Review: Introduction to Content Design

Montage of images relating to the course Introduction to Content Design

“Work on end-to-end journeys to help users complete their goals”

In September 2020, the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) published the Introduction to Content Design course on FutureLearn. The course takes a suggested 16 hours over four weeks and is free to take, although you will need to pay for tests and certification.

I took the course to learn more about how content design is applied in reality, and also to gauge its potential for content in intranets and elsewhere inside organisations. This review will cover my impressions of the course, how well it introduces the subject, and how valuable it might be for internal content.

Week 1:  Introducing content design

After an introduction to the concept of content design, the course moves into talking about understanding your users and their needs. This may be strange if you’re expecting a guide to creating content for online pages, but this is essential to the discipline of content design

User needs aren’t optional extras. When we get them right, they’re the irreducible core of what any service is there for.

So, by talking about user stories, acceptance criteria, and user journeys, the student is given a framework for understanding whether the content meets real needs. Here, I’d like to have seen more practical exercises, to help embed these skills.

Week 2: Accessibility and user research

Continuing the first week’s framework of meeting user needs, we move onto the themes of understanding those needs, and of ensuring that content can actually be used. Internally, there’s a lot of resistance to building accessibility into digital tools, but it’s not only the right thing to do, it leads to better services.

The section on user research is a good introduction to the subject, going through preparation, planning, designing and running good interviews. For me, it falls short in not discussing how to organise your results, or communicating those to stakeholders.

The week concludes by discussing designing for a range of digital skills. Working on digital workplace tools, it is just too easy to assume high levels of digital skills and end up excluding your own colleagues.

“People shouldn’t notice good content”

Week 3: Content and style

The third week is about making readable content that is understandable to your user.

This covers structuring page content, and effective use of headings. It was nice to see acknowledgement that the F-pattern doesn’t always happen, but I’d like to have seen more concrete examples and discussion of approaches.

There’s a short tour of style guides, but more of an expectation that you go and digest the GOV.UK guide. This is followed by an even briefer plug for the use of plain English.

In the middle of this section is a discussion of using paper and browser-based prototyping to mock-up content. It also introduces the highlighter test, which is really the only way the course discusses testing content.

Comparison of two versions of the page for bank holiday information. The older version has a table of bank holidays across multiple years. The newer version prioritises the next bank holiday, plus the next few.
Before and after (left and right respectively) example of bank holiday information

Week 4: Content lifecycle and building better content

The last module, to me at least, is weaker than the preceding sections.

The content lifecycle (below) is focused on the production of content, but it lacks discussion on how it might fit into different models within a CMS or intranet.

  • Content discovery and research
  • Design and writing
  • Peer review
  • Fact check
  • Publish, maintain and iterate
  • Remove and archive

The section on metrics leaps into talking about Google Analytics with little context. Its conclusion to iterate and improve frequently is extremely important, especially in the case study of how driving test booking needs changed over time (Redesigning content to match changing user behaviour). Importantly, the article also touches on thinking about search results.

There are brief discussions of pair writing and content crits which could have been expanded somewhat. Pair writing with a subject matter expert is a valuable tool that speeds up and reduces potential conflict in the content creation process. This was written as though all organisations will simply agree to support this approach.

The course touches briefly on A/B testing before tailing-off with a discussion on skills and career progression.

Tests and certification

The end of module tests and thereby certification are only available to those who pay for either the course £52, or a year-long FutureLearn subscription for £199.

The tests are quite short and attainable with a pass mark of 70% . Like so much e-learning, it is easy to get caught up in working your way through the course but miss some of the detail along the way. I gained a lot from a second run-through to make mind-maps for this review.


The course is designed to broaden knowledge of content design as practised within UK government, but it will be of great value to many others. For some, it will be the discipline and practice of content design, but for others it will be the understanding of a user-centred approach in a broad ecosystem.

I don’t think it will leave you completely satisfied. I would have benefited from more exercises, plus a look at content design beyond government. Also, and this may be a flaw of content design itself, there is nothing on handling more complex information.

Intranet professionals will get a lot of value out of taking the course, but may see content design as more of a tool than a discipline, perhaps to be used for sections like HR or compliance where results can more easily be measured. Elsewhere, it may be a struggle to win over stakeholders without a focus on attractive and emotive content.

I would particularly recommend the course to the many people who have found themselves to be the solo intranet person, especially those with little grounding in user-centred design. This will give you sound principles to build upon, in user needs, accessibility, content creation and management, plus ongoing measurement and improvement.

For larger organisations, I believe content design could be transformative. Instead of delays and other friction between divisions and departments, alignment along user-first principles could mean faster and more measurable creation of content. This could be centralised or distributed, and ultimately could benefit everything from learning content to support materials.


IntraTeam 2019 in summary

PLEASE NOTE: I am currently adding extra links and presentations where I find them publicly available. This page may change over the next few days.

