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Live Q&A about Content Design

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Portrait of Trisha Doyle, Head of Content at Government Digital Service

Watch Trisha Doyle, Head of Content at GDS answer your questions live on Periscope including an update on what happened at this year’s GOV.UK content conference.


Giles: Okay. Hello, Internet. I hope you can hear us and see us alright. My name is Giles; I’m at GDS. We’re joined today, live on Periscope, by Trisha Doyle. Trisha, welcome.

Trisha Doyle:  Hello (Laughter).

Giles: Can you tell us, please, because you’re quite new here, aren’t you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got here?

Trisha Doyle:  Absolutely. I’m Trisha Doyle. I’m the newish Head of Content Design at GDS. I’ve been working in digital for about the past 10 years. I followed GDS with interest, particularly over the last number of years, because I really, really was interested in the work being done around content and using evidence.

I’ve been here now about three months, been really, really enjoying it. We had the content conference yesterday, which was incredible. It’s just really brilliant to see the work that’s going on around the building and the importance of content as well. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in an organisation where content gets such prominence. [It’s just really great to be here].

Giles: Fantastic. To everybody watching and listening, a quick note: Periscope is fantastic, but it’s not as accessible as we would like it to be. So, just so that you all know, we will get a transcript made of this session and we will have that ready early next week. We’ll put it online somewhere and we’ll tweet the location so that you can find it and get to it easily.

This is your chance, Internet, to ask Trisha your questions about content design. This week has been ‘Content Design Week’ here at GDS. We have been tweeting loads of stuff, loads of quotes, and videos, and useful links. Trisha is here today to answer your questions about content design, so if there is anything – anything at all – that you want to know about content and content design, Trisha is here to answer your questions. Now is your chance; don’t waste it (Laughter).

I’ve got a few questions here on a list that I’m going to start asking, but if you’ve got some, just dive in, Internet, and let us know what you want to hear. The first one, then, the simplest one: what is content design?

Trisha Doyle: It’s really about doing the hard work to make it easy for the end user. It’s more than just words on a page, it’s more than just writing; it’s about evidence gathering, understanding what the user actually needs to do, and the information that they need, and then designing content in that way. The interesting thing that we do at GDS is that we always start with the user need. It’s not about government need, it’s not about organisational need; it’s about what the user needs to know. That’s really the substance of content design.

Giles: What’s the difference between content design and good old-fashioned copywriting?

Trisha Doyle:  I think the biggest difference for me with content designers is they tend to be sort of digital experts, with content as a specialism. They really think about where that content is going, how it’s being received. They think about stuff like what device the user is accessing the information on; they think about things like accessibility, about findability.

I suppose the biggest difference with content design versus traditional copywriting is that it’s push versus pull content. We know that when a user is coming to GOV.UK they need to do something; they need to find that information and be able to action on it, [0:03:10] where I suppose with copywriting it’s really more about selling stuff and telling, making users buy into it, whereas we need to know the information needs to be really simple and really accessible so you can get done what you need to do.

Giles: Fantastic. If there’s a team out there that’s thinking of changing its approach to a content design approach, from perhaps a copywriting approach or perhaps from something else, why should they switch? What’s the benefit for them in using this approach over any other?

Trisha Doyle: They should do it tomorrow (Laughter). It’s so much more than just writing; writing feels like an incredibly small part of the content design process. If you have a content designer embedded in your team when you’re beginning to think about the project, when you’re beginning to think about what needs to be done, the content designer is there representing the user and challenging assumptions. They’re always there to think about what the user needs to do.

I suppose copywriting feels like the end part of the process, whereas content design is bringing [in that actually, you know design thinking in from the beginning. It’s incredibly valuable to organisations, not just government. It’s really about representing user need.

Giles: Okay. A reminder to those of you watching and listening out there on the Internet: you can send in your questions. If you’re watching on a phone, you can send your questions via the Periscope app. If you’re watching on a computer, you might be better off sending them via Twitter; send them to ‘@gdsteam’. We will put them to Trisha.

Here’s another one. Let’s talk a bit about user research. We love a bit of user research around here, as I think people know. What’s the role of user research in the content design process?

