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Content design and creation

Content design

Good content design helps people to find what they need, complete their task and get on with their day. Content design is more than just words on the page. And it’s not just about designing a specific page – it’s about understanding the user and their whole entire journey.

As a website author or page content owner for our public websites, or microsites, you have a similar role to a content designer.

The following content (video and accordions) are from Government Digital Services.

Please watch in YouTube for more accessibility options. - opens in a new tab

Good content design is something most of us don't even notice, and that's a really important point to remember because we don't want people to notice. If they notice, then that's interrupting their thought process. It's interrupting the thing they set out to do in the first place and we don't want to interrupt people.

For example, how distracting would it be if every time you went to boil a kettle when making a cup of tea, the kettle somehow drew attention to itself? A kettle is just a way for you to get hot water. If the kettle is working, and you get your hot water no problem, your first response is probably not gonna be: 'Wow, that kettle's awesome, it's so well designed it boiled the hell out of that water - go kettle!

No – you don't want to notice the kettle every time you make you a cup of tea – that'd be exhausting. You just want it to work in the way you expect it to work, that's exactly how it should be. Content design is – a means by which people can do the thing they need to do in as simple and clear a way so it doesn't get in their way, it doesn't interrupt them or distract them, it helps them without them even noticing.

And when content design is at its best, it gives people what they need, when they need it in a way that's easy for them to access and understand. Good content design is not just about the words. Words are important of course they are, but they're not the only thing you are considering. Content design is about problem solving, it's about asking the right questions to get to the best solution for your users. So asking questions like 'What do our users need?', 'What evidence do we have to support what we think our users need?' and 'How can we make the overall experience better for our users?'.

Content designers work on end-to-end journeys to help users complete their goal. In this role, your work may involve the creation of, or change to, a transaction, product or single piece of content that stretches across digital and offline channels.

Content designers make sure appropriate content is shown to users in the right place and in the best format. They start working on content at a discovery stage and work closely with service experts, researchers, and web developers.

A content designer is responsible for the content published on a website.

  • developing content plans and strategies based on user needs
  • writing clear, usable and accessible content in plain English
  • reviewing content to make sure it’s accurate, relevant, accessible, and written in line with website style guides
  • communicating the principles of content design to your service team and others across your organisation
  • advocating for users of your service by challenging requests that don’t support their needs

An important skill you need as a content designer is an understanding of how people use the web. People tend to go on the internet to perform some sort of transaction or gain insight, and your job as a content designers is really to try and work out what that journey is and what the steps are to get to that point. You need to make sure that that journey isn’t arduous for them. It needs to be as simple as possible with understandable language.

Being able to write in plain English, being able to communicate complex things simply. Those are inherent with the job that you do – you're going to be writing content a lot. But you also have to be very open to criticism for anything that you write as well. You are going to get a lot of feedback on the content that you write and that is always valuable.

Building rapport and strong relationships with stakeholders and subject matter experts .You must be a good negotiator as well because sometimes you have to get involved in difficult conversations and it's about seeing each side of the point of view and being able to work out what's best for the user and best for what the business or the department needs too.

In this video Padma – a content designer – talks about 3 important things when designing content.

Designing for the user

Before you start designing any content, you need to understand who your users are and what their needs are. The temptation is to either write for your service or to think about yourself as a user. Thinking about who your users are, what they need to do, and any barriers they may have. This will help you create more effective content.

It’s about giving people:

  • the information they need
  • at the point they need it
  • in the right format

That’s why, you will need to consider your users and their needs whenever you’re designing content. We also have related information on user behaviour and user research, in this playbook.

Our website design is based around information and tasks. It should be clear of distracting and unnecessary elements. It adapts (robust) to different devices and browsers, helping all users to access the content quickly and easily. As a council we have a legal duty and a moral duty for accessible and inclusive content for all our users.

People visit the council website for other reasons than what drives people to visit BBC News, Facebook, Amazon, John Lewis or most other websites. We have unique content, we are the owners of this information, and we are required to make it available to the public. In the main we are not competing with others for customer loyalty, or creating a space for customers to return to regularly.

