‘User-centred’ is a buzzword on high rotation at the moment, and it’s becoming the new standard for products and services, from websites and online services to city planning, architecture and infrastructure.
While people’s tastes, biases and political orientations may be very different, we share essential senses and emotional responses. If you feel frustrated or drained by a service or experience – like your daily trip to and from work on the train – chances are other people will be feeling exactly the same way.
Classically, there have been two ways of designing public services: authoritarian and humanistic. Authoritarian service design is top-down delivery, where the owners of the train system, whether public or private, evaluate and dictate the way services should run based on their own internal objectives (generally, these are financially oriented). Humanistic systems prioritise the needs, desires and feelings of ordinary people. This is what’s known as user-centred.
We know that authoritarian services don’t sell, or are at least used under duress. Humanistic or user-centred design has become the only way to create sustainable products for the open market. People vote with their purchases, and, globally, the success of brands like Apple, Google and Uber shows that people like it when products and services are designed with ease of use in mind. Slowly, our governments and public services are catching on and catching up.
Where does content come in?
While the design of products and services is a much broader church, neither is complete without content. The language that we read and hear in our daily interactions has a powerful effect on the way we feel about the brands we interact with. This puts content at the coalface of any system, product or service.
If your business or organisation is making the shift like so many others towards the user-centric, the following tips and terms will help guide your way.
The ABCs of user-centred content
Know your audience
Research is a fact of life when creating user-centred content. Don’t just guess who your users are – ask your staff to describe them, and then ask your customers or clients to describe themselves (and analyse any data that you’ve already gathered about them). Find out from them what words they are using to describe your product and service, and make those words your own. Find out what experiences they and enjoy, and what makes their lives harder.
From there, analyse your findings and notice if certain groups naturally cluster together because of shared needs or values.
If your audience is complex, find the balance between fragmenting it too much and lumping everyone together. If you find that your audience segments have largely shared needs and values, aim to create content that will work for everybody. If you have narrowed down your content to one a group with a single purpose, speak directly to them.
Tone of voice
Figuring out how you’ll speak to users is an important step in creating user-centred web content. Have a look around at what your competitors or brands in a similar space are doing, and look at content that users like your own regularly engage with, and analyse the tone of voice.
Examine things like the use of proper nouns (for example, 'the Department of Justice’ or ‘the Prime Minister’) versus personal pronouns (we, you), formal language versus casual language like contractions and slang, direct or indirect way of speaking, and active and passive voice.
Conduct a study group to analyse what tone works best for your users and why, and create a simple guide including examples that content creators can use without any extra context.
Tip: A great rule of thumb for tone in user-centred web content is ‘write how you speak’. It’s not a failsafe, as some people might be in the habit of speaking in riddles, but it will help you steer away from words and phrases that might confuse your users.
Be accessible (and sensitive)
Knowing your audience also means anticipating any sensitivities they might have about content. For example, if you’re writing for the Royal Society for the Blind, don’t use titles like ‘See our progress’. If you’re writing content for Returned Service Leagues, don’t use metaphors like ‘find your feet’ – some veterans may have lost limbs due to war injuries.
This brings us to accessibility. No matter your audience, your content will be accessed by people with many different levels of ability, including people with vision and cognitive impairments. Accessibility is about making it easy for them to do so. It applies especially to visual content like infographics, images, maps, and audio and video. These elements are read by software known as ‘screen readers’. Screen readers literally do just that – they read content out loud to your user. There are two types of information you need to create for screen readers: alternative text and transcripts.
This is also known as ‘long description’. It outlines the visual content as well as the purpose of the content. It should be a sentence or a paragraph (depending on the complexity of the content) that reads like the spoken word – as if you were explaining your content to someone face-to-face. Note that there’s no need to provide ‘alt text’ for illustrations, like photography that adds to the look and feel of your content but doesn't add to or change the meaning of the written content.
If you make video and audio content, make the transcript accessible. Transcripts also get read by web crawlers (responsible for ranking content in search engines), so your users will more easily be able to find the content specific to your video or audio.
For detailed information about web accessibility refer to the international benchmark, created by the World Wide Web Consortium.