Trisha Doyle: It’s a really incredibly important part of the process. It helps us test and validate our assumptions. I think the making of a really incredible content designer is you can spend ages crafting a piece of content, gathering data, evidence, talking to call centre staff and crafting a piece of content. Then, when you actually put it in front of the user and they don’t know what to do, it’s a really humbling experience I think. But also being able to tear it up, fail fast, start again, and make sure that you’re really answering the user need, that’s what makes an incredible content designer.

Giles: I know you’ve only been here a few weeks (Laughter); have you been able to observe some user research yet or take part in any?

Trisha Doyle: Not yet myself, but my team have. I’ve got some user research champions on the team and we’re trying to find ways to work more effectively together [so we can really, because] I know at GDS our mantra is ‘user research is a team sport’. It’s really, really important to get those contact areas to make sure that we’re touching base with our users and understanding their issues.

Giles: Wonderful. We’ve had a question in. This is from someone called [Mansi], who says, “What is the biggest challenge content designers experience in their day-to-day work?”

Trisha Doyle: That’s a good question. I think the biggest challenge is… It feels like there are a couple of challenges. I think it’s being able to – and it depends on what format that you’re working on – if you’re working on a service, if you’re working on GOV.UK, I think it’s the volume of stuff that we deal with on GOV.UK. It feels sort of overwhelming because there are so many things to do, so it’s being able to prioritise effectively.

I think it’s also, when you’re working on services or when you’re working on different things, it’s understanding, it’s unpicking policy issues with stakeholders sometimes. That’s why we really encourage pair writing; that’s really, really important. One of the practices – and this is really effective in general – one of the practices that we’ve encouraged is, as a content designer if you’re working with a subject matter expert, sit down with them. Challenge assumptions, [pick it]; translate that policy into plain English.

The subject matter expert is the subject matter expert, but you’re there to translate it for the user, so spend the time, challenge assumptions, think about what the user. Represent the user need all the time. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge, I think.

Giles: That idea you were just talking about, just for clarity’s sake, that’s pair writing, is it?

Trisha Doyle: Yes.

Giles: We tweeted a very quick little snippet of video about that during the week. Go into a bit more detail about that for us. Literally, it means two people sitting in front of one computer and working out a piece of text with two brains; is that right?

Trisha Doyle:  Yes, it’s sort of the subject matter expert is there as the sort of pool of knowledge; they know everything about the thing. You’re there as the person – the content designer is there as the person – to unpick it and think, “What actually does the user need to know?” because that person will know the length and breadth of policy, but you need to unpick that and translate it.

It’s really hard (Laughter), but I think the content designer is there as a digital expert. They’re the one to say, “This is how people are going to engage with this content. This is probably how they’re going to access it,  so we need to make sure that it’s really short, it’s really succinct, it’s really clear,” because oftentimes when you’re totally embedded in something you think, “This aspect is really important.” That’s why the content design [is] representing the user need, but it’s really important.

Some of the ways it can work really effectively is to run workshops with a bunch of content designers and some subject matter experts. Pair up, challenge assumptions, and then do kind of a content crit, where you can gather together and look at what’s actually been written and then challenge each other’s assumptions. The thing to do is just be really open to challenge, [0:08:19] being open to iteration; be open to change. That’s really what it means to do the hard work to make it simple.

Giles: Brilliant. We’ve got loads of questions coming in. Thank you very much, everybody, for sending them. Here’s one from [‘Aidtweets’]. This one asks, “What do you see as the latest trends in content design that government should use?”

Trisha Doyle: I think it’s actually pair writing. I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough. I’m going to keep on talking about pair writing because I think it’s really important. I think a lot of having the content conference yesterday – [#conconbeta] (Laughter) – was really, really interesting because a lot of the issues feel like they’re still kind of the same sort of stuff. It’s being able to gather evidence, gather data, use information.

Some of the most effective things seem like the most obvious, like if you’re designing a piece of content and you’re using Google Analytics or some sort of analytics package to understand how people are accessing that information, that’s only a small part of the puzzle. Go out and talk to the call centre staff; see what real-life people are ringing up or questions that they’re answering.

Add all that information together and then you can start understanding where the problems and the challenges are in the user journey. Pair writing is getting in a room, getting face-to-face with someone, understanding the length and breadth of policy. It really helps to unpick issues – and great results.

Giles: Wonderful. Loads more questions coming in. Another one: “Hi, Trisha. Do you agree poor content pushes users back through traditional channels?”

