to do a thing or to get, you know, get document to do a thing or whatever it might be. And so it really is our duty then if we're making people do these things that we have to make the information in the ways in which they need to do these things as simple and as clear as possible.
I would agree with all of that, I’m reminded of that phrase, ‘this is for everyone’. I specifically work for GOV.UK, which is always worth mentioning is just one highly visible part of what GDS does. But GOV.UK as a platform is designed to be very, very adaptable. So all the information that is published should be in a clean HTML form, which can then be picked up and experienced in different ways. Now, some of that is going to be about assistive technologies, but actually it also speaks to the need for people to come by information from GOV.UK in a variety of different ways now.
So by having properly structured clean text, we can work with voice interfaces. We can make sure that Amazon, Alexa or Google Home can interpret our information. We make sure that a Google search results page can quickly deliver a quick answer to a person. We make sure that content can be syndicated out through API so it can be republished by other organisations who might have closer contact with people who need it. So we can syndicate things very efficiently in a structured way over to organisations like Shelter or Citizens Advice if they were able to make use of it. There's a lot to be said for the platform itself being quite an open platform which can easily be adapted upon.
One interesting thing about coronavirus content has been the accelerated shift in the mobile audience, as you might imagine, with everybody staying at home, they're not actually accessing the internet quite as much on work computers. And we saw at the peak up to 90% of all traffic to coronavirus information was coming from smartphones. Now, we've long on GOV.UK practiced mobile-first design, but something like that really draws attention to needing to communicate clearly and put things in a logical order for people viewing it in a single narrow screen. So when we talk about accessibility, another thing to think about is just the sheer movement to a mobile audience. And what that actually means for how we produce things. We simply can't get away with big charts or diagrams that are only designed to be read on a work computer screen. People are using their mobiles at home and that's what we need to design for.
And sort of I thinking about, Ben, what you're saying about your SEO, your search engine optimisation experience earlier, also content design surely helps like how, where to find all this information on GOV.UK.
We're in a time with coronavirus and the EU Exit when lots of things are changing quite rapidly. I think some of the most exciting things we've been playing with on GOV.UK is around adaptive content, about the fact that there are many variables. So the guidance for any one person needs to follow could vary quite a lot based on their individual circumstances. And we've been doing more and more with experimenting with content, which actually asks the user some questions so that we can understand exactly what their needs are and then modifies and adapts the guidance to give them just the elements which are relevant to them.
So one of the most interesting examples of that has been the Get Ready for Brexit campaign or which we refer to as the EU Exit Checker. The Brexit Checker is about, is about asking people to help us understand exactly what they need and only showing them the information which is relevant to their circumstances. So it makes - it drills the information down to just what they can act upon without needing them to wade through lots of supporting material. And it also can join up quite effectively lots of related documents that relate to the task they have in mind. So they're not having to look up one list over here to see if they are included in the category and another list over there. That's a challenge across government. And I think adaptive content is a really exciting opportunity. And we've been trying lots of things and we've been making mistakes and we've been learning a lot of things.
Well, that's led me nicely on because I was going to ask actually what are some of the challenges you've both faced in your career as content designers. Is, is it something to do with the, perhaps it's an emerging discipline, so you're working with people who are unfamiliar with what you do or what you're trying to do? Or is it something broader than that? Or yeah, what challenges have you come across when working in content design?
An interesting challenge I'm aware of at the moment is recruitment. Is how do we expand the pool of people we're bringing in as content designers? Because I did a lot of work, that was probably content design adjacent in various roles, often job titles I got to make up because professions didn't exist. And it was very late in my career in newspapers that I’ve ever heard of the term content design. And I think we can do a better job. And we're definitely doing a lot at the moment with running events. But we're trying to widen access to content design to help people who have things to offer, map what they already can do and their skills to the sorts of things we're looking for.
There's quite a wide variety of skills which can blur into it, and we have colleagues with a wide variety of backgrounds, because these are overlapping skill sets, they are thinking about an audience or user need and how things can be communicated and how you can better understand people. So that's a really interesting challenge for me. How do we widen the pool from which we are drawing people in to both increase our diversity and also make sure we're getting the most skilled people we can get because it's really important work and we need we need people who are going to really thrive on it.
