Joanne Schofield on transparency, explainability and ethics

Joanne Schofield on transparency, explainability and ethics
Joanne Schofield chats with us all about the importance of embedding a content-first approach.

Joanne Schofield, Lead Content Designer at the Co-op, chats with us all about the importance of embedding a content-first approach, and shares insight into balancing quantitative measurements with qualitative evidence. 

Why did you choose to pursue a role in content design? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance? 

I was working in a marketing role at Manchester City Council, when I was asked to help out on the digital team. That team managed the Council’s social media accounts, co-ordinated online marketing campaigns and designed user journeys. It was the user journey work that made so much sense to me – focusing on the tasks people came to the Council to do, understanding their needs and using content to get people to where they need as quickly as possible.

Thanks to some incredible colleagues, it’s here that I started to understand the difference between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ content. In a marketing role I was used to focusing on push content – getting Council messaging and campaigns out to audiences. But shifting to work on task-orientated, user-focused journeys meant understanding what content people needed from us – what they were pulling from us – and optimising journeys to give people what they need.

I realised that the most effective way to get people to use our services – to successfully market them to people – was to understand what they need and give it to them with as little distraction as possible.

I learnt that this was called content design.


What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the content design sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?  

It’s the job of a content designer to design content to meet the needs of our users – not of ourselves. This means being inherently humble about what we assume, and being willing to be proved wrong.

We’re open, curious and analytical. We need to fully understand the subject matter to be able to design it in an understandable way. So we will ask why a lot. We reflect the user's voice and mental model (how they understand things to work) in what we design, and we will use data and research to fully understand this. 

We’re collaborative. We work with our users, stakeholders and other designers to refine and iterate our content – opening it up to be critiqued, challenged and queried so that we can make it the best version possible for our users.

We understand people’s circumstances and needs, and we respect them in our content. We know people have busy lives, their own struggles and varied access needs and we design so that we’re respectful of these. This often means getting out of the way – editing ruthlessly so that only the content that we know is essential remains. This means people can do what they came to do and get on with their lives.


What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out? 

An ongoing challenge, in any organisation, is translating jargon, complex terminology and business-centric language so that more people can understand it. Often we become so familiar with a process, service and way of speaking about something, that it can be hard to be objective about the language we use. We assume people have the same knowledge that we do. This can lead to misunderstandings, confusion and people feeling alienated. 

So we focus relentlessly on the experience of our users, assuming no prior knowledge and reflecting their language and mental models. Even if this is not how we refer to things internally.

 A couple of years ago we created an internal system for Co-op colleagues working in food stores to help them understand how to complete processes in stores, for example, changing a till roll or doing a stock take.  

We spoke to a lot of colleagues working in food stores to understand how they naturally referred to tasks and procedures. And we undertook some card sorting exercises to see how they naturally group tasks together, then how they would refer to that group. We learnt that this was not how people within the wider business referred to them.

But by doing this research we were able to persuade the wider business that by reflecting the language of our users, the service would be:

  • more intuitive
  • easier to understand
  • quicker to use

This meant that colleagues could spend less time using the service, and more time serving customers.


What one thing would make your working life easier?

Too often, content is an afterthought when teams are developing a new product or service. But content designers should be involved from the very beginning. 

We work closely with researchers and designers to understand context. So we: 

  • speak to our users
  • discover their pain points
  • learn the natural language that they use
  • design user journeys that reflect their mental models

The content is the service, so it makes little sense to start this discovery without a content designer.

My colleague, Hannah Horton, explains this way more eloquently in her blog post, ‘Why teams need to think about content design from the discovery phase’


How is the role of content design perceived in your organisation? 

I’m lucky to work at Co-op where content design is now an established discipline and is valued across our digital products and services. There is at least one content designer working on all our current service teams. In fact, I’m currently working on our Experience Library alongside another content designer, which is rare but so valuable. We can critique each other’s work, embed a content-first approach and spot potential problems early. Hopefully, this is a reflection of the value of content contribution, and a sign of how far content design has come.

But it can sometimes be more difficult to prove our value to people outside of the digital team, and this something we’re trying to improve. Content design is a relatively new discipline, and we need to work harder to quantify our value, and link this back to measurable outputs. We know how important content design is, now we need to prove it to others.


At React & Share, we’re obsessed with helping our clients measure and report their efforts - what measurements do you think content design teams should be presenting to internal stakeholders? 

I think this depends on the objectives of the work or project. Often, we’re trying to solve a user problem or enhance a user experience, so it will depend on what those problems and opportunities are.

For example, content design can be used to:

  • reduce transaction time, as we edit out non-essential content
  • reduce the number of inbound calls, as people can find information online
  • increase the number of online transactions, as the clarity of the content increases trust
  • increase the number of informed leads to a call centre, meaning calls are more likely to result in a sale

We make sure the measurement is specific to the outcome we want to achieve.

And, often the most effective ways we’ve found to present to stakeholders, is to reference these quantitative measurements alongside qualitative evidence. That is, to use clips from user research, or quotes from real users, to highlight that there are real people behind the numbers. And it’s the real people and their experiences that we’re focused on.


Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in content design? 

I’m becoming increasingly interested in transparency, explainability and ethics.

As more of our decisions are made by AI, or given to us in via a voice interface, the way those decisions and choices are made are becoming increasingly opaque. We can get information quickly and easily, but how and at what cost?

As users of these technologies, we need to know that the information we’re being given is taken from a source we trust. And that decisions are made in a way that aligns with our values and beliefs.

So I think a big part of the future of content design, will be to make these hidden decisions, sources and algorithms more transparent to people – to explain what might be complex, or even seemingly unknown, in an understandable way.

I’ve written about this more in this blog post about hidden decisions.