Content designer: What’s in a name?

Image by Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay

When Shakespeare’s Juliet was assessing the merit of marrying Romeo or not (she was a Capulet, after all, and he from the warring Montague clan), there was nothing in his family’s name to deter her intent, because as she reasoned, what “we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

But when it comes to the Australian job market, it seems there’s a lot in the name ‘content designer’ – mainly ambiguity. And not just for the aspiring applicant, but for employer and recruiter alike. 

Note: Before we get into this, dear reader: two points. First, there are about 1800 words here. That’s approximately 14 minutes to read. Please don’t let that deter you. Bookmark the page so you can snack and digest and comment in your own time. Comments are especially welcome as this article will be the first in a series on the subject of ‘content design’. And secondly, while it comes from an Australian perspective, I have comments and context from Sarah Richards in London and Kristina Halvorsen in the United States, amongst other global references. 

So, what is in a name?

Some context: I returned to Sydney, Australia mid 2019 after 6 months out of the workforce (mostly travelling overseas) – and was heartened to see quite a lot of “content designer” type roles advertised, which was my preference, having enjoyed working as one for the last few years. Here’s a selection of job titles in search results on the local jobs board of LinkedIn and seek.com.au:

  • Content designer
  • Content manager
  • Content specialist
  • Content strategist
  • Content editor
  • Content producer
  • Content creator
  • Content marketer
  • Content writer
  • Content Platform Analyst (what the …)
  • Portfolio Manager – Content & Workflow (double what the …)
  • Enterprise Platform Manager (umm?)
  • Web content writer
  • Content Specialist Architect
  • Technical content writer
  • Digital content lead
  • Digital CX writer
  • Digital content advisor
  • Digital specialist
  • Product writer
  • Digital writer
  • Digital content designer
  • UX writer.

And the list goes on. Somewhat ironic that a sector comprised essentially of wordsmiths is mired in a sea of ambiguity when it comes to adequately describing what we do. There’s one more title I’m going to add (which didn’t show up in results, for now) – conversation writer – but more on that later.

Engineers and most other professions don’t face this same level of inexactness when it comes to job titles. A structural engineer plainly differs from a civil, electrical, chemical or mining engineer. Same with doctors, tradespeople et al. Even designers have clear designations: web, graphic, animation, UX, and interface, to name a few. But with content, things are not so clear cut.

Back to my job search. Many of the actual job descriptions required similar skills and experience, irrespective of the title. Diving deeper into those roles specifically requesting a ‘content designer’ turned up a mish-mash of responsibilities and requirements that could easily have had several different job titles and the candidate would have been none the wiser. 

This suggests that external recruiters, HR talent acquisition managers (TAMs) and employers:

  • Stick to in-house convention out of habit when it comes to job titles (even if the role’s requirements shift and evolve)
  • Struggle to identify and articulate what it is they’re after in the ‘content’ space. 

The few recruiters and in-house talent acquisition managers I’ve spoken to were more often than not a little hazy on the specific job specs and even more ‘general’ when I delved deeper into what the dark art of content design meant. And that’s understandable when you break down the day of a content designer. Thankfully, Tom Waterton of IBM already has in his article, Confessions of a Content Designer, where this image below comes from. It’s a great read.

A day in the life of a content designer. Image courtesy Tom Waterton.

Risky business that’s lose/lose

As multifaceted as the content designer’s day can be, it’s heartening to see from the varied list of job titles in those search results such a volume and ‘range’ of ‘content’ vacancies.  But the sheer breadth of titles for essentially very similar roles poses crucial business and employment risks. 

Firstly, candidates may be missing out on finding their dream job because they’re either not searching on the most appropriate or related terms, or not bothering to delve into ads with obscure titles that may in fact closely match their abilities and preferences. 

Conversely, employers and recruiters in posting invented, on-trend, traditional or half-baked titles that don’t properly match the role’s requirements will struggle to find quality candidates. It’s a lose/lose context.

Content design – the backstory

We have Sarah Richards to thank (or blame, depending on your perspective) for introducing another title into the content lexicon. This was around 2011, while working for the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS); a monumental project that sought to re-engineer how the British public interacted with gov.uk.  

“It [the term, content design] caused a lot of consternation in government,” she wrote of the time. “Which was the point … government had to change the way it considered the skill of communicating.” As in, putting the users’ needs ahead of government needs. In the wash up, old ways of working were upended.

“In the old world, your job title was a regular verb and everyone knew who did what.” Sarah Richards, UX London 2019

Naturally, there was plenty of push-back at the outset, as Sarah explained during a reflective moment at the UX London conference held in May 2019. But she pushed on, instigating a massive cultural shift in how content is published on gov.uk. 

