11 key content design considerations
I’m a content designer at Microsoft. My job is to design the content experience for our products, specifically, the Microsoft 365 admin center. The content experiences I work on help customers sign up for, set up, and manage Office apps and services.
This content design work includes the following:
- Information architecture, or how the customer navigates through the admin center.
- Information pacing, or making sure just enough information is presented to the customer at the right time.
- Style coherence, or ensuring that content is consistent with Microsoft’s style and voice and tone guidelines.
- Content pattern coherence and consistency, which means content aligns with the admin center’s content design guidelines for content elements like wizards, contextual help, error messages, and more.
- Coherence across each surface of the admin center customer experience, such as terminology.
- Knowledge of the multiple platforms that content is built on, again to ensure a consistent experience for the customer.
- Accessibility, or making sure that every customer can use the content in the admin center.
Content design is of paramount importance for ensuring that Microsoft 365’s customers are happy and that they can smoothly and easily do what they need to do when they visit our site. I work with crackerjack feature teams that include visual designers, user researchers, product managers, and software developers.
As much as I enjoy working with my teams, now and then I get urgent requests to write content quickly.
“It’s just a few sentences. Can you turn this around in the next hour?” Or, a common one: “The dev team is waiting for it. Can you get this right back to me?”
When I hear these questions, my immediate reaction is, “Heck no.”
Content design is complicated. It’s nuanced. And it’s often quite time-consuming. It’s not at all something that you want to rush.
When done well, good content elevates the customer experience and improves customer satisfaction, business performance, and revenue. Content designers are worth their weight in gold to the business. On our team, customer experience is measured in several different ways, all of which can be influenced by great content design. These include task completion rate (TCR); net promoter score (NPS); and a Microsoft-specific metric called customer support incidents per million engaged users (IMEU).
I understand why people may think content design can be done quickly. We all work quickly these days — with instant messages, chat comments during Teams meetings, and emails. But content design is next to impossible to do it swiftly.
I hope the following list of things I think about when I work on content design shines some light on just how complex it can be.
Content design requires extensive knowledge of the mechanics of exceptional writing, from parts of speech to syntax to punctuation, and even poetic techniques. It also requires knowledge of linguistics, etymology, inclusive language, and psychology. It’s complex and challenging in the best way. But it’s not at all something that should be done quickly if you’re looking to create a stellar customer experience.
What I think about as I work on content design:
- The audience
- Who’s the primary audience?
- What do I know about them? Very small business owners are very different from small or medium-sized business owners, who are different from people who work at large organizations. We also create content for people who work in government, nonprofits, and education. Again, the audiences’ needs are quite different.
- How do I learn about the audience? What research can I refer to? Have there been recent content research studies or A/B tests to refer to as I do this work? What about data from our data dashboards, such as customer voice?
- When the audience encounters the content I’m writing, what are they trying to do and what information do they need? What is their primary intent?
- Does content support the customer journey? What information is not needed as the user is trying to get this specific job done? Is just enough information provided to help the customer accomplish what they need to do?
- Can information be provided using progressive disclosure to help minimize cognitive load?
2. Product and features
- Are the product names and feature names spelled correctly and described accurately? See the Office product guidelines.
- If the product has several different versions — often true at Microsoft — are the features described accurately? Example: Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business Premium have different features and capabilities.
- Does the user experience reflect reality? Are all important steps included?
3. Writing style
- Is content as short as it can be?
- Is content free of jargon?
- Is content free of acronyms? If an acronym needs to be used, is it spelled out at first reference?
- Is content as conversational as possible?
- Does content align with the Microsoft Writing Style Guides? (There are several!)
- Does content align with plain language standards? For example, use instead of utilize.
- Will the content be easily understood by the primary audience?
4. Writing mechanics
- Does capitalization align with our style, which avoids title casing and extraneous capitalization?
- Are contractions used where possible? This supports conversational style.
- Is punctuation perfect? Are serial commas included? Are colons, semicolons, em-dashes, parentheses, and exclamation points avoided?
- Are numerals and symbols in the proper format, depending on use case & style guidance?