Yeah, that's a really great point Ben. And as Ben said, we are we're doing quite a lot at the moment in this in this area, both, as Ben said, to bring in diverse voices, but also to bring in people from underrepresented groups into the profession.
There are lots of different routes into content design and the skillset is varied. And so I think, again, in the way that I think it's incumbent upon us to educate, you know, within government about the value of content design, I think we also need to think beyond government and talk to sort of a wider pool of people, wider audiences, about what content design is and how, you know, what transferable skills, skills are useful.
To that end, we've been running with our UCD, user centred design colleagues, careers events and we're actually going to run a content design careers event so dedicated for content design.
And it's also probably worth saying as well that the actual profession, the discipline as itself, is changing. As Ben mentioned, this idea of structured content, of serving up content to people that is configured to their specific circumstances - there’s quite a big technical element to that as well. And so I think content designers of the future, I would certainly encourage them to to be more technically minded and also to look across different disciplines.
So, yeah, it's an exciting profession. And it's exciting time, I think, to be in content design. But it's changing as the world is around us. And so I think we need to be adapting to that and looking ahead to what the profession needs so that we can be equipped as government to continue providing, you know, excellent digital services to our citizens.
And talking about new ways in which you're reaching out to people to speak about content design. I also wanted to talk about The introduction to content design course. And I've got it a clip now from our colleague, Agnieszka so I'll just play this.
So my name is Agnieszka Murdoch and I'm a Content Learning Designer at Government Digital Service and I'm part of the content community team.
And what are some of the things you've been working on during your time over the past 8 months or so you've been in the Content Community Team?
Yes, I started in January this year and basically I sort of jumped straight into working on the introduction to content design course scheduled to go live in May.
And so what is the course?
Yes, Introduction to content design is basically a course hosted on FutureLearn, which is a social learning platform with approximately 12 million registered users. The introduction to content design open course that we launched in May actually had just over 11,000 learners register, which was fantastic.
And it's basically an introductory course for anyone who's interested in user centred content design. We teach people about things like how to think about your users, how to do user research a little bit, how to design and kind of clearly structured easy to read accessible content, how to write in plain English. We also cover topics like evaluating the success of your content and managing the content lifecycle. So a wide range of topics. And it's basically a self-paced course, it’s divided into 4 weeks and learners can kind of do it in their own time.
And you mentioned there that 11,000 people did the course when it was launched in May. So who were these people? Who can do the course?
The original pilot of the course was just for those working in government, whereas the open course that we launched in May and that we're now launching the second run of is open to anyone who's interested in content design.
So this will be obviously colleagues from different government departments. There will be people working in local government as well. Other public sector organisations as well as the private sector. And we had people from lots of different places in the UK, all different nations, lots of different countries around the world.
The pilot of the course was intended just for content designers, but this open course actually attracted more people than just content designers and people who have ‘content designer’ in their job title. So it's obviously for those starting out in the role. But it's also for those working in related disciplines.
What was also interesting was that was the range of experience among the learners on the course. So even though the course is called an Introduction to content design, we had people who were completely new to the field, but also people who are very experienced. And what we found was that it was sort of equally beneficial for those different groups, regardless of the level of experience they had.
So like I said at the start, FutureLearn is a social learning platform, which means you're not just following the content of the course, but you're also expected to get involved in conversations, to complete tasks, to answer questions and to interact with other learners. And that's part of the learning.
And I also saw on FutureLearn you received a 4.5* review from the learners. And so can you talk a bit more through about people's response to the course? Was there anything particularly that went well or anything that needed improvement? And perhaps has that changed as the course has gone from pilot to first opening and now to the second one?
Yes. So we got, we got quite a lot of feedback actually from that first open run, which we did in May. And the second iteration of that we’re working on at the moment is going to be addressing some of those feedback points. So what people really enjoyed were the interactions with other learners, so being able to kind of share experiences, but also read about other people's context. Yeah, the social interactions between learners was something that we got a lot of positive feedback on.
Also, the fact that we conveyed the content through stories rather than just telling people the rules or sharing the theory of content design. I think that was a very important aspect of why people, why learners potentially benefited from the course. Also, the variety of content so FutureLearn is a platform that allows you to add different types of content to it, such as video, audio, articles, polls, quizzes. So I think the variety of content really was a great thing because sometimes it can be quite tedious if you're just going through a self-paced course that just has video or just has articles.
And in terms of improvements, we had some feedback on actually accessibility. There was one task that we included that wasn't accessible because it involved highlighting things in green and red. And if you know anything about the basics of accessibility, you will know that that's not very helpful for people with kind of accessibility, certain types of accessibility needs. So that was, that was a mistake that we're correcting.
I also wanted to talk about it being an online learning course, which has always been the case since it’s development back in 2019. Of course given the developments of 2020 with coronavirus and a move of lots of things to remote working or remote learning, but why were you thinking about online back in 2019?
So the main reason, so that kind of if we go back to the pilot, the reason why the pilot was designed was to address some of the kind of practical challenges with running face-to-face training.
So things like obviously the cost. The fact that the trainers would have to go, travel around the country and go to each face-to-face session, kind of separately, train the people there. It costs a lot to travel. It costs, it takes up a lot of time. But also, I think another challenge of face-to-face learning is that you only have access to those people who are in the room at the time the training is happening. Which means that you're not really able to share ideas or generate new ideas as effectively as as you are if you're doing things online and opening it up to thousands of people. The practical kind of challenges and the challenge of sharing were the 2 main reasons.
So just to give you some numbers, like I said, we had about 11,500 people enrolled and we were actually only expecting 2,400 because that was the mean number of sign ups in that specific course category on FutureLearn. We had 18,500 comments. So as you can see, this is quite an overwhelming number for a moderator or somebody who's even reading those comments as a participant. But it shows the kind of how active the discussions were and how active the learners were and how much knowledge was shared.
Sixty-seven per cent of those learners were active learners, which means they completed a step and 26% were social learners, which means they commented at least once. So, again, you know, if you're running face-to-face training, you can't expect every single person to contribute. There isn't enough time for that. And also, the different kind of learning styles that people have don't always allow for that.
So yeah, I want to talk about this - the September opening of the course, which starts on the 21 September. And so if I'm hearing you speak about it, and I’m really excited to hear more. How do I sign up?
Yeah so if you want to join the course, you can keep an eye on the GDS Blog. We will be blogging about how we built the course and how we sort of iterated it. And there will be a link there to sign up. But if you're too impatient and you don’t want to wait for the blog posts, then you can go on FutureLearn and you can search for it there, it's called Introduction to content design.
The course is perfect for anyone who is starting out in content design or who is thinking about moving into content design or anyone who kind of already works with content and feels that their work could benefit from learning more about content design.
Yeah, so the thing that put me in mind of was the content design is a set of job titles and a role within the government digital jobs framework. So there's a nice clear job track that you can join. But it is also a set of practises. It's a set of methodologies and a mindset so I think it's a really valuable skill set even if you don't intend to become a titled ‘content designer’. I think you can apply it in lots of ways and this is a great opportunity to dip your toe into those waters.
And for me, I am just astonished at the number of people who signed up and who are interested and also the number of folks who completed the course as well. And just the level of social interaction that Agnieszka spoke about there. I mean, that is fantastic.
And I think for me as well, it's just about the reach. You know, an online course like this that can scale to this extent would, is, is, is, is the only way we can reach all of those people from different backgrounds, different, you know, different skill sets. And we would never be able to reach that number of people and that volume of people around the world as well if we were just doing face-to-face training.
And most importantly, it can be taken at the user’s own pace and in their own time - they can go back over things, they can expand in particular areas of interest. And I think when you have engaged and willing learners, that becomes a very effective opportunity. And I used to do a lot of in-person training for GDS on content design, but obviously with a reach of more like 12 people a day rather than 10,000. It was always hard with a classroom full of people to meet each of their individual needs and to find a pace that wasn't leaving people behind. And it was also not kind of losing the engagement of the people who were running ahead. And that's where this adaptive content in these online courses can really excel. And I think are really interesting examples of that sort of personalisation of content to people's minute by minute needs and requirements.
Yes, for sure. And as Agnieszka said, there will be a link to the course on the GDS Blog if you’re interested. And so that's all for today, so thank you both so much for joining me, and to Agnieszka too.
And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean.
So yeah, thank you both again.
Thanks Laura, thanks for having me having us.
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