Sarah Richards is Head of Content Design at GDS. We sat down with her recently to ask some simple questions: What is content design? What difference does it make?
In this short interview, Sarah summarises what content design is all about, what its job is, and how it's used on GOV.UK.
You can listen to the full interview (just under four minutes) in the embedded Soundcloud widget below. There's a full transcript below that. Alternatively, you can download a copy from the Internet Archive.
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Sarah Richards: My name is Sarah Richards, and I’m Head of Content Design here at GDS.
Interviewer: Fantastic. What is content design, and why do we do it?
Sarah: Content design ... Traditionally you may have had an editorial team, but we want to distinguish the difference between just writing information and presenting the user with the best information possible. It’s not just writing any more. We take a user need – so something that a user will need to find out from government – and we present it in the best way possible. That could be a calculator, a tool; it could be a video, it could be anything. It doesn’t have to just be words. That’s why we call it content design.
Interviewer: When I spoke to Josh Marshall a few weeks ago, he said improving the quality of all the written content on GOV.UK has made more of a difference than anything else:
It's changed the perception of how government talks to its citizens.
How did we do that? How did we change that perception?
Sarah: Basically, it’s just writing clearly. We found that if we use a lot of adjectives and describing words, people will think it’s spin, and they’ll think it’s jargon. Or if we use jargon we lose trust, so people don’t come to us, they go somewhere else. We are the authoritative, trusted source, or we should be, so we find that if we just write very plainly, very clearly, very directly, everybody understands; we make the English very easy to understand.
A lot of people get fixated on accessibility being just about screen-readers and putting transcripts on videos; that’s not it. Accessibility is about opening up all government information to anybody who is interested enough to look. That means that we need to write very plainly, very clearly and very directly.
We need to take into account that people are on a range of devices. They generally don’t have enough time to look at what they’re doing. Interacting with government isn’t a pleasant thing. It’s not a case of ordering a book and getting a nice shiny gift for your coffee table; it’s about either getting money or giving money, or your rights, or something. We need to take all of that into account when people read.
Our research shows us that people only read about 20-28% of a page, so we have very little to play with, actually. We need to get that information across quickly. That’s what we mean by accessible; it’s not just about disabilities, it’s about opening government information to anybody who wants to be able to read it.
Interviewer: Writing this clearly is not something that comes naturally to government, so what was the hardest thing about making that happen; making that be the default?
Sarah: Culture change. Actually, we can write style guides, and we can write technical guidance on how to do these things. We can show research; we can show lab testing, and users failing or doing very well with copy. We can do all of that, but the thing that is the hardest is to get into people’s minds that there is another way of doing it, or there is a better way of doing it.
Or even harder, actually, is to try another way, which may not work, and throw it away and be completely okay with that. That is actually probably the hardest thing.
It’s also about taking something, and you may not have stats and metrics on it, because it’s new, and so trying something and just being completely prepared to throw it away.