Trisha Doyle: Absolutely. Of course I’d say that (Laughter). No, I think it really does. I think when users hit a page we’re constantly pushing for clearer, simpler, and faster information. That just means keeping things really, really short. I think if a user doesn’t find what they need to know and what they need to do, they’re going to be looking elsewhere. That’s why I’ll keep bleating about it all the time, but it’s so important to understand what the user actually needs to do on the page. If we’re not answering that need, of course they’re going to look somewhere else.

Giles: Okay. Here’s one from [Sophie Ewan]: “What activities, workshops, etc. do you use when designing content?”

Trisha Doyle: I suppose first of all we tend… We’re doing a couple of different things on GOV.UK at the moment. I think some of the useful stuff when we’re starting off big improvement works is we gather all the stakeholders in a room and everyone involved, and we start thinking about the user needs. We try and [tap up] all the information that we can.

Like I said, call centre staff: amazing information, so much and so often on tap. So, we gather analysts, we gather our user researchers, we gather our subject matter experts; we get everyone together with content designers and we start thinking about, “Actually what is the user need?”. We look at existing content and existing information to get a sense of it. Then we’ll break it up, we might do some more user research; then we might start shaping the content.

Content crits again are really, really useful. When you’re embedded in a project, sometimes… ‘Go native’ is probably the wrong word, but you can start seeing words as being natural. So, when you have other content designers there who challenge you and go, “Why are you using that word?” it’s like, “I’ve been in this project for months; of course that word seems of use [to you,” but 0:11:26] maybe it isn’t.

Then, indeed, the flipside of that is sometimes you’re using words because you know that the user of that particular content or the user need means that you should use that specific word. We get that information from, obviously, user research from call centre data, but also from on- and off-site search results too. I think workshops, face-to-face, and content crits are fantastic, and also pair writing.

Giles: Okay. We’re getting lots and lots of questions coming in. Just a reminder: you can send in your questions via twitter to ‘@gdsteam’, or you can send them directly from the Periscope if you’re watching on a mobile device. Here is a question: how do you measure the success of the output of a content design project?

Trisha Doyle:  That’s a really good question and something that we’re talking a lot about: how can we understand how [we should have made] an impact? There are a couple of different things I think we’re thinking about right now. I think oftentimes it is an increase in offline contact. That’s one of the ways that we look at GOV.UK, is if we see a spike in contact or we see a spike in comments, we know that we haven’t got something quite right. That’s why iteration is such a key part of the process.

We look at it through, I suppose, three things. The first one is we test and evaluate through user research. We use data and analytics, so we look where users are dropping off online and we figure out: “Okay, so they’re exiting on that page. Why are they exiting on that page? Is that the right thing that they’re exiting on that page? Are they leaving to go and search somewhere else? That’s not what we wanted them to do or that’s not what they should be doing, so we’ve made a mistake.”

Then we also look at comments – on-page comments from users – as well to figure out: “Are they getting what they’re looking for? Are they asking questions?” Then it really helps. The thing I always say is that your users will show you the truth. You might think that you’ve nailed it, and that’s why iteration is such a huge part of the process.

Giles: I love that catchphrase: “Your users will show you the truth.” (Laughter) That’s lovely. We’ve got more questions coming in here; let’s look. This one is – I’m just looking at my list – this one is from someone on Twitter called [‘Alsflyinghigh’]: “How can we ensure the quality of content doesn’t suffer when we’re trying to do more with less?”

Trisha Doyle: That’s a good question. I suppose there’s two ways of looking at the more with less thing. The bit that I [at the start or end] doing the hard work to make it simple, sometimes having… It’s so easy to be able to explain something with lots of words. It’s really, really simple. To make it usable and actionable, you have to try really hard to just use a couple of words, because we know people won’t read all the words on a page; we need to keep it really, really short and succinct.

I think the most important thing [is] to look at the GDS design principles [in] how we approach stuff. Start with user need to try use all the information that you have; gather data and evidence to really refine that and understand it, and keep focusing on just… Get colleagues to challenge your assumptions; look at what you’ve written, do content crits, and keep focusing. Keep drilling down and keep pushing yourself and pushing yourself, and be open to iteration. The main thing is having that time to go back and look at what users are saying. Look at the user journey throughout the site and figure out where they’re dropping off. Iteration really is the key there, I think.

Giles: Wonderful. Here’s one from [Olivia Oldland], who asks, “How do you prioritise content and manage different teams’ expectations and requirements?” (Laughter) Managing the workflow, how do we do it?

