Charity Digital – Themes – Putting User First with Content Design

To the uninitiated, “content design” probably sounds like something you learn in a graphic design course. It may be reminiscent of font selection or the rule of thirds.

These considerations have their place, but true “content design” begins long before your words reach a graphic designer’s desk.

Why content design matters

Content design means putting the user first.

Many charities provide essential services and share information in the public interest. Access to these must include as few barriers as possible for the user. This is especially true when working with people who may be vulnerable or marginalized.

Faced with exactly this challenge, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has completely redesigned the UK government website. They have brought together nearly 2,000 separate websites to create a premier digital resource.

In the process, they pioneered a whole new design discipline.

Know your users

Most charities have a sense of their user segments, with different messages for each. In content design, it goes much further.

It starts with a discovery phase, where your goal is to fully understand your audience and the problem they need to solve. Don’t assume you know what people need – they may not even know it themselves.

Listen to people with lived experience, or the front-line experts who understand them best, to discover the issues they face the most. You can search for the most popular Google searches on your topic. Read the forums where your users hang out and pay attention to what they have to say. Research from other organizations can help here as well.

By spotting the questions and topics that come up repeatedly, you can build your priority list of content needs.

Creating user stories

Once you understand the questions and motivations of your users, you can define your user stories. User stories help you focus on what the audience needs to accomplish. Here is an example of a Content Design user story by Sarah Richards, a pioneer of working at GDS.

As someone who writes for the web,

I want to learn what content design is and how to start doing it,

So that I can communicate in the most user-centric and effective way for my audience

Once you have your user story, it’s your bible. You will keep this in mind as you create the content. Mostly it tells you what to do, but not how to do. With that in place, you can determine what content you need to resolve the issue at hand.

Content creation

Your content may well-chosen words on a page, but the content design process may reveal that another type of content is more useful to the user.

  • Ask yourself if a picture, diagram, graph, or map can do the job better. (Making sure to make the necessary arrangements for accessibility)
  • Is your message communicated more easily with video, audio, or even something the user can print?
  • Can you create a calendar, calculator, or other interactive tool? Something that reduces complexity and takes the user directly to the information they need

Here are a few examples of great charity content that responds brilliantly, but very simply, to user needs.

RNID: a simple visual tool facilitates communication

The RNID is regularly called upon for advice on communicating with people who are deaf and those who are hard of hearing or suffering from tinnitus. The pandemic has added more barriers to communication through masks, Perspex screens and social distancing. The RNID could have simply issued wordy, “one-size-fits-all” advice on communication. Instead, they recognized the many and varied needs of their users, whether they are deaf, hard of hearing or tinnitus.

They came up with a simple and effective tool: the RNID digital communication card. Individuals can supplement the card with specific information about their personal communication needs. It’s completely bespoke, but official enough to be used anywhere. You can see an example below.


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Jenny T. Curlee

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