Her Agile team of content designers were now collaborating alongside the developers, researchers and graphic designers “who could build us whatever it took to fulfill the user need,” she said. That meant not just words, but incorporating widgets, calendars, video, infographics, tools and the like.

In the process, 75,000 pages became 3,000, all of which responded to a specific user need, identified in research and agreed to after exhaustive analysis, testing and stakeholder engagement.

Sarah eventually went on to write the bible for content design, first published in 2017. In the introduction, she offers a definition:

“Content design means not limiting yourself to just words … The point is that you start with research to help you identify what your users actually need … Then instead of saying, ‘How shall I write this?’, you say, ‘What content will best meet this need?’”

In other words, content designers ask the question: “what is the best way to fulfil this user need?” And follow up with: “I’ll produce content that displays the answer in the way that is best consumed by the user,” writes Sarah.  As a result, a new editorial and digital publishing process has evolved:

Sarah Richards, UX London 2019.

The term (and process) has certainly taken hold in the UK and matured into a well established and recognised role, but it’s taking a while for ‘content design’ to become a ‘thing’ elsewhere. 

It has however, been helped along in the United States by content strategy guru, author and CEO of Brain Traffic, Kristina Halvorson. In redesigning her much lauded Content Strategy quad in mid 2018, “because with change comes, uh, change”, Kristina sought to introduce “a component that demonstrates the need to integrate content planning along the user journey”. 

This she achieved – along with other revisions – by embracing and renaming the two core pillars of her content strategy quad:

  1. Content design – editorial strategy and experience design
  2. Systems design -structure and process. (See image below.) 

As Kristina states in her blog post announcing the quad changes:

“More than anything else, effective content design requires knowing your audience — their needs, preferences, and expectations. When you balance these with your business goals, you can identify content design requirements that deliver that useful, usable content people love.”

Image courtesy Brain Traffic

“Content design as a thing has already taken over in the UK. We look forward to the craze continuing stateside,” says Kristina.

Content design is most definitely a ‘thing’ in Australia, but it’s proper contextual use, understanding and application still has some way to go to universal adoption. We’re getting there though; helped in large part to the great work coming out of the Federal Government’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA). 

Through colleagues, networks and those job vacancies, I’ve found that pockets of Federal and State government departments have adopted or adapted the Sarah Richards title, process model and nomenclature of content design.

So too some big-name local corporates, albeit honed to their own business and context. Canva and Deputy are but two: Woolworths, Kayo Sports and Atlassian amongst others. 

In fact, Atlassian took a decisive step down the content designer path last year. I know because I applied for an ‘Information Experience Writer’ job there a few years back (missed out), then recently noticed a ‘content designer’ role advertised. The job descriptions for both roles were identical.

“Alexa, meet Siri.”

Meanwhile, not too far into the future (if not already), another role for the content designer’s playbook (and Post-it note for Tom’s cork board above) might be that of conversation writer. I referred to this up top. 

Think about this: Chatbots will account for 25% of all service queries by 2020 (up from 2% in 2017), according to Gartner.  

Couple this with the inexorable rise of voice user interfaces (VUI) along with digital assistants plus AI advances in general, and it becomes pretty obvious there will be a definitive need for specialist writers capable of creating conversational scripts with personality and panache more akin to the output of a fiction author or playwright.  

Photo by Sebastian Scholz (Nuki) on Unsplash

In a side hustle a few years ago, I completed a Master of Arts in creative writing. Took 5 years. One subject a semester; it was all the time I could spare. Two big lessons were around ‘characterisation’ and ‘dialogue’. They are the foundations of any fiction author, playwright or script writers’ toolkit.

And in this ever-growing world of digital assistants and voice-activated ‘everything’, where dialogue is the principal content interaction, I’m finding more and more application of those two ‘creative writing’ tools as I attempt to craft VUI ‘conversations’. (Note: Think I’ll make this the subject of a forthcoming article.)

A recent Fast Company feature – Designing Chatbot personalities – concurs: “When the conversation is the interface, experience design is all about crafting the right words.” The challenge for us writers is figuring out how the bot should behave in a real-time conversation – in other words, its personality. After all, if bots and AIs are things we ‘talk’ to instead of ‘use’, what or who exactly are we talking to? 

Could Shakespeare help answer that? Absolutely. As the great Bard said in Hamlet, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Might well be time to dig up that battered copy of Romeo and Juliet and remind ourselves how the master does it.