Content is the user experience and what the deuce is content design?

(This is something I first sent out to my private mailing list.)

Toward the end of writing my upcoming book (Form Design Patterns in case you didn't know), I had to attribute this quote:

“Content is the user experience”

Caroline Jarrett told me it was Ginny Redish, the author of “Letting Go of the Words”.

“Content is the user experience”—Ginny Redish

“Job done,” I thought but then my editor asked me for a reference.

So I asked Ginny and she said “I don’t think I have a reference for that exact phrase. However, it is the essence of much of my work. See, for example, page 1 of my book, Letting Go of the Words (2nd edition).”

She then asked me about my book, so I told her what it was about and she said “Do you consider forms a type of content? If so, I’m happy to have you attribute the concept that content is the user experience to me. […]. If, however, you consider “content” to be different from “forms,” I disagree. To my mind, forms are a very important type of content.”

I said “Yes, so forms are a conversation between the service/product/website and the user. The content (labels, hints, errors) is of vital importance so I reference your quote with regard to this.”

Ginny said “I'm not yet sure if we agree on defining content. If you are saying that only the words are content, not the entire form or the entire interactive process, I don’t agree. The entire form or process is content. The choice of what to ask, the order in which to ask it, how to divide it between web pages (for example, in a checkout process), the size of the fields, as well as the words you use — all that is content.”

Ginny's message really got me thinking. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I said:

“I’ve never really thought of content in the way that you describe but I do think the things you mentioned are vital in designing an experience that communicates to the user clearly. I’ve actually written about all of them in the book.”

“You seem to be saying that everything on an interface (including say whitespace) is content. Is that right?”

“Some content designers I’ve worked with focus mostly on the words. Others help design the flow, order, and other interface details such as size or type of field. These are my favourite content designers.”

“If everything is content, then it seems to me that content is almost a synonym for UX/design, which is actually where this conversation stemmed from.”

“If content designers design everything on the interface, would you say interaction designers are redundant?”

“Thinking more about this, I’m asking questions as if these roles are separate but of course they’re not…”

“When I design an interface, I very much think about and care about the words, but a content designer helps me make them much better. The best content designers help me make everything better, not just words.”

”I might also help make the words better, and more consistent with the service.”

“Still, I'm very interested in how you think about this.”

“Like you say in your book: people come for the content; they don’t come to admire the design.”

“But the design helps them consume the content right?”

“So users don’t come for the small text box that gives users a clue they need to enter something small (like a postcode). That just helps users complete the task or find out what they need.”

“I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to think about this. I’m not aware of a universally agreed upon definition of content design.”

(The conversation continues.)

So what is content design? If everything on a screen is content, are content designers responsible for everything?

Certainly, I would consider text, images and video as content. I also think working out how to display text (for example) as paragraphs, headings, lists and tables is most certainly content design but it’s also interaction design.

And, I also think flow and order comes into the realm of content design because its impact on understanding content may produce a confusing experience.

But the choice to split things up across pages or to make a form field smaller in width feels more like interaction design. But it’s definitely not a clear cut thing. It’s the boundaries of responsibility that are hard to define.

When I design an interface, I first like to understand what I’m trying to communicate. There are parts of Form Design Patterns that go into detail about how to present certain information. For example, when designing an inbox, should we present the list of emails as a <ul> or a <table> or something else?

Most of the time I’d say content drives design. But on some occasions design influences the content, this is applicable to form validation because how and where errors need to go, drives the content needed to make the errors clear.

Tangent aside—what is content design? I don’t know—it definitely has a grounding in the words and information on screen. But content designers can most definitely influence the rest of the experience.

Is content really the user experience?

So this whole thing started because I wanted to use the quote from this poster:

Poster saying “Content is the user experience”

Some people question this:

“[…] isn’t interaction design, server performance, etc the user experience too?” — Joe Lanman

“Yeah, I agree with @joelanman - we say user experience is everybodies job. As a designer I can’t ever make it a good experience if the technology stack puts a 4 second lag in between every interaction.” — Craig Abbott

Others seem more in favour:

“I might be wrong, but I think the original intention of this quote was to say ‘don’t treat content as supplementary to the user experience”— Amy Hupe

“I don’t think it’s saying anything else isn’t user experience design, more that consuming content is the main experience OF the user.” — Dave House

Despite the differing opinions, I agree with them all.

Content is not the only part of user experience. Everything and everyone is responsible for that. But because content, in my experience, is often seen as “just add the words later”, this poster is really important. It’s over the top, so that it draws people’s attention and makes them stop and think.

I instantly loved the poster the first time I saw it. Content is more important than anything else, because even if you had the most amazing, performant design but the content was rubbish it wouldn’t matter.

But good content, with a slow connection speed, at least is worth the wait (should someone have the patience).

So yes content is the user experience, but content is not the entirety of it.

Are interaction designers redundant? This is a bit of a rhetorical question because I don’t think for one minute Ginny thinks interaction designers are redundant, but it’s a fun and challenging exercise working out who does what.

But if everything is content, then I do wonder what officially an interaction designer’s remit is. I don’t really like job titles—they pigeon hole a person’s responsibilities, opinions and expertise.

A good team is made up of diverse people with diverse skill sets working on the same problem. That means you define the problem together. You prototype the MVP together. You iterate together. And all this happens taking into account everyone’s skills and viewpoints together.

In many ways, a designer's role is to facilitate good design through collaboration. And I’ve worked on things before whereby it was the content designer who came up with a completely different and better design. This, I think, was made possible through collaboration.

So I don’t think content designers are solely responsible for content. Nor do I think interaction designers are ambivalent to content. It’s the whole UX thing again isn’t it.

In my confusion, I thought I’d ask Amy Hupe. She’s a brilliant content designer at GDS. Here’s just some of the great things she said to me on the subject:

“I think good content and interaction designers have a good understanding and appreciation for the other’s discipline. They’ll work together to combine their strengths, and learn from each other.”

“Really good content and interaction designers will understand that their output is part of an ecosystem and is so intrinsically linked with the other parts of that ecosystem that they will necessarily consider and effect them when working.”

“Can a user achieve their goal using only words? Probably. Does interaction design make it faster, simpler and more reassuring for them to do so? 100%”

“Words are important - they might be the most fundamental thing - but the user experience would be weak, frustrating and slow without interaction design.”

“And I wouldn’t be able to do my job half as well if it wasn’t for the team of interaction designers I work with.”

“I think content design will always be coming at things from a words-first perspective. Not all content designers can, or want to, handle other elements.”

Amy nailed it. But it still doesn’t make the boundaries of responsibility clearer, but I think that’s the point.

Remove the boundaries.

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