Our peterborough.gov.uk website address has a high level of trust from search engines (we rank in the top 300 in the UK). If we have the keywords on our pages, we should get visibility on the first page of results. Visitors to the website see 'Peterborough City Council' as a trusted source of information.

People visit the council website mostly to complete a task, usually just one task, for example:

  • submitting a form
  • paying for something
  • finding out information they expect the council to provide, or what they need to do next
  • Following a link to our site for localised information

Many people want to do one of a relatively small number of tasks. We typically have a high percentage of visits to a single page. This is expected when all the content the user needed was on a single page, or we link to external pages for more detail, or an application form to complete a transaction.

Search engines and referrals (inbound links) to a page are the starting point for a significant proportion of customer journeys.

Overall time spent on our website is low (which is to be expected). Some pages, especially those for statutory services, containing unique information, advice and guidance will engage the audience for longer.

On average around 60% of sessions on peterborough.gov.uk are from a mobile phone. We need to consider the design of content on both mobile and computer screens.

What are and what aren't user needs?

User needs are hard to work out, pin down and express clearly. User needs are a key concept that content designers need to think about. They are the things users need from a product or service to get something done.

Normally, you can’t figure out what your users’ needs are without talking to your users. Yet, when you do, they won’t usually tell you what they need. At least not in so many words. Interpreting people’s experiences, context and constraints is a skill. So is figuring out what they need. There is further information on user behaviour and user research, in another section of this playbook.

Not every page or concept is going to need detailed user needs, fully mapped out. This is more likely going to be done as part of project work to address an issue, new functionality requests, or service process changes or reviews.

The following content (in accordion) is from Government Digital Services.

Often, a user journey involves more than one step. For example, claiming a State Pension is more than just making the claim. It’s also finding out, if and when you’re eligible, and being told how much you’ll get, and when. So, the team working on this service will need to look at the whole end-to-end journey for their users, rather than just a single page.

More than webpages...

Content work does not only focus on the online service, though. Claiming a State Pension is something that involves offline steps as well. It involves getting two letters, which are a big part of the user journey. Making sure that these letters are clear and easy to understand is just as important as the content in the online service.

User research...

User research found that people expect a letter when they can get their State Pension. This letter is the main way that people find and enter the GOV.UK service Get your State Pension.

So, it’s important that this initial letter creates trust and explains what to do. The old letter that used to be sent users included a 12-page booklet. User research found that this wasn’t easy to navigate. The letter has since been redesigned and the content reduced to two pages. It now also includes clear headings, which means people can find the information relevant to them easily.

Designing for the whole journey

The experience of getting a State Pension does not begin and end with the online service. We should design for the whole journey – both online and offline. If we meet the needs of our users at all stages, then they will receive a good and consistent service that they trust.

User needs are also easy to mistake for other things. They can start to sound like business requirements, stakeholder wishes or even simply things a user wants. They become easy to dismiss as awkward obstacles to delivering something that ‘does at least do the job’. And they’re easy to negotiate away when they get ‘balanced against vital operational requirements’ and budgets. If we find any of those things are happening, we probably have not got a good picture of what user needs really are.

A user need is something that a person has to get done. The person might be a citizen, they might be at work, or be working in the council. Their need is there regardless of what existing system they might have to use. That’s just the current tool, and it might not be helping. They might not even really want to do the thing they need to get done.

User needs are not:

  • giving users what they ask for (like easier ways to fill in the current form)
  • what ‘we’ – people who work on a piece of information or a service – want to get them to do (like read and understand a piece of guidance)
  • in conflict with stopping people doing bad or prohibited things – hopefully those aren’t things that they need to do
  • optional extras, bells, whistles or gold-plating – quite the opposite.

Designing for user needs is boiling down services to the minimum necessary to give people what they need to get something done. No more.

But the minimum may differ from what the current service or system makes them do. It’s probably less. It may involve doing the hard work to make things simple. It should make a service quicker, simpler and cheaper.

