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Why we use content design

The Office of Digital Innovation (ODI) launched and managed covid19.ca.gov. It’s been California’s official COVID-19 response website for over 2 years. This post is part of a series about the work we did and lessons we learned during that project.

California’s COVID-19 website has a lot of information. At the height of the pandemic, it had 50 pages with almost 200 million pageviews. People needed this complex information to make decisions in their daily lives. Content design was critical to making sure they could understand it.

But what is content design? Here’s our answer.

Content design is about people

Content design uses research to identify what people really need. Then you create content to help them get that without struggle.

For us, it’s about the experience of Californians. We ask questions like:

  • Who are we talking to?
  • What do they need to do here?
  • What could get in their way?

We also think about including all Californians. For example, not every Californian reads English well. But every Californian needs to know how to protect themselves from COVID-19. That’s why we used plain language, which was easier to understand. It’s also easier to translate.

We worked with user researchers and data analysts to understand how people used the site. This informed how we wrote. For example, over 80% of our visitors used a mobile device. That meant we had to write content that was easy to view on small screens.

More than just editing

Because content design is about people’s needs, it usually requires more than just improving a draft. We often have to go deep in a policy or process to find the most important things and surface them.

We spent a lot of time learning about the state’s COVID-19 response. Details mattered. But we also had to express this nuance clearly and concisely.

When we got information for the website, we identified the most important points and put them first. Then we looked for things that could be difficult for people to understand. We moved things around, used different words, and explored new formats. The final draft often looked much different, even though the information was the same.

Partnering with experts

Even though we learned a lot, we still weren’t the experts. Those were people in departments across the state.

We needed subject matter experts to join us in the content design. Our best work happened when we engaged in close conversations with them. They brought in-depth knowledge. We helped find the best words to convey it.

One of these partnerships resulted in the webpage Tracking COVID-19 in California. We worked with data experts from the Department of Public Health to create it. They explained what data was important for Californians to know. We found a concise, clear way to communicate that information. We even collaborated on the best way to provide notes about the data.

This partnership created one of covid19.ca.gov’s top pages. Tracking COVID-19 in California has over 12 million views. It’s the #5 page of all time on the site. We take this as a sign of success!

Everyone is a content designer

The great thing about content design is that anyone can do it. It might take a little bit of work, but if you’re already writing, you’re halfway there.

ODI has seven content design principles that you can use to get started. They represent what we’ve learned on all our projects, including the COVID-19 website. Each principle includes practical advice on how to apply it in your writing.

Michael and Peggy are Content Designers with the Office of Digital Innovation.