Trisha Doyle: I think every team has to ruthlessly prioritise, and I think it’s where the need is and the impact. So, you need to think about how many people are actually going to be affected, and I think this is going to be… This is a challenge across every organisation, every company; we just don’t have the bandwidth to do everything. For me, it’s really about thinking about, “How many people are actually going to be accessing this information, and what’s the level of detriment?” That’s where you have to focus your efforts, I think.

Giles: Okay. [Hugh Pritch] asks: “Hi, how do you make sure that user design is considered at the outset of any project, and what do you do if it’s not?”

Trisha Doyle: A content designer there, obviously (Laughter).

Giles: A content designer, I think, yes, a content designer.

Trisha Doyle: I think for any organisation, if you’re not thinking about users at the start of the project, you’re going to end up having a big cost indication. From a senior management perspective, if you’re not answering the user need, you’re making it really complex for users to do what they need to do. There’s impact on your site, you’re going to have to revisit the whole project again, but also there’s going to be an impact on offline contact, so having…

It’s incredibly cost saving. A content designer at the start of a project will make sure that your user needs are thought through and that they’re doing that, bringing that [design-thinking] element to a project, which is incredibly effective – save you loads of money, great end result.

Giles: Do the content – sorry, this one is from [‘Clariginal’]: “Do the content design team shape content with specific personas in mind?”

Trisha Doyle: We do our user research with specific personas, so we think sometimes about who might be accessing it, particularly with things like pensions, because obviously there’s different life stages. I think with GOV.UK some of our content is universal, but we do think who the users are in mind, what their circumstances might be. We always make sure that it’s universal and can be understood by everyone, so that’s why plain English is so important.

Giles: One from [A.D. Garrett] here: “What governs content – cost or quality?”

Trisha Doyle:  Quality, I’d say (Laughter).

Giles: I thought you would say that.

Trisha Doyle:  The thing is [if you get it,] content quality has longevity, there’s future proofing in there if you start with the user need. I think one of the things at the content conference yesterday was really interesting. [Pat McGillen] was talking about content quality and he was saying that sometimes they had to start with an MVP for content. That doesn’t mean that it’s not perfect, but it can be iterated on; you can go back to it.

Giles: Just to clarify, MVP?

Trisha Doyle: Sorry; sorry for talking jargon (Laughter): minimal viable product. It’s a concept in agile that we all want to have a perfect ___, but we all want a perfect thing. Sometimes that’s not possible, so you need to do… You need to think about what the minimal viable product is; you need to think about your must-have requirements. Every project has ‘must have’, ‘should have’, and ‘could have’. Sometimes, where time is an issue or cost is an issue, you just have to focus on the must haves, and then at some stage go back and revisit how you can iterate that content and make it even better

Giles: Okay. Here’s one from [Martin Wake]: “How do you make sure the outcomes of user research – for example, on specific terminology – aren’t lost between projects?”

Trisha Doyle: I think it’s about knowledge sharing. The really good thing, I think, at GDS and in agile organisations is the showing and the telling of the thing. That’s really important, so when you… Like I said, I think most of the anecdotes people have after finishing a project is, “I thought that they would…” My personal one is ___ it’s like, “I always thought people would know what this is,” and it’s like, “But they don’t.”

Then I think one of the examples used yesterday was Widow’s Pension versus Bereavement Allowance. Users didn’t know the new term for this benefit yet, so we had to find a way to kind of fudge it. We did that through analytics, where we had [to work] through the title of the page where we had both on the page. I think knowledge sharing, shown-and-tells are really useful, and of course blogging is incredibly important as well.

Giles: Yes, make things open – makes them better.

Trisha Doyle: Yes, exactly.

Giles: Lovely. Here’s one from [Pete Bond]: “Can the GDS content principles apply to intranets as well as the Internet?”

Trisha Doyle: Absolutely. They’re still users (Laughter); everybody needs to know. Yes, absolutely. You’ve still got users, they’ve still got tasks to complete, and things to do, and actions to take, and it’s really important. Again, if your users are having their needs met, they’re more likely to engage and do what they need to do, instead of organisationally being pushed forward; so, yes, absolutely.

Giles: Good. Here’s one from Daf Singleton, or D-A-F Singleton: “Do you plug your content designers in with developers to quickly design stuff, e.g. forms?”

