Content design: skills and capabilities

Content design: skills and capabilities

It’s been five months since I started as a content designer in the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) digital team (see my first ever blog here!). Looking back, I’ve been inspired by my colleague Tom’s post about recognising user research capabilities. I thought it would be useful to ‘respectfully borrow’ Tom’s format and look at the capabilities I think it’s useful for a content designer to build. 

I had no formal experience working as a content designer until I joined this team. My previous work had mainly been in marketing for a software development company – so I was new not only to content design, but also local government and the public sector more generally.

I’m pleased the team saw something in my interview, and felt I had the right skills to succeed in the role even without direct experience. I love being able to do something that I enjoy and am good at, while making a positive difference to local authority service delivery. 

So, what are these capabilities that help me to be a content designer? 

Effective communication

Now, you absolutely don’t need an ‘inner novelist’ to be a content designer, but the ability to make complex information simple to understand is at the heart of content design. It does help to be able to tell a good story too, that leads people to the next piece of information or task in a way that’s intuitive, logical and accessible. 

And it’s not just how you communicate to an external audience. A large part of the content design role is presenting work to team members and other stakeholders for feedback. Explaining why you’ve made certain decisions and asking for constructive feedback is crucial to produce work that addresses internal needs as well as those of your users (more on this later). 

Also, when we talk about ‘content’, this doesn’t just mean the written word. Choosing the right format to communicate your message is as important as the detail of what you say. The right format may be a piece of writing, but it may be better as a diagram, video, audio content, online tool, or something else.

There’s plenty of great content out there that can help inspire your own ideas and solutions, and I recommend seeking out as many different types and examples as you can. This will help you know what’s the right thing to choose, and you can also mix and match elements to suit your specific situation. Even bad examples are useful, as they help you know what to avoid in future!

User focused

It sounds obvious that successful content should work for your audience, and even more so when talking about the public sector. However, it can be difficult to consistently maintain a strong user focus, particularly when teams are multitasking or stretched for capacity. In these situations, it’s tempting to fall back on assumptions. 

As a content designer, you need to step into your users’ shoes and understand how they think, feel and behave. All your content should be created with this in mind, to make sure it’s accessible, usable and useful, and tailored to their specific needs at that moment. 

There are many activities that can help here. These include creating journey maps and empathy maps, writing user and job stories, and using data to test and analyse how current solutions are performing. Above all, you can’t beat taking the time to actually listen to your audience.

Don’t worry though, you don’t always have to do all of this yourself. If there are user researchers on your team, get involved with their process to make sure content is covered in usability test questions and other activities. If you don’t have access to user researchers or research findings, customer services are another great place to find out the top priorities and barriers citizens face. 

Any information you get will give you valuable insight to act upon, as part of an ongoing cycle of improvement. Speaking of which…

Flexible and iterative

Being user focused also means understanding that user needs evolve over time and being able to adjust to these changes. One way to do this is to make early versions of your work public and refine these as your understanding of the vision for the project grows, in response to real user behaviour and feedback. 

Letting go of the need for something to be ‘perfect’ before it’s released can be challenging. However, it’s also extremely liberating to be able to improve something over time and see how the changes you’re making are having an impact on satisfaction and performance. 

In the WLGA digital team, we use Agile ways of working to help manage iteration and improvement in a structured and governed way. You don’t have to formally adopt Agile to introduce more flexibility into how you work though – even running standalone analysis of your content, or a small research programme can provide insight to kick-start the continuous improvement process. Just make sure you have a plan in place to act on any feedback you get! 

Content design in local government

These capabilities aren’t specific to content design, and it’s clear that the skills and appetite already exist within Welsh local government to do great work in this area. With so much experience of local authority services and citizen needs, it’s people working in authorities who are best placed to shape how information and services are presented. 

Often, the challenge is knowing where to start when building capabilities further, and how to balance this with existing workloads. I’ve been supported in developing my specific content design abilities with some excellent training and other learning resources, and as part of the Wales Local Government Digital Strategy, we have been looking at how we can make this kind of training available more widely within local government. 

We’re working on a number of exciting initiatives, including a content design learning framework to help people understand the skills needed to be a content designer, and learn more about the areas they’re most interested in. This will be supported by training sessions and regular community discussions, to share good practice and collaboratively address challenges. 

If you’re interested in developing your content design skills within your local authority, drop me a line at emma.willis@wlga.gov.uk. It’d be great to have a chat about your goals, and I can keep you updated as we progress the learning framework ready for launch.

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