Content Design

Content Design

Sarah Richards

A point to note on this one: some organisations don't want to make contact easy. Some don't want their audience to engage -- which in the digital age is madness. Users will find your contact details even if you don't provide them. So make your contact details easy to find – you'll frustrate your users less.

A user story is a way of pinning down what the team need todo without telling them how to do it.

A user story looks like this: As a [person in a particular role], I want to [perform an action or find something out], So that [achieve my goal of...]

In his study 'How Little Do Users Read?', Jakob Nielsen found that online, people only read 20-28% of the page. The cognitive load (in other words, the mental effort required to take in the information) increases 11% for every 100 words added to the page.

Don't call it a meeting. Sometimes, a word like workshop does the job, but it is overused and can mean different things to different people. call it a 'decision-making session'.

This will stand out in people's email inboxes. It sounds final and it has an action attached. People in places of authority or responsibility either love, or are scared of decisions. Either way, you probably have their attention. It also sends a clear message to those people. They: are expected to make a decision, may feel they'll miss something important if they are not there, and are much more likely to open that email.

I've found the best way to get the rest of an organisation to agree with my work and approach is to run a workshop where all the right people are together.

My advice is to invite anyone and everyone who might influence, stop or change your content.

Get the fact-checkers, the lawyers, the bosses – anyone who might feel the need to interfere.

People who are well read (aka not dumb) read a lot. They don't have time to wade through jargon. They want the information else quickly and easily – just like everyone else. Wanting to understand quickly has little to do with intelligence. It has a lot to do with time and respect.

Filling web pages with turgid prose doesn't make anyone look clever; it makes them look arrogant and disrespectful. They don't care what people think of the writing or how long it takes the audience to get through it.


The rules are: be respectful, everyone did the best job possible with the knowledge they had at the time. Only discuss the content, not the person who created it. Only give constructive criticism: "That's crap" is unhelpful and unacceptable. No one has to defend a decision.

The way you do bulleted lists is a matter of style. Generally I'd go with: if it has a lead-in sentence, use lowercase at the start of each of the bullet points. If there's no lead-in, uppercase. Punctuation at the end of a sentence is entirely optional. Screen readers (software products designed to help people with visual impairments read digital content) will pause longer if there is a comma at the end of each point. That's about it, though.

Job stories are for specific tasks and usually when you have one audience.

They are good for targeted actions.

Job stories always start with: When [there's a particular situation], I want to [perform an action or find something out], So I can [achieve my goal of...]

80/20 rule

So, with your research and your user needs, you know what is important for your audience. With that in mind you can put what most people are looking for right up front. This is the 80/20 rule. Put the information that 80% of your audience is looking for first. The information the other 20% of your audience is looking for should be there – and findable from a search engine – but not front and centre. It will put off 80% of your audience.

Subheadings help you remember and understand. When you read a very complex or long document, your brain will see subheadings as markers. If you need to go back through the text you have read, it's easier to remember where that info is if there's a subheading nearby (particularly if your subheadings tell a coherent story).

Humans learn, evolve and adapt and you need to adapt with them. Assume nothing, question everything and test until you are sure.

Then go and do it again.

There's a book called 'Information Foraging Theory' written by Peter L T Pirolli, published in 2007. Despite its age, it's an mine of information that is mostly still relevant today. In short (I'm reducing 216 pages to a sentence here), it says that users will go as far as they need to, and click as many times as they need to, as long as the scent of information' is strong.

In other words: as long as a person thinks they will get the information they need, and they don't think they are on the wrong path, they will continue for quite some time.

You can use this for structuring the information on your website, in-page copy, and tools and transactions. As long as you follow your audience's mental model of how the information will be available, and you provide a strong scent of information, you are on the right path.

That's not an excuse to be verbose. What I'm saying is: people don't always abandon a task within a set number of clicks.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends words per sentence. It also says: 'If you regularly exceed 40 words, you'll certainly weary and deter your readers'

Jyoti Sanyal, author of Indlish (the book for every English-speaking Indian), said: 'Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.'

Author Ann Wylie said: 'When the average sentence length in a piece was fewer than 8 words long, readers understood 100% of the story. At 14 words, they could comprehend more than 90% of the information. But move up to 43-word sentences and comprehension dropped below 10 percent.'

For the UK in 2015: 11% of adults (5.9 million) have never used the internet.

Text presented in sentence case is the most familiar style for most people and, therefore, usually the fastest to read.

Job stories are a better choice if you only have one audience to deal with. You know you need to switch from user stories to job stories if every single user story you write begins with the same thing. If you're writing 'As a shopper, I...' at the beginning of every user story, switch to job stories.

If you have multiple audiences, each of which has different needs for different kinds of content and different levels of detail, you may find user stories better.

Most probably do 4 to 5 saccades per second, and a regression once every 2 seconds. This leads to a typographical consideration. If lines of text are too short, you'll increase regressive saccades. If they are too long, the return path is too long and people can get confused about where their eye needs to go back to.