Real content design isn’t like the literature

We’ve all read the books, saved the articles, watched the conference talks. They’re fantastic. They teach us and inspire us.

But they don’t always address the reality of messy, imperfect content design in real life.

We can’t do it all. We rarely follow the ‘right’ process. We feel like we’re not doing ‘proper’ content design.

It’s different on the ground

Bootcamps, books and courses are excellent for teaching us techniques and helping us get our foot in the door. I still refer back to my favourite books from years ago— they’re a useful resource.

But they don’t always teach you about the frustration of stakeholders. The loneliness of being a solo content designer. Or the weirdness of being locked out of a Figma file.

The books tell you how to do good content design… and then you’re left to try and do that in an office or over Zoom. Where no one else knows what good content design is. Or even cares.

Unless you get super lucky, you’ve probably experienced something like this. Content design is not perfect in real life.

We can’t always spend a week doing desk research, then pair up with a user researcher to go deeper, then map out site experiences and content hierarchy and lead on wireframes.

We need to work with other designers, deal with scope changes, meet deadlines, and please lots of stakeholders. We’re often spread across multiple teams, whilst our design counterparts get to go deep in one area.

The end-to-end content design process is usually not realistic.

And let’s not forget, it’s different wherever you go. I’ve had 4 different content design roles in 4 very different companies. While the underlying principles are the same, my day-to-day has adapted and changed depending on how the company works and what they need from me.

They hire us, but they’re not sure what to do with us

You’ve probably experienced this too. ‘Content design’ is a bit of a hot topic in tech at the moment — it was the 9th fastest-growing job in the UK in 2022, according to LinkedIn.

And people are starting to see the value of content design. So they put a job ad out, they say all the right things in the interview. Then you get into the office and it feels like no one else knows why you’re there.

“We’ve already got high-fidelity designs. Can you just check the copy?”

“We don’t need a content strategy. I think Brand are owning that…”

“Oh, the product designer signed that off. They own the UX.”

Stuff we’ve all heard. And it makes you wonder why they wanted to bring you in at all.

You end up ‘content dusting’. You edit the words a product designer has already embedded into the designs. You proofread end-to-end flows to make sure it’s as readable as it can be. You awkwardly sit in the background of calls where someone forgot to put you on the initial invitation. But it’s a bit too late to do anything properly anyway.

A little side note here: I’ve been lucky to find a team where I can really add value from the ground up and I really enjoy my work. It’s not all doom and gloom out there, I promise. But it’s not perfect, because a career in content design just isn’t.

Little and often adds up over time

Maybe people start asking you to run workshops. They bring you in to the discovery phase because they want to “do it content-first this time”. Product managers ask for your opinion before the product designer, or alongside at the very least. You run a ‘lunch and learn’ and get great feedback. You draw out a content wireframe for just 1 project, and people love it. They see its utility. Doesn’t matter that you don’t have time to do the same for the 5 other projects you’re on.

You do what you can, with the time you have. And slowly but surely, your job becomes more fulfilling. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Try to make things better, not perfect

So what if you have to edit a few “already done” prototypes? So what if you have to skip desk research? So what if you have to quickly defer to your best judgement because there’s no time to do anything else?

This might feel frustrating. It’s not what the books say. But you should let go of things being perfect. It’s good for your brain.

And just 1% of content design effort in a project is always going to make it better than it was before.

Get good at documenting

Document those small moments where you do have an impact. Like improving the way your team collaborates. Or seeing some positive changes in a round of user testing. Or that conversation you bravely started about the true complexity of a product, when everyone else was in blissful ignorance. Write it all down and keep it safe. That’s yours to be proud of, to add to your portfolio and get that well-deserved recognition when the time comes.

You can also document the times where things have gone wrong, because you weren’t included or content design principles weren’t followed. Or you just made a mistake. That’s often just as valuable.

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