Photo via Unsplash

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.

  • 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 complicated. It’s nuanced. And it’s often quite time-consuming. It’s not at all something that you want to rush.

What I think about as I work on content design:

  1. The 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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
  • 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?
  • Do word choices reflect content terminology research? See HITS.microsoft.com for user research that’s searchable by audience, product, and feature.
  • 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?
  • 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!)
  • 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?
  • When appropriate, has the CELA (legal) team reviewed content for accuracy and completeness?