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Content design: why it matters (and why it's not just UX writing)

Having a groovy website, app, or product is great—but does it fulfill your users’ needs? 

Content is anywhere and everywhere in a user interface. However, the quality of your content—and how you present it to your audience—can make or break your product design.

Continuous discovery
Product team culture

Last updated

6 Jan 2023

Great content design is about more than great words. It’s a way to turn user experiences into immersive interactions, allowing users to do or learn what they need from your product. In time, this leads to improving user experience, conversions, and brand awareness.

This guide explains content design and how it helps teams achieve the most important goal for any business: putting people first.

Create customer-centric products

Hotjar's product experience insights help product and design teams focus on what matters: building a product customers love.

What is content design?

Content design is a customer-centric approach to solving problems by providing your audience with the information they need, when they need it. 

The term was coined by Sarah Winters (was Richards), Founder of Content Design London and leader of the content design discipline in the UK. In her words, content design is “about using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect.”

Content designers collaborate with multiple teams, including engineers, strategists, product designers, and researchers, to create the best design for delivering content that supports users’ needs. Through collaboration, content design avoids wasted time and resources and helps companies design and implement software that actually does what people need it to do.

The basic principle of content design is that user needs come first, then comes the format—figuring out what the problem is before you create a solution.

As the Content Design Lead for Hotjar, Kaysie Garza builds and implements the overall approach to the strategy that content designers influence within their product areas, focusing on how to best serve our customers with the information they need, when they need it.

Kaysie describes this process as contributing “more or less at different points where content is uniquely equipped to do something.” Specifically, the team may work on defining message priorities, ideal content hierarchy, getting into things like naming or concept clarity or definition, specific kinds of content testing or research, and more. 

Placing the ‘content’ in content design

In the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design context, ‘content’ typically refers to information, images, videos, or copy that are included as a part of a digital experience, such as a website, app, or product. The goal of designing content is to better define and clarify the problem, shape the right solution, and then convey it via digital interfaces so that it solves a business and user need.

To do so, content designers:

  1. Start with what the user wants or needs from the product

  2. Highlight how the product will solve a problem or help the user complete an action

  3. Detail what information is required to guide users through the product

  4. Look at what the organization as a whole can do to help users in that task

This kind of process leads to content that helps users move on to the next stage and, ultimately, reach their goals with the product.

What content design looks like in real life

No matter the industry or product, the role of a content designer involves helping visitors find the content they need in the most natural way possible.

When Kaysie got a writing task to fix a complex subscription management process, her skills as a content designer helped conjure up a new idea to iterate on and provide customers with a more streamlined solution.

  • The context: whenever a user changed anything about their Hotjar subscription, their bank needed to re-approve the payment method. The user would then receive a text message from their bank. 

  • The problem: Kaysie had no control over the messaging from the bank or the process of this information, which was wordy, confusing, and not very intuitive.

  • The solution: at first, Kaysie attempted to just rewrite the text so it was more clear. This would require her to add a lot of information to a small space, plus options for upgrading or downgrading the subscription. But what if the team could resolve this issue by combining visuals and text, rather than just using words to explain the subscription changes?

#The initial design of the subscription management process
The initial design of the subscription management process

The solution was clear: they needed to redesign. Instead of long, wordy sentences that overwhelmed the user, Kaysie used a more structured mix of icons, headings, sections, text, and CTAs to improve the structure and clarity of the message Hotjar wanted to convey to customers.

#A quick sketch of the redesign idea Kaysie presented to the product team
A quick sketch of the redesign idea Kaysie presented to the product team

Her initial goal was to streamline the text in the left modal, while also summarizing the changes, showing the new rate, and clarifying what was due that day (pro rata). The structure and order of information are what improved clarity—not just 'good writing'.

#The new version of the subscription management process after the redesign
The new version of the subscription management process after the redesign

With a content design mindset, the redesign improved the user experience, reduced support tickets, and aligned with the company’s principles of building trust with transparency.

Is content design the same as UX writing?

Not exactly. Content design and UX writing work towards the same goal: creating a great user experience for the audience. Some teams use the terms interchangeably, and the two areas do sometimes overlap, but UX writing isn't just a synonym for content design—it's a part of it. 

