May 2019
Text by Nithya Krishnan

Image: © Besjunior/istockphoto.com

Nithya Krishnan is a user assistance developer and user experience advocate. In her 10+ years of experience in the field of technical communication, she has authored end-user documentation across various domains. With an academic background in information technology, her interest lies in creating a cohesive learning environment for all roles involved in a software development process.


nithya.krishnan[at]sap.com
www.sap.com

When user assistance meets user experience

Both a content strategy and a design strategy are focused on the same goal: Creating experiences that are clear, concise and consistent. So, what does it take to create experiences that work seamlessly across products?

Content and design both need to reflect the company’s brand. In this article, I’d like to highlight some factors that will help to knit together the worlds of content and design.

Content strategy and design strategy

A content strategy can hold the whole project together by reflecting the tone and voice of the company. When content is thought about early in a development process, it can provide some fantastic results. A consumer’s experience with a brand starts the instant they see content, be it marketing material, labels and messages on applications, tutorials, or guides.

A design strategy shows you where and how the user requirements and business goals coincide and reinforce each other. It helps you to pinpoint opportunities and subsequently design delightful experiences. It provides a platform for designing the right product or service, aimed at the right customer segment.

The world of content

The way we provide content to users has drastically changed in line with changing technology trends. The medium through which users access this content has also changed. Content has evolved from printed manuals to online help on websites and apps through to content that is provided in the form of images, videos, audio files, podcasts and much more. With new trends such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, we are faced with modern ways of communication using conversational user interfaces.

But regardless of the output format, the one thing that has stayed the same is the need for content. What has changed is the definition of the kind of content suited for the product in use. Content is all about conveying information – making the user feel interested, intrigued, even entertained. Content is still a fundamental element of the product. It’s the content that customers interact with and respond to. Not paying much regard to content until the end of the design process is a missed opportunity.

The world of design

Changing technology trends have also had a huge impact on the way products are designed. Some of the key strategy shifts in the field of design range from simple web-based applications to more futuristic cloud applications, to harmonizing user experiences across industries and domains. The fundamental design of products has changed, and so has the user base. Going by the design philosophy "less is more", designers are conscious of the optimal and most efficient way for users to consume a product. If the users run through an interface effortlessly, the design is working.

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When content meets design

Both content and design are evolving, adapting and changing to become even more relevant to the unique requirements and needs of the user. Without great content, a product or service can easily fail. While good design comes with multiple iterations, so does planning content. It’s important to coordinate the two at the very beginning of any project.

Great content will only add to your user experience, design or product. It is an investment worth pursuing and not cutting budgets for.

To draw an analogy, content and design are like two sides of the same coin. They are inseparable in their co-existence. Great content needs inspiring design. Great design needs inspiring content. Content and design have one common touchpoint: the user.

Image 1: Common touchpoint: User-centricity 

 

Think about a user interface with only words. Too textual, you may say?

Think about a user interface with a fancy design but no words. Can’t make out what you need to do?

It is crucial to decide how much content is required to enhance a design and vice versa. Adding more of each isn’t always the solution. Sometimes a design needs to be tweaked so that it’s less distracting and focuses the reader’s attention on the content. A billboard, for example, may need a really simple design that clearly displays the message. If the design causes distraction, the message doesn’t come across to the reader. Consider another case, a business application that has a complex workflow in place. It can be made more readable by using taxonomy that fits into the context of the business at hand, rather than fancy jargon.

In some cases, the design is created in such a manner that it demands the content be kept minimal. In this case, working on a short and crisp headline for the title or a heading might be what you need. To detail the product further, you can make use of quick videos or tutorials.

The culmination of both content and design is what will pave the way for better and more delightful experiences. Designers need to realize the importance of creating designs that are seamless and effortless for the user, and writers need to be flexible enough to add the right content to enrich this experience. This can be achieved by bringing in a process that helps professionals from both sides to co-create better solutions.

Design-led development

Every company has a certain brand voice and a customer base it caters to. The products that the company creates must address the needs of its users across all lines of business, tasks, and devices. But how can a company deliver a consistent design to its users who span across different lines of business? The answer is by adapting the design-led development process.