Trisha Doyle: Yes, we do; we have got… Yes, we always try and get our teams to work together really closely, and really there’s an incredible community, like I said, at GDS. One of the nicest things for me is how respected content designers are. Everybody wants a content designer on their team, which is just amazing because it’s incredible to see the value and how much we’re appreciated around the building (Laughter), which is great. Yes, absolutely, we get everyone to work together to understand what the needs are and to make the outcomes as good as possible.

Giles: Okay. Here’s one from [Ang Morrison]: “Hello, GDS team.” Hello.

Trisha Doyle: Hello (Laughter).

Giles: “Do your English second-language users ever find your use of contractions a challenge?”

Trisha Doyle: That’s a toughie. It’s something we’re talking about. I suppose that’s the big thing, is we consistently have to challenge our assumptions about things. Our style guide, while we do iterate it, some of our assumptions are a couple of years old, so it’s really important for us to go back and revisit those things.

Contractions are something; they’re a topic that we’re discussing right now. We’ve had mixed feedback on it. There’s no definitive answer, because some users are okay and some users aren’t, but I think the most important thing is we’re challenging our assumptions and going back and iterating. That’s really the key message, is nothing is sacrosanct.

Giles: Okay. There’s a thing that crops up frequently in discussions about content design, which is known internally here as ‘2i’ – a number two and a letter ‘I’ – very jargon (Laughter). Could you just explain, for the benefit of people who don’t know what 2i means, what is 2i and how does it work?

Trisha Doyle: ‘2i’ is our internal peer-review process. When I say, “Our,” I mean the government content community. It’s so much more than just like a quick sub-edit, or a quick check, or proofreading; it’s thinking about things like, “How does this piece of content fit in the overall user journey? How does it fit with the rest of the content on the site?” It’s looking at things like format structure. Is it written in plain English? [Do the town..?] Challenging use of certain words and things like that.

We want to get to a stage where everybody is 2i-ing, so we have a good community. Everybody is challenging assumptions; everybody is getting their language checked. That’s where content crits, as I mentioned earlier on, is really effective. We use that in the stage before 2i. A group of people gather around, look at the piece of content and challenge each other, and then 2i is how we check everything, how we put it through a really rigid check before it gets published live.

Giles: A reminder, Internet: this is your chance to pose questions to Trisha Doyle. She’s here to answer them today, live on Periscope. You just mentioned, Trisha, the cross-government content design community. What is that?

Trisha Doyle: It’s brilliant (Laughter). Yesterday we had our, I think, second content conference; ‘Content Conference Beta’ was the official title. We have lots of content designers across government, and we try and communicate as often as we can through our base camp and through regular meetings, but the conference was an amazing way for everyone to come together.

There were lots of workshops on things like content quality, on user journeys and analytics, using search. It was just incredible for me to see so many people who are so switched on, so engaged with the issue, and just really focusing on user need, representing user need every day in departments. It was really incredible.

We try and encourage as much engagement as we can; we try and get people over to GDS, we go out to departments as much as possible. Yes, it’s just an amazing community. It’s really, really great to see.

Giles: If someone watching this wants to be part of it and isn’t at the moment, how can they join?

Trisha Doyle: If they go to – well, if they’re on our training course, they should have access to base camp, but they can drop me an email, absolutely. They can get in touch with me and I can organise that for them.

Giles: That would be great. One more question that has just come in at the last minute: do you ever get devs going off writing content? If so, how do you stop that? (Laughter)

Trisha Doyle: I think it happens everywhere; I think everyone… People always think they can write their own content, because it’s like, “It’s just words on a page.” It’s like that’s why espousing why content design is so important, because it’s really about that understanding; it’s about focusing on that user need.

Sometimes, yes, everybody writes a bit of content. The really great thing in GDS is everyone understands the importance of content design and everyone is open to being challenged. I think the best way to do it is to follow up with someone who’s written a piece of content and say, “Can I help you with this?” [0:24:15] – some of the things I’ve noticed – and just be really open and honest and have that dialogue.

Giles: I think we’re going to wrap it up there.

Trisha Doyle: Okay.

Giles: Reminder, Internet: there will be a transcript of this published early next week. We will tweet its location so that you can find it and read it. Thank you very much, Trisha Doyle, and thank you, Internet, for tuning in. Goodbye.

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