These two content-related terms are far from the only ones floating around in product design. Let’s take a closer look at some of these different concepts and how they fit into UX and UI design:

UX writing

UX writing is the process of creating copy—the words people see—on a website, app, or product. The goal is to help users navigate these digital products with written content.

Like content designers, UX writers consider the user, the company’s brand voice, and the needs of the product to craft clear, concise, and compelling language within the user interface. 

Both content designers and UX writers are a part of the product design process, follow style and brand guidelines, make decisions based on user research and testing, and write the microcopy that will be included in the user interface.

However, UX writers are specifically responsible for the copy of the content, its clarity and conciseness, and its ability to inform users about what their next steps should be. Content designers, on the other hand, hold more responsibility for planning the strategy to deliver the content in a specific context, as well as structuring and managing the content on digital platforms. 

What sets a content designer apart is their ability and willingness to look beyond the words. Content designers strive to design content that strikes a balance between what the users want from products and what the product designers are trying to sell or emphasize. 

Together, these writers and designers work within the product design team to solve design challenges and create user-centric products and experiences through content. 

Content marketing

Content marketing is the process of creating SEO and organic content (aka content writing) and sharing it online to stimulate interest in a product or service. The goal is to inform, educate, or entertain the audience by creating the best possible content for visitors that adds value to their lives.

These content writers work mostly within a marketing team to highlight the key components of the product’s outcome. They showcase this information through campaigns that attract users rather than guiding them through the product.

Together with copywriters, content writers draw in prospective customers—leads—through the marketing funnel, beginning at the acquisition phase. These leads will later 'meet‘ with the UX writers when they start to use the product or service.

Copywriting

Copywriting is the process of writing copy or content to attract and engage readers, as well as promote products that will help move customers through the sales funnel. The goal is to sell by getting the attention of people to convince them to buy a product or service.

Copywriters use words that will attract customers, and are often very sales-oriented to help pave the way for a successful purchase. It's common for copywriters to sit outside of a Content team, since their writing covers a broader scope. 

At Hotjar, for example, copywriters are a part of the Brand and Comms teams, and other individual marketing teams, like Product and Lifecycle marketing.

Although all these types of content are created by writing, they play very different roles, require different skill sets, and differ in their goals. The best way to explain the difference is that content marketing and copywriting promote a product, while content design and UX writing make it easy for people to buy and use it.

Altogether, the best products are created when teams are open to collaborating to find the best solutions for their users.

Why is content design important in product design?

Content design is a powerful component of product design's UX and UI segment. Companies that incorporate content design understand customer needs, and as a result, what the content should be. They understand the importance of user experience and usability, and know that design is a competitive advantage and a way to achieve business goals.

Design is all about conveying information. But by designing the visual aspects of a website, app, or product without understanding what that information is, you risk wasting time, effort, and money on the wrong or incomplete design.

Starting your product design with content increases your odds of success from the get-go, rather than learning later that something isn’t quite right.

According to Kaysie, “when we're not involved from the beginning, it can create a lot more work in the long run. From the outset, we consider the needs of the user and the reasons for doing this work—what is the end goal? Then we'll say, ‘Here's the best information, the right order to place it in, and the best way to show it to someone.’”

Content design isn't just writing text based on a fully baked design, or filling in empty spaces on a screen. User-centric content provides clarity, appeals to user emotions, and meets a direct need. This shows people a brand’s purpose, makes the user feel understood, and intuitively shows users how to interact with the product.

To put this idea into context, let’s take Stanford’s d.school’s design experiment called the Wallet Project as an example. Students are asked to draw their ideal wallet. One person may draw a big wallet with enough room for all their cat photos. Another may design a flat wallet that’s just big enough to hold a few credit cards. 

In the end, the lesson here is that user needs determine the outcome of the design. If designers understand how people will use the wallet, then they’ll know how to structure the design so it works best for them.

That's exactly how it should be with software experiences. Not only should you know what components to add to your product—you should also understand the order they go in and the content required to guide user engagement. This would be things like

  • Context 

  • Voice attributes or tone for the situation 

  • Order and types of information 

  • Written text

  • Technical logic

  • Visual assets to support the concept (images, videos) 

Based on these aspects, content designers can then pinpoint the best design components to use, so the design (aka wallet) fits together with the content (aka cash, cards, or cat pics.)