Image 2: Design-led development process

 

Design-led development ensures that the needs of end users are addressed at every step along the way. It takes advantage of proven design-thinking methods to achieve an optimal user experience. The process spans the entire development lifecycle, is simple and easy to follow, and provides the right platform for scaling design.

Developing software is much more than just coding. It’s about putting the user first, from start to finish. To do so, it is critical that you first understand who your end user is. That’s why the design-led development process begins with the Discover phase. At this stage, you focus on understanding your customers, how they work, and what they need.

Only then do you move on to the Design phase and create the initial prototypes for development. After the Develop activities, such as implementation and testing, your app is ready to deploy. Through the course of this process, you can define design checkpoints that act as milestones along the way. This ensures that the design of your product is consistent and iterative.

The main emphasis of this kind of design-led development process is on the first two phases – Discover and Design. These two steps are just as important as developing the software itself. This is also the phase where involving both the designer and writer is crucial. Content shouldn’t be an afterthought. It must be considered right from the beginning of this process.

Co-creating product experiences

In a traditional development process, we’ve observed that the design phase generally involves designers and product experts. Although we might get a feeling for the overall user journey through user research and various discussions, these don’t necessarily help when it comes to the overall product experience.

Bringing in a strategy that involves both designers and writers in achieving this holistic picture can create a better user experience. You might wonder: what’s in all of this for the writer? Remember, ideas, concepts, personas, and process flows are all content-driven. Instead of filling in your writers with the story, involve them. They are the best judges of what the user needs to know.

Before rushing through the process of creating mockups or wireframes, go over the user story. When you plan what you want to communicate to your user, words are often the best starting point from which you can build your layout. Fabricio Teixeira, design director at Work & Co, discusses this subject in his article "Storyframes before Wireframes", suggesting that by starting designs in a text editor, we can tell better stories through our UIs. Both designers and writers can sit through this process and come up with an interesting storyframe.

Once the storyframe is intact, the wireframing part follows. With the mockups and optimal content in place, the design checkpoint discussion can move on to the rest of the stakeholders.

One thing that I have observed, especially during design review discussions, is how many stakeholders question a text on the mockup though the actual discussion is about the design. For instance, for products involving billing as a feature, this can have many associated terms such as “bill”, “invoice”, “account”, “charge”, “rate”, and so on. Which term fits can best be decided based on the user persona and the user story.

Similarly, in some products that involve a postponement feature, this can be referred to in multiple ways, including "postpone", "defer", "later in time", "put back", and so on. It is crucial to select the right term so that users don’t get confused about the function.

Another example is the amount of information that is required on the interface. To avoid cluttering the user interface with content, you can consider options such as embedded help or contextual help that can be pulled up by a user if required. As you can see, it is the context and business at hand that determines the right content in the right place.

By the time you have multiple iterations of a design, you can have a high-fidelity mockup that contains taxonomy or terminology that best fits the use case at hand, rather than just having some random placeholder text. From screen to screen, context to context, writers must push for an experience that supports the user at every turn.

A strong creative team will think about what the user cares about and what should be in focus. The user doesn’t necessarily "see" how well a page is designed. In fact, no user really sees a good design (they only see it if it isn’t working!). It’s simply a natural, pleasant experience that they don’t consciously take notice of.

The same applies to content. People don’t have time to be bombarded with long sentences and paragraphs while using an app. They look for crisp information that helps them to make decisions and move on. The trick for a writer is to keep the attention span of the user and ensure that the content isn’t confusing but helps to guide the user through the product.

In the words of the famous web designer and entrepreneur, Jeffrey Zeldman: "Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration."

Content is really a key component in the foundation of the design. Not just how it fits the spaces given in the design, but how it can be repurposed, how it can be altered and adapted, and how it can influence the very core of what you’re creating. Content cannot be an afterthought.

Who wins?

Those wondering which strategy is more important – user experience or user assistance – are way off base in the way they are approaching the two professions. You can’t have one without the other.

Even though UX and UA teams have specific guidelines of their own, the synergy of these professions can have a much better effect than each one individually. Call it a win-win or an equal game – it always works wonderfully when UX and UA collaborate. Because UX attracts while UA retains.

 

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