Another way to put it is that user needs are about getting done only what’s needed. The goal of meeting user needs can sometimes get side-lined when the pressure is on to get something (anything) working and out of the door and ‘delivering value to the business’. But we can help to avoid building another costly, wasteful, difficult-to-use service, if we keep calling out anything that isn’t focused on what users need.

User needs aren’t optional extras. When we get them right, they’re the irreducible core of what any service is there for.

To design content that helps the user get things done, it’s useful to write down the specific user needs you’re working with.

User needs typically follow the structure (story):

  • As a…
  • I need to…
  • so that I

Good example: 'As a carer. I need to get financial help. So that I can carry on looking after the person I care for. This is a valid user need because it does not suggest a specific solution. You might need to produce a combination of features and content to make sure the user need is met.

Bad example: As a carer. I need to use a benefits calculator. So that I can find out if I can get Carer’s Allowance. This is not a valid user need because it creates a ‘need’ to justify existing content, and suggests a specific solution that may or may not be right.

Assumptions we make when designing a piece of content or service can often be wrong. We need to find the best solution to meet each user need.

Acceptance criteria

Acceptance criteria can help define a user need. Write a list of what must be done for the need to be met. For the above example this could be when the user:

  • understands what carer’s allowance is
  • understands if they are eligible
  • can apply for carer’s allowance
  • understands how much they are entitled to

Each 'story' can also be prioritised:

  • Must have this requirement to meet statutory/core business/customer needs
  • Should have this requirement as it has been defined, but project success does not rely on it
  • Could have this requirement if it does not affect anything else on the project, and is in budget
  • Would like to have this requirement. There may be little evidence, established needs or seen elsewhere as an example. Future requirement or lowest priority.

A user journey map is a way of showing a user’s journey through a service over time. It may include many transactions and different services. It starts where a user’s need for that service arises, and ends at the point where they stop using the service.

A journey map is a visual representation of the process that a user goes through to accomplish a goal. User journey maps show all the things that are happening, and how all the back-end systems work together to create the user experience across the journey.

There are many ways of organising user journey maps, and you’ll hear them called different things: use cases, storyboards, and many more.

As a content designer this mapping may start with the service (service interview). This may take place as part of understanding the process and the content required. Although you may find out later during user testing customers have their own way of doing things!

For example when mapping out a service you might include the following

  • Who is the service for?
  • Who else might use the service?
  • Who is the service not for?
  • What is the starting point for the journey?
  • What is the end point for the journey?
  • What are the intermediate stages, (service interactions and wait times)
  • What are the most critical stages (must haves) in the journey
  • What are the most likely points where the customer could seeks advice or support

Sometimes it’s hard to fit something into a straight-up linear journey. There may be offshoots, cyclical bits or too much variance in the steps and activities from one user to the next. Having said that, trying to make a clear user journey diagram out of it can be a useful way of understanding the problem, or how you should be approaching the problem.

Even the most complex journey can help, you can learn that there are very few fixed points in this journey that all users will share – it spans too much time and too many possibilities. Exposing this in the user journey, can focus your work on tackling smaller, more specific user scenarios (project scope). The outcome will be a set of digital transactions and content that are grouped into services that serve broader user needs.

The process of mapping user journeys can be useful because:

  • the things you’ll be designing content for will usually be a component of a bigger journey
  • it will show you how the information, service or transaction you’re working on fits into this bigger user journey and highlight what other things might need to change, and who you need to be talking to in order to make those changes happen (Heads of service, Transformation, IT, Commissioning)
  • it can help you to have those conversations about what needs to change.

Content writing and structure

Research shows people read differently on websites than they do on paper. This means that the best approach when writing for the web is different from writing for print. Content on webpages and in documents needs to be readable and understandable by the broadest audience possible, including when it is read aloud by text-to-speech or translated.

The main purpose of the council website is to provide information - do not put unnecessarily complicated writing in the way of people’s understanding. We aim to create concise, accessible content in Plain English, with a reading level of a 9 to 13 year-old.