Our content design process at Hotjar

As part of the product design process, content design involves creating content in a way that makes it easy for users to act. Content designers help these users find the content they need in the most natural way possible.

At Hotjar, we have dedicated content designers within each product group. That way, Kaysie and her team can focus on going deeper into problem-solving and involving content design in every step of the product design process. 

Kaysie sees the content design process at Hotjar as mirroring a standard UX design process: “Our content designers are involved in everything, from researching the audience and writing user stories to finding areas for improvement after launch. Ideally, they are always so close to their work that we don't need tools like Jira to learn about what's happening or what needs content support.”

This approach offers several benefits, by:

Narrowing the scope of each content designer’s work

Allowing them to dive deeper into projects so content is part of the whole process

Establishing better partnerships between content designers and other disciplines

The process will be slightly different for each problem or opportunity, so it's not as straightforward as a checklist or order of operations that the content design team follows every time. There are, however, some key elements that the content design team relies on throughout:

1. Research: always start with the user 

Content design is about more than just writing—it’s about leveraging user research and data to make informed decisions.

At Hotjar, we look at how visitors interact, navigate, and engage with content. We don’t assume we know what the user wants, and we don’t assume they want what we want.

Identifying user needs

The first step to creating content that meets user needs is knowing what those needs are. A good content designer will ask what the user needs at each step, how that need was identified, and how it helps with the end goal. 

To do this, Kaysie and her team gather as much information as possible, figuring out the information users need to solve a problem and complete a task. This can mean desk research, usability research, competitor language analysis and benchmarking, identifying and situating tone within the overall voice, or gathering data if it already exists for the problem they’re trying to solve. This helps the content design team pinpoint:

  • Who the users are

  • What they’re trying to do

  • What users need to achieve their goal

  • How they currently do it 

  • The problems or frustrations they experience

  • What language they use to express their needs

Throughout the process, the content design team uses Hotjar tools to identify areas of opportunity and understand the why behind what the audience wants and needs.

Sometimes, paying attention to the subtle differences in context can lead to a pinpoint solution. In this example, Kaysie highlights how the Content Design team used insights from session recordings to redesign a step they added to the signup flow, asking users what they'd like to do first in Hotjar.

Even though the data indicated a clear top option, watching Recordings helped Kaysie see that people often clicked between a few options, going back and forth before moving on with their final choice. Users didn’t just skim over this content—they read it closely and interacted with the page before moving on.

“There isn't a lot of text here, but using recordings gave us more context. And to me, that hints at meaning and understanding […] This gives me a lot of ideas for iterations: I can update the value props of each feature, we could switch the content completely, and experiment with the job to be done rather than the tool name.”

#An example of a Hotjar sign-up flow redesign
An example of a Hotjar sign-up flow redesign

Heatmaps are another great tool for content designers: they can easily see the hotspots on specific calls-to-action (CTAs) or sections of text, and use this to identify priority areas within the page's content hierarchy.

But Surveys are one of the Hotjar tools that our content designers rely on most. By asking people about their needs at each step of the user journey, content designers can better understand how users consume content—and how to design content to best suit those needs. Are people doing research, or are they ready to purchase? What’s their situation, time, and level of interest and focus? And how does that translate into content?

According to Kaysie, one of Hotjar’s most useful benefits for designers and content designers is how accessible Hotjar is compared to something like a data analytics tool: “Hotjar gives other roles a way to bring relevant data to the table and influence the product. This helps with advocacy and credibility for people like me, so I can advocate for users based on their needs and behavior rather than making decisions alone with something like a contextless statistic.”

Validate your content plans with user feedback

De-risk big projects by surveying visitors to learn what they think about your latest content design.

Customer journey mapping

This step is also when the team determines what order users need to see information in so it's contextual, relevant, meaningful, and useful. This can happen on several levels:

  • On a product level, or systems thinking

  • On flow level, or journey mapping

  • On a page level, or information architecture

By designing content based on well-researched user needs, content design answers specific questions about the user experience at that certain point in their journey. 

