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Content design for internal communicators and the intranet

Letter stencils, for stencilling characters on to paper.

Content design for internal communicators and the intranet

You draft what you think people really need to know, and then the stakeholder adds a load of additional details that swamp your messaging, and then your reviewers suggest it’s all in the wrong order. Sound familiar? Are your review cycles turning into vicious circles?

Despite your communications expertise and your formal writing skills, writing to inform, educate, and engage is hard. Our expertise can lead us to rely on assumptions and recent experience (which is fine; you’re the expert communicator after all). Everyone brings their biases and assumptions, and an important announcement or a straight-forward ‘how to’ article can quickly become muddied and muddled.

The content design approach can alleviate the common problems around what to communicate, reduce mistakes owing to assumptions, and simplify the review process.

Content design is using design techniques to plan and create content

Content design is an evidence-based approach to creating content to give the audience what they need in a way they expect and can use. It’s about discovering and defining needs and meeting those needs through the presentation of content.

It’s a movement, a grouping of practices, and becoming a discipline, thanks to Sarah Richards (and team) who developed the approach while working at the Government Digital Service.

Content design has massively improved the focus of UK Government web pages and reference-page heavy websites, and helped optimise commercial website to better satisfy visitors. Yes, it helps with readability and usability, but content design primarily ensures that a page meets a defined need and is truly helpful.

I think content design can similarly improve the internal environment, considering knowledge management and the thousands of reference pages found on intranets. I think important announcements and even everyday news stories can be improved by content designs’ focus on readers’ needs.

Make content design work for you

Internal communicators and intranet publishers of all kinds can adopt content design as part of their toolkit. Content design complements your existing communication and writing expertise, and gives you additional techniques to rely upon when you feel they’re relevant. Content design can improve everyone’s writing, but it doesn’t replace the skills of an experienced communicator.

Content design starts with research, and then moves though a flexible process to define the audiences, the need, confirmation of need, drafting, and a structured review.

I will introduce the tools and techniques in my next article. Subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss it.

I’m certain internal comms people can cherry pick the tools that feel helpful to improve either processes around message shaping and / or the quality and impact of reference pages on the intranet and knowledge management. I don’t think every publisher has to be an expert in content design today, but I do think you can help writers and publishers reshape pages using your communication and content design skills. 

I imagine some well-chosen content design techniques can improve urgent communications too. I understand that updates from IT and announcements from HR may be too urgent to delay, but I think the comms team should at least sense-check messages to make sure audiences understand the relevancy.

Content design is the same but different

Once you get into content design, you might conclude that you’ve always cared about designing content! What content design does is codify the techniques so you have a toolbox that provides a recognisable, repeatable process. The quality of the results still relies on your attention and expertise.

Just as I always say ‘match the message to the audience to the channel’ when it comes to comms planning, content designers have four touchstone principles.

Sarah Richards lists the touchstones as a checklist at the back of her ‘Content Design’ book:

  • Written in the audience’s vocabulary
  • Presented in the best format for the audience
  • Providing what the audience actually needs
  • Designed with data / research results.

If you think these are all sensible points, then start your research and check my next article for a clear list of tools and how to use them.

Wedge Black

I support ClearBox in everything we do online, and I assist clients that are considering redeveloping or replacing their intranet platform. I worked in global and regional organisations as the intranet manager as part of the comms team, before becoming an intranet consultant. I'm the founder of the Intranet Now annual conference. I’ve tweeted about intranets and comms for fifteen years now.

1 Comment
  • Posted at 4:25 pm, 3 February, 2020

    We often find the biggest obstacle to good content is understand-ability. Many times, content isn’t just written in jargon (although that’s an issue, too); it’s written without the active voice making it impossible for anyone to follow steps. In addition, there’s no call to action or place for employees to take a next step. These are probably the most important things you can do.

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