Do not publish everything you can online. Publish only what someone needs to know so they can complete their task. Nothing more. When you write for the web, start with the same question every time: what does the user want to know?

This section should also be read in conjunction with our accessibility guidelines and website style guide pages in this playbook.

This often means being:

  • specific
  • informative
  • clear and to the point

You should also ask yourself:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • Why am I doing this?
  • What am I trying to say?
  • What do I want the reader to do?
  • Would I ever say what I have written?

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes.

  • How much do they know already?
  • What will they search for? Will they automatically read it, or do I need to attract their attention?
  • 'What do I want the reader to do?' - What does the reader want to do! What are they going to do! (user behaviour).
  • How much time do they have to take in the information? Where are they reading this? At home? In the workplace? Whilst commuting?

Content must be easy to find and navigate

An individual’s process of finding and absorbing information on the web may follow these steps:

  1. I have a question.
  2. I can find the page with the answer easily – I can see it’s the right page from the search results listing.
  3. I have understood the information.
  4. I have my answer.
  5. I trust the information.
  6. I know what to do next/my fears are allayed/I do not need anything else.

A website only works if people can find what they need quickly, complete their task and leave without having to think about it too much.

Creating your page - components and layout

The accordions below include key elements, and tips on how we do things on Contensis. By following good practices, you can improve the user experience for many people with diverse cognitive abilities and disabilities.

Use heading levels (Heading 1 to 6) to break up your content and give it a sensible navigation structure. Headings are important for accessibility. They enable a user to navigate your content with assistive technology or keyboard shortcuts. Ensure headings are descriptive and tell people what content follows that heading.

  • The name of your page in Contensis (page title) is also a heading level 1 on the published page. It is good practice to use only one Heading 1 per web page.
  • The page title is the most important on-page SEO element. The page title should describe the page content, include relevant keywords, and be unique for every page.
  • The page title should be less than 70 characters in length. (Or front loaded to avoid key information being cut short in search engine displays.
  • All headings are weighted heavily for search engines and internal search. Consider how you can load them with search terms/key words. You must balance SEO with accessibility and still provide a logical navigation structure for the page.
  • Within Contensis you can start a content page with either a level 2 heading, body copy or another element like an image. All these follow on from the H1 page title.
  • The first heading on your page should be heading level 2. Use another heading 2 when changing the concept or subject.
  • Heading 3 a sub-heading of the H2 heading. Use these to break up a complex concept or subject
  • Heading 4 is a subheading of heading 3. (We rarely go deeper than heading 4).
  • You can choose to enable 'Anchor links' at the top of your page. This can anchor to just H2 headings, or H2 and H3 headings on your page. It can be useful for long pages with many concepts, or actions/stages. The list of headings at the top of the page can introduce all the key content on the page.
  • Never skip heading levels, for example from H2 to H4. Users with assistive technology may tab through headings - a missed heading level can make this confusing.
  • Do not use bold text instead of using sub-headings. This is inaccessible because a screen reader will not recognise it as a header.
  • Never use a heading for just decorative or visual impact.

Watch this Why you should use the correct heading structure in your content video which shows how a screen reader interacts with headings. If you can’t see the video, you can read the full transcript in the description section.

Further information

There is no minimum or maximum page length for our website. Although remember people only read 20 to 28% of text on a web page. This quicker you get to the point, the greater the chance your target audience will see the information you want them to. It’s important that you write well. If you write only a single paragraph but it is full of things users do not need to know (but you want to say) then it’s still too much.

Keep your body copy as focused as possible.

You are likely to be battling outside factors for people’s attention. They might be looking on a mobile on a train, trying to complete their task online in the middle of a stressful family event or any combination of situations. If you want their attention, do not waste their time.

  1. Do not repeat information, do not split concepts. Group your content within clear heading structures.
  2. Use headings to enable scan reading and allow the user to find what matters to them the most. Include the important points, actions first (front load page) tapering down to lesser detail.
  3. Break up your text with descriptive sub-headings, accordions, and lists. This helps to make reading and finding relevant information or tasks easier.
  4. Paragraphs should have no more than five sentences each.
  5. Don't be afraid to write instructions - tell the user what to do.

