Words matter: A content designer’s approach to product design

The first thing we’ll do is gather our squares and arrange them in a row that only we can see. Where we strategize from there is up for customization and iteration, but the main objective remains. We’ll trade turns stringing our maybe-planned letters into words to reel in points. The longer our words are, the larger our winnings. We won’t debate rules or tactics or turns. We might debate whether or not insert-funny-word-here is a word, but we know our rhythm. We reason our rhyme. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how we each choose to swing it—we repeat parallel paths until we run out of squares, or time.

Scrabble would become gibberish. We’d be left with a collection of oddly lettered and numbered tiles, with not a clue how to use them. No matter how well these pieces were cut, printed, or designed, we’d never wind up quite where its makers started. Scrabble’s intended use would turn to dust.

Each game piece is a design component and the board is our UI, but we need some direction to turn these assets into usable tools. What can Scrabble help us accomplish, and how can it get us there?

Recall those rules we lost, and we’ve got ourselves a dilemma: With no instructions, tips, or shared knowledge, we have no idea how to guide ourselves through the game. Scrabble’s design components don’t stand on their own.

In a digital interface, we might alleviate this ambiguity by providing onboarding tours, contextual help, tooltips, and other content design elements to lead the way. We’d join consistent UX content and design elements to guide users toward their goals — and find meaning in the game.

As a content designer turned product designer, I‘m hyperaware of the symbiosis between product design and content design.

As seen in this Scrabble example, products can’t thrive without content design. And it goes both ways: Without product design, there’s nothing for our words to shape. Without content design, there’s no cohesive story for our product to guide or tell.

Whether you primarily design with words or with UI elements, the strongest experiences are born from tackling product design and content design together.

A scrabble board that contains several product design and content design related words.

A scrabble board that contains several product design and content design related words.

  • User experience (UX): The thoughts, feelings, and takeaways real people have as they interact with a product, all shaped by how we design it.
  • Confidence: Confidence begets comfort begets curiosity. Predictable and consistent design patterns guide tasks, goals, and paths our users can trust every time, and encourage positive interactions as they explore new terrain.
  • Connection: Conversational, approachable, and digestible content helps bridge the gap between your product being one they wrestle with and being one they feel works with them.
  • Knowledge: What we should empower and share, but never assume. Never assuming expertise means platforms will be accessible for users with lots—or very little—exposure to the key concepts, terms, and relationships that drive your product. Design elements like inline help and hints can guide those who need it, and passively inform those who don’t.
  • Trust: Users trust products that set them up for success and support them along the way. How we communicate ideas, visually and verbally, can make or break this trust.

Fold content design best practices into all aspects of the product design process, and you’ll unlock new heights for elevated internal and external communication.

  • Set and document project goals, objectives, and milestones. Use verb-focused language so that each milestone corresponds to meeting a specific action, and no one is left guessing about deliverables.
  • Structure large initiatives like a story. Use storyboarding solutions like FigJam or Miro to document, shape, and reference design stories to guide your way. Use diagrams and design maps to chart what users need to accomplish at each point throughout their workflow so that you fully understand their antecedent scenario (where they’re starting from), where they’d like to go (the plot), and how your design solutions guide the plot that leads them there.
  • Define product features and functionality for internal contributors and your users. Odds are, these definitions will vary based on their audience. Lean into those differences. Internal contributors may need more context into where a feature falls into the product feature set, while users might prefer a tighter definition focused solely on what it enables them to accomplish.
  • Plant, grow, and strengthen user connections through user research. Reach beyond user personas by documenting user stories — then validate and iterate on them based on user research and interviews. The more people-focused your concept work is, the more human your product design and content design will become.
  • Chart user research results to actionable product decisions. Once you have findings from research sessions, distill them into clear content: Slide decks, storyboards, sticky notes — anything that makes meaning of your conversations by linking soundbites, observations, and findings to conclusions and next steps. Get literal with it by using arrows and flow charts. Design your research content: When it comes to increasing research value, information architecture is the way.
  • Listen to what your users say, and how they say it. Content design mandates a keen eye for voice and tone. Carry these skills into product design work by digging into the why behind user phrasing. What words do they use to describe a specific feature or problem, and what tone do they say them in?
  • Pay attention to how your users speak about their industry and reflect their language in product. Software shouldn’t break industry conventions that precede it. If you’re driving a product to simplify a specific workflow, fold in the industry language your users actually engage with in their day-to-day. Plain, user-focused language beats tacky trademarks every time.

User experiences are what they eat. Through content-driven product design, we can encourage users to walk away with a stronger connection to and trust in our products, so long as we mind our step — and our words.

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