Say what you do and do what you say
Just as every website needs to have a clearly defined purpose, every page and content element within that also needs a clear purpose that:
- Serves the goals of the website as a whole.
- Allows your user to know where they are and what they’re looking at.
Search engines evaluate and rank web content (more about this below, under SEO, say what?) based on two key questions ‘does the page accurately state its purpose and does it fulfil this purpose?’ This means that as well as knowing your purpose, you need to use written and visual content to clearly let your user know what that is.
This means you must never conceal an intention from the reader. If you’re selling something, don’t bury that fact under three paragraphs of seemingly objective editorial content; don’t even bury it under a button that says ‘Download the PDF’ when you really mean ‘Buy the PDF’. Make it clear in your page layout as well as your content that your intention is transactional as well as informative.
Don’t be dark
User-centred is not always good for the user. Facebook may no longer be everyone’s favourite social media platform, but people are still spending hundreds of hours a year scrolling their feeds. It’s designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible, but why? At its outset, it was created with the idea to make it easier for people to connect and communicate. After advertising was introduced, it gradually became about eyeballs on screens. Its designers and content marketers still know what keeps users coming back, but the scale has tipped from creating value for those users to creating value for the platform’s stakeholders.
Content creators should be careful when responding to briefs which are trying to achieve an internal outcome at the expense of the agency of the user. For example, collecting someone’s email and automatically subscribing them to your newsletter, forcing a user to set up an account, and then making it difficult for them to unsubscribe or delete their account are examples of experiences that are a little bit too sticky.
Make sure people always have a choice to opt out, and that they can do so in a single click. And if your content is designed to achieve a particular outcome, such as to sell a product, never be dark about it – let it be known up front.
SEO, say what?
If you’re researching ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ (SEO), you will come across warnings from Google to “write for people, not search engines”. It can be difficult to let go of outdated wisdom like keyword stuffing and meta tags, but if you take the time to get to know your user base and then create content for them, you can let go of the fear that your content will be overlooked.
Can I still do keyword research?
Absolutely. Long-tail keyword phrases are the groups of words that your users are typing into their search engine when they are looking for your content or content like yours. There are many apps and websites that allow you to examine what these phrases might be – this often leads to an aha moment and can help you identify niches that your brands might be able to fill. On the whole, keyword research is still an excellent way to understand user psychology and get a competitive edge on search engine rankings, and ultimately lead people to your website.
Clarity is a fine art, and it can sometimes take several attempts, plus an edit or two and a proofread, to get it right. Including anything that isn’t meaningful to the user makes it less likely that the important content gets read. It’s about a balance between too much information and too little, logical structures and user pathways. And it’s about language. Simple words, phrases and sentences that are easy to read, but most importantly easy to understand.
Ideally, work with professional writers to develop your content or redevelop existing content. If you’re working with subject-matter specialists, use an editor who is skilled in plain English editing. If your budget means that you can’t employ professional writers or editors, ask your staff to provide review and feedback, even if it’s not their subject area. Remember, the content needs to be readable for ordinary people.
Test – It’s not as hard as it sounds
In most cases, ordinary people off the street will be skilled enough to test your content. You don’t need more than six people to get quality results.
If you ask questions like, ‘do you like this content?’, ‘did you understand this content?’, ‘would you buy this product?’, you are unlikely to get quality results. People will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and you won’t be any wiser. Instead, get them to read and react to your content while you watch, and ask them what they’re thinking and how they feel.
Review and retire
Regularly review content for relevance. Often time-based content, for example event promotions, can either be moved into an archive or retired. If you’ve been sharing a progress timeline as a certain project gets off the ground and now your project is in full flight, the timeline has probably become irrelevant to users.
Also ensure your facts are up to date and accurately reflect external circumstances or events that may have an impact on the currency of your content. Each of your content pieces should have an assigned ‘owner’, whose job it is to ensure content is up to date and still relevant.
The pay off
One of the biggest perks of finely honed user-centred content is great SEO, and all of the points we explored above, will contribute to better SEO. And not only will people be able to find your content quickly, but if your content is high quality they will also trust you, and user trust has the power to make, or transform a brand.
Icon have a team of Digital Content Strategists and writers available to help navigate your next project. Reach out for advice anytime.