Further details are included in our style guide and writing in Plain English

Images and graphics can make content easier to understand for many people. They serve as cues for people to orient themselves in the content. Images can help make a page look more inviting and create a style or brand. They can sometimes provide more information than the written word.

There are several ways to add visual elements to your Contensis page.

Do not use the 'Markdown' option (pencil icon) in the 'Markup' or 'Accordion' components. Images added using 'Markdown' may not meet accessibility guidelines.

Composer options

Image

  • The default display for our image widget is the full width of a page. This can create large breaks in useful content with portrait images. On some devices large full screen images can hinder touch screen scrolling.
  • The largest image width you need is 1000px at 72dpi. Any larger than this will increase the file size and page loading times. 
  • You can add an optional caption to the image
  • You must include alt text.

Image Slider

  • The image slider features and options are the same as above. The main difference is you can add many images within the same display space.
  • It looks best if all images are the same proportion.
  • Requires user to click through, so secondary images may not get seen.

UI Card

UI card is short for user interface card. This function should mainly be used for in-page navigation.

  • They can be used for high impact 'circle off need' on pages that customers land on.
  • They can direct users to related content within the same, or different sections of the website.
  • They can be combined with 'external link components' to link to an external url.
  • They may also feature on the first page of a section (landing page) it is recommended not to use more than six, to avoid poor user experience on mobile devices.
  • A UI card must contain a 'hyperlink',
  • A UI card must have either a 'title' or 'description', but both can also be used.
  • Image alt text must be different to the UI card title or description.
  • You can add as many UI cards as you need, but they are fixed to display as three per row. Adding two cards will leave a gap at the end. Adding more than three will start a second row.

Avoid using UI cards purely for aesthetics or for the three-column layout option.

Markup with image

This component allows a text box (markup) to be combined with an image within two columns. You can choose if you want the image to the right or left and how much of the page width it takes up. You can also apply a background colour to create blocks of content on the page. The second column will move below the first column on mobile devices.

Card rows

This component enables a range of options for you across columns. When you add the card row you can choose either 3 or 4 columns and choose if you want a background. You can then start adding the 'vertical cards'. Both 'card row' and each 'vertical card' components are saved in the CMS and can be reused.

  • 'Vertical cards' can contain an image, as well as other elements 'title', 'markup', 'button'.
  • Each element of the card is optional.
  • For images there is also an option to display a rounded image.
  • You could use this function to display three or four images across the page. This looks best when all images are proportional to each other.

Hero banner and header images

These functions allow more ways to add imagery to your website - however these are often fixed elements and subject to the website/microsite design and development stage. 

  • Hero banners often combine a full width narrow image, with a heading and button. 
  • Header images sit between the header and the page, or behind the page title. They can be a single image on every page, or they can be unique to each page. If an image is not included, the page will just display a background colour in this space.

Making images accessible

A text alternative (alt text) must be provided with all images. You will get a warning in the right-hand column in the CMS if you have not entered any alt text.

Alternative text 'description' should:

  • be accurate and informative. Present the content as the image does. "A chart showing the team structure" is not correct alt text for a team structure chart. You should describe in alt text exactly what you can see in the chart, names, positions, and direct reports.
  • be succinct. A few words are usually enough; and shouldn’t be longer than a short sentence or two.
  • contain the same words if any are present within the image. Although lots of text, only within an image, should be avoided.

Alternative text 'descriptions' should not:

  • contain duplicate information that is in the surrounding text or caption.
  • use phrases such as 'image of' or 'graphic of'. Screen readers identify images and objects so the user may hear "image image of an apple.
  • be included where the image, or object is purely to enhance the design of the page. These elements need to be marked up as 'decorative', see below.

Decorative images and objects

If decorative images are used, the text alternative should be entered as ("") to show the only purpose of the image is to add decoration to the page.