- Is syntax smooth and not choppy or awkward? For great tips on syntax, see The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer by Yellowlees Douglas, Ph.D.
- Is euphony used instead of cacophony? Are soft consonant sounds used instead of hard-sounding ones?
Are the following avoided? These can be difficult for translation and can be challenging for English language learners.
- Noun stacks
- Homophones (words with the same pronunciation, but different meanings)
- Homonyms (words with the same spelling, but different meanings)
- Excessive use of prepositions
- Gerunds (verbs that end in -ing
6. Writing design and content coherence
- Does content align with our team’s content heuristics or principles of content quality?
- Does content align with the Microsoft 365 admin center content coherence guidelines including empty states, wizards, pivots, call to action buttons, and error messages?
- Are content elements like terminology consistent in each step of the customer journey or user flow? If there’s overlap with other feature areas or surfaces, is content aligned and consistent across those surfaces? See Microsoft’s Term Studio database.
- Is the most important information placed first, or front-loaded?
- Is content easily scannable? Are bullet points or other formatting used as appropriate? Are related sections of content grouped together in a logical way?
- Are links to relevant Help articles provided? Are the links contextual and not truncated or redundant? For example, “Learn more about assigning licenses” vs. merely “Learn more”
- When new terms are introduced are they explained using a tooltip? If it’s a more complex concept or interaction, is a first-run experience created?
- If a word or term is specific to Microsoft, does it appear either in the Microsoft Style Guide, and/or the Term Studio database? If not, I submit the term to be considered to be added.
- Do word choices reflect content terminology research? See HITS.microsoft.com for user research that’s searchable by audience, product, and feature.
8. Brand voice and tone
- Does content align to our brand voice & tone guidelines, which are ‘warm & relaxed, crisp & clear, and ready to lend a hand’? In other words, does content express empathy for what the customer is doing?
- Does copy reflect brand guidelines for clarity? For example, Microsoft brand writing guidelines recommend avoiding anthropomorphism, Latin terms such as “i.e.” and “e.g.”, and the use of the “royal we”.
- Do we use the appropriate product-level voice & tone guidelines? For example, the Microsoft 365 admin center voice and tone guidelines?
- Do we use the appropriate audience-level voice and tone guidelines? For example, very small business (VSB), small & medium business, education, or enterprise audiences?
9. Translation and geopolitical elements
- Avoid colloquialisms or expressions that’ll be difficult to translate.
- Avoid terms that are geo-specific, or that may be sensitive or misunderstood, based on geography.
- Avoid terms that refer to war or violence (in software, this is more common than you’d think!)
10. Accessibility, diversity & inclusion, and sensitive language
- Avoid words that are insensitive to people who have disabilities. For example, “enable” or “disable” and commands that assume mouse or track-pad use.
- Are potentially insensitive or unhelpful instructions like “click” avoided? “Select” is preferable, as people who use voice-assist devices may not be able to “click”. Also, people who use mobile devices tap instead of click.
- Is ARIA text provided for links and tooltips to help make content useful to people who use screen readers or assistive devices?
- Is content scrubbed of words and terms that may be offensive due to their origin? Does content align to Diversity & Inclusion and sensitivity standards and avoid words that are offensive?
11. Team and stakeholder alignment
- When appropriate, have subject matter experts reviewed the content for accuracy?
- When appropriate, has the CELA (legal) team reviewed content for accuracy and completeness?
Whew! So much to think about while doing content design. While it’s challenging to consider all these things, it’s rewarding when the end result is a clear, effective customer experience.
I hope this inspires other content designers to keep fighting the good fight. I also hope it provides food for thought for product managers, visual designers, and software developers. (May you never again ask for a 1-hour turnaround on content work!)
I also hope it offers insights for the senior leaders in each company in charge of hiring and compensating content designers. As this list shows, content work takes plenty of time and attention to detail. Content designers and UX writers deserve to have their (rare!) talents and hard work compensated accordingly.
Erica is Senior UX Content Designer at Microsoft. Connect with her on LinkedIn.