To express what comes from their research, content designers communicate user needs through user or job stories, which capture the who, what, and why of the action a user wants to complete. The outcome of this research is that the team begins to understand the user journey—all the offline and online steps the user has to take to complete a task.

Customer journey mapping also helps content designers identify key aspects of the user experience and how to incorporate them into content design:

  • What the user’s motivation is 

  • What information they need, and at what point they need it

  • How much information they can take in on the journey

2. Creation: letting the content inform the design’s direction 

Once they’ve researched user needs, the Content Design team determines what content will meet those needs. (And by 'content', we mean 'the meaning' or 'the information'—not the copy that will be visible in the interface.)

Kaysie says this step “is more about getting into ideation and partnering with product and design peers to incorporate the content POV—everything from the research, best practices, and UX writing basics—into that solution.”

By this point, content design work may have helped identify what and how much info something needs to convey, and the other team members would help design and build a solution to fit that content. This could be words, but it could also be diagrams, charts, videos, question and answer series—whatever format will best communicate the information. Here’s how Kaysie details one such example:

People are always saying "no one reads"—recordings show us if that's actually true. When our Activation squad introduced a set of onboarding components specifically for user education, I used Hotjar Recordings to see if cursors paused on them at all, and if so, for how long, and what they did next. 

I could use recordings to see who viewed it, how they interacted with it, and whether their mouse hovered over the text for a while—or explore the CTAs or video content. This gave me a better idea of whether that information was useful, led to direct action, or got ignored completely, like most people think or suspect.

#This Hotjar guide card—an onboarding element designed exclusively to contain info about how to do or learn something about the product—helps users on our Basic plan. The goal is to help them filter data so they can find the most useful bits.
This Hotjar guide card—an onboarding element designed exclusively to contain info about how to do or learn something about the product—helps users on our Basic plan. The goal is to help them filter data so they can find the most useful bits.

Incorporating invisible UX

The best experiences happen when people don’t even realize they’ve done a task. This is what the concept of invisible UX is based on—when UX is frictionless, forced delight or content-led clarifications aren't necessary. 

An example of how Kaysie and the Content Design team put this concept into action is when Hotjar's former VP of Product, Megan Murphy, helped inspire a set of objectives and key results (OKRs) to reduce loading times—or to at least make them appear less time-consuming.

One way we thought we could make wait times feel shorter was to add imagery. For example, while Hotjar users wait for the end user’s site to load in a recording, we've added a custom loading spinner and rotate through phrases. It's a pleasant way to distract from the actual loading time.

Other content considerations for this project included reading time, text length and complexity, and reinforcing the tool's capabilities. To do this, Kaysie “tested the reading level of every phrase we included in the phrase rotation, aiming for no higher than an 8th-grade reading level. I also made sure the estimated reading time for each phrase was about three seconds or less. And finally, the phrases we picked were a mix of delightful and fun, like ‘popping popcorn,’ and relevant to our Recordings tool, like ‘scanning for rage clicks.’”

Their concept was to either make the content load faster, make the wait fun, or—best of all—do both. This approach reduced the overall bounce rate by 50%. 

This example is a specific instance of how content helped solve a business and user problem. However, relying on reducing friction alone isn’t enough. Instead, the goal in good content design should be task completion—getting the user to do what they need or want—alongside achieving the desired business objective.

Sometimes, you might want to add good friction, like Kaysie did in the Activation step of Hotjar's onboarding flow, to collect better information during signup, and make the signup process feel like a conversation. Every step asks a question for the user to answer.

Pro tip: the path to an invisible design starts with eliminating pain points.

Hotjar’s product experience (PX) tools are great starting points for seeing your design through the users’ eyes. The very visible, frustrating parts jump right out during these sessions.

Heatmaps and Recordings are ideal tools for learning more about your customers’ pain points and how you can improve your content design. 

See where users click, how they navigate, and where they may get hung up, and use this data to target problem areas and create seamless, enjoyable customer experiences—while reducing the number of support tickets your Customer Success team has to process.

An example of a Hotjar heatmap

Cross-collaboration between the content design, product, and other teams

Content design doesn’t work in isolation—it’s a constant collaboration with other teams to find the best solutions that cover your audience’s needs.

