Laura Tennant on the ins-and-outs of content design

Laura Tennant on the ins-and-outs of content design
Laura Tennant shares her experience in content design, a burgeoning field within the comms industry.

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 started off working as a newspaper and magazine journalist and editor. After I had my children I moved into content marketing for brands, and found myself doing more and more digital stuff, sort of by accident. Editing and writing skills are very transferable so it wasn’t hard to make the move to content design for government. All the same, I’ve learnt a huge amount in the 5 years I’ve worked for the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education. I really enjoy ‘using my powers for good’ in the service of citizens.

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

I work very closely with professionals from other disciplines (especially user researchers and interaction designers) and we are guided by user-centred design principles. That means everything we build is a collaboration that is tested with users — if it doesn't work, we go back to the drawing board. This is very different from the solitary work of a writer in journalism. In content design you have to be able to take constructive criticism on board, work in a team and justify your editorial decisions, changing them in response to the data that comes in from users.

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

I have occasionally worked with interaction designers who don't understand that words are not the icing on the cake of their graphic design, but integral to the user experience. Content and design have to work hand in hand from the start.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

Both content designers and user researchers tend to be brought in at the last minute, when a lot of the policy decision-making in a government department has taken place. In our different but complementary ways we are both advocates for the end user/audience/consumer so it's always useful to involve us from the start, and throughout the project.

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

There is a developing understanding of our expertise (different from copywriting, journalism or marketing) and how we can contribute in many different areas. Of course we produce GOV.UK guidance and help design services for citizens (for example, Apply for teacher training). But we also help shape the team narrative for external and internal stakeholders, refine email communications, help with marketing and work with developers to update existing pages and services. I think digital teams who have experienced a content designer wonder how they ever managed without one.

What do you think is the secret of success when working in content design?

Being really interested in and respectful of other people's stories and expertise. Listening to users' experience and being prepared to take that on board. Working with subject matter experts to turn their brilliant knowledge into accessible plain English. Being willing and able to collaborate with team members to get the best result for users.

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?

Qualitative user feedback via a survey link on your webpage, especially when your product is new. Ongoing Google Analytics measuring the usual key performance indicators — the most important of which for me is, did this citizen achieve what they set out to when they visited GOV.UK? That might be, apply to teach, renew your passport, or register to vote.

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

'Full-stack' content designers who are completely at home editing content using html in Github, and probably have a few interaction design tricks up their sleeve too.