Product DesignApp Development

On Content Design at WillowTree

In 2016, WillowTree started its Content Strategy practice. We had already grown successful engineering and design practices, and content seemed like a logical step.

After all, we knew content was integral to the user experience of just about every digital product, from a mobile game to the planet’s largest ecommerce website.

amazon without content Without content, would be impossible to use.

Content strategy: a revolution

By then, the idea of strategically planning and creating content for digital products (like websites and apps) had risen to prominence due to the tireless advocacy of several practitioners, not the least of whom was Kristina Halvorson, who co-wrote the groundbreaking book, Content Strategy for the Web.

Though superbly helpful — even revolutionary — the concept of “content strategy” (shockingly) hasn’t solved all of the industry’s problems:

  • It’s used ambiguously. Marketing teams also used the term to refer exclusively to the production of marketing materials like blogs, ebooks, and white papers. And while content strategy for marketing is similar to what we do, it’s not quite the same as product work.
  • It’s broad. And it needs to be. Even if you narrow your scope to web content, the term “content strategy” still encompasses everything from “front-end” content strategy (standards, writing, research) to “back-end” content strategy (content modeling, metadata, taxonomies, CMS configuration). That’s too much work for one practitioner. So, people might ask us at cocktail parties, what kind of content strategist are you?
  • It can be tough to sell. Because of its breadth, the term itself was difficult to understand for those outside our discipline—stakeholders whose buy-in content strategists needed to create great products.

At WillowTree, we were lucky. Our clients valued the UX writing, information architecture, metadata, and other content in their products, and our practice was growing.

But, we wondered, was there an even more effective way to position and explain the value of content for digital products?

Content design: an evolution

Then in 2017, Sarah Richards wrote her landmark book Content Design, answering the question “what is content design?” as follows:

“Content design is answering a user need in the best way for the user to consume it.”

It was a game changer.

Content Design (the book and the idea) reframed digital content work, including writing, as a design process, dependent on good user research, holistic thinking, collaboration, and iteration. This idea, that “writing is designing” (as Andy Welfle and Michael Metts have aptly stated) provided us with a succinct way to explain our work and its value.

So, we’ve renamed our practice from Content Strategy to Content Design.

Richards’s concept was so influential that it prompted Halvorson to adjust her depiction of the concept of content strategy:

content design square Halvorson’s content strategy “quad” shows several components of content strategy—including content design.

What content design looks like at WillowTree

Words have meaning, and what we do with them makes a real difference for users. So at WillowTree, content plays an important role in the design process.

Content isn’t treated as an afterthought—a “dusting” of copywriting sprinkled onto the UI long after requirements have been solidified (a useful metaphor courtesy of Shopify’s Amy Thibodeau).

Content design requires constant, rigorous assessments of user needs, which is why we partner with WillowTree strategists, researchers, designers, and analytics architects to determine:

  • What kind of content (text, photo, graphic, table) best meets users’ needs?
  • How the user thinks about the product. What’s their mental model? How do we want them to think about it?
  • What words the user is looking for when they use the product. Are we matching their expectations?

Then, we partner with that same group to devise, workshop, test, and iterate prototypes.

Sometimes that means breaking down an existing website and constructing all-new information architecture designed to cut down on repetition and streamline the user experience.

Sometimes it means using voice technology to create a conversational shortcut that helps users check their bank account balance with just a few words.

Two very different projects. Both powerful testaments to content design’s ability to fuel a great experience.

Designing, small and big

But, you may ask, what about the systems activities of the quad? When we rebranded ourselves as content designers, did we resolve to stop helping clients with their structure and process design needs?

Not at all. Just as visual designers may shift from working on the micro scale (creating typography or icons) to the macro scale (constructing a platform’s design system), content designers are also empowered to think small and big—tactically and strategically.

Design has the benefit of being an easy concept for everyone to understand — Jared Spool calls it the “rendering of intent,” and we can also think about it as devising solutions to problems.

So, it’s simple to explain what we do: we design using language and ideas.

Yet, even though the concept of design is easy to grasp, it can expand when the need presents itself. There’s no reason we can’t think broadly about the systems in which our client’s teams plan, create, and maintain their content, including the workflows, governance practices, and tools they use.

Richard Rumelt, the author of Good Strategy Bad Strategy, wrote that “Good strategy is design.” Strategies and systems aren’t exclusive of design—on the contrary, they are designed artifacts themselves. Who better to create a strategy or system than a designer?

Why it matters

The cleverest copy in the world will not save a poorly designed app.

And every project contains content that needs to be designed. Whether or not that content is effective — clear, useful, findable, and on-brand — can make or break the user experience.

Whatever the unique shape of the project, incorporating content design from the very beginning of a project reduces long-term risk and increases value for everyone from end users to major enterprise clients.

Content design at WillowTree is better positioned than ever to partner with our clients and in-house teams to create digital products with true impact, regardless of project size. From short-term projects that focus on cleaning up a website’s content in tandem with a redesign to long-term engagements providing backend CMS support, rolling content audits, and more, every digital product needs—and deserves—content that serves its users’ needs.

Interested in learning more about content design at WillowTree and how our teams can help create truly powerful digital experiences? Get in touch with us — we’d love to talk with you.

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