Using agile methods and processes on digital projects is a mindset. Being flexible and iterating designs. Being able to easily rub something out or throw it away, if it isn’t working for users. “Let’s pivot”, that is, “Let’s rethink and take this in another direction” is a positive, as long as it’s based on user evidence. This is where a Discovery phase can help.
But before designing, usability testing, iterating and developing can start there’s the Discovery phase. Exploring user needs, and the background to those needs.
If there’s no content designer assigned to be involved in the Discovery phase of a project, you need to make noise about changing this. Often content designers are brought in only after Discovery. Sometimes as late as Beta. By that time, the design route being developed has already been decided on, and vital content input has been completely missed.
This ignores the usefulness of a content designer or strategist in the early stages. Each member of a multidisciplinary team brings a different, unique skill, as I expanded on in my blog post about why multidisciplinary teams are good. Content people will notice things that others will not.Which could mean your product fails. Yes, it’s as simple and dramatic as that.
A good content person knows:
I joined a project in mid-Beta, with hundreds of issues logged in GitHub that several iterations of design and user-testing had not resolved. Once I was involved, I pushed to perform an overall content review of the prototype-in-progress for a service. I had to push for this as the already well-established team were addressing each issue individually at that stage. But I could immediately see there were a lot of best practice content fixes that needed to be made across the service.
Once I’d been allowed to give the prototype a content facelift, about half of the issues disappeared in the next round of user testing. And as the project continued with a content designer on board, the service designer I was working with was asked what he was taking to result in all the improvements. He answered: “content design”.
In Alpha (various design options phase) and Beta (developing one preferred design route into prototype phase), content designers keep on researching and planning. For example, using Google trends and other sources to find the words users are using before writing any content. Sketching is also a big thing. It helps us consider and reject or take forward conceptual ideas for page design and journey flow, information architecture, online tools and more.
Spreadsheets usually feature a lot too.All of this happens before a word is written. Content is more than words. Content is planning. And a lot of thinking. And then it is design as well as words. Because the thing the user needs might be, for example, a tax calculator tool, rather than a dense explanation of how much tax they are liable for in various scenarios.
Content strategists start before Discovery. They meet with the transformation or product lead in advance of the project.
In Discovery they can be involved in the activities listed out above for content designers. They might also advise the transformation lead on internal process changes, like making that form online for instance.
Strategists demonstrate the benefits of more efficient content governance to wider staff involved in the process of content production, not just the creative team. They are highly experienced in business operations as well as user-focused content and service design.
They are well-positioned to make recommendations that come out of Discovery, a common example being grouping content by user need rather than organisational structure.When a strategist is available for a project, they bring skills and experience that really helps with the task of prioritising content based on organisational goals.
As a content designer or strategist you may be thinking, yes but how do I get invited to Discovery and earlier planning stages?
Here are some ideas:
Lizzie is a content consultant at Content Design London, where she runs workshops and training courses. She’s previously worked at GDS and has 15 years’ content experience in the charity, public and private sectors. She is motivated by creating user-focused, inclusive content design and is currently coordinating research for the collaborative Readability Guidelines project. She also writes content UX articles for Prototypr and Digital Drum, and has created a set of writing for web best practice tip cards.