Talking career and content design with Sarah Winters, author of ‘Content Design’ and CEO of Content Design London
"I love my content. I love my video, I love my words, I love my sign language, and I didn’t really want to move away from it."
— Sarah Winters
Sarah Winters (was Richards) is the CEO and founder of Content Design London (CDL); a content design agency that works around the world; helping governments and organisations to transform the way that they communicate.
She's the creator of the content design discipline, author of Content Design, a trainer, consultant, mentor and previous winner of the D&AD Black Pencil in Writing for Design award.
What is content design?
Content design is a way of thinking. It's about using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it and in a way they expect.source: Content Design London
Early career at Directgov
Sarah studied design initially, but found copywriting earned more money, so she switched disciplines to journalism. She still had 'design' in the back of her head from her studies, and after a short stint writing feature articles for magazines, she moved into advertising for a while; working for Ogilvy Interactive and Saatchi & Saatchi, before moving into digital government.
She first took on a Directgov role as content manager where she took on a project called 'Transactions and Convergence', where she had the small task of getting 186 sites moved into just one. In parallel to the project she was hired to lead on, one of her team (Lisa Scott) was seconded into an Alpha project working elsewhere at the organisation.
"It was a really difficult time for Directgov because they knew that they couldn't carry on the way that they were going. And there was this awful, awful programme called 'The Change Programme' - and it was going nowhere.
"I was having meetings with Lisa every week, and then people like Tom Loosemore, who was Deputy Director of what would later become the Government Digital Service, found out who I was. Someone in the Alpha project said 'if there's anyone who knows about transforming the way government works digitally it's Sarah, because of her work on the Convergence Project.'"
Sarah embodies everything you want from the ideal colleague - she works hard to understand and learn from other people and disciplines, as well as sharing her own knowledge and experience, alongside a terrifying focus on what she believes to be the right solutions to the challenges she faces.source: LinkedIn
A candid conversation followed, and Tom asked Sarah what she would change if she had complete freedom.
"And I was like - everything"
"It was like every kind of frustration that I ever had came out, and I told him: colleagues can't get to the CMS, they can't publish, we need developers, we need designers...
"And he quietly just took it all in."
A move to formal content design roles at GOV.UK
Sarah soon discovered that her name had been put forward by Tom for a new Beta project team. Though it wasn't a job she'd knowingly gone for, she took up the mantle and ran with it.
"Announced in late March, the alpha.gov.uk project is a response to some - but not all - of the challenges laid down in Martha Lane Fox's report."
"Government should take advantage of the more open, agile and cheaper digital technologies to deliver simpler and more effective digital services to users."
The internal political landscape at Directgov at that time was such that if the senior managers didn't like what people in content were doing, they'd simply stop it and/or threaten to stop paying for Directgov. In conversations with colleagues, Sarah realised that the way everyone spoke about content had to change and be 'elevated' somehow. The playing field needed resetting, so that people working in the discipline could have a stronger voice.
"We always use our user's language. It's what we do. I thought, they have to stop thinking about us in the way that they've been thinking about us. So, we had to come up with a new name, because if we were just called editors, they'd go, 'yeah, we know what you do'.
"Sitting next to the designers while at work one day, focusing on user needs, looking at the research and everything - and I was reminded of the conversation that I'd just had with Tom Loosemore where the words 'content design' had come up - and we were like, 'that's it!'"
At first, the term received mixed reactions internally. But it triggered the much-needed broader conversation that was required in order to change the way digital content was 'done' at Directgov.
"Editors edited and publishers published - you could say it was really easy for people to understand. Everybody knew what that meant.
"But a content designer saying 'no, we're going to make that content a calculator and your 4 million words are now 12 words'; to get that across, we had to change the conversation - otherwise we wouldn't have been able to change the power and the relationship."
Eventually, after working on the Beta project for a while, and after many internal protocols playing themselves out, Sarah was officially appointed as Head of Content Design at gov.uk.
