How to give impactful content design feedback
by Taylor Rohwedder
How can I create more visibility for content design within my org?
If you’re a fellow content designer, content strategist, or UX writer, you’ll likely recognize this as a running mantra in our community. We’re all working hard to get folks pumped about content design and integrate ourselves more concretely into our teams’ processes — it’s no small task.
As a newer member of the content design club, I’m still figuring it out myself. Over the past few months, I’ve weaseled my way into projects earlier than expected, sang the praises of our fledgling style guide, inserted myself into design roadmapping, planned roadshows, and made countless other (not so) covert attempts to earn content design a seat at the table.
But of all the tactics, there’s one that stands out: giving feedback. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is perhaps the most important skill for content designers to grasp in order to get involved in more strategic work earlier on.
Why is giving feedback so important, particularly through the lens of content design?
In this burgeoning field, it’s all about optics. It’s true. It’s rare to find yourself at an organization with a 1:1 ratio of product/UX design to content design. As a result, you might find yourself straddling multiple pods and getting pulled into designs as a final step to review and tweak content superficially. Often, folks see this as our whole job, rather than a small slice of it.
That’s where feedback comes in. It’s our opportunity to facilitate more strategic conversations about content’s purpose, either during design ideation, or ideally even sooner, like during the scoping phase of the process. If content isn’t considered early on, you might find yourself putting superficial bandaids on larger strategic or structural problems. Offering feedback at these early stages, or being strategic in your approach to feedback at later stages, can be a great tool to push the practice forward.
It can be intimidating to offer feedback with the weight of representing a still-nascent content design team on your shoulders. But getting great at giving feedback can help your small team feed many birds with one scone. It can certainly improve product usability and help an organization reach its goals.
If content isn’t considered early on, you might find yourself putting superficial bandaids on larger strategic or structural problems.
Great content design feedback skills also:
- Highlight the importance of the practice so content design can grow within an organization.
- Help others understand that usable content isn’t just grammatically correct and snappy, but it’s also:
- Serving a clear and agreed-upon purpose that aligns with business and user needs.
- Delivered via the right medium for your users and in the right moment.
- Structured in a digestible and understandable way for all users, based on their accessibility needs and the medium through which they’re consuming it.
So, how can content designers use feedback as a tool to accomplish all these great things?
Ask the right questions
Sometimes, simply asking questions is feedback in and of itself. Why? Because folks often conflate content design with surface-level elements only — things like grammar and punctuation, voice, and word choice. This might be the kind of feedback that’s most often requested of you.
Those elements are certainly important, but they’re only part of the story, and don’t always move the needle significantly toward better usability if strategic or structural problems exist.
Of course, avoiding only surface-level feedback depends on what stage in the design process you’re providing feedback within. If you can get your foot in the door early enough in the process, aim to ask questions that illuminate the strategy behind the content, and the structural choices supporting it.
Beth Dunn of HubSpot breaks down content design into 3 levels: surface, structure, and strategy. As she pointed out at the Button conference in her talk, “Cultivating content design everywhere, all the time: How to grow a content design practice in any organization,” if you’re asked for surface-level feedback late in the content design process, asking the right questions can serve as an opportunity to showcase how you might influence strategy and structure earlier on in a future project. This can illuminate deeper levels of content design and open doors to new ways of thinking about content.
- What’s the business goal of this experience? And the user goal?
- Is there any content that’s distracting the user from accomplishing their goal or that of the business?
- What are the most important messages to convey in this experience?
- Does the information hierarchy support those messages?
- What kind of assumptions are we making about our users?
- How can we test those assumptions?
- Do we know if our users have a mental model of “X” concept already?
- How does their mental model influence our content?
- Does our content support that mental model?
- Is the action we’re asking users to take serving our users’ needs or is it a technical requirement?
- If a technical requirement, must we surface that to the user?
- How did you decide on the medium through which to deliver this message?
- Is this the user’s preferred way to consume information or interact with this experience?
