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Content designers need experts

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Defra content design

You might have heard that people have had enough of experts. Those people are definitely not content designers. Experts help content designers write factually and legally accurate guidance.


Without input from a subject-matter expert (SME) content could lead its users to break the law. It might see the organisation who publish it staring at the business end of a lawsuit.

Working with multiple SMEs

I recently designed some very complex content. A number of SMEs were involved - some with doctorates in fields I don’t even have a related GCSE in.

The SMEs didn’t agree on everything at first, but they tested each other’s scientific knowledge until they agreed collectively on the legal interpretation of EU legislation.

As the content designer, my job at this stage was to query uses of ‘should’ when cross-referencing the legislation, suggesting ‘must’ was the right word.

I then structured the content so the user journey made sense and wrote it in plain English, simplifying the language so all users could understand it.

After this version, I asked the SMEs if there was anything in my plain English rewrite that was legally wrong.

You can have too much expertise

In many cases, a content designer only needs to work with one SME.

I thought I was doing just that on a project this year. After I agreed the final wording with the SME, he shared the document with some colleagues. They made their own suggestions by pasting sections of EU law into the document.

The SME’s colleagues hadn’t been involved in creating this content. They didn’t know that every word had already been scrutinised and debated.

Guides that content designers write with SMEs can be held up to very harsh light. They have to be, because when they’re published every word matters to its users and the publishing organisation.

Experts need content designers

The SME’s input at the final draft stage is approving the content. This is the last chance for any mistakes to be spotted. The SME must now only identify anything that’s wrong and explain what will make it right.

If the SME says the content has to go to someone senior for sign-off, then it’s at risk of being flooded with jargon or very specialist terms. The content might then be understandable to only a handful of lawyers and PhDs.

Experts need content designers as much as content designers need experts. This is why pair writing is a useful way for content designers and SMEs to collaborate on creating content.

Creative Commons Attribution: The World Has No Experts by Chris Pirillo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Andy McAleer posted on

    An excellent article, Ben. Our team is facing similar challenges. As you say, making it clear to SMEs that the final draft is not an opportunity to drop in loads of new content is key. I guess that needs to be communicated loud and clear throughout the content creation and review cycle.

    I totally agree about pair writing.