More challenges lay ahead for Sarah and her team, however.
"One of the senior managers said to me 'you can do all this, but it'll go back to the way we want it, so we'll just wait.' That was the view of a lot of people in government who were not supporting what we were trying to do - what we call 'the frozen middle.'
"Those managers just wouldn't get out of the way."
Sarah's earliest efforts on the Beta project were subsequently spent on meetings and conversations that explained why the team were trying to do what they were trying to do. It was a crucial internal marketing exercise to gain stakeholder buy-in.
Eventually, things started to move positively for Sarah and her team.
"I watched content, and people across the government, become happier. They were allowed to do what they were trying to do.
"Don't get me wrong - there was still loads of shouting, and multiple people hated me, but once we got certain peoples' managers out of the way, people just ran with it."
Sarah is relentless at putting the user first. She sweeps aside jargon and meaningless waffle to get straight to the point and then stay there! She's generous with her time, and always willing to help and advise.source: LinkedIn
Product management and content strategy roles followed
Sarah's next role was Product Manager for Citizens Advice Bureau, where she was charged with leading its digital transformation. It was a wider remit, and involved far more than just content. She was also having to work with a new set of logistic challenges, as the organisation's offices were located all across the UK.
"I love arguing about content. I mean, it makes my heart beat. So I just got to a point in the digital transformation project where I was like, I'm spending 80% of my day doing stuff I don't want to do. And I'm really not feeling happy. You just know then that you've got to go, because work takes up so much of your life."
A move to the Co-Op followed, where Sarah took up the position of Content Strategist. It was a return to one of her biggest passions:
"In my Product Manager role, I missed working more on content. Some of the people at Citizens Advice were amazing, but the role I had been doing, it wasn't content.
"I love my content. I love my video, I love my words, I love my sign language, and I didn't really want to move away from it."
Whilst the organisation did have the vision for making great things happen with their digital channels, it was a massive marketing machine steeped in routine, and certain processes had been in place for years. So a significant part of Sarah's role became, yet again, that of winning 'hearts and minds' in order to pave the way for real digital change.
The birth of Content Design London (CDL)
Content Design London was founded by Sarah in May 2017. Working with organisations large and small, everything CDL does is driven by the purpose of ensuring products and services are understood by an organisation's users - but more widely; the whole world.
The offerings of Sarah's consultancy can be segmented into many different categories:
- Training and coaching
- Bespoke projects
- Community-based work (e.g. 'universal' Readability Guidelines and Content Club)
- Consultancy, including Alpha/Beta consultancy (where a consultant from CDL is placed in a project to support)
- General help and support for content designers and content strategists
- Recruitment support for organisations looking for a content specialist
"I get to choose our clients. I know that it's an extremely privileged position to be in."
A typical week for Sarah may be a mixture of attending a conference, a meetup or a 'lunch and learn', presenting to groups like an organisation's board to explain what content design is (because perhaps there's an internal project which is just not being listened to and supported by them enough).
"I love sitting in on crits where someone from CDL is conducting one for a client. And, we are always prepping numerous presentations and working on our courses, because we're continually revamping them. As soon as new research comes out, it needs to go into the deck."
What is a crit?
A crit is a critique. I use them in content design to: help the team write and edit consistently. create or iterate a style guide.source: Content Design London
CDL is also working on some new publications focused around content design, and Sarah herself is working on her second book right now.
In terms of rewarding projects, Sarah calls out SafeLives as a highlight.
"One of the themes in 2020 for CDL has been 'hidden disabilities'. We did some journey mapping work with SafeLives, a domestic abuse charity, and we've been working with them this year.
"We sat around in a journey mapping session with women who had all been through abusive situations, just knowing that content can help. I mean, content can literally save people's lives."
Sarah had the uncanny knack of managing to get to the heart of a content issue in half the space anyone could. She has an innate ability to understand the user and to frame the problem from their perspective.source: LinkedIn
Advice, recommendations and tips from Sarah
What would you say are the key skills and capabilities necessary to be good at what you do?