After three days of workshops and conference at the IntraTeam Event 2019 at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel in Copenhagen, I was exhausted, unable to take any more information in, several kilos heavier but, and thankfully, more energised and inspired by the potential of intranets than I’d felt in a long time.

With three tracks running in parallel, almost everyone experienced their own version of the conference, and I wonder what I’d be saying had I made different choices.

For slides and related links from my presentation please see Lessons from Learning – IntraTeam 2019.

Workshop day

With half a mind worrying about my presentation the next day, I chose workshops that would help keep me up to date with changes in SharePoint and Microsoft 365.

Christian Buckley makes three hours pass very quickly. I didn’t get any  revelations about his subject Extending your IA to Microsoft Teams, but huge amounts of practical details and confirmation of themes that would recur across the three days: engage the people around you, focus on business needs, and grow based on testing and iteration.

Benjamin Niaulin is another engaging speaker who can talk SharePoint for more hours than there are in a day. He guided us through what is possible with search in Office 365. I found a lot of this to be a valuable refresher, with useful clarifications coming up time and time again. I’ve been a long-time fan of what’s possible using SharePoint’s search to build content, and Benjamin gave some useful examples, and also clarified some of the challenges between using SharePoint’s Classic and Modern pages.

Benjamin also covered a learning intranet tool he’d previously developed. This showed some of the potential for search-based tool to present learning materials “at the right time and at the right place based on who you are and what you’re doing“. This allowed the dynamic display of resources to people depending on their role and other profile details.

Wednesday Conference

After the usual introduction from Kurt Kragh Sørensen, the actual conference got off to an outstanding start.

We talk about the importance of meeting real user needs, but rarely do we see such commitment or such benefits. Neil Barnett explained how the Heathrow intranet project put half of their resources into user research. I wasn’t convinced when Neil showed the personas created, and how they fell into six clear categories (Heathrow Express, Airside Operations, Baggage, Compass Centre, Security, and Engineering) but the more I think about this particular operation, it was absolutely the right way to approach things – live status updates for operations personnel are clearly essential. I will definitely consider using two of Heathrow’s user research exercises: mapping an individual’s day onto a clock helped reveal activities and pain points, while “Design your own employee app” yielded more insights into people and the way they saw the organisation.

Neil Barnett presenting a slide entitled "What is the digital workplace?"

Heathrow not only built tools. Their change programme included 130 digital mentors, 15 business representatives, and an impressive 45 content authors. This content would primarily be designed for mobile use which is very heavy on brand engagement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the staff discounts section is the most popular page. Aside from the communications and support, every employee received a new laptop plus an hour’s one-to-one training with an IT engineer to get them up to speed.

I opted to see Richard Harbridge in the next session Intranets in the Cloud: What you need to know and this was another good choice. Like Benjamin and Christian on Tuesday, Richard whizzed through some of the opportunities and challenges of Microsoft 365 intranets. He was very clear that this option is a lot more cost-effective than managing your own SharePoint and servers, but could have gone deeper into the potential performance issues. He shared some advice on planning and analytics, and qualified some of the benefits to improved navigation – I particularly liked the search-based navigation.

I was speaking in the following session with Lessons from Learning and had lunchtime to recover before switching back into attendee mode.

Liberty Mutual’s digital assistant was a fine winner of Step Two’s IDW Platinum Award in 2018, and the company has spun-out Workgrid to sell their technology to other organisations. Gillian McCann spoke on the potential of AI to take us From Digital Workplace to Intelligent Workplace. For me, this was really about bringing the right information  to people from numerous sources when they need it, and I think that’s exciting. I remain to be convinced by some of the promises of conversational agents for complex working processes.

Gillian McCann presenting on Workgrid and chatbots

Patrik Bergman has been a trailblazer and proponent of learning in the digital workplace world for some time, and his writings have introduced me to a significant number of experts in learning and development.  Knowledge Management in Office 365 – some concrete examples was entertaining and imbued with learning and philosophy. There was also practical advice: encourage ESN users to tag important queries with #ineedhelp is profoundly simple and valuable.

Patrik Bergman in front of a slide about the everyday challenge of teams as a community of practice

The final session was the presentation for the 2019 Danish IntraTeam Prize. I wasn’t as wowed as by last year’s winner (the Danish Police intranet PolIntra), but reflecting on my notes it’s clear that Kræftens Bekæmpelse (Danish Cancer Society) is another worthy winner. Confronted with an unrealistic timeline, the team responded with a more realistic 8 months and set about simplifying, engaging, and building the foundations for a solid and practical intranet.

We regularly hear suggestions for prioritising content, and the team got a laugh from the audience when they revealed that of all the content classified Red, Yellow or Green, only the green content got published. There is a determination to ensure that materials are kept up to date (or archived, and then removed), while departments are given leeway to control their own content and designs.

