Last week on our UX community Slack channel, we hosted a live AMA with James Reith, content designer and culture writer.

James currently works with the UK’s Department for Work & Pensions. Previously, he worked with HM Revenue & Customs and was part of an award-winning UX team at The Co-operative Bank.

His writing has been published in The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Economist. He scripted an iPhone game that was downloaded over 1,000,000 times, has lectured on poetry and once had an article translated into Japanese. He’s also technically a qualified private investigator 🔍

There’s more on James in this article on a day-in-the-life of a content designer.

For this hour-long chat, James fielded questions on everything from beginning a career in content design, the best tools for the job, and what comes first: UX or content?

Here are the highlights from James’s AMA. Please note, some edits have been made for clarity and spelling.

How did you get started in Content Design? [Doug]

By the time I discovered what Content Design was, I was already working in UX. So I had a lot of the skills required for the role already. In terms of how I got into UX writing… I sort of fell in to it. I’m yet to meet too many people who’ve dreamed of working in UX from childhood. Though, given that it’s becoming visible all the time, that might change soon. Or already has changed!

Should you use the same approach when designing completely new content vs when re-designing old existing content? [Eli]

When working on old content, you often get the advantage of knowing what people were using that content for etc. But you can also be battling against cemented models (don’t some people just hate change?).

But I’d use the same principles. I’d see what the problems are on the existing page/service. What the content is doing etc. Once you’ve identified the problem and the user needs, you may end up ripping up the original entirely.

Citizens Advice in the UK have a great blog about why they scrapped their most popular page: because it wasn’t meeting user needs.

As a content designer, what comes first in his world – content or UX? [Mark]

I think the problem is in the question: you’ve already separated the two.

So much of what we do online is consume information. When, where and how they get that information is design. But you only work out how best to structure your content – and the journeys through it – by starting with the content.

I use the same theories UX designers use, but apply them to language.

In terms of output as well, content is usually the final thing you write (even if you’ve been thinking about it from the beginning). Content should never be used to explain away overly complex interactions or poor service design. I regularly push design features back up the pipeline.

So I guess… thinking about content comes first; the words on the page are finalised at the end. And content is a core part of the user’s experience.

How do you preserve the integrity of content with stakeholders? [anon]

Thankfully in government design, stakeholders have to follow guidelines set by the Government Digital Service. If we’ve got the research to back up our content, it gets published. That user-centred review process protects the integrity of the content.

I have, however, worked in places where that isn’t the case. My advice would be to include stakeholders as collaborators. And show them the impact of bad content. How it’ll affect their KPIs, or whatever it is that’s driving them to be an obstacle.

How do you go about making the tone of content available to the team so they can author their own work in the same manner? [Leigh]

Design your style guide with the same UX approach you’d use for a member of the public: make it easy to find, easy to scan etc. People often forget that their colleagues are users when it comes to internal systems.

If you have a diverse range of work, principles can be good as it gives a framework for the infinite amount of situations you could be writing for. And if you’re going to have little, specific tone of voice things (such as exclusively using contractions, not using semi-colons etc) make sure you can justify them.

I’ve seen colossal style guides before that seem to have been created on a whim. And whilst consistency is key, big style guides tend to result in either work slowdown or inconsistencies (because people stop checking them).

Have you ever been involved in carrying out the whole process of forming IA, content, wireframes, design mocks, tests, etc. and what tools did you use to collaborate on that?  [Nenad]

I’ve always just used the best tool for the job. Paper is a tool (and great for content testing). I have mocked up click-through prototypes and low fidelity wireframes. GOV uses a standardised prototyping kit, which also helps.

I now tend to work with agile workflows, which is great, but I’ve also seen them become a little reactionary. With something like IA, for instance, understanding what back-end systems will be communicating can be crucial.

I’d set out a series of clear, testable goals in a roadmap. Work out what tools need to be defined (if any) at the start. Make sure you investigate the consequences of those tools and then just start using whatever is best for the issue you’re investigating or the problem you’re solving.

Putting UX in the drivers seat is explaining that UX is about problem solving. If someone comes to me with a solution, rather than a problem, we’ve already gone off course.

In terms of defining tools, then, it would be deciding what will be your baseline, for practical reasons (shall we all use Sketch so we can share files?) but allow people to deviate if needed.

With regard to input placeholders and in line error messages, what should the language be? My boss seems to think a good placeholder for these are “enter display name” and “enter description” but I find that to be very redundant. I’m in the camp of put something descriptive in the placeholders like, “This display name will appear in blah” and “Describe this item in a few words etc etc” but I have this thing where I don’t get heard half the time (which is a different problem cough-diversity-cough) [Tiffany]

I very much disagree with your boss. Or designing for the convenience of developers.

That being said, I don’t like witty errors either. Someone is trying to do something and is struggling. Best to be as clear as possible.

So maybe ‘enter display name’ might work. But what if the user wasn’t sure what a display name was? I get this a lot with calendar errors. You’ll get something like ‘enter a valid date’ without being told why your date was invalid.

Don’t get me started on validation rules in names… Imagine how it must feel being told your name is invalid?

And you’re right: there’s no need for placeholder text that repeats the field names. ‘Enter display name’ as part of an error, however, might be value: simply as feedback that they’ve missed the field.

What are the reasons why projects are ruined by a designer/developer division and how can it be avoided? [Alison]

The big one tends to be deadlines. Devs almost always have someone breathing down their neck about deliverables. So if you need time to go test something, or you’ve discovered a fundamental usability issue in something that was built sometime ago, that’ll be viewed as a set-back.

I’ve had it before where me and the other designers have been working hard on solving a complex usability issue, find a solution and then are told we can’t implement it as we don’t have time.

The fault here tends to lie in the conflicting messages coming from up top. Take away those deadlines, or bring design in early enough so you’re no undoing someone else’s hard work, and the conflict often lessens. There’ll always be issues that crawl out of the woodwork late in development, but you can cut those issues down if your project’s goals align.

How can you make the best of the user data you already have, when you’re not able to conduct user research because of limited time and resource. [Quasar]

Draw out what you can from that existing data. Note any questions you have.

If you’re designing for the general public, do some guerrilla testing: ask your friends, family members or colleagues (who aren’t working on your project) to use whatever you’re designing. That can often cut out the showstoppers and big problems.

And I hate doing this but… if you absolutely have to, work out your success criteria and how you’ll gauge it. Then use the live publication as your user testing. I really wouldn’t advocate that last option unless you have to, but I do understand that sometimes that’s all you’ve got. But make sure you’ve got clear measures of success and a plan on how to address the thing if it doesn’t work out.

In a recent UN survey, the UK has the best e-government in the world. How much of it you think could be attributed to good content design? [Jobert]

I’d say it’s down to user-centred design as a whole. Did you ever see Direct Gov, the big orange site the predated gov.uk? Guess how much testing when into that.

As so much of the work on GOV is about making complex policies/systems/legislation accessible, I think Content Design plays a big part in GOVs success. But Content Design is simply a tool to meet user needs.

Defining it as its own discipline, however, has helped people to see what a role clear, well-structured content in UX.

How do you explain what you do to people outside digital? [Clare]

I think like a designer, but with language.

Sometimes I like to talk about how design ideas can be applied outside of digital too.

The digital bit (app, site, whatever) is often just a response to a bigger need. But sometimes, dare I say it, a digital solution might not be the best one…

I think like a designer, but with language.

Sometimes I like to talk about how design ideas can be applied outside of digital too.

The digital bit (app, site, whatever) is often just a response to a bigger need. But sometimes, dare I say it, a digital solution might not be the best one…

Main image by Edwin Andrade.