"You need to be able to analyse data. You need to be able to go and do desk research, even if you're just looking on social media for language, sentiment, scoring, empathy mapping.
"And then of course, being able to get to the crux of the information whilst retaining the tone. But most of our job, 80% of our job, is usually getting people on board in organisations."
What's one piece of advice you'd give other content people who want to achieve similar accomplishments to yourself?
"I feel like I've fallen into everything! I think there's a 'core', where there's my family and my kids - so 'I need to have this house', 'I need to have enough money to feed them' and 'I need to get them to school'. That's my core. Everything else is possible because it doesn't wobble my core; you get near that, and I come out fighting!
"It's only recently that I've seen it as a feature of myself, not a flaw - giving things a try, taking a risk. I'll say, 'alright, let's try x for six weeks' if I think, 'yes I've got money in the bank, so let's give it a go'. I think I'd like to see more of that in the industry. There's a lot of reticence in content people. They think 'if I get it wrong, I'm going to be shouted at, and that's what I need to base my decisions on.'"
If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of personal advice early in your career, what would that be?
"'Don't worry so much, and trust yourself', probably."
Which industry professionals should people be following right now on Twitter?
If you could choose books to recommend to someone early in their career, what would they be?
If your website content is out of date, off-brand, and out of control, you're missing a huge opportunity to engage, convert, and retain customers online. Redesigning your home page won't help. Investing in a new content management system won't fix it, either. So, where do you start?
Kristina Halvorson's book is a great foundational read.— Sarah Winters
Without words, apps would be an unusable jumble of shapes and icons, while voice interfaces and chatbots wouldn't even exist. Words make software human--centered, and require just as much thought as the branding and code. This book will show you how to give your users clarity, test your words, and collaborate with your team. You'll see that writing is designing.
We humans are messy, illogical creatures who like to imagine we're in control---but we blithely let our biases lead us astray. In Design for Cognitive Bias, David Dylan Thomas lays bare the irrational forces that shape our everyday decisions and, inevitably, inform the experiences we craft.
Is there a particular site or product that you think does content particularly well?
"I really like bulb's communications - and their emails are easy. You can just scroll through them in seconds and understand what you've bought."
Are there any courses or workshops you'd recommend people look into?
"Well, this is a bit of a plug, but we're involved with something called This is Doing. It's being run by Gerry Scullion and what I love about it, and this is why we're involved in it is that he's bringing service, design, content design, all sorts of design together as one thing. I love what he's up to there.
"And he's not teaching it as silos. You haven't got to be a designer to understand what everybody else is doing, so I think is going to make life a lot easier."
Sarah Winters: Further reading and watching
- Book: Content Design A short, practical introduction to content design.
- Book: Readability Guidelines Handbook The book contains points on using clear language, grammar points, audiences, devices and channels.
- Sarah on LinkedIn View Sarah's professional profile.
- Article: What is content design? Sarah breaks down her own definition in this article.
- Article: Copywriter to content designer The differences between the two from Sarah's point of view.
- Talk: Accessibility is Usability Sarah's talk at an Accessibility London meet-up.
- Talk: Content Strategy isn't just for Content People From the Generate Conference.
- Podcast: The Content Strategy Podcast (Episode #4) Sarah chats to Kristina Halvorson on her popular show.
- Interview: Content Strategy Insights (Episode #22) In this interview, Larry Swanson of Elless Media talks to Sarah about her time at GOV.UK and her approach to content design.
- Interview: Why Content Design Matters Independent editor and content consultant, Oliver Lindberg interviews Sarah about designing with data and why content designers are needed.
- Interview: Talking content design with Sarah Winters This written interview dives into details such as why Sarah wanted to work for herself and how she started setting up CDL.
- Webinar: Lightning fast content design 101 Sarah shares a couple of techniques on finding out what information your users want from you.
- Webinar: Turning user stories into content This recording focuses on practical advice for website content managers/creators.
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