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A guide to content design

Shelter’s use of content design ensures that the needs of the user are at the forefront, and helps us meet those needs as simply and efficiently as possible.

What is content design?

In simple terms, content design is an approach that puts the needs of the user first and aims to meet those needs as simply and efficiently as possible.

Instead of thinking about we want to say, we research what a user needs to achieve their desired outcome. What they want and what they need can be different. It’s a content designer’s job to figure that out.

Once we have researched user needs, we determine what sort of content will meet those needs.

This could be words, but it could also be diagrams, charts, videos, question and answer series – whatever format that will best communicate the information.

Content design is a specific theory and practice, both a defined process and best practice principles.

'Content designers make complex information easy to understand. They decide how content should be written and presented to best meet user needs.'

Catherine Dickinson, Content Designer, Digital Advice (England)

Researching user needs

The first step to creating content that meets user needs is knowing what those needs are.

To do this, we gather as much information about users as possible. For example:

  • Who your likely users are

  • What they’re trying to do

  • What users need from you to achieve their goal. This can be an outcome, or just gaining knowledge

  • How they currently do it (for example, the website or channels they’re using to access advice)

  • The problems or frustrations they experience while doing so

  • What language they use to express their need

It’s important to clearly define what questions you want to answer before you start research, and then think about the best way to find out those answers. 

‘If I've done my job well, users shouldn't even notice that the content has been “designed”. They should just weave through it comfortably and reach their goal, like floating down a lazy river. If they capsize, I know I've got more work to do!’

Deborah Gardner, Senior Content Designer, Central digital

How do you find out user needs?

The best way is to look at what real users are actually saying.

You can do this by:

  • conducting user interviews, focus groups or workshops with users

  • speaking to colleagues or organisations that work with your user group every day

  • looking at forums or social media groups where your users may spend time

  • using free keyword tools, google trends, search console or SEMrush to understand questions users are asking and the language they use

If you have existing content, you can use Google Analytics to explore pain points (parts of a page that users struggle with). You can also use tools like Hotjar to get feedback.

These are just a handful of ways to collect user data. There is no 'right way' - the key is to do your best with the resources available to find out what you can about your users.

‘Identifiable and evidenced based user needs are essential to our work at Shelter.  It makes sure that we are working with more than an assumption and helps us guide the user to the correct outcome.’

Tom Youll, Content Designer, Digital Advice (England), March 2021

Turning user needs into user stories 

In content design, user needs are communicated through user stories or job stories. These are simple, three-part descriptions written from the user’s perspective, based on the insights from user research. They capture the who, what and why of the action a user wants to complete.

User story:

  • As a [specific person or type of person]
    I want to [perform an action or find something out]
    So that I [can achieve my goal of…]

Job story:

  • When I [need to do something or have a problem]
    I need to [know something or do something]
    So I can [achieve the desired outcome]

For example:

  • As somebody interested in donating to Shelter,
    I want to know what my money will be used for
    so I can decide whether to donate

  • As a person who cares about the issue of renters’ rights,
    I want to understand how I can take action on the issue,
    so I can contribute to making a change.

Job stories can help you get a bit more granular. For example:

  • When I’m donating money to Shelter
    I want a confirmation when I’ve completed the form
    So I know you’ve got the money

You can use job stories or user stories, whichever suits you better. As a general rule, if all of your user stories start with the same ‘As a….’ you might need job stories to make your thinking more precise.

When you’re designing a piece of content, whether it’s a website, email, or app, you should always be thinking about these stories. They will help determine the design decisions you make.

You should make sure you’ve discussed and agreed these user stories with the content stakeholders. That way, you can guarantee everyone’s on the same page regarding what the content is setting out to achieve.

Acceptance criteria

Acceptance criteria helps you bridge the gap between user stories and creating content. Acceptance criteria is a sentence or a series of bullet points that defines when the user story is met:

  • The user story is met when the user knows __________________

Acceptance criteria can be as general or specific as you need. For example, it could be:

  • The user story is met when the user knows how to take action that can support the renters’ rights bill.

It can be useful to get a bit more specific. For example:

The user story is met when the user knows:

  • they can sign a petition

  • they can attend or organise protests

  • they can write to their local MP

  • they can donate to Shelter or take part in a fundraising activity

  • what difference each of these actions makes

Creating content

Use your user stories and acceptance criteria to start thinking about:

  • the basic format of the content – e.g. webpage vs infographic or a combination

  • the information you need to include

  • the structure of the content and priority of information

  • diction and tone

  • type of images or multimedia content

The following principles are considered best practice:

  • Use plain or clear English

  • Short sentences are better than long ones

  • Avoid jargon wherever possible. If you need to use it, explain it

  • Use the inverted pyramid to structure your page

  • Write for scanning, users don’t read every word from start to finish

  • Use precise headers and sub-headers to help users scan

  • Make use of white space, bullets and lists

  • Don’t include superfluous words or information

Always refer back to your user stories when making decisions about the content. This ensures that every choice you make is based on evidence and research.


Crits are a collective review of content. They can replace the older, less efficient method of sending content to be reviewed by lots of different stakeholders many times. With crits you can get all the feedback at once, but you also maintain control as the content designer who defends the interests of the user.

Once you have a first draft, you can organise a crit with content stakeholders.

Everyone reads the content together and provides feedback. The idea is to make sure that every part of the content has been scrutinised from a single word choice to the entire structure.

You should also refer back to the user story and acceptance criteria for the content.

Crits can be uncomfortable at first, but they’re a really useful part of creating the best content possible. Here’s some guidance that can help them run smoothly:

  • Talk about the work not the person who has created it

  • Say what you like about the content as well as what could be improved

  • Don’t make changes to the content as you go, note down the feedback

  • You don’t have to make every change suggested. It’s your job as a content designer to weigh up the feedback and make the final design decisions

  • Try to encourage all participants to put the user first, not their own interests

You don’t have to follow all these rules and you can make your own as they suit you and your team.

Content design resources

Read the guide to content design

Learn how journey mapping can improve your content

Read advice on content design for charities

Read our other content guides

Check out the digital glossary

Contact us about the digital framework

Have a question or comment? Found a bug? Or maybe you’d like to contribute to the framework? Use our contact form to get in touch.

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