Foreword to Content Design second edition

The second edition of Content Design was published yesterday, by Sarah Richards and Rachel Edwards of Content Design London. I was honoured to be asked to write the new Foreword – reproduced below. But don’t just read this, go buy the book!

No one person invented content design. It came about through the efforts of myriad people and processes over time. But Sarah Winters is the one who gave it a name, codified a method and made it the profession it is today – and I was there to witness it happen. 

You could tell straight away Sarah was on to something from the outrage she caused in Whitehall and the media.

Who was this upstart telling half-a-million public servants to stop writing ‘deliver’ unless they meant pizza, or ‘drive’ unless they meant cattle? How dare she bar ministers and policy officials from preemptively answering questions they might frequently be asked? Wasn’t stripping out specialist and legal language ‘dumbing down’? Wasn’t it dangerous?

This was 2011, and frankly, it was high time to get a little dangerous. 

Users had been struggling for years with the UK’s digital public services – mostly paper-based processes replicated online, buried in a confusing sprawl of websites designed to promote departments’ work rather than to make services easy to use. We all agreed content was crucial, but policy teams and subject experts held the power, while digital teams – laden with user insights and desperate to act on them – were largely seen as publishers at the end of the process. 

Martha Lane-Fox advocated for a revolution, and a bunch of new hires and existing civil servants (Sarah and me among them) assembled to make it happen. You likely know the rest of this story already – and have experienced GOV.UK’s resulting simplicity and clarity.

Like all the best ideas, when Sarah first introduced her concept of content design to me, it felt both radically different from everything before – and immediately, obviously right. 

It felt radical because it flipped the focus of content creation from what organisations sought to say or sell, to what users needed to know and do. From following a house style and glossary of jargon terms to being readily understood by as many people as possible. From writing words on a page to empathising holistically with the users’ whole context and journey. From a job anyone can do (of course all office workers can write) to a recognised discipline and community of practice, with quality standards and continuous professional development.

It felt right because it nailed what web editors, e-comms managers and people with similar noughties job titles (my own included) had wanted to do for years but struggled to articulate or get buy-in for. Better still, it was rooted in years of collective experience and research into language, how people read, and how search engines work. There was a depth and substance to Sarah’s approach that the knee-jerk controversy about FAQs and banned words failed to appreciate, and that is why it has stood the test of time. 

Fast forward to 2024. We’ve come a very long way with digital service transformation across the public and private sectors, but there’s plenty yet to transform, and everything built so far needs continuous upkeep. Meanwhile, the context today’s service users inhabit feels increasingly shaky, and we know a lot more than we ever did about their growing expectations and diverse needs. We also face new opportunities and unknowable threats from generative artificial intelligence tools, proliferating and improving at a dizzying rate.

If you ask me, we need skilled, confident content designers now more than ever. 

Facing so much uncertainty, it’s vital to provide clear and concise services for the things people can control. With an evolved awareness of people’s differences, we have an even greater duty to make services more open and accessible. And while everyone can generate content with a few prompts, only humans – working to the methods set out in this book – can design and fact-check it with empathy, accuracy, and clarity. (Do let the machines assist you, by all means!)

Of all the catchy slogans that came out of the UK’s Government Digital Service, my favourite is ‘doing the hard work to make things simple’. That’s what content design is.

The hardest work happens not at the web interface, but in the organisation’s culture. A content designer’s success depends on relationships and trust, diplomacy, and their ability to delicately balance principles and pragmatism to take content owners on the journey of understanding they are “opening up, not dumbing down”. It takes courage, empathy and resilience as well as skill with language. I encourage you to take the wisdom from this book, to be bold, and to lean on each other in the content design community for support. 

It’s been a delight to witness how the profession has grown and matured in the past decade-and-a-bit, spreading well beyond Sarah, and beyond central government, into councils, charities, cultural institutions and companies all over the world. 

This second edition of Content Design is a testament to that longevity and growth, and remains the essential text for anyone starting out or honing their craft to make things better for users. 

Neil Williams, January 2024
Executive Director of Technology and Digital Transformation at the British Film Institute.
Former Head of GOV.UK in the Government Digital Service.

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