At Hotjar, content designers collaborate with teams such as research, design, UX, engineers, service design, or product owners to figure out how to incorporate content into our design solutions. 

Content designers work with members from other teams in cross-collaborative squads. For example, our Recordings squad has a UX designer, a product designer, a product manager, and front- and back-end engineers. This squad may be grouped with our Heatmaps squad and a team from one other area, working together with the Content Design team to deliver the solution that supports users’ needs.

This collaboration extends further than just the Product department. For instance, customer success playbooks can inform how the team creates product onboarding.

Kaysie describes this process as working with research that “can help us be the ones to surface opportunities and identify gaps that could influence content itself or product directions entirely.” For example, while co-leading a redesign of Hotjar's churn survey, she identified content and experience gaps where the platform fell short. These could then be shared with marketing, customer success, and product teams, leading to a design fix for preventable churn.

3. Iteration: learn, apply, and move on

At Hotjar, we use continuous discovery and learning to evolve, adapt, and refine our content design ideas. We access a constant stream of information on what our customers think, how they're experiencing our content, and their specific needs.

Continuous learning also allows us to build upon the feedback we receive from our users to influence future changes and iterations we make to our product.

A big part of content design comes down to trying things out and seeing if they work. Content design is never finished—this experimental framework helps us better understand how customers engage with our work and lets us iron out any creases.

Our Content Design team uses content tests such as card sorts, highlighter tests, cloze tests, and tree tests, all aiming to validate and inform the team's decisions—such as supporting IA to meet user navigation expectations—or to improve copy—by answering questions like ‘is it clear’ or ‘does changing one word affect how people use the product?’

Kaysie highlights one example of testing and iteration where the goal was to name a new feature in a popular tool. She ran three surveys to source names, matched them to the feature description, and validated that the final choice was used to accurately describe the feature. The objective was to test for comprehension. 

The process has since been updated, with the Content Design team now using the tree testing template as a starting point for a more fully-involved card sort activity. 

Without this content work, the redesign’s concepts, language, and order of information would have been based on best guesses or a few limited rounds of user interviews. By following this process, the content design will better match expectations and lead to a smoother user experience.

This constant process of validation and testing before and after launch helps the team find areas of improvement—and wins! Our wins are what we learn from and want to turn into patterns or apply to other content work.

According to Kaysie, “this circles into other content initiatives like building glossaries, or integrating text patterns into design system components to scale what works and bring consistency in at the system or product level. That way, more and more baseline work is done, and our team doesn't have to rewrite surface-level text unless there's a real need.”

Pro tip: the best way to test your content is to monitor how users respond to it.

It’s amazing how often customers spot something you haven’t. Their actions might be different from what you predicted, they might lead you to other pain points, or they might just not like the wording you used. 

Tools like session recordings and feedback widgets help you organize information about how people use your product and identify areas where you can improve. How do they interact with your content? How do they engage with it? Do they follow through on the CTA?

With the addition of heatmaps, these tools can help with your continuous learning efforts: you can run tests, confidently make changes to existing content, and quickly see whether those changes have any consequences. This helps you learn and improve before you go back and test again.

#An example of a Hotjar session recording

An example of a Hotjar session recording

Next steps in content design

At its core, content design is based on problem-solving. It’s a growing field that weighs time and effort into user research to find the best solution for users’ needs. 

As a content designer, Kaysie values the insights that come from continuous learning and inspiration from her peers. There are a lot of great resources she recommends to content designers that want to keep their skills sharp:

To keep increasing the value of those resources—by aiding user experience, conversion, and saving money on customer support—Kaysie recommends that you also “maintain open, collaborative relationships with your company’s sales, marketing, customer success, and product teams. Work together to solve problems and make improvements whenever you can.”

Finally, listen to and analyze customer behavior regularly. Product experience and behavior analysis tools like Hotjar allow you to follow good content design practices and always create authentic, relevant, current, and optimized content for people and search engines. 

Applying these content design principles means you do the hard work for the users. The reward is a website, app, or product that’s simpler, clearer, and faster for your users.

Create customer-centric products

Hotjar's product experience insights help product and design teams focus on what matters: building a product customers love.

FAQs about content design