Archive — Content
Back in October, I had the opportunity to attend the UCD Gathering conference, a new virtual event for practitioners of user-centred design in all its forms. Over on my work blog, I have published the first of two posts reflecting on what I learned.
This first post covers two themes:
- Being aware of bias, and other cognitive considerations
- Improving readability of content
The post also mentions my own session at the conference, about our user research into the needs of staff and students working with course materials online. The Learn Foundations project has proved fortuitous in that it has helped schools move their teaching online and prepare for hybrid teaching in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Last month our brilliant colleague Lizzie Cass-Maran left our team after more than 10 years. In her final blog post for our team’s blog, she has written this plea to keep humans at the centre of all our decision-making.
For the past few years I’ve been working with Lizzie, I’ve always been impressed at the impact and quality of the work she has delivered in often challenging circumstances. She is a key reason why Website and Communications has such a strong user-centred culture.
Moreover, her impact stretched far beyond our own team. She influenced human-centred approaches across the entire university. She has played a genuinely leading role in our communities of practice. The effective digital content training that she has designed ensures that our content editors will continue to create well-written content that meets users’ needs.
Most recently, she did most of the heavy lifting in a project to revolutionise the university’s editorial style guide. The outcome of this is that, for the first time, we have a unified style guide that is designed for use across all content, print and digital, being managed across organisational silos.
Our team genuinely will not be the same without her.
The perils of using an overly-familiar tone of voice in your copy. There are some cracking examples here of support content that prioritises daft quips over getting to the point.
You’ve ordered a package and you want to know how long delivery will take. It’s a straight forward question, so you would expect to find out quickly and easily. What you don’t need is a couple lines of heavily branded content standing between you and your answer. You just want to know how long the delivery will take…
Users are task-led and time-poor.
Come and work with our team!
We are looking for three experienced Content Designers to join the University of Edinburgh’s Website and Communications team as we embark on major projects to launch our new web publishing platform and services.
If you’re passionate about using evidence-based approaches to create great content that meets users’ needs, we want to hear from you.
There are three positions available. Find out more in the blog post. If you have any questions, just get in touch with me.
For my personal view on what it’s like working with the University of Edinburgh, check out my previous blog post: Why I value working in user experience in higher education.
It is human nature to add things, making them more complex. This feels like you’re doing something, but actually you’re probably making the situation worse.
We see this in web design. People like adding pages to their websites because it feels productive. But actually, the most effective websites are the ones with fewer, simpler pages.
The same can be true for any design, including the way we structure our work.
We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance — they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.
Useful for those who like to write in plain language.
Why “brand voice” or creativity shouldn’t stop you making your content readable and accessible.
…a brilliant brand voice isn’t brilliant if it isn’t readable and accessible to all.
The FAQ as advice column
FAQ sections are derided by most content designers, myself included. But (as usual) it is not necessarily the format itself that’s the problem. Normally, the real problem is bad implementation.
This piece by Caroline Roberts makes a provocative case in favour of FAQs, by comparing them with advice columns.
The FAQ structure has held up for so long because it is a brilliant pattern. Think the Socratic method. Or the catechism. Or Usenet. Or “FAQs about FAQs.” Or — you guessed it — “Dear Prudence,” “Dear Sugar,” or any other popular advice column. Users will always have questions, and they will always want answers.
What makes FAQs troublesome is incorrect or lazy use. Lisa Wright has already shared what not to do, but perhaps the best way to start an FAQ is to choose each question with great care. For example, advice columnists spend plenty of time selecting what questions they will answer each week.
Using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible
We found that some of these users did not understand sentences that had negative contractions in them (negative contractions are words like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘don’t’). They interpreted the sentence without inferring the ‘not’.
I have been in two minds about using contractions for a while. On the one hand, avoiding contractions does seem to reduce ambiguity. But at the same time it can make your writing seem stilted and overly-formal.
As always with writing style, there will be no true answer, and the right way forward will depend on the circumstances. But if in doubt, it is worth considering avoiding contractions.
Are we designers shamelessly good at self promotion?
An analysis of content about design — why people write it, how they look for it, and why it needs to be better.
Last year, we published and shared 4,302 articles and links with the community …
That’s a lot of links.
Most of them 5-minute Medium articles.
Not as thorough as we would like them to be.
Not deep at all.
Not as honest as our industry deserves.
This makes me wonder if my own approach — blogging daily with a link to and short remark about a 5 minute read — is wrong.
We definitely need to find more ways to write and think more deeply about design, and spend less time with superficial, self-promotional clickbait.
See also: Platforms, agile, trust, teams and werewolves — on why we need to see more stories about failure.
I really like this idea of crowdsourcing, and making available to the community, a set of readability guidelines based on evidence.
I see many content designers spending time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.
What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced?
We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.
Google AMP for Email: What it is and why it’s a bad idea
I have been following the controversy around AMP fairly closely. A lot of people whose opinions I respect are against AMP generally, although I still cautiously think AMP is generally a good thing. At least, it is in my view clearly better than Facebook Instant Articles.
So if AMP is Google’s response to Facebook, I am in favour of it. Facebook’s interest is clearly to keep people in the Facebook ecosystem. AMP may give Google some a bit of control over content, but it still keeps it fundamentally of the web. At least you don’t have to use Google to use AMP.
However, AMP for Email seems far more obviously bad. Not least because, as this article points out, it appears to be a solution looking for a problem.
There may be cause to be wary of Google’s intentions after all.
Authenticity and character
An interesting comparison between modern-day radio presenting and that of previous generations: “That smiling deep disc jockey voice, broadcasting seemingly from a parallel mid-Atlantic world.”
Rarely has radio been quite so authentic.
In previous generations, it was enough to have a ‘voice on a stick’ as one of my colleagues used to call it…
Now – you tune in and you hear real life.
Listening to clips of old radio programmes, it is extraordinary how much times have changed. The Radio 1 Vintage broadcasts last year as part of Radio 1’s 50th birthday celebrations highlighted this starkly. Tony Blackburn’s live recreation of the first Radio 1 breakfast show even skipped over some of the content, tacitly acknowledging that it some of it was too cheesy (or perhaps offensive?) to be broadcast today.
There is an argument to say that people sometimes want to hear a bit of showbiz, and don’t necessarily always want to hear a voice that could be their neighbour’s.
But in the era of Spotify, a “voice on a stick” won’t do. Good content is essential for the long-term survival of radio.
Word count for web pages
Language in web teams
Content designer Sarah Richards shares an amusing story of a technique she has used to help people from different disciplines and backgrounds who have been talking at cross-purposes.
We are meant to be content and communication experts. But we often see people putting little effort into how they communicate internally, or even within their own teams.
Something is wrong on the internet
This article uses kids’ video content as an example, but really it is about how we all consume all types of content. The same effects that are causing these weird YouTube videos to be created are driving clickbait culture generally.
The direction the internet is taking seems to be taking us down a disturbing path.
Getting titles wrong: what you can learn from our mistake
Getting the title of your content right is vital. When you get it right, users can find it and use it. When you get it wrong, it can really cause problems.