- Do we have an opportunity to experiment with other mediums?
- What kind of cognitive accessibility considerations did you take when designing this content? Cognitive accessibility could take into account users who are operating on a lack of sleep, are experiencing memory impairment, or have difficulty concentrating.
- Could additional information help certain users complete a task? (i.e. how long it will take, what to have handy, how many steps are involved)
- Why is this the ideal moment to deliver this piece of information to the user?
- Is there any information in this flow that’s not critical to completing the task? If so, do its benefits outweigh its potential hindrance?
- How are we, as an organization, defining “X” term?
- Is that definition clear for our user?
- Do they know this term by another name?
- Given where the user is in their journey, how are we shifting our tone to meet their emotional needs?
- What’s the readability score of this content?
- Are there opportunities to improve readability?
Frame your feedback in the right way
For content designers, framing feedback in the right way is especially crucial. Unlike other specializations, writing is likely a universally held skill at your organization. That said, content design is not. When offering feedback on words, however, it’s tempting to simply rewrite it yourself. But, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Framed incorrectly, feedback could devolve into a handful of folks rewriting copy without a clear hypothesis or strategy behind decisions and no plan to test the efficacy of content choices. It’s critical to ask for the specific feedback you need and to frame your feedback strategically when offering it to others across the org. You’ll set the precedent for how to give and receive content feedback that’s strategic and useful.
Communicate opportunities, not solutions
If you’ve ever passed around a copy doc for feedback, you’ll understand how frustrating it can be to receive comments offering rewrites with no explanation. Jumping to solutioning leaves out the critical why behind the feedback and can land you in surface-level feedback purgatory. You’ll likely waste time nitpicking word choices when the real problem might be a strategic or structural one.
Lead by example and always aim to offer a clear point of view. Make it the norm to communicate opportunities or ask questions that focus on our larger conversation with users rather than focusing on simply rewriting copy. It’s trickier to do, but it makes it that much easier for others to understand your reasoning and make decisions based on that reason. It also helps pull the curtain back a bit on how content designers operate, which makes it easier for others to collaborate with you in the future. If others have rewritten your copy as a form of feedback, use it as an opportunity to ask questions. Show them your process by asking questions about how they landed on their solution, and what problems they were hoping to solve with it.
Be objective when you can
Subjective feedback can be a big roadblock to progress. Whenever possible, stick to the facts. Refer to past user research, best practices, or common content patterns to back up the feedback you deliver. Instead of offering a subjective opinion like “I don’t really like that word, can we replace it with something else?” try reframing your feedback to get to the heart of your reasoning with something like “Do we know if this term resonates with our users? Perhaps we can test it.”
If you receive subjective feedback, take the opportunity to explain your process and showcase research as a core piece of it. Let your stakeholders know that you need to conduct more research or test a theory before you can make a determination. Explain how you’ll do it.
Don’t be a word wizard
An interesting part of holding a content or writer title is that sometimes, folks think you’re a word wizard, as if you magically have the answers for the best word choice, placement, and substance of a message, no research required.
This expectation can sometimes mean that you’re tapped in at the final hour to grace a project with your magic touch. Without thorough research, it’s impossible to know the “right” answer every time.
Challenge this assumption by delivering feedback strategically. Show your cards. Admit that you don’t magically have the answers. Share the work it’ll take to find the answer, and if there’s no time, make it clear that you’re offering your best guess.
Frame feedback through a lens of curiosity
I’ve learned this from sitting in on feedback sessions with my design team and have found it to be incredibly helpful. Instead of giving directives, pose questions to frame your feedback through a lens of curiosity. This helps the person on the receiving end of feedback maintain ownership of the solution while illuminating a perspective they may not have considered.
So, instead of saying “users will want to know this information to complete this step,” try “I wonder if including this information here could help users confidently complete this step?”
Taylor Rohwedder is a content designer at AbleTo. Connect with her on LinkedIn.