Four content design approaches

I’ve been observing and thinking about the different approaches to content design that content designers take when talking to subject matter experts.

I’ve grouped these into four different types. Totally unscientific and subjective but this is how I categorise the different approaches in my head.

Of course, we’re not all completely one thing or another and no one approach is right all of the time. It’s just that we have a natural tendency to align with one way of approaching things and some approaches work better in some circumstances. I’ve tried to illustrate these below.

Note: I used AI to generate images for these types. They are awful.

The authoritarian approach

The rules say this and you must stick to them at all costs.

+ positives

  • I think this is the prevailing attitude in content design and it’s got us places. By enforcing styles and patterns on previously wild content, we’ve brought order and clarity to users.
  • It can get you places quickly and is a simple thing for an organisation to swallow and therefore attractive.

– negatives

  • People do not like being told what to do and you can alienate certain subject matter experts or even whole departments in an organisation – quickly turning things into an us vs them situation.
  • Style guides are just guides. Where there is a genuine exception to the guide, enforcing it blindly can actually lead to content that is more confusing to a user.

The negotiating approach

You can keep this image of your head of department but we must insist on sentence case.

+ positives

  • It may be the only way to actually get content published if a relationship has broken down – and at least you’ve got some content design in there right?
  • Subject matter experts may be comfortable with this give-and-take approach and feel empowered by it.

– negatives

  • Starting off on this tack waters down content design principles and may not always put the user first.
  • Subject matter experts may expect to negotiate everything and so you can be making more problems for yourself further down the line.

The enabling approach

We’ll make the best content for our users together.

+ positives

  • Subject matter experts become empowered and enthused about making the best decisions for their users.
  • You can produce better content together when you have a better relationship as ideas and information will flow between you easily.

– negatives

  • It may seem more time-consuming and disempowering for the content designer at first as you really need to take time to think about how to get the subject matter expert onboard with things like shared exercises and evidence.
  • Not every content designer will have the right skills and experience to bring subject matter experts along with them in this way.

The pragmatic approach

Focus on the big wins.

+ positives

  • Allows you to focus on doing the best job with the most useful content.
  • Keeps the integrity of content design approach.

– negatives

  • It can mean that certain areas of content are ignored and therefore inconsistent.
  • It can undermine the value of content design within an organisation if not framed in the right way.

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