Complex diagrams or maps

You may find that there is too much information to include in alt text. In this situation you could caption the image and then add more detail into the body copy of the page. You may need to also consider adding a way to request this information in an alternative format.

Accordions are useful where only certain content will be of interest to users. This can be useful to avoid lots of scrolling, or for a user to see all the options.

Do not use the 'Markdown' option (pencil icon) in the Accordion text editor.

  • The title of an accordion is a Heading 2 when considering your page structure.
  • Accordions suit frequently asked questions format. Or for content dependent on a specific situation. For example: 'I have applied but not received an email'.
  • Accordions allow users to scan page content (headings). This enables them to choose the content they want to read.
  • Accordions help us to understand what users want. With analytics data we can see what content is popular and adjust the order of accordions. Or re-consider the scope of the entire page.
  • Accordions should not be used to hide content from a user.

Tables

Tables should only be used to present data. Do not use tables for cosmetic changes to layout. For example, to present information in three columns.

Consider the alternatives

A table may not always be the best way to present your content.

A simple table could be replaced with a:

  • series of bulleted lists with headings and subheadings
  • single bulleted list, using commas to separate the information

A complex data set could be replaced with a custom solution such as a data feed from source, with search and filters to display relevant data (may be a costed solution requiring development).

Making tables accessible

Tables should have a heading/caption, technically this content is part of the table and is different to using a H2/H3 etc before a table on the page. The user will know there is a table and what that table is for, allowing a user to skip the table. Click 'show caption' in table properties. Populate the top row on the actual table with a descriptive heading/caption.

Tables must always have a header row, which explains the content of the columns helping users understand the table’s structure. Headers appear in bold as default.

Break long tables into multiple simple tables. Even accessible tables are still tricky for some users to understand.

Do not use tables with merged cells.

Add a caption to your table 
Name Age Place of birth Status
John Smith 45 Peterborough Approved
Sarah Miller 34 Huntingdonshire Waiting for Approval

Creating tables

Be careful when copying in tables from other sources as this can import bad code. It is often best to recreate the table to ensure it is coded correctly. In Contensis a table copied in may have a double line around the outside of the table, indicating a potential issue.

To add your header row, select the row, and go to 'Row properties' > 'Row type'. You can change it from 'body' to 'header'.

You can also change the alignment of text in the table here, but avoid setting artificial heights, as this can create problems on different devices. Let the content dictate to size of the table.

We leave the table on all the default settings as part of our website style. However it is possible to apply styles from the table properties option.

Iframes can be useful to bring in isolated content from external sources without the need to recreate or own it. This could be maps, videos or a data feed for example. You need to add a title (not displayed) and then enter the script.

  • As iframes load after our cookie controller and are a window into another web domain. So, this can load cookies onto the user's browser as they enter the page or interact with the content. This may conflict with user choices made when entering our website. There are often ways to stop cookies, but this is often a case-by-case basis.
  • As the content comes from another domain, checks the content for accessibility. Also check if the iframe works at a range of sizes, desktop, tablet, mobile. 
  • Don't add any scripts you don't understand, or there is not any clear documentation for the iframe script - contact the web team.

The Youtube embed component is an iframe but specific for videos.

We have a corporate Youtube channel - videos can be uploaded to this channel by contacting the communication team. You can also embed any video on Youtube.

Visit the Youtube video link and click 'share', then 'embed' to get the script.

  • You must tick the 'Enable privacy-enhanced mode' option to disable cookies loading automatically.
  • You can set a time, this image frame will be displayed in the video preview
  • Copy the embed code displayed

The video should have captions set up within Youtube (accessibility).

In Contensis add a title (not displayed) and paste in the embed code.

If the video contains critical content, you could add an accordion with the transcript for the video. Or consider any critical content within the page content. Sometimes it may be quicker to read the content, than wait for it in a video.

  • We use Siteimprove to audit our websites and simplify the process of finding and correcting accessibility issues as well as quality assurance checks. We also have some custom policies setup to monitor authorship, or to identify content/elements in use.