An interview with James Reith, Content Designer for the Department for Work and Pensions.
Welcome to our new series of UX career Q&As where we highlight a respected UX professional, who works close with – or tangentially next to – UX and find out exactly what their role is within their organisation, and what UX means to them.
The purpose of this ‘day-in-the-life’ is to give transparency to the mythical beast of UX. It will also help anyone interested in breaking into the UX industry know how others made it and possibly shed some light on the role of a UXer for other people in an organisation who may not understand.
This week: James Reith, who is currently a Content Designer for the Department for Work and Pensions. Previous to this, James was part of an award winning UX team at The Co-operative Bank. He’s also a culture writer, with articles published in The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Economist and The Atlantic.
I’m good at two things: sustaining counter-intuitive arguments and writing. Neither are highly valued in the job market.
I’d been writing reports for a private investigation company, whilst moonlighting as a freelance books journalist. As my freelance career started to snowball, I responded to a cryptically worded job ad. Suddenly I found myself on a UX team.
Once I bought into UX, I became enamoured with the Government Digital Service’s content design principles – and the very idea of ‘content design,’ rather than content writing. According to the UN, the UK has the best e-government in the world. I also think it has the best approach to UX content.
I was eventually approached by an agency for a contract with Her Majesty’s Revenues & Customs. I’m now working with the Department for Work & Pensions.
Very much so. Initially, I’d viewed UX writing as a nice day job. I was more interested in interviewing authors on weekends.
But then I started working on a little project about closing someone else’s bank account after their death… The basic approaches – just a static page of text, or even a step by step guide – wouldn’t work. The laws and regulations surrounding someone’s finances after they die are just too complex.
Suddenly, the dynamic possibilities of web design provided a solution. We could ask a series of very simple questions and give tailored instructions. I also had a personal hatred of the saccharine, mock-sympathetic tone most companies use when talking about death.
I had an inkling users – who don’t really want to be doing banking admin when grieving – might prefer a quick service over fluffy copy. In a way, that seemed more considerate.
The user testing proved me right. The feedback was phenomenal. That was the point where I moved from content writer to content designer. I was converted.
My day is very different depending on what stage of the project we’re in. When the project’s foundations are solid, you can get into a rhythm of ‘iterate, test, repeat.’ Refining details etc.
When a project is in its early stages, however, things are a little less routine. You’ll take over various walls with service and journey maps, concept sketches etc, identifying what needs more research and what hypothesis you can start designing, then testing.
If you’ve joined a project late, you may have to identify any assumptions that crept in unchallenged.
You need to be highly collaborative too. I’m glued to the interaction designer and user researcher I’m working with. But I’ll also be in regularly contact with the product owner, business analysts and developers. I’ve seen many a project ruined by a designer/developer division.
Understanding the information you’re communicating. It’s hard to present something clearly to others when it confuses you too.
Navigation content is also its own discipline. It once took me 6 weeks and 3 rounds of user testing to perfect one verb in a sidebar menu.
Frustratingly, everyone thinks they’re a writer. I’ve spent hours, locked in a room with stakeholders, arguing over one sentence. Not everyone, thankfully, thinks they’re a content designer. Names are powerful.
It’s also important to remain ego-less. You translate user needs, not your own. This isn’t the place to show off your linguistic prowess.
Trying to explain what you do to people outside digital is a constant struggle.
As a name, ‘content designer’ is more descriptive. We’re used to just tacking nouns in front of the role ‘writer’. But this practice just broadens the meaning of ‘writer’ to the point where it’s no longer useful.
Most job descriptions for UX writers focus on crafting good microcopy. A content designer, however, needs to have the same grasp of design theory as the interaction designer they’re partnered with.
Content writers and copywriters are worlds apart from either. They’re usually handed designs with dummy text they need to replace. This is forcing content to fit form. And to quote Jeffery Zeldman: “Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
Journalists need to get to the point quickly. Or if they don’t, their editor will make them. Being able to relay complex information clearly is a great help.
Oddly, my academic background in literature has been more helpful. Lessons from poetry – how layout affects meaning, capitalising on the associations of words, etc – in particular. Especially for user interface content.
Poetry and content design are about compression and concision. Both navigate the ambiguity inherent to the English language. But whereas poetry exploits that ambiguity for creative purposes, content design ring-fences it for clarity.
I also like literature that experiments with form (like Raymond Queneau’s sonnet flip book, or B.S. Johnson’s book in a box). That thought process – of toying with your medium – is great for creative problem solving.
Despite all this, it’s important to note that content design is utilitarian. Functional. It’s not art. If I want to write purple prose, I do that in my own time.
In theory, user needs can align more closely with the needs of government. If a web journey is easy and people can self-serve, you reduce phone calls to that department. This takes pressure off staff and often saves money. Unlike the private sector, you’re never goaded towards a dark pattern in the name of profit (that never works btw).
Bad design can have disastrous consequences. Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier’s Tragic Design is a testament to this. Having worked in financial UX, I’ve seen first-hand how this is true in the private sector. But in the public sector, the stakes can be even higher. Get it wrong and someone may not be able to buy food that month. People can get hurt. It’s normally public sector services people rely on in emergencies. But getting those services right is immensely satisfying.
The products and services you work on can also be very, very complex. You’re often working within a mix of legislation and outdated technology. It’s then your job to make something intelligible out of it. You can see why Content Design emerged out of the public sector.
But you can be witty in the private sector. The GOV style is purposefully plain. You don’t really want snappy copy when renewing your vehicle tax.
It varies depending on: what we’re testing, who the users are and the resources available. Sometimes we’ll do face-to-face lab testing sessions (with me taking notes behind a two-way mirror). Sometimes I’m asking colleagues to go over a print-out with a highlighter.
Remote testing is great for tackling logistical issues and low budgets. It’s also fantastic for rapid, iterative prototyping – or when you’re first introducing testing to an organisation.
It captures users in their environment: with the dog barking in the background, the kettle boiling etc. This is how people actually use the internet. It’s also great for mobile and tablet testing. In a lab, you need to keep a mobile flat on a table with an overhead camera on it. That’s not how people use mobiles.
Thankfully, content is quite low tech. Aside from a word processor – or a pen and paper – I use the Hemingway App. Mostly for its built-in readability checker. The average reading age in the UK is equivalent to that of a 9 year old, so I need to keep my content clear. Crucially, reading age isn’t equivalent to intelligence. But if content is clear enough for a 9 year old, it should be clear enough for a busy adult too.
Thankfully, government departments now know about good UX practice. New services go through stringent reviews, ensuring they follow the Government Design Principles.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t naysayers, or people who, to quote Andy Travers (now Head of Interaction Design at the Home Office), “see GDS as a digital Ofsted.” But the naysayers still have to comply, albeit begrudgingly.
I have, however, worked for organisations that do undermine UX. The two best things you can do are:
Even amongst digital teams, one big problem is the assumption that ‘reasoning’ trumps user research. I’ll often hear people claim that “no one would do” the thing users are actually doing. Showing team-mates that everyone misses that right-aligned button, even thought it is literally in front them, can really help.
When I was very young, I wanted to be Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone: I just wanted to walk out from nowhere, bookending supernatural events with insightful monologues.
Then I wanted to be: a priest, an actor, a singer songwriter (I actually tried this) and a psychoanalyst. The latter fell away once I realised psychoanalysis had been scientifically discredited, but I still have a critical fascination with Sigmund Freud. I have a bust of him on my mantlepiece. At Christmas, he wears a santa hat.
To this day, I still kid myself I’ll write a novel.