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How I became a Content Designer
07 June 2019 | Posted by Gavin Wray

I joined Kainos in April 2019 as a Senior Content Designer and currently work on the NHS App.

Content designers take a problem a user has or a task they want to do, then present the information in the best way possible. It often means writing in clear language, but words are not the only way to communicate. Content can be audio, video, a diagram or a map, for example.

The process of research, iteration and testing content is what makes the content design discipline distinct from copywriting.

Content design is a relatively new discipline and attracts people from different backgrounds.

So how did I get here?

Bands or books

I grew up in Stockport obsessed with music and books.

At university, I led a double life. I studied English in the day then worked as a sound engineer and DJ most nights and weekends. Part-way through my degree, a Britpop band’s tour manager advised me to commit to studying instead of a career in live music. I’m glad that he did.

I bought a computer, discovered the internet and learned Flash to make basic animated graphics. After graduating, I joined a technical book publisher, which specialised in textbooks about digital design software. I started in PR, helped out with proofreading then moved into editorial, first as a technical editor for Flash, then later as a commissioning editor for Photoshop, Illustrator and web development.

Editing textbooks taught me four techniques I use today in content design:

  • Understanding how layout, typography and clear language affect comprehension
  • Structuring a complex topic to guide a reader through a journey
  • Working with style guides and design patterns
  • Identifying content gaps

Discovering user experience and content strategy

User-centred design caught my attention around 2008. I was working in a communications team for a government arms-length body that carried out social and economic research about the UK’s West Midlands region.

Kristina Halvorson’s post, The Discipline of Content Strategy, was a lightbulb moment. She asked vital questions of why content should even exist and why people should care about a piece of content. I used her book, “Content Strategy for the Web”, as a blueprint to review and manage the digital communications channels for the research organisation.

Open government and civic engagement

Around the same time, I followed the UK’s open government agenda. Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee emphasised transparency, open standards and linked data, and I championed these developments at the research organisation.

I moved to a new job with a small consultancy in Birmingham. I helped clients in local government, the third sector and social housing to use social media and open working principles to increase civic engagement.

Martha Lane Fox’s report, Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution, was a milestone in transforming the culture and practice of web publishing and digital services in the public sector. Her recommendation that “government needs to move to a ‘service culture’, putting the needs of citizens ahead of those of departments” was radical. She said, on a national platform to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, what content people I worked with in local government had been pushing for in their roles.

Discovering content design

I first heard the term “content design” from the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS). Led by Sarah Richards, her team blogged about their methods, challenges and successes. It was wonderful to hear how others faced similar challenges to those I worked on, what they did to overcome those challenges, and how they advocated for a discipline that requires much more than just writing.

Halvorson’s book gave me the vision to think about end-to-end content production and governance, while GDS provided the practical processes to create the right content, at the right time for the right reasons. While working in an agile team at the University of Warwick, I kept following developments in content design at GDS and benefitted from their style guide, inclusive language guidance and accessibility advice.

Content design for the NHS App

A week after starting at Kainos’ Birmingham office in April 2019, I joined the NHS App project. The app is currently in public beta, and people will be able to use all features when their GP practice connects to the app.

The project team is multi-disciplinary with contractors working alongside NHS Digital and NHS England. I’m based in a service design team and spend three days a week at NHS Digital’s office in Leeds. I work closely with a service designer, user researchers, user experience designers, product leads, business analysts and technical teams to:

  • ensure user interface (UI) text is clear and easily understood
  • make user journeys intuitive
  • incorporate new services without disrupting existing user journeys
  • refresh help content to support the NHS App rollout across England

I’ve mainly been writing UI content for prototypes to test features such as the post-login journey, appointment booking and biometric login preferences.

In the current discovery phase, I get to see whether users can complete tasks using the prototype in a usability testing lab. Based on the testing research and with the researchers and UX designers, I refine the content, then test it again.

When you see users fly through the app with ease, complete a task and say how they would use a feature in the prototype, it’s a great feeling!

Language in health content design

The NHS aims for a young reading age in order to ensure accessibility. It may seem young, but 1.7 million adults in England have literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old.

Readability means how easy or not something is to read. With plain English, you use clear language so that people understand the actual content. When you write in plain English and strive for readability, you save busy people time and reduce cognitive load for everyone.

When you write medical content, you also consider health literacy. This is a person’s ability to understand health information and use it to make decisions about their health.

Content design in health is challenging when more than 4 in 10 adults struggle with health content for the public. It’s rewarding though because I get to work directly on material that people turn to when they need help with their own or their family’s health. I’m looking forward this year to helping improve the NHS App as more people start using the app to manage their health and contributing to the NHS design community.

Content design careers

It’s an exciting time to be at Kainos. The Experience Design capability is growing, the Birmingham office is expanding, and Kainos are supporting the Birmingham Design Festival (6 to 8 June).

Find out more about careers in content design.

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