Thursday Conference

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, or whether having the Twitter name @digitalsanity has taken Elizabeth Marsh down this particular route. On Wednesday, while I was speaking, Elizabeth’s session was about mindfulness, while on Thursday she spoke on digital literacy, an area she’s been studying for some time. In So you’re transforming the digital workplace – but are your people ready? Elizabeth raised a number of statistics showing how important it is for organisations to develop employees’ digital skills but emphasised how it is a shared responsibility for staff too. What struck me most looking at Elizabeth’s Digital Skills Framework for the first time since last autumn is how much it is really about developing the learning flexibility to develop new skills as much as it is about teaching digital literacy.

For Thursday, IntraTeam organised a specific track dedicated to intranet search, and this is where I spent much of the day. In Searching for people is no. 1Kristian Norling from Region Västra Götaland in Sweden described some of the efforts possible to make people search useful to users. This brought together results from 15 sources and more than a million documents. Kristian advised us to think about needs and not, just, about hierarchy. One tiny detail that caught my eye was the ability to save a search that you do regularly, and access from an option beside the search box. Another neat detail was to allow different addresses (postal, visiting, and internal) to be displayed on user profiles.

Referring to Martin White.s

Of all the speakers, I’ve probably seen Martin White speak most often, and Eight ways to improve Search Satisfaction saw Martin at his best. He advised us of the trade-offs central to designing good search tools, that one size doesn’t fit all, and to understand the science of information retrieval. It’s hard not to like his assertion that a search team needs to have the visibility of a lighthouse.

Steve Sale from AstraZeneca drew upon some of Martin and Kristian’s themes in Using Search to break the silos, find experts & provide 360 views of your organisations data. He described some of the effort required to combine large amounts of potentially useful data into a resource that helps find people and expertise, and touched upon the risks of over-enthusiastically associating potential search terms with people.

Another highlight came from Jesper Bylund from Region Skåne in Sweden. His talk Top tasks, information architecture and search changed the way I think about Gerry McGovern’s Top Tasks methodology, and quite possibly personas and personalisation of content. By slicing the top tasks, Jesper has been able to design flexible page designs that meet the needs of particular groups while working. I’m also intrigued by the decision to move navigation to a fat footer, with a smaller hyperlink triggering a scroll to the bottom of the page.

Slide by Jesper Bylund showing two potential page designs for distinct types of users

My final session saw Christian Buckley at his storytelling best, if not necessarily at his most to-the-point. No-one will forget Christian’s story of embarrassing his son while at high school, a blunt tale illustrating behaviour change. His third and final story will be familiar but of long-term value: the use of a whiteboard superficially as a project management tool, but ultimately as a communication and stakeholder training tool.

You as digital workplace champion: Transparent, consistent, collaborative, iterative

Final thoughts

This year’s IntraTeam was excellent, and there wasn’t a session where I didn’t feel torn between two or more different talks – it feels harsh that my biggest complaint is that I had to make some tough decisions. I don’t feel the roundtable format at lunchtime were as useful as I’d like, and it would have been nice to have a few spots for discussions with larger groups. I was saddened not to have seen Laura Rogers or Stacy Wilson speaking.

I was most excited to see personas in a more practical and less dogmatic way, and what’s possible with when applied to Top Tasks analysis sliced by groups. Secondly, provision of materials to mobile users has become normal now, but it was good to see a deeper understanding that mobile users need more than reformatted desktop content. Also, we’re seeing a much greater effort being put into getting content right for time, place and need, and the importance of making that content findable by search.

So thank you to Kurt and his team, and to all the people who made IntraTeam 2019 such a friendly and inspiring event.

Web facilitates wisdom of crowds: Gerry McGovern

As every week, Gerry McGovern provides food for thought, this time on the wisdom of crowds.
In Web facilitates wisdom of crowds he says:

The Web is not about crowd-think, but rather about amalgamating and sifting the results of many people’s independent opinions on particular subjects. This approach is the essence of Google’s success-the more people who vote for (link to) a website, the higher it ranks in Google.

I see this explanation almost like water sloshing about in a breached boat, just because a few people push the balance of the argument off centre, it doesn’t mean the resulting surge takes it to the correct tipping point.

Every week, I find myself seaching for some web technique or another. Google regularly takes me to pages that have been superceded, but from which the balance hasn’t been restored.

In elections where results are declared before the polls close, many people vote for the person they believe is going to win. How many Digg users only digg the stories they find within Digg?

That’s not to say I’m pro-experts in this debate. An expert has to create a niche with a differentiatable product which will sell. Their message can be easier to corrupt, while a crowd’s can merely be diverted.
Experts can be smart, crowds can be smart, experts can be dumb, crowds can be dumb. Gerry’s closing comment is smarter than I can manage:

Something extraordinary and quite revolutionary is happening on the Web. Millions of minds are coming together to create a vast global brain and memory bank. We will spend the next fifty years pondering the implications of all this.

Ideas will compete, crowds will vote and vote again. We